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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 682

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This is the grave of Samuel Tilden.

Born in 1814 in New Lebanon, New York, Tilden grew up in money for an interesting reason. His family created a patent medicine called Tilden’s Extract, which sold very well for a good reason: it contained an unbelievable dose of marijuana. Like the son of any good drug kingpins, Tilden went to Yale. But he was in bad health and dropped out. His family was well connected and close to Martin Van Buren, so the young Tilden became interested in Democratic politics. He read in the law and was admitted to the bar in 1841, becoming a very successful corporate lawyer.

Part of the reason for that success is that he was already a big-time Democratic insider. In 1842, thanks to him working hard for William Bouck’s successful governor run, he was named New York City’s corporation counsel. He ran for the New York legislature in 1844 and won. He was a close ally of the new governor Silas Wright and helped settle the Anti-Rent War, where Hudson Valley tenant farmers revolted against the patroon elite that still controlled the economy there in a way counter to the spirit of democracy taking hold, at least in northern states. He only served one term and then went back to his law practice. He became an expert in saving financially dicey railroads from bankruptcy. He became extremely rich this way and even wealthier as a financial manager for his rich friends, including Van Buren.

As slavery began to take over American politics, Tilden became a leader of the Barnburners, one of many superbly named political groups in this era. That meant he was an anti-slavery Democrat. He opposed the Mexican War and opposed the expansion of slavery into any land acquired by it, making him a proponent of the Wilmot Proviso. He was one of the people who got Van Buren, who was not even really strongly anti-slavery, as the head of the Free Soil Party ticket in 1848, partially as revenge against Democrats who had chosen the pro-slavery James Polk over the ex-president in 1844. Van Buren may well have pulled enough votes to throw the election to Zachary Taylor.

But unlike many free soil Democrats, Tilden did not migrate to the Republicans after that party formed in 1854. Rather, he moved back to the Democrats. He didn’t care for either Franklin Pierce or James Buchanan, but on the state level, he started repairing his bridges. In 1855, he was the candidate for attorney general for the “Soft” Barnburners, which was the faction that wanted to connect again with the Democrats. He lost and said he was done with politics and was going back to his life as a rich guy. He strongly opposed Lincoln in 1860 and opposed using force to keep the South in the Union. But he became a pro-war Democrat, even if he often criticized how Lincoln ran it. He started managing his friends running at the state level, most notably Horatio Seymour‘s 1862 campaign for governor. At the national level, he played a key role in George McClellan getting the Democratic nomination in 1864.

After the war, Tilden along with Seymour were the leading Democrats in New York politics. He was Seymour’s campaign chairman in 1868, probably the most racist presidential campaign in history, or at least before Donald Trump in 2020. He hated Boss Tweed’s New York City machine and helped take Tweed down in 1871. This made Tilden electorally popular for the first time and he won the race for governor in 1874. His big policy platform was clean government, a huge issue in the Gilded Age, represented in both parties. Tweed was a Democrat, the Credit Mobilier scandal paid off leading Republicans. This was an issue in New York too and he busted up the Canal Ring, which was a group of politicians from both parties overcharging for maintaining the state’s canal system and pocketing the money.

By 1876, with Democrats sensing an opportunity to win after two utterly disastrous presidential campaigns against Grant, Tilden was the frontrunner for the nomination. His reform-minded politics could be contrasted against Republicans and he wasn’t quite at the level of frothing racism that Seymour had been eight years earlier. Plus winning New York was critical for any presidential candidate in the era when it had far more power than even California has today. There was plenty of competition for it, but between his reform politics and anti-greenback monetary policy that represented the orthodoxy among New York’s financial elite, Tilden won the nomination.

The one thing Tilden is remembered for today, to the extent he is remembered for anything, is his being the loser in the heavily contested election that led to the Compromise of 1877 and the end of Reconstruction. Democrats claimed Republicans were engaging in fraud after the election night announcements that Tilden had won the most votes and Rutherford Hayes needed to sweep some contested states in the South. But here’s the deal: Democrats were already stealing elections by using maximum violence to ensure that Black people did not vote. Those three southern states–Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina–were the last states that still had enough of a federal military presence that Black people could vote in the numbers needed to represent their interests in accordance with their population. There was also a weird situation in Oregon where a Hayes elector had to resign and the state’s Democratic governor named a Democrat instead of a Republican, trying to throw the election despite the popular vote in that state.

There was real talk about a renewed civil war over this election. Republicans were determined to hold onto power and southern Democrats were willing and happy to kill every Black person they could to do the same. But the Compromise of 1877 gave all those contested states to Hayes in exchange for the end of Reconstruction, which meant the white South could now reinstate full-fledged white supremacy. Some Democrats encouraged Tilden to reject the results, but he refused and was really not that upset about returning to managing his law practice and fortune. It also came out after the election that Democrats were issuing bribes left and right to steal the election.

Tilden was still the presumptive nominee for 1880 even though he was marginally implicated in the bribery issues in 1876. His health was sketchy too. But he was rich and famous enough, plus there was no obvious alternative. Tilden hedged his bets on running in 1880 and at the convention, an ambivalent letter led his supporters to look for someone else, which turned out to be Winfield Scott Hancock. Tilden was again approached to run in 1884, but declined due to his health. Plus he was completely fine with Grover Cleveland. He had retired from his work at this time and basically lived as a hermit in his mansion in Yonkers. He died in 1886. Part of his fortune helped found the New York Public Library.

Samuel Tilden is buried in Cemetery of the Evergreens, New Lebanon, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other losing presidential candidates, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Winfield Scott Hancock is in West Norriton, Pennsylvania and Alton Parker is in Kingston, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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