Samuel J. Tilden

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Samuel Tilden

Samuel Jones Tilden (February 9, 1814 - August 4, 1886) was the Democratic candidate for the US presidency in the disputed election of 1876, the most controversial American election of the 19th century.

Tilden won the popular vote over his Republican opponent, Rutherford B. Hayes. But the result in the Electoral College was in question because the states of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina each sent two sets of Electoral Votes to Congress. (There was separately a conflict over one elector from Oregon, who was disqualified on a technicality.)

Republicans had taken over the state governments in the South during Reconstruction, but were unpopular with the overwhelmingly Democratic southerners, many of whom resented what they perceived as interference from the North, and blamed the Republicans for the Civil War. As a result, one set of Electoral Votes from each of these three states had cast their ballots for the Republican Hayes, and another set had cast their ballot for the Democrat Tilden. Without these three states, Tilden had won 184 Electoral Votes, but needed 185 to win the Presidency. If he had taken even one state, he would have become President. However, if Hayes were to win all the contested votes, he would receive 185 Electoral Votes and win the election. Because the Constitution does not address how Congress is to handle such a dispute, a constitutional crisis appeared imminent.

Congressional leaders tried to avert the crisis by creating a 15-member Electoral Commission who would determine which set of votes were valid. The Commission consisted of five members from the Republican-controlled Senate (three Republicans and two Democrats), and five from the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives (3 Democrats, 2 Republicans). The remaining 5 members were chosen from the Supreme Court--originally 2 Republicans, 2 Democrats, and independent Justice David Davis. Davis, however, was elected to the US Senate from Illinois and resigned from the Court. Justice Joseph P. Bradley, a Republican, was named to replace him. Unsurprisingly, the Commission voted 8-7 to award all the votes to Hayes. The dispute, however, did not end, as Democrats threatened to filibuster in the Senate. Eventually, a compromise was reached whereby Hayes agreed to name at least one Southerner to his cabinet and to withdraw all federal troops in the South, bringing to an end the era of Reconstruction.

Tilden was born in New Lebanon in New York State. Briefly at Yale College and at the College of the City of New York, he graduated from New York University School of Law (then known as the School of Law of the University of the City of New York) and was admitted to the bar in 1841 and became a skilled corporate lawyer, with many railroads as clients in the shaky railroad boom decade of the 1850s. His legal practice, combined with shrewd investments, made him rich.

In 1848, largely on account of his personal attachment to Martin Van Buren, he participated in the revolt of the 'Barnburners' or Free-Soil faction of the New York Democrats. He was among the few such who did not join the Republican Party and in 1855 was the candidate of the anti-slavery faction for attorney-general of the state. After the Civil War Tilden became chairman of the Democratic state committee and soon came into conflict with the notorious Tweed ring of New York City. As the systematically corrupt New York judges were its tools, Tilden, after entering the Assembly in 1872 to promote the cause of reform, took a leading part in their impeachment. By analysing the bank accounts of certain members of the ring, he obtained legal proof of the principle on which the spoils had been divided. As a reform-spirited Governor in 1874, he turned his attention to a second set of plunderers, the 'canal ring', made up of members of both parties who had been systematically robbing New York State through the maladministration of its canals. Tilden succeeded in breaking them up.

His successful service as governor gained him the presidential nomination.

After losing the presidency to Hayes, Tilden counselled his followers to abide quietly by the result, but he declined renomination in 1880 and 1884. The remainder of his life was spent in retirement at his country home, Greystone, near Yonkers, New York. He died a bachelor in 1886. He confided to a friend that he had never slept with a woman in his life.

Of his fortune (estimated at $5,000,000) approximately $4,000,000 was bequeathed for the establishment and maintenance of a free public library and reading-room in the City of New York; but, as the will was successfully contested by relatives, only about $2,000,000 of the bequest was applied to its original purpose; in 1895 the Tilden Trust was combined with the Astor and Lenox libraries to found the New York Public Library, whose building bears his name on its front.

In 1878 the Republican New York Tribune published a series of telegraphic despatches in cipher, accompanied by translations, by which it attempted to prove that during the crisis following the 1876 election, Tilden had been negotiating for the purchase of the electoral votes of South Carolina and Florida. Tilden denied emphatically all knowledge of such despatches, and appeared voluntarily before a Congressional sub-committee in New York City to clear himself of the charge. The attempts to implicate him in corrupt transactions were not successful; but his political opponents endeavoured to make capital in subsequent campaigns, out of the so-called 'Cipher Dispatches'.


There is a Tilden Street in an area of Wichita Falls, Texas, where the streets are named for the U.S. presidents Van Buren through Garfield (excluding Pierce, Andrew Johnson and Lincoln). Tilden runs parallel between Grant Street and Hayes Street.

External link


  • Nikki Oldaker, Producer/Writer - "Samuel Tilden" Screenplay - film about 1876 election disputes. Story unfolds details about stolen electoral college votes and how Congress created the Special Commission to decide the election. Story opens election eve night to official swearing in of Hayes five months later-March 1877.
  • Paul Leland Haworth, The Hayes-Tilden Disputed Presidential Election of 1876, 1906. The standard accounting.
  • Roy Morris, Fraud of the Century : Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876, New York, 2003. A modern popular retelling.

Preceded by:
John Adams Dix
Governor of New York
Succeeded by:
Lucius Robinson
Preceded by:
Horace Greeley
Democratic Party Presidential candidate
1876 (lost)
Succeeded by:
Winfield Scott Hancock
United States Democratic Party Presidential Nominees Democratic Party
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