The First Shutdown : Planet Money In 1879, Congress and the President were locked in a battle over the rights of African-Americans. It led to the first government shutdown.

The First Shutdown

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Who was the president in 1879?

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: In 1879, the president was somebody that we've all heard about, and nobody really knows why. And that's Rutherford B. Hayes.

GONZALEZ: Rutherford B. Hayes, is he the one with the long, bushy sideburns or the long, pointy beard? I'm trying to picture him.

RICHARDSON: Oh, lord. Can you really tell the difference between all those guys? The only one who kind kind of stands out is James Garfield, who's a big player in this period, because he has absolutely piercing blue eyes - ice-chip blue eyes. But the rest of them...


Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of American history at Boston College. She specializes in politics and the economy. And she said she knows all the old presidents like she knows her cousins.

RICHARDSON: I really know the old guys really well because I just live with them.

GONZALEZ: Who is your favorite president?

RICHARDSON: Abraham Lincoln. Did you even have to ask?


GONZALEZ: OK, but back to Rutherford B. Hayes - Heather says he's actually a surprisingly important forgettable president because of how he became president.

CHANG: His election was super contested. This other guy, Samuel Tilden, had won the popular vote by a pretty big margin.

GONZALEZ: But people are saying Tilden only won because three Southern states weren't letting black voters vote even though this was against the law. Black people, at this point, were supposed to be allowed to vote.

CHANG: But the southern states were intimidating and terrorizing black voters at the polls - like, by holding target practice near polling sites.

RICHARDSON: So technically they're not stopping black voting. But, you know, if they're holding rifle practice, you know, most people aren't going to show up.

CHANG: So government officials go down to these states to figure out, can we even trust these votes? And the Democrats and Republicans are trying to work things out among themselves.

GONZALEZ: Rutherford makes some promises to them. Like, he says he'll appoint someone from their party to be postmaster general - apparently that's really important back then. He makes some other promises. But that is basically how he wins. The electoral college ultimately says, yes, Rutherford, you are now the president.

RICHARDSON: A lot of people already are calling him Rutherfraud B. Hayes because he's been elected by fraud.


RICHARDSON: His Accidency (ph), they called him - Rutherfraud B. Hayes.

GONZALEZ: His Accidency? They called him His Accidency?

RICHARDSON: Yes, they did.

CHANG: Name-calling in politics.

GONZALEZ: We've come so far. OK, so there are a ton of furious Democrats who thought they should have had this election. And they're like, we cannot let this happen again. They set their eyes on the next presidential election. And this time they start zeroing in on soldiers.

CHANG: You see there was this law on the books that said if enough black people complained about intimidation at polling places, the government would send soldiers to protect them.

GONZALEZ: At the time, black voters tended to vote Republican. So Democrats hate this soldier law. They're like, if we didn't have federal supervision, we could control the outcomes of our elections in the South. And they come up with this idea - something that has never been tried before.

RICHARDSON: Simply starve the government until they did what we wanted, by holding a gun to the head of the treasury.

CHANG: Democrats decide to stop funding the government unless the country makes it a crime for the military to protect black voters at polls.

GONZALEZ: What did they call it back then? Did they call it a shutdown?

RICHARDSON: No, they called it the rider fight or the appropriations fight.

GONZALEZ: Some people called it the rider wars. And a rider is basically just a provision that is tacked on to an appropriations bill.

RICHARDSON: It wasn't like there were headlines that said, this is the name of this particular event. What there were were headlines saying the Confederates have taken over our government because it really appeared to most people to be a continuation of the civil war.



GONZALEZ: Hello. And welcome to PLANET MONEY, Heather Cox Richardson.

RICHARDSON: It's a pleasure to be here.

GONZALEZ: I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

CHANG: And I'm Ailsa Chang.

GONZALEZ: Today on the show, it's the longest government shutdown ever. And to mark the occasion, we're taking it way back to the first shutdown.

CHANG: When a bunch of Southerners tried to ram through Congress what they couldn't get done with a war.


CHANG: OK, so in order to understand the first government shutdown ever, we really need to take you back to the Civil War.

