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Charles Hays

Matthew C. O'Neal, Auburn University
Charles Hays (1834-1879) was an influential Republican politician during Reconstruction in Alabama. A slaveowner who fought for the Confederacy, Hays became a defender of political rights for African Americans after the war, representing Alabama's Fourth District for four terms. A prime example of what southern conservatives labeled a "scalawag," Hays was a target of much criticism throughout his career.
Hays was born on February 2, 1834, on a plantation known as Hays Mount in Greene County, to George and Anne Miller Beville Hays and was the eldest of their three children. Hays grew cotton and owned more than 100 slaves, making him one of the richest men in the area. George died when Charles was five, and Anne married John W. Womack, a state legislator and newspaper editor from Butler County. The Hays family moved to the Greene County seat of Eutaw, where Charles attended a local school.
When he was 17, Hays enrolled at Franklin College (now the University of Georgia) in Athens, Georgia. After a few semesters, he transferred to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville but left before completing his studies. In 1855, he returned to Greene County to inherit his family's plantation. By 1860, he possessed more than 2,000 acres and 100 slaves, and his plantation was producing 6,000 bushels of corn along with 220 bales of cotton.
The controversy over slavery came to a head in 1860, and Hays was forced to choose sides. At that time, he staunchly believed that African Americans were inferior to whites and that abolition would upset the social order that defined southern society. In the presidential election of 1860, Hays supported Stephen Douglas of Illinois, a moderate Democrat whom he believed stood the best chance of defeating the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln. After Lincoln's election, southern states began seceding from the Union, and Alabama followed suit by approving the Ordinance of Secession on January 11.
Hays may have been a moderate, but he was a southerner and ardent supporter of slavery at his core. He joined the Confederate Army of Tennessee as an aide in 1861 and was eventually promoted to the rank of major. Hays was present at the battles of Shiloh, Tennessee, and Chickamauga, Georgia, in 1862 and 1863, respectively. He also spent at least a portion of the war on the home front in Alabama, marrying Margaret Cornelia Minerva Ormond of Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, in December 1863; the couple would have four children.
After the war, Reconstruction was imposed on the former Confederacy. Democrats in Alabama initially rejected the Fourteenth Amendment and attempted to restrict the political rights of freed people. In Hays's mind, however, Democrats openly ignored of the results of the war and were wrong in opposing the political reforms of Reconstruction. He became involved in the Union League and in 1867 was elected as a Republican delegate to the constitutional convention. Opponents criticized his decision, accusing him of switching political sides for his own benefit. Hays and other white southerners who joined the Republican Party during Reconstruction were derided as "scalawags" by their enemies.
In 1868, Hays won a special election to replace Charles W. Pierce, who was retiring from Congress. Hays served four terms representing Alabama's Fourth District, which encompassed the western Black Belt from Sumter County to Autauga County. He was a staunch ally of his Republican constituents throughout his time in Congress. During his tenure, he decried the violent nature of western Alabama politics and requested that federal troops be sent to maintain peace and stability. Pleas from Hays and other southern Republicans resulted in the passage of the Congressional Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871, which attempted to protect the civil rights promised to African Americans by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. These acts outlawed Klan violence, provided for federal oversight of local elections, and allowed the president to call militia troops to suppress Klan activities if necessary.
Violence against African Americans and other Republicans did not cease to be a powerful political weapon for Alabama Democrats, however. In 1874, the Democratic Party used race as a wedge issue in an organized campaign to defeat Republicans in state elections. In the summer, armed militants murdered two Sumter County Republicans, one black and one white. Hays cited the murders, along with other examples of violence and intimidation in his district, in a letter to Sen. Joseph Hawley of Connecticut. Hawley, also a newspaper editor, printed the correspondence to raise awareness of the circumstances in Alabama, and Hays endured much criticism as a result. Opponents accused him of lying about the severity of the situation just to secure more federal troops, which would in turn benefit the Republican Party. The Hays-Hawley letter later was found to contain several overblown and even outright false accusations. Nevertheless, it did point to the tactics of violence and intimidation used by militant Democrats. Hays won reelection in 1874, defeating Democratic candidate James Taylor Jones by a large majority, but the fate of the Alabama Republican Party was in doubt. Democrats, known variously as Bourbons and Redeemers, succeeded in retaking power in the state, winning the governorship as well as majorities in the legislature. Hays served out his term and returned home to Eutaw; Charles M. Shelley won the open seat in 1876.
Hays died on June 24, 1879, at his Myrtle Hall home and was buried next to his father on the Hays Mount plantation. Myrtle Hall (ca. 1830) was documented by the Historical American Building Survey in 1936 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

Additional Resources

Rogers, William W. Black Belt Scalawag: Charles Hays and the Southern Republicans in the Era of Reconstruction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993.
———. Rogers, Warren William. "Politics Is Mighty Uncertain": Charles Hays Goes to Congress. Alabama Review 69 (January 2016): 26-53.
Wiggins, Sarah W. The Scalawag in Alabama Politics, 1865-1881. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1977.
Published:  September 1, 2016   |   Last updated:  September 1, 2016