Biography of Samuel Jones Tilden


History of Columbia County, New York

By Captain Franklin Ellis

Published by Everts & Ensign

Philadelphia, PA




Between Pages  104* 105


      Samuel Jones Tilden was born at New Lebanon, Columbia Co., N.Y., in 1814.  One of his paternal ancestors and the son and grandson of another were mayors of Tenterden, Kent, England, between 1585 and 1623.  The son of another ancestor was one of the London merchants who fitted out the "Mayflower."  Another ancestor was one of the founders of the town of Scituate, Mass., and a leader in the famous Plymouth colony.  His mother traced her lineage to William Jones, lieutenant-governor of New Haven colony, and son of a regicide judge of Charles I., by a wife who was at once cousin of John Hampden and sister of Oliver Cromwell.  His father, a farmer and merchant in New Lebanon (whither he had come with his parents in 1790), was a man of notable judgment and practical sense.  His influence in the county was a recognized power.  New York's great statesmen of the Jacksonian era--Martin Van Buren, Silas Wright, William L. Marcy, Azariah C. Flagg, Edward Livingston, Chancellor Livingston, Albert Gallatin--were among his visitors, correspondents, and friends.  Reared amid such a society, under such traditions, in such a school, it is not surprising that from the outset his studies were widest and deepest in the graver sciences of government, public economy, and law; nor that his first adventure, in the ardor of ripening youth, should have been in a political field.

     In the fall of 1832, General Jackson was re-elected to the Presidency, Van Buren was elected to the Vice-Presidency, and Marcy to the governorship of New York.  Their success had depended on defeating a coalition of National Republicans and Anti-Masons.  With an early "instinct for the jugular," young Tilden wrote a paper analyzing the political situation and showing there could be no honest alliance.  His father, his most appreciative, yet least indulgent critic, approved the paper, took him to pay a visit to Mr. Van Buren, then at Lebanon Springs, near by and to read it to him.  Its merit was attested by their decision to publish it through the State, approved by the signatures of several leading Democrats; it was praised by being ascribed to the pen of Mr. Van Buren; but even more by the denial that he was its author, made in the Albany Argus, "by authority."  Out of this incident grew a particular friendship between Mr. Van Buren and Mr. Tilden, which became of the most confidential character, and continued till the death of the ex-President.

     Young Tilden's academic course was begun at Yale College, in the sophomore class, which enrolled among its members Chief-Justice Waite, William M. Evarts, Professors Lyman and Silliman, and Edward Pierrepont.  His studies were intermitted for a few months to repair the effects of too intense application; but were shortly resumed at the University of New York; were continued in the law school of that seat of learning, whose pupils were then enjoying the prelections of Mr. Van Buren, Attorney-General Benjamin F. Butler, and Judge William Kent; and were prolonged in the law-office of the gifted, if eccentric, John W. Edmonds.

     The accession of Van Buren to the Presidency, in 1837, preceded but a little the memorable financial revulsion of that year.  He had called an extra session of Congress that summer, and in his message recommended the separation of the government from the banks, and the establishment of the independent treasury.  Voluminous debates followed in the press.  The late Samuel Beardsley, of Utica, inspired, if he did not write, a series of papers published in the Argus, then the leading Democratic journal of the State, which contested the recommendations of the message, and invited resistance to their adoption.  Young Tilden, a student even then of fiscal systems and political economy, sprang to the defense of he President's policy, in a series of papers signed "Crino."  His most distinguished biographer has said of them:  "They were marked by all the characteristics of his maturity, and advocated the proposed separation from the banks and redeemability of the government currency in specie.  Their author was but twenty-three years of age,--the age at which William Pitt beam Chancellor of England.  If history has preserved anything from the pen or tongue of that illustrious statesman, prior to that period of his life, which displays a higher order of merit, it has escaped the attention of his biographers."  'Crino' was long supposed to be Esek Cowen, then one of the justices of the Supreme Court.

     In the fall of 1838, Nathaniel P. Talmadge, a senator of the United States, from New York, who had separated from the Democratic party and joined the Whigs, in opposition to the financial policy of the President, went to Columbia county to address his new friends.  After his speech the Whig managers invited reply.  The Democrats present took up the challenge, and shouted for Tilden as the champion.  His speech was a masterly refutation of the veteran senator's argument, and some of its home-thrusts were so effective and thrilling as completely to countervail the political purpose of the meeting.

