Saturday, August 29, 2009

Samuel Tilden and the 1876 race for president

Editor's Note
This originally appeared in the Hudson Register-Star Aug.29, 2009.

NEW LEBANON — Samuel Tilden couldn’t believe it. He had beaten Rutherford Hayes fair and square by more than 250,000 votes, but now it was all slipping through his fingers.

Down South they were still fighting it out over the remaining 19 electoral votes. Tilden had secured 184; one shy of a guaranteed win, but Hayes only had 165.

The 20th electoral vote was from Oregon, was first deemed illegal, but eventually went to Hayes.

Democrats and Republicans had poured down to Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida to ensure that their candidate would get a fair shake, but the news that floated back north was of voting fraud from Republicans and the intimidation of African American voters by the Democrats.

Eventually these three states sent two different electoral votes to Congress, one indicating a win for Tilden, the other for Hayes.

In late January, with the inauguration date inching closer, Congress passed a law forming a 15-member Electoral Commission to pick a winner. Five Republicans and five Democrats were on the board with one neutral party, Supreme Court Justice David Davis, who later bowed out and was replaced by a Republican. Two days before the inauguration the committee gave all the disputed votes to Hayes.

The decision may have been due to a concerted effort at finding the truth or, more likely, to a back-room deal, now termed the “compromise of 1877.”

The deal between Republicans and Southern Democrats put Hayes in the White House and helped end Reconstruction by withdrawing federal troops from the South. With that the new Republican state governments were voted out and African Americans were quickly disenfranchised.

According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in a contemporary editorial, Tilden hadn’t been a party to the compromise.

Thomas Hendricks, who was Tilden’s running mate, would eventually attain the position of vice president in 1884 under President Grover Cleveland and would die in office the next year.

Hayes, who only served one term as president, hadn’t been his party’s first choice for the job, but was elected as a compromise to James G. Blaine, who they believed couldn’t win the general election.

Tilden, on the other hand, had won the Democratic nomination handily and did so on a reform ticket based on his dealings with New York City’s Tweed gang of Tammany Hall. But the truth was far from being black and white.

William “Boss” Tweed and his cohorts had been bilking the public for years, managing to steal between $30 million and $200 million in six years, by some estimates.

As the Democratic chairman of the New York state, Tilden was slow to act against them, taking five years to do so. It took Tweed’s former allies—including the boxing champion turned politician John Morrissey—a number of reform-minded newspaper editors, like Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune and a cartoonist named Thomas Nast to push Tilden to act.

In a New York Times editorial from 1870, Tilden is decried as a “fugleman” or wing-man “for Tweed” at a Democratic convention filled with “city thieves and bullies.”

In 1871, Tilden finally acted and began the process that would eventually send Tweed to prison, breaking him both financially and physically.

The governorship of New York came after that in 1875 and the Democratic nomination for president a year later.

Tilden was born in New Lebanon in 1814 to Elam Tilden and Polly Younglove Jones. The elder Tilden had come from Connecticut with his family when he was young and would eventually make his fortune with a pharmaceutical company based in his hometown.

Tilden graduated from New York University Law School in 1841 and became a corporate lawyer who represented nearly every major railroad at the time.

Following his loss on the national stage, Tilden retired from politics, turning down the 1880 run at the White House, due, he said, to ill health.

He lived in New York City at 15 Gramercy Park South in a house remodeled by Calvert Vaux, Frederick Law Olmsted’s collaborator on Central Park.

When he died in 1886, he bequeathed $4 million for a free public library and reading-room in New York City. This was combined with the Astor and Lenox libraries to found the New York Public Library.

He was buried in New Lebanon. And on his grave, written, one would guess, in regard to the 1876 election, are the words “I Still Trust in The People”.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The firemen’s riot of August 21, 1865

The boy hoisted the old straw mattress onto the roof, lit a match and quickly scampered down the way he had come. A few moments later a bell began clanging loudly, waking the neighborhood. The firefighters from Company No. 6 jumped into action, pulling on their boots, leather helmets and wool jackets and began hauling their pumper towards the scene of the blaze. And that’s when the fight broke out.
Their long-time rivals Engine Company No. 41 were waiting for them at Ridge Street, near the intersection with Delancey St. The fire had been a ruse to draw them out and settle their differences once and for all. This was to be achieved through guns, clubs, axes, fists and even the metal fire horns used to amplify the fire fighters’ voices during operations.

When Big Six, as they were known, reached Ridge Street all the gaslights had been extinguished. Suddenly No. 41’s pumper pulled up from behind them and stopped slightly ahead and to their right. “Give it to them! Kill the sons of bitches,” someone shouted and the sound of gunfire smashed the unnatural quiet. According to Anthony Burk, the foremen of No. 6, the shots came from near No. 41’s pumper. He was hit three times by bullets. One struck him near his right eye; another on the right cheek and a third grazed his ear. He claimed he hadn’t fired back, but several firemen from No. 41 said they had seen him with a gun that night, and they said, he started firing first.

The Metropolitan Police didn’t seem to be of much help that night. They allegedly stayed out of the fight until the shooting died down and there were enough of them to make a dent in the escalating fracas. Platoons began pouring in from all over the eastside. They poured in from Ridge, Delancey and Grand Streets surrounding the combatants. According to members of both fire companies, the police used their nightsticks with wild abandon to disburse the crowd, bloodying a number of firemen that morning.

Later in court the police were unable to say who or how the fight began. Officer Robert Gray arrived just before the fight broke out. “I heard a cheer,” he remembered,” but I don’t know from which company it came.” He did recall that the gunfire seemed to be coming from both companies, which was apparent when the smoke cleared 25 minutes later and two firemen from No. 41 lay dying, while others from both companies suffered from bullet wounds, knife slashes and head injuries. Mathias Bettman, a runner, lay with a bullet wound in his abdomen, while James Quigley, a bunker, suffered a bullet wound in his chest. Bunkers slept at the firehouse, while runners would come to the fires from their houses when the alarm sounded. Harry Howard, one of the last Chief Engineers of the volunteer fire department, had put the bunking system in place a few years earlier.

That spring the state legislature had passed an act creating a "Metropolitan Fire Department,” spelling the demise of the volunteer companies in New York City. The attorney general, John Martindale, believed the law was illegal and fought on behalf of the volunteers. It went before the State Supreme Court and was found constitutional just two months before the riot. Throughout this time the battles between rival fire companies continued to rage and in fact escalated, probably due to the pressures the men were experiencing as they became pawns in a political game between Albany and Tammany Hall, the political machine controlling the city. The companies were pushed to the breaking point and with tempers flaring violence was the outcome.

The month before the New York Times had railed against the territorial and sometimes politically motivated brawls that all too often erupted at fires, slowing down rescue operations and leading to more property damage. It was the insurance companies that first put forth the idea of a paid fire department. They were tired of paying out on blaze after blaze. From there it became a political chess game between the Tammany Hall Democrats who had deep ties with the fire companies and the Republicans in Albany who were interested in resting any kind of political control they could from Tammany.

Fire companies had been brawling each other for years, but this fight pushed the city over the edge and ended with a coroner’s inquest jury censuring the fire commissioners for “not being more efficient with organizing a proper fire department.”It wasn’t until 1866 that the new department was fully in place and it was the brave volunteers who had agreed to continue to battle blaze after blaze in the city until that time. These men made up the core of the new fire department that would eventually become the Fire Department City of New York.