Tilden, Samuel J.

views updated

Samuel J. Tilden

Born February 9, 1814
New Lebanon, New York

Died August 4, 1886
Yonkers, New York

Governor of New York, presidential candidate, and lawyer

"If my voice could reach throughout our country and be heard in its remotest hamlet I would say, 'Be of good cheer. The Republic will live. The institutions of our fathers are not to expire in shame. The sovereignty of the people shall be rescued from this peril and be reestablished.'"

Samuel J. Tilden was a popular national figure during the 1870s as he successfully fought against political corruption in New York and became the Democratic presidential candidate in the 1876 election. Tilden lost one of the most controversial presidential elections in American history. Despite finishing with 250,000 more popular votes than his opponent, Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893; served 1877–81; see entry), Tilden fell one electoral vote shy of becoming president. A newly created election commission ruled that disputed electoral votes from four states should all go to Hayes. Tilden retired to private life after the election. Following his death, Tilden's fortune, as directed in his will, supported the founding of the New York Public Library.

Political teen

Born in New Lebanon, New York, on February 9, 1814, Samuel Jones Tilden was the fifth child of Elam and Polly Tilden. Tilden's father, who owned a store and held the job of postmaster, was an important political figure in the state. He met regularly with elected officials and candidates from around the state. Among them was Martin Van Buren (1782–1862), a New York congressman and governor, a founding member of the Democratic Party in the late 1820s, and a future U.S. vice president and president. By growing up and being encouraged to participate in a lively political environment, Tilden was groomed for a political career.

Tilden suffered health problems while growing up, and they may have been worsened by his father's constant attention and home remedies. Unable to attend school regularly, he received tutoring at home. In his teens, Tilden attended an academy at Williamstown, Massachusetts, but returned home for health reasons. Finally, at age eighteen in 1832, he went to New York City to continue his schooling and to receive more professional medical attention. Living with an aunt who owned a boarding house, Tilden ended up spending most of his time running her business as well as handling political errands for his father.

Tilden's interest in politics motivated him to write an article on a highly controversial political topic: the veto of a bill by President Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; served 1829–37) that would have renewed the charter (contract) of the national bank of the United States. Jackson believed that the bank concentrated too much power in the federal government and wealthy people of the North at the expense of states. Tilden's defense of Jackson's veto was published by the Democratic Party and distributed throughout New York State.

Tilden entered Yale University in June 1834, but left after one term. He returned to New York City, occasionally took classes at the University of the City of New York (later New York University), and focused primarily on writing about politics. Using the pseudonym (name used by an author to conceal true identity) Jacksonis Amicus, he wrote a series of articles for the New York Times during the spring of 1837 in which he defended President Martin Van Buren's threat to veto bills that would abolish (end) slavery in Washington, D.C. Democrats of the time believed that states, not the federal government, should decide whether or not to permit slavery. Meanwhile, Tilden entered the law school of the University of the City of New York in 1838 and went on to complete a three-year course. He served as a clerk in a law office, passed the bar exam that certified him as a lawyer, and began a law practice in 1841 in New York City at the age of twenty-seven.

High-profile lawyer

Tilden prospered as a lawyer, working with sustained energy and health that he had never enjoyed previously in his life. He quickly became a key attorney representing New York City and a leading figure in the New York Democratic Party. Democrats during the 1840s became a split party. One group, nicknamed the "Hunkers" and then the "Hardshells," was closely aligned with Southern Democrats and defended slavery. Tilden was part of an opposing faction called "Barn-burners" and then the "Softshells," who opposed the expansion of slavery as settlers moved westward to new territories and states. In 1845, there were thirty states, and only six west of the Mississippi River.

Tilden's political activity during this period included a term in the New York state legislature, serving as a delegate in a state constitutional convention (where a state's constitution is revised) in 1846, and making an unsuccessful bid for the position of attorney general of New York in 1855. Tilden turned his attention back to his law practice in 1855 and won recognition for his work on a voting fraud case. In 1857, he was involved in a high-profile murder trial. Meanwhile, he fought corruption and began advising railroad companies on legal ways to finance operations and reorganize their businesses to maximize profits. Tilden became so popular as a legal adviser to railroads that he made a fortune during the boom in railroad building from the 1850s to the 1870s.

Tilden opposed the election of Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) in 1860, believing that it would result in a separation between North and South. When the Civil War (1861–65) broke out, Tilden expected the North to use its superior manpower and industrial might to crush the rebellion. When the war progressed more slowly, Tilden turned his attention to maintaining the strength of the Democratic Party. Democrats were a decided minority in Congress during and immediately after the Civil War because many of their members were from Southern states that had seceded (separated) from the Union.

The Tweed Ring

The Tweed Ring was the most notorious of corrupt political machines that dominated politics in several cities and states, as well as on the national level, from the 1860s through the 1880s. Millions of dollars collected in New York City was diverted from the city treasury to political friends through the administration of William Marcy "Boss" Tweed. Tweed was born in New York City on April 3, 1823. He left school at age eleven to work with his father making chairs and later worked as a saddle maker and bookkeeper in a brush business during his teens.

Tweed enjoyed working in New York's volunteer fire department. At age twenty-seven in 1850, he became foreman of a fire department popular in the community. The following year, he was elected as an alderman. Tweed was then elected to the U.S. Congress for a term, 1853–55, but he missed New York politics and returned in 1855 with his mind set on gaining power in the Democratic Party and the city. As he accumulated power during the 1860s through such positions as membership on the city board of supervisors, state senator, chairman of the state finance committee, school commissioner, deputy street commissioner, and commissioner of public works, Tweed used his political influence to open a law office to dispense legal services to large corporations—services that were often illegal or that benefited Tweed and corporations at the expense of taxpayers. By 1867, Tweed was a millionaire.

The Tweed Ring began in 1866 when "Boss" Tweed and several other New York City officials arranged to have a portion of monies collected for each city contract diverted to members of the ring. By 1869, over 50 percent of all money in the contracts was directed to the Tweed Ring. For example, the cost of building a county courthouse was $12 million, but more than half of the cost came from overcharges for services, building materials, and permits, and that money went to the Tweed Ring. Between 1866 and 1871, the city lost between $40 and $100 million to the Tweed Ring. The ring members were Mayor A. Oakey Hall (1826–1898), known as "Elegant Oakey"; City Comptroller Richard B. Connolly, also known as "Slippery Dick"; City Chamberlain Peter Barr Sweeny (1825–1911), also called "Brains"; and Tweed, who at the time was president of the Board of Supervisors and leader of Tammany Hall, the city office of New York.

The Tweed Ring was exposed in 1870. A coalition of reformers, including lawyer and state Democratic party leader Samuel J. Tilden, reporters for the New York Times, and political enemies of Tweed publicized the crimes and prosecuted members of the ring. Tweed and several associates ended up in prison. Tweed was initially sentenced to twelve years in prison, but was set free in 1875, then was arrested again when previously unknown criminal activities were revealed. Tweed avoided arrest and escaped to Spain, but he ended up back in New York and in jail. He died in jail on April 12, 1878.

National prominence during the Reconstruction era

Tilden supported the policies of President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69; see entry), who became president in April 1865 after the war ended and President Lincoln was assassinated. Johnson favored the quick reinstatement of former Confederate states and little federal management of them. Johnson's program for Reconstruction was opposed by congressional Republicans, who wanted more difficult requirements for Confederate states to rejoin the Union as well as federal supervision of state governments and civil rights legislation that extended voting rights and legal protection for newly emancipated slaves.

Tilden became chairman of the New York Democratic Party in 1866 and was elected a delegate to the state constitutional convention of 1867. Tilden's major activity during the Reconstruction era involved exposing and undermining the "Tweed Ring" in New York City. Led by an unethical city official, William M. Tweed (1823-1878; see box), the Tweed Ring exerted absolute control of city politics and finances. In 1872, Tilden worked with the state legislature to create laws that broke the power of the ring. Using his talents as a lawyer, he fought appeals by members of the ring and used legal means for bringing those involved in criminal activities to trial, and then worked to win convictions and remove them from city positions. For evidence of fraud, Tilden developed a system that tracked how municipal funds were diverted into private bank accounts of members of the Tweed Ring. In addition to smashing the Tweed Ring, Tilden led reform efforts of the state judiciary.

Tilden earned a national reputation as a reformer and was immensely popular in New York, where his work against the Tweed Ring was regularly reported in newspapers. Tilden was elected governor of New York in 1874 as a champion of reform. He swiftly improved the financial situation in the state during a period when the nation was experiencing an economic depression. He cut state taxes and expenditures and saved the state millions of dollars by eliminating fraud and wasteful spending. He busted the "Canal Ring," a group of politicians who had become wealthy by controlling construction and repair of the state's extensive system of canals.

Tilden's high-profile success as a reformer during the first half of the 1870s occurred at a time of much corruption in the federal government. Many government officials in the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; served 1869–77; see entry) were implicated in scandals, as were members of Congress. During a period of economic hardship for the country, Congress voted and cashed in on a large, retroactive (covering a specified period of the past) pay raise. When the National Democratic Convention met at St. Louis, Missouri, in June 1876 to nominate a presidential candidate, Tilden was a popular choice along with Thomas A. Hendricks (1819–1885), a well-liked congressman from Indiana. Tilden won the nomination on the second round of voting, and Hendricks became his running mate.

Almost president

The presidential campaign of 1876 was ugly. Democrats were unrelenting in their criticism of the Grant administration and Congress, even though the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, had been governor of Ohio and had little association with events in Washington, D.C. Republicans called Tilden a sympathizer of the South and implied that his long association with railroad companies was a form of corruption that had made him rich. Tilden, meanwhile, did not run a spirited campaign; he continued to devote his energy to his role as governor of New York. In addition, poor health reclaimed Tilden, now sixty-two years old.

The election of 1876 became one of the most controversial in American history. Nearly 250,000 more voters cast their ballot for Tilden over Hayes, but disputes in election returns in four states (Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, and Oregon) left the Electoral College vote in limbo. (See "How the Electoral College Works" in Rutherford B. Hayes entry.) A total of 185 electoral votes were needed for victory: Tilden led Hayes 184 to 163, with 22 electoral votes in dispute.

The election results would not be finalized until four months after the election itself, in early March 1877, days before the inauguration of the new president. (For more on the disputed election of 1876, see the Rutherford B. Hayes entry). Hayes and Tilden remained on the sidelines while a bitter dispute raged in Congress; the dispute was resolved by the creation of the Electoral Commission. The purpose of the commission was to examine the voting irregularities that had occurred in the four states, make judgments on each, and, based on the judgment, allocate the electoral votes to the candidates. The fifteen-member commission was supposed to be bipartisan (made up of members from both political parties), with an even split of Republicans, Democrats, and independents. The one independent member resigned, however, and was replaced by a Republican. Eventually, when the commission voted on rewarding the electoral votes for each state based on their findings, the votes ran strictly along party lines, 8-7, in each case, for Hayes. Hayes took the remaining 22 electoral votes and won, 185-184 over Tilden.

Tilden was understandably angry and bitter at the results, including the long process used to declare a winner and rumors of a deal—nicknamed the Compromise of 1877—where Hayes would win the election if he promised to bring about an end to Reconstruction. Tilden would always be convinced he was unjustly deprived of the presidency, but he did not press matters. Even a decade after the Civil War, the nation was still divided, and Tilden believed he would cause more harm by continuing to press his cause rather than accepting the resolution offered by the Electoral Commission. In his concession speech, Tilden stated, "If my voice could reach throughout our country and be heard in its remotest hamlet I would say, 'Be of good cheer. The Republic will live. The institutions of our fathers are not to expire in shame. The sovereignty of the people shall be rescued from this peril and be re-established.'"

After taking a trip to England in 1877, Tilden endured a long investigation into his tax records, the results of which showed nothing irregular. Meanwhile, in 1879, he purchased an estate in Yonkers, New York, where he quietly lived the rest of his life. Tilden died in August 1886 at the age of seventy-two. Never married, Tilden left most of his estimated $6 million estate to the Tilden Trust with the goal of establishing a public library for New York City. That goal was realized a few years after his death.

For More Information

Books and Periodicals

Flick, Alexander Clarence, and Gustav S. Lobrano. Samuel Jones Tilden: A Study in Political Sagacity. New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1939. Reprint, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973.

Goldman, David J. Presidential Losers. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 2004.

Morris, Roy, Jr. Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Rehnquist, William H. Centennial Crisis: The Disputed Election of 1876. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

"Samuel Tilden's Speech to the Manhattan Club Conceding the Election of 1876." New York Herald (June 13, 1877): p. 3.