     The great depression in prices and paralysis of business which continued into the fall of 1840, although an inevitable result of a long period of bank inflation and unsound government financing, were, of course, imputed to the sub-treasury system, just as the panic of 1873, and the subsequent distress, have been ascribed to all steps taken to remove their chief causes and principal conditions.  In October, 1840, Mr. Tilden, who had watched the financial revolution through all its progress, and knew its source, nature, and remedies as thoroughly as any older man of his time, made a speech upon the subject in New Lebanon.  No one can read it at this day without marveling that Daniel Webster and Nicholas Biddle, with whose arguments Mr. Tilden grappled, could ever have championed a system under revenues of the federal government were made the basis of private commercial discounts.  He reviewed the history of the United States Bank, and exposed its ill-founded claims to have been "a regulator of the currency."  In short, the youngster was already a veteran in the service and the councils of his party.  But while, on the one hand, the administration sought his advice and co-operation, on the other hand, Conde Raguet, whose "Treatise on Currency and Banking" had placed him among the most eminent political economists of the period, recognized, beyond its political,  its scientific value as "the clearest exposition of the subject that has yet appeared," and a "most masterly production."

     Mr. Tilden opened his law-office in Pine street, New York city, in 1844, the year the election of James K. Polk as President, and of Silas Wright as governor of New [P.10 York.  To advance that choice he united with John L. O'Sullivan in founding the Daily News, by far the ablest morning journal till then enlisted in the service of the Democratic party.  Its success was complete, but as he did not propose to enter into journalism as a career, after the election he made a gift of his share in the paper to his colleague.

     In the fall of 1845, Mr. Tilden was elected to the State Assembly , and while a member of that body, was elected to the Constitutional Convention of 1846.  His impress is visible in the legislation of that year, but it was most notable upon the new constitutional provisions affecting the finances of the State and the management of its canals.

     The defeat of Mr. Wright in the fall of 1846, and the coolness which had grown up between the friends of President Polk and the late President Van Buren, led Mr. Tilden to withdraw his attention from politics and concentrate it upon his profession.  Dependent upon his own exertions, hitherto not lucrative, for a livelihood, he discerned thus early the importance of a pecuniary independence to the best political career.  Concentrating all his energies upon his profession, it was not long ere he became as well known at the bar as he had before been known as a politician; and in twenty years of assiduous, untiring industry he made his way steadily to the foremost rank of his profession, and to nearly or quite the largest and most lucrative practice in the country conducted by any single barrister.  during these two decades he linked his name imperishably with some of the most remarkable forensic struggles of the time.  The limits of this sketch forbid, however any adequate reference even to those in which his talents and fertility of resource were most conspicuous.

     The great O'Conor, his associate counsel in the Flagg case, has spoken of Mr. Tilden's opening speech as one of the most striking displays of pure intellectual force he ever witnessed.  Mr. Azariah C. Flagg, like Mr. Tilden, a friend of Van Buren and Wright, and renowned in the State and city for his fidelity to public trusts, had been elected as comptroller of the city of New York.  His title to the office was contested by his opponent by legal process.  So close had been the vote that a change in the return of a single election district would reverse the result.  Upon a fraud inserted here his opponent proceeded.  From the very data of the contestant, Mr. Tilden, by a mathematical and logical analysis, based upon the principle that truth always matches all around, reconstructed a lost tally-sheet, exposed the attempted fraud, demonstrated Flagg's election, and won his case.

     As counsel for the heirs of Dr. Burdell (an American Tichborne case), Mr. Tilden tore to tatters the amazing tissue of falsehood woven by the claimant, Mrs. Cunningham, the pretended wife and probable murderer of Burdell, by an examination of one hundred and fifty-two willing witness called by the claimant.  Believing still that the truth must match all around, and that falsehood cannot be made to harmonize with even a limited number of facts, he conducted this defense by a species of moral triangulation.  His metaphysical power, his keen acumen, his penetration of character, and his creative logic were never more wonderfully displayed.  He not only won the case, but the conviction at once seized the public mind that had he conducted the previous prosecution of Mrs. Cunningham for murder, it must have resulted in the woman's just conviction.

      Mr. Tilden's defense of the Pennsylvania Coal Company probably established, as much as any single case, his high repute among his professional brethren.  It was a striking exhibition of the power of his analytical method.  The Delaware and Hudson Coal Company agreed to pay it as an indemnity for the cost of enlarging their canal.  The question was, had the enlarged canal given transportation at less expense than the old canal.  A chaos of facts beclouded and complicated the issue.  Mr. Tilden reduced this chaos to order by costly, laborious analysis involving the guided research of a regiment of computers, amounting to the ten years' toil of one man.  He took the time of a single trip of a boat as an integer, and from the plaintiffs' books evolved a luminous series of proofs that defeated their claim and won his cause.  The amount claimed was twenty cents a ton on six hundred thousand tons a year for ten years, besides a large royalty for an indefinite future.

