American politician Samuel Jones Tilden (1814-1886), a governor of New York and Democratic presidential candidate, typified genteel reform in the "gilded age."
Samuel J. Tilden was born on Feb. 9, 1814, in New Lebanon, N.Y. His father, a merchant and local politician, left him a legacy of Democratic politics. The Tilden home often served as meeting place for Martin Van Buren, Silas Wright, and other leaders of the Democratic "Albany Regency." Health concerns clouded Tilden's early years, forcing him to terminate a brief career at Yale. After studying law at the University of the City of New York, he established a law practice in 1841. Worry about nerves, aches, and pains remained a major factor in his career.
During the 1840s Tilden associated with the reformist, antislavery wing of the New York Democrats. When James K. Polk's election resulted in the ascendancy of the pro-Southern wing, Tilden was divorced from party leadership. He opposed Abraham Lincoln's election, spear-headed opposition to Republican centralization in Washington, and supported President Andrew Johnson's conciliatory Reconstruction policies.
After 1866 Tilden, appointed chairman of the state Democratic committee, rose steadily. His role in prosecuting the corrupt Tweed ring won him the governorship in 1874, where he pursued a policy of fiscal retrenchment. Smashing the corrupt Canal ring added to his reputation as a reformer. He won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1876.
The election, the most controversial in American history, left Tilden bitter. Although he received a plurality of some 250, 000 votes, an electoral commission awarded the election to Rutherford B. Hayes. Tilden said that he would not risk more civil war by forcing his installation. In fact, his defeat, no simple "corrupt bargain, " involved an elaborate attempt at sectional compromise. Mentioned again as a candidate, Tilden, now definitely ailing, pleaded illness.
As a lawyer and businessman, Tilden was an unqualified success. Famous as a lawyer, he amassed one of America's largest fortunes in railroads and mining. He died a bachelor at the age of 72, having never had a relation with a woman of which, he confided to his biographer, he "would have hesitated, for motives of delicacy, to speak with his mother or his sisters." He left $6 million; $2 million helped fund the New York Public Library.
The opposite of the political bosses he opposed, Tilden—cerebral and unimpressive in appearance—won success primarily through his incisive intelligence. His devotion to the public good makes him an important link between Jacksonian and modern reform.
Further Reading on Samuel Jones Tilden
John Bigelow, The Life of Samuel J. Tilden (2 vols., 1895), rich in detail, is apologetic. An exhaustive biography placing Tilden in the Jefferson-Jackson reform tradition is Alexander C. Flick, Samuel Jones Tilden: A Study in Political Sagacity (1939). The "corrupt bargain" is discussed in C. Vann Woodward, Reunion and Reaction (1951).