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Samuel J. Tilden (1814-1886) served as Governor of New York, 1875-1876, and was the Democratic nominee for the Presidency in 1876. Tilden began his career as a corporate lawyer; he served as Corporate Counsel for the City of New York, as a member of the New York State Assembly, and as Chairman of the Democratic National Convention. Monies from his estate contributed to the founding of The New York Public Library.
Born in New Lebanon, New York, in 1814, Tilden was the 5th son of Elam Tilden, a shopkeeper, pharmacist, and postmaster prominent in Democratic politics. Samuel showed a precocious interest in politics, and through his father, made the acquaintance of Martin Van Buren, who would later become a friend and supporter. Van Buren encouraged Tilden's burgeoning political aspirations, and he developed a reputation as a skilled writer and speechmaker by his early twenties.
Tilden first entered public office in 1843, at the age of 27, when he was appointed Corporation Counsel for the City of New York. His candidacy received support from the network of Democratic Party members he had cultivated since his earliest days in politics, and he won the nomination by 20 out of 26 votes. However, his tenure was short-lived; in 1844, Mayor James Harper took office and removed individuals he deemed hostile to his administration. Tilden ran unsuccessfully for the office of Attorney General in 1855.
Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, Tilden largely took leave of politics to focus on his legal career. His practice proved both popular and lucrative, although he took many cases pro bono. A shrewd businessman as well as a skilled lawyer, Tilden excelled particularly in the field of corporate law. Among his well-known cases are the defense of the Pennsylvania Coal Company against the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company; the complaint of the Cumberland Coal & Iron Company against its board of directors; the contested 1856 election for state comptroller between John S. Giles and Azariah C. Flagg; the Cunningham-Burdell murder case in 1857; and a subsequent related suit over Dr. Burdell's estate
In the years leading up to the Civil War, the Wilmot Proviso on the prohibition of slavery in newly-acquired territories proved a hot-button issue for the Democratic Party, ultimately leading to a schism between the conservative "Hunkers" and the radical "Barnburners." Tilden, along with Martin and John Van Buren, supported the Barnburners, and assisted in composing the Barnburner Address repudiating the nomination of Lewis Cass as the Democratic candidate for the presidency. The Barnburners allied themselves with Whigs and Abolitionists to form the Free-Soil Party, which ran Martin Van Buren as a third-party candidate and defeated Cass.
Tilden had been elected to the New York State Assembly in 1846, and returned to the legislature in 1872. He used his position to take on corruption in state government, most notably through the impeachment of New York State Supreme Court Justices George G. Barnard, Albert Cardozo, and John H. McCunn. This, coupled with his investigation into corruption within the U.S. Customs House, presaged Tilden's most notable political achievement: the exposure and prosecution of the Tweed Ring.
William M. "Boss" Tweed was a fixture in New York State and Tammany Hall politics from the 1850s until his death in 1878. His first recorded act of misconduct, the bribery of an election supervisor, took place in 1858, and by 1859 he had become Grand Sachem of the most powerful political machine in the nation. In 1870, he was appointed commissioner of public works, and the influence of his "Ring" began to spread. With the assistance of Parks Commissioner Peter B. Sweeney, Controller Richard B. Connelly, and Mayor A. Oakey Hall, Tweed was able to exert enormous control over city politics -- as well as taxpayer funds-- through bribery, embezzlement, and kickbacks. When Tweed introduced a new city charter which would further consolidate the Ring's power, Tilden, as chairman of the Democratic State Committee, denounced him and began a pitched battle to disable the Ring and end Tweed's corrupt practices. Canvassing the banks where Tweed and his cohorts passed checks and held accounts, Tilden analyzed the finances of the Ring, and obtained legal proof its malfeasance, bringing an end to one of the most corrupt political administrations in the history of the United States.
Tilden's successful prosecution of the Tweed Ring and service in the State Assembly paved the way for his nomination as the Democratic candidate for Governor in 1874 against respected Republican incumbent Gen. John A. Dix. Tilden won the popular vote by a margin of 50,000. His work in exposing fraud in the state canal system furthered his reputation as a reform-minded governor and an outspoken opponent of political corruption, and increased his popularity with the public at large. However, his reform efforts were often hampered by antagonism from the Republican majority in the State Legislature.
Tilden served as a delegate to the 1864 and 1868 Democratic National Conventions, and as New York Democratic State Chair from 1872-1882. Having demonstrated his skills as a reformer, he easily won the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1876. He won the popular vote and collected 184 electoral votes to 165 for Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes. 20 electoral votes remained uncounted and in dispute. After these votes were awarded to Hayes -- thus giving him the election -- Tilden and the Democratic Party went to great lengths to uncover evidence of fraud in the Electoral College. Ultimately, Tilden conceded the election.
Tilden was proposed as a potential Democratic candidate in 1880 and again in 1884, but declined both times, citing poor health. He soon withdrew from public service, though he remained a confidant and advisor to many of his fellows.
He died at Graystone, his country house in Yonkers, on August 4, 1886. In the years following his death, a bitter struggle over his estate ensued between his trustees and his heirs-at-law over the provision of the will that the bulk of the estate be used for the creation of a free library and reading room in New York City. The free library was ultimately established, and later became The New York Public Library.
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