     In the case of the Cumberland Coal Company against its directors, heard in Maryland in 1858, Mr. Tilden applied for the first time to the directors of corporations the familiar doctrine that a trustee cannot be a purchaser of property confided to him for sale, and he successfully illustrated and settled the equitable principle on which such sales to directors are set aside, and also the conditions to give them validity.

     Mr. Tilden's success was no less remarkable in a field which he made especially his own,--in rescuing corporations from unprofitable and embarrassing litigation, in reorganizing their administration, re-establishing their credit, and rendering their resources available.  More than half the great railway enterprises north of the Ohio and between the Hudson and Missouri rivers have, at some time, been his clients.  It was here, on this pre-eminently useful, if less conspicuous stage, that his legal attainments, his unsurpassed skill as a financier, his unlimited capacity for concentrated, energetic labor, his constantly increasing weight of character and personal influence, enabled him, especially between the years 1855 and 1861, to contribute more powerfully than any man in the United States to their great prosperity.

     He had now earned in the conduct of these large interests, and in the decisive victories he had won, a considerable fortune, a ripe experience, and a distinguished fame.  The time was near when all these were consecrated, with as great and devoted energy, solely to the public service.  For no one in the United Sates now needs to be told that to Mr. Tilden more than to any other single man is due the overthrow of Tweed and his confederates in both political parties, who for years had used the power of the whole State to compel the city of New York to pay them the freebooters' tribute, and whose plunderings caused the major part of the enhancement of its debt from $19,000,000 in 1857 to $16,000,000 in 1876.  The ring had its origin in the legislation of 1857, constituting a board of supervisors,--six Republicans and six Democrats,--to change a majority of which needed the control of the primary meetings of both the great national and State parties for four years in succession,--a series of coincidences rare in a generation.  This ring of supervisors soon grew to be a ring between the Republicans, who, for thirteen years prior to 1869 to 1870, controlled the legislative power of the State, the half-and-half supervisors and a few Democratic officials in the city, and embraced just enough influential men in the organizations of each party to control both.  Year by year its power and its audacity increased.  Its seat of operations was transferred to Albany.  The lucrative city offices; subordinate appointments, which each head of department could create at pleasure, with salaries at discretion, distributed among legislators; contracts; money contributed by city officials, assessed on their subordinates, raised by jobs under the departments, or filched from the city treasury, were the corrupting agencies which shaped and controlled all legislation.

     Thus for four millions of people were all institutions of government, all taxation, all appropriations of money, mastered and made.  The Ring power was consolidated, and touched its farthest limit in the Tweed charter of 1870.  Enacted by Republican Legislature, approved by a Democratic governor, this charter was simply a grant of all offices, all local government, all power, to members of the Ring for long periods, without accountability for their acts.  New York was delivered over, bound hand and foot, to Tweed and his confederates for plunder.  Mr. Tilden, who had accepted the chairmanship of the Democratic committee and the titular leadership of his party in the State at the death of Dean Richmond, now held it against the ambition and assaults of the Ring.  Without patronage or office to confer in city or State, he planted himself on the traditions of the elders, on the moral sense and forces of Democracy, and upon the invincibility of truth and right.  He denounced the Tweed charter and assailed at every point the Ring domination.  The fight was long and desperate; many accused him of making shipwreck of his party, but he would concede nothing, compromise nothing.  Perceiving the vital centre of power, the city representation in the legislative bodies of the State, he insisted with his party and before the people, that the clutch of Ring rule should release that.  Fortune favored the brave.  A clerk in the comptroller's office copied and published the "secret accounts."  Mr. Tilden went into the bank where all the checks of the Ring had passed, analyzed the gigantic mass of these and other vestiges of their frauds, traced out the actual division of their plunder, and thus accumulated and framed the decisive and legal proof of their guilt.  Fortune again favored the brave.  He was able to put an honest person into the comptroller's office, as deputy, with the keys of the city treasury.  From that hour the Ring was doomed.

     A side-contest, essential to success in the overthrow of the Ring, and arduous as any part of that devoted toil, was his effort for the impeachment and overthrow of the corrupt judiciary of New York.  This too was triumphantly achieved, with the result, besides the imprisonment or flight of the members of the Ring, and the recovery of some of their spoil, also the purification of the administration of justice in the great metropolis.

     These sixteen months of sacrifice of every private interest or occupation of his own, and of strenuous absorbed devotion to the public welfare, led him to make a brief trip to Europe in the summer of 1873 for rest and recreation.

     But the lawyer, the statesman, the patriot, was not suffered to return to the courts and the council-chamber.  In the fall of 1874 he was summoned to lead the party of Reform in its contest for power in the State.  Unwilling to leave it possible for the enemies of reform to say that he could not safely submit his work as a reformer to the perils of party strife and the judgment of the people, he accepted the Democratic nomination, and was elected governor of New York by overwhelming majorities, many Republicans contributing their votes to swell this moral triumph.  Two years before, General Dix had been elected by a plurality of 53,000.  Governor Tilden's plurality over Dix, his competitor, was 53,000.

