amuel Tilden was governor of New York and the 1876 presidential nominee of the
Democratic party. He was born in Lebanon, New York, to Polly Jones Tilden and
Elam Tilden, a farmer turned storekeeper. Young Tilden was primarily
home-schooled because of chronic poor health. He briefly attended Yale before
entering law school at the University of the City of New York. After graduating
in 1841, he established a law practice in New York City. His father was active
in the Democratic party and a friend of New York machine politician and U. S.
President Martin Van Buren. Following his father's lead, young Tilden wrote
campaign tracts for the Democratic party and remained involved in party politics
after entering the field of law. As a lawyer for railroad corporations, he
gained great wealth.
In politics, Tilden worked mainly behind the scenes as a talented party
organizer and tactician, except for one term in the state legislature (1846). He
affiliated with Van Buren's antislavery "Barnburner" faction, opposing
President Polk's expansionist policies and supporting the Wilmot Proviso. With
other Barnburners, Tilden bolted the Democratic party in 1848 to support Van
Buren's Free Soil candidacy for president. He rejoined the party in the 1850s,
but continuing factional hostility prevented his nomination for public office,
save for an unsuccessful bid in 1855 for state attorney general.
During the Civil War, Tilden guardedly supported the Union war effort and
dissociated himself from the Peace wing of the Democratic party; yet he
vociferously criticized Republican policies, such as emancipation, paper
currency, and the draft. He opposed radical plans for Reconstruction,
supporting, instead, President Johnson's Reconstruction program.
Tilden served as chair of the New York State Democratic Committee, 1866-1874,
and was Horatio Seymour's national campaign manager during the 1868 presidential
election. Tilden gained greater public exposure for his role in destroying the
notorious Tweed Ring in New York City. Although initially reluctant to attack
fellow Democrats, he teamed with the prestigious Committee of Seventy to help
topple that corrupt political machine. He used his new credentials as a reformer
to gain election to the state legislature in 1872 and the governorship in 1874.
As governor, he added to his reform reputation by bringing the corrupt Canal
Ring to justice.
In 1876, given his national renown as a reformer and his position as governor of
an electoral giant of a state, the Democrats overwhelmingly nominated Tilden for
president on the second ballot. The Democratic platform condemned the corruption
of the Grant administration, called for an end to the Reconstruction experiment,
tariff reform, a ban on Chinese immigration, and a halt to federal railroad
subsidies. While Tilden won a majority (51%) of the popular vote, the electoral
votes in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida (and one in Oregon) were
disputed, causing a special commission to decide the election. All disputed
ballots were granted to the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, who was
consequently elected president by one electoral vote. Although displeased,
Tilden reacted with equanimity throughout the controversy and accepted the final
After the election was decided, Tilden retired from public life, declining to
enter the presidential race in 1880. After his death in 1886, the bulk of his
estate funded what became the New York Public Library.
Source consulted: American National Biography; William A. DeGregorio,
Complete Book of U.S. Presidents.