GONZALEZ: In 1861, almost all of the Southerners who were in Congress surrendered their seats to go fight in the Civil War as Confederates on the battlefield to support slavery and join their new government, the Confederate States of America.

CHANG: Back then, Democrats were a little different.

GONZALEZ: And Republicans were leading the charge for black rights.

RICHARDSON: The Republicans are the ones who said, we need to end the enslavement of other human beings, and, ultimately, we need to guarantee that African-American men have the right to vote.

CHANG: So when Southern Democrats lose the Civil War, they're totally powerless. They had left Congress. But they do slowly start winning their seats back. And 14 years after the war, they gain control of both chambers, the House and the Senate.

GONZALEZ: And just picture this. We're talking about actual Confederate officers who fought against the United States.

RICHARDSON: So astonishing because, really, they've been fighting on the battlefields for four years. And this is not a little war. Just, you know, we're talking four years, a destroyed country, you know, hundreds of thousands of dead, billions lost. And these guys have literally been on the fields shooting at the same people that they're going to be sitting with in Congress.

GONZALEZ: Wait, like, actually shooting at people who were other congressmen?

RICHARDSON: Yeah. These are literally the same guys. This is not like - I mean, they weren't necessarily on the exact same battlefields, but, yes, these in Congress are people who wore the uniform for the United States government or for the Confederate States of America and tried to kill each other.

GONZALEZ: And what these Democrats couldn't do on the battlefield, they decide they're going to do in Congress - stop black rights.

CHANG: Only this time, not with their rifles.

GONZALEZ: With their purse strings.

CHANG: Democrats say, hey, President Rutherfraud, we will fund the Army, but only if it becomes illegal for the Army to protect black voters at the polls.

GONZALEZ: We will fund the courts, but only if it becomes illegal for the Army to protect black voters at the polls.

RICHARDSON: There are a number of cartoons in the newspapers about how the Confederates have taken back over Washington and how they are deliberately starving the United States Treasury the same way that they starved Union prisoners. And there's images of prisoners as skeletons saying, boy, this feels awfully familiar.

GONZALEZ: What are Democrats saying at the time? Are they, like, really proud of this? Were they bragging about starving the government, as you said, or shutting the government down?

RICHARDSON: Absolutely. The Southerners absolutely - they're like, we are back in town, and we - one of them literally gives an interview to a newspaper in which he says, we were crazy to leave during the Civil War. We should've just stayed in Congress and gotten our way by not funding the government.

GONZALEZ: But there is one member of Congress in particular who is telling Rutherford B., this is total intimidation. You cannot cave to the Democrats.

RICHARDSON: James A. Garfield from Ohio. You know, a Civil War veteran.

GONZALEZ: Is Garfield the one with the nice blue eyes that you keep mentioning?

RICHARDSON: Yes, exactly.

GONZALEZ: Oh, I can see the eyes. Yeah. I can see that.

RICHARDSON: (Laughter) See?

CHANG: Wait, I want to see what he looks like.

GONZALEZ: All right, let's Google him. OK, look at this. OK, but, like, if you had to choose a cute president from the late 19th century.

CHANG: I don't think he would be the one.

GONZALEZ: All right. Fine. James A. Garfield, to me, takes the 19th century cake, but whatever. He was the minority leader of the House of Representatives, a Republican. And he says, this is completely outrageous. Democrats can't get what they want through the normal process, so they are destroying the government.

RICHARDSON: Hayes and Garfield look at what they're doing, and they say, this is revolution and this is revolutionary, and this is a complete perversion of the way the American government is supposed to work. A faction cannot shut down the government, cannot starve the United States government to death to get its way. Once you have admitted that as a legitimate tactic of governance, you've destroyed our American Constitution.

CHANG: So Ruthy (ph) B. is convinced. He needs to dig in his heels - no compromises.

GONZALEZ: Ruthy (ph) B. - we feel very bad that Rutherfraud has stuck all these years, so we're rebranding our Rutherfriend (ph).

CHANG: Notorious RBH writes in his diary, this will be a severe, perhaps a long, contest.

GONZALEZ: I do not fear it. I do not even dread it.

CHANG: Damn.

GONZALEZ: Gangster.

