Tuesday, February 9, 2010

February 9: Samuel J. Tilden, The Man Who Should Have Been President

Controversial elections occur periodically in any democracy, but few have been as controversial as the election of 1876. The winner in popular votes, but the loser in electoral votes, was New York born Samuel Jones Tilden.

Tilden was born at New Lebanon, New York, on February 9, 1814 - a descendent of a family that could trace its roots back to the founding of the New England colonies.

His lineage included Nathaniel Tilden, one of the leaders of Plymouth colony and a founder of the town of Scituate, Massachusetts; as well as William Jones, a lieutenant-governor of New haven colony. His parents were Elam Tilden and Polly Youngblood Jones. His father, a farmer and a merchant in New Lebanon, was known for his judgment and practical common sense, and was a respected power in the New Lebanon area. Among those who visited the elder Tilden while young Samuel was growing to maturity were such noted personalities as Albert Gallatin, Martin Van Buren, and Edward Livingston.

Tilden’s interest in politics, economics, law, and civics came from his parents and the multitude of politically significant visitors. As early as 1832, when young Tilden was 18, he submitted a paper to his father analyzing the political conditions that existed in the 1832 election. He father was so impressed that he took his son to see the vice presidential candidate, Martin Van Buren, who was visiting Lebanon Springs. The article was later published and – though Van Buren vigorously denied authorship – was attributed to Van Buren. The two men – a political leader and a young man – became lifelong friends..

Tilden would attend Yale, and then transferred to the University of New York to study law. He graduated in 1837. He would be admitted to the bar in 1841, and would become one of the most noted and skilled corporate lawyers of the nation. Many of his clients would be from the fledgling railroad industry. It is said that over half of the railroad companies between the Hudson and Missouri Rivers were his clients at one time or another during the 1850’s – 1860s.

Tilden continued to maintain and broaden the interest in politics he had since his youth. A strong supporter of Martin Van Buren, he would later be classified as a Free Soil Democrat – one of the few free soil supporters who did not move into the new Republican party in the 1850s. While he supported the efforts of unity during the Civil War, he did not support all of the Lincoln Administrations various measures during that war.

Tilden’s political career really began as a result of his life-long interest in politics. In 1855 he was named as a nominee for state attorney general.

In 1866 Tilden was appointed the state chairman of the Democratic Party. There his reformist spirit took on the corrupt Tweed Ring. He entered the New York Assembly in 1872 under the reformist banner, and proceeded to impeach the judges that had been ‘bought’ by the Tweed Ring, and were busy protecting them from the law. He would gather much of the evidence that eventually broke up this notorious political group. In 1874 he was elected governor of New York, and took on the infamous Canal Ring – which had made its millions from illegal bribes concerning the maintenance, repair, and extension of the state’s extensive canal network.

The battle against corruption led Tilden to the high-water mark of his political career – the campaign for the Presidency against Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. This campaign – on the heels of the revelations of corruption that dogged the Ulysses S. Grant presidency – would result in one of the most famous election disputes in American History – only, perhaps, to be eclipsed by the 2000 Bush/Gore campaign.

Tilden received a small majority of the overall popular vote – however, American presidents are chosen through an electoral college system, where whichever party receives the most popular votes in a state receives all of that state’s electoral votes. As it turned out, the electoral votes in three of the newly ‘reconstructed’ southern states – Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina – as well as one electoral vote from Oregon were disputed. The U.S. Constitution did not address the issue, so Congress created an electoral commission made up of five U.S. Senators, five members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and five Supreme Court Justices. Seven of the commission were Republicans, seven were Democrats, and there was one Independent.

However, the Independent was appointed to be the U.S. Senator from Illinois, he was replaced by a Republican to take his spot on the commission. The commission would vote solely along party lines, and on March 2, 1877, just two days before the new president was to be sworn in, would give Hayes all of the disputed electoral votes – giving him a majority of one (185 to 184) and the presidency.

Tilden discouraged opposition from his party to the decision of the Electoral Commission. An offshoot of this was what became known as the Hayes-Tilden Compromise - or the compromise of 1877: Hayes became President, and the military occupation of the southern states was ended. The end of the military occupation of the south had been a major campaign issue for the Democrats during the election campaign.

Tilden, 63 years old when the disputed election was decided, retired from public office. He would die in 1884 in Yonkers, New York. He left three million dollars in a trust toward the establishment of a free public library in York City – a trust what would be combined with the Astor and Lenox Libraries and would eventually become the New York Public Library.

He is buried at Cemetery of the Evergreens, New Lebanon, New York.

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