   Not long was Mr. Tilden seated in the governor's chair ere the people discovered that besides being occupied it was filled.  His first message, in January, proclaimed his policy of thorough-going administrative reform, revision of laws, so as to provide criminal punishment and civil remedies for the frauds of public officers and their accomplices, and reduction of taxation.  Mr. Tilden also took advantage of his high position to restore, in this message, to the Democratic party the authority of its most honorable traditions in finance, and to the country the only policy which ever had insured or can insure its substantial, enduring prosperity.  But this was only the beginning.  In less than ninety days he had investigated, and in a message to the Legislature exposed, the fraudulent processes of the Canal Ring, by which for years the State had been plundered, its agents debauched, its politics demoralized, and its credit imperiled.  The political courage of this declaration of war to the death against a caste claiming the balance of power in both the great political parties can hardly be overstated.  In a similar struggle with the baser elements, forty years before, Silas Wright had been struck down as he was rising to the zenith of his fame, and exiled from public life.  But Mr. Tilden preferred to fall like him rather than not attempt the reform so necessary.  Again he put his trust in the virtue of the people, and again it was not betrayed.  He appointed a commission, with John Bigelow at its head, under authority extorted from a Legislature containing many notorious canal-jobbers and organized in their interest.  The commission brought out to the light of day the whole system of fraudulent expenditure on the canals, which he had denounced at the bar of public opinion.  Nor was even this all.  By arresting completely such expenditures, by the recommendation and adoption of various other financial measures, and by the discreet but vigorous exercise of the veto power, Governor Tilden effected a reduction of the State taxation by one-half its sum, before laying down his trust.

     By this time throughout the whole Union it was perceived that precisely such as these were the labors and achievements needed in a reformed administration of the federal government at Washington.  War had left its usual legacies,--departments honeycombed with corruption, a vast debt and habits of unbounded extravagance.  Between 1850 and 1870 town, city, county, and State expenditures had increased nearly seven-fold, and federal expenditures ten-fold, whilst the population had not even doubled.  Taxes were crushing the nation, and Tweeds were swarming at its capital.  It was natural that the eyes of discerning men in all the States, and the hearts of the masses of the people, should be turned towards Governor Tilden.  The belief that the reformed of New York was the reformer for Washington inspired a decisive choice among the Democrats from Maine to Texas.  It came up from the people like a tidal-wave, and lifting the political leaders of many a State who had other preferences, bore them onward to an inevitable decision.

     On the first balloting of the Democratic National Convention, which assembled at St. Louis, June 17, 1876, Mr. Tilden's name led all the rest.  He had received 417 out of 739 ballots cast.  On the second ballot he received 535 out of 744, more than the two-thirds required, and was at once nominated unanimously.  His letter accepting the nomination was looked for with keen interest, and read more widely than any other such document.  It betrays in every line its author's mastery of the art and business of statesmanship.  The profoundest problems of finance, the causes of commercial and industrial depression, the conditions of a revival of national prosperity, are there discussed with the precision of science and the ease of power.

     The contest which followed was one of the most desperate and hard-fought in all the annals of popular elections.  Much more than the preference of a majority of the people was needful to Democratic success. Sixteen years of continuous rule had given the Republican party every advantage.  It wielded the vast influence of $164,000,000 annual expenditures.  Its followers were mustered and drilled by 100,000 office-holders.

     But Governor Tilden's character, career, and letter of acceptance had completely determined and defined the battle-field and the aggressive quality of the Democratic campaign.  It was an appeal to the conscience and the power of the American people from the standpoint of Democratic principles and traditions.  War issues were displaced.  Reform was the watchword.

     The people rebuked his calumniators, and rewarded with the laurels of victory his faith in their purpose to restore the government to the principles and the purity of the founders of the Republic.  They gave him, in a vote vastly the largest ever polled, great popular majorities,--in New York State, eighty thousand more suffrages than made Grant's fifty-four thousand majority in 1872, and in the Union thirteen hundred thousand more than Grant had received in his first election, and seven hundred thousand more than he had received in his second election.

     The electors chosen in the Presidential election of 1876 numbered three hundred and sixty-nine.  Of these the Tilden electors indisputably chosen numbered one hundred and eighty-four.  The Tilden electors in Florida (four), and in Louisiana (eight), also received, indisputably, a majority of the votes cast and returned.  It was claimed, too, that Tilden electors (seven) had the majority in South Carolina.  The Hayes electors thus numbered, at most, 173; the Tilden