Tilden, Samuel J(ones) (b New Lebanon, Columbia Co, 9 Feb 1814; d Yonkers, 4 Aug 1886). Governor and presidential candidate.
Tilden graduated from the law school of the University of the City of New York (now New York University) in 1841, became a successful corporate lawyer specializing in railroad finance, and acquired a considerable fortune. He served a term in the state assembly in 1846 and was the same year a delegate to the state constitutional convention.
A Free Soil Democrat in the late 1840s, Tilden returned to the Democratic Party in the 1850s. He gave lukewarm support to the Civil War and spoke against perceived Republican abuses of power. As New York State Democratic chairman from 1866 to 1874, Tilden managed Horatio Seymour’s unsuccessful 1868 run for the presidency. He then moved into the spotlight when he belatedly joined the forces battling the Tweed Ring, becoming a member of the Committee of Seventy in 1871, a group that helped gather and publicize the evidence that brought down William M. “Boss” Tweed. In 1874 Tilden rode a wave of positive publicity to the governor’s mansion, where he further enhanced his reputation by successfully attacking New York State’s corrupt Canal Ring, a bipartisan group of politicians who profited from the repair of the state canal system.
Tilden’s attacks on corruption earned him a national reputation and made him the logical choice to oppose a Republican Party tainted by the two scandal-ridden terms of Ulysses S. Grant. He campaigned on the platform of “Tilden and Reform,” advocating limited government, states’ rights, and an end to Republican Reconstruction. In the general election, Tilden received a majority of the popular vote (4.2 million, 51%), but there were conflicting returns on electoral votes from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, where white terror had prevented African Americans from voting, and there was a contest over one Oregon elector.
Congress created a 15-person electoral commission to resolve these issues. After several months of turmoil the commission on 2 Mar 1877, by a party-line vote, awarded Tilden’s Republican opponent Rutherford B. Hayes all the disputed electoral votes, giving Hayes the presidency by one electoral vote, 185 to 184.
Tilden remained the logical Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1880 but declined to run, in part because of ill health. He moved from his long-time residence in Gramercy Park in New York City and retired to a new estate in Yonkers. At his death, more than half of his $5 million estate helped establish a free public library in New York City. In 1895 this trust was joined with the Astor and Lenox Libraries to form the New York Public Library.
Flick, Alexander. Samuel Jones Tilden: A Study in Political Sagacity (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1939)
Mushkat, Jerome. The Reconstruction of the New York Democracy, 1861–1874 (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1981)
Polakoff, Keith. The Politics of Inertia: The Election of 1876 and the End of Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ Press, 1973)
Peter Eisenstadt, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York State
(Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), [p. 1558].
© Syracuse University Press. Reproduced with permission from the publisher.