CHANG: Yeah.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

CHANG: So now, every time the Democrats try to sneak in this rider - this no more protection for black voters at the polls, Ruthy (ph) B. comes in with a veto.

GONZALEZ: He vetoes five bills.

CHANG: Democrats eventually give in and end up funding all but one small part of the courts.

GONZALEZ: It's basically a very mini shutdown. And Rutherford B. Hayes declares victory, says the Democrats didn't want to fund the Army, the executive and legislative branches, and Republicans stopped them.

CHANG: Now, Heather says it's hard to track down the precise date this shutdown ended. But she says it really doesn't matter. A couple hundred court workers weren't paid, but they basically just billed the government later.

GONZALEZ: This was not a fight about paychecks. This was a fight about principles.

CHANG: Taking the government hostage felt so radical...

GONZALEZ: So over-the-top.

CHANG: ...And ultimately so pointless that no one tries this tactic again for almost a hundred years.

RICHARDSON: People recognized that you could not govern by extremism. And that system of government really didn't happen again until the modern era because there was a premium on abiding by our constitutional norms and by working things out between the different parties that wanted different things.

GONZALEZ: But apparently, a hundred years is just long enough to forget the lessons of history.

CHANG: Budget rules change in the 1970s, and shutdowns start to creep back in bit by bit. There are a few small shutdowns in the '70s and '80s.

GONZALEZ: But it was House Speaker Newt Gingrich who returned the shutdown to its fully weaponized status in the 1990s.

CHANG: Yeah. He used the tactic twice and, at one point, closed the government for 21 days. That set the record for the longest shutdown ever until now.

GONZALEZ: Shutdowns are back.

RICHARDSON: And what's significant about the rise of the tactic of shutting down the government in the present is that, once again, it's being advanced by absolutists - by extremists who say, we don't want to compromise. We want things our way. And that is not part of our American system, which has checks and balances. It has rules.

CHANG: Heather posted an 11-part thread on Twitter about the similarities between the current government shutdown over a border wall and the very first shutdown over black voters.

GONZALEZ: She says this is what Hayes and Garfield stood against - people who had convinced themselves that what they wanted was worth making everyone suffer.

RICHARDSON: The idea that a few people - a few men - a few white men should control American society is not at all unlike the ideology of the people currently in charge of the Republican Party. And that argument that, in fact, they are the ones who should say what is right for America, despite what the rest of us think, is not at all unlike what the Confederates were doing in 1879.

GONZALEZ: We should say that Heather describes herself as a Lincoln Republican, and she says she gets hate mail from both sides.

CHANG: But she says, look; criticizing the current government shutdown is not about her personal politics. This is just a terrible tactic.

RICHARDSON: It never works. And what it does is it backfires on the faction that does it. So the people who are backing this shutdown essentially have two options. They either have to be assuming that they're going to be able to control government entirely - that is take over the government and never let anybody else in it, which is a terrifying thought - or they have to assume that their faction is going to go down in flames because there has never been a case where a shutdown has ultimately ended in making that faction look better than it did before.

GONZALEZ: The former Confederate Democrats who orchestrated the very first shutdown - they didn't get what they wanted out of it. They didn't stop soldiers from protecting black voters at polls.

CHANG: Of course, yes, they did later get what they wanted by making it so hard for African-Americans to even register to vote, but they didn't get that through the shutdown of 1879.


GONZALEZ: By the way, we did try to find out the exact moment that the first shutdown ended. We called up The Center for Legislative Archives.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Unfortunately, we are closed to normal operations due to a lack of appropriations.

CHANG: Damn shutdown.


GONZALEZ: If you have a story idea, send us an email -

CHANG: Today's show was produced by Sally Helm and Darian Woods.

GONZALEZ: Bryant Urstadt edits our show, and Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

CHANG: And I'm Ailsa Chang. Thanks for listening.


CHANG: I would go for Franklin Pierce.

GONZALEZ: I don't even know who that guy is. That doesn't even stand out as a president to me.

CHANG: Google. Google. Tall, dark and handsome.

GONZALEZ: That is not dark.

CHANG: (Laughter).

GONZALEZ: Dark doesn't happen till...

CHANG: 2008.

GONZALEZ: ...2008.


Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.