Saturday, August 29, 2009
Samuel Tilden and the 1876 race for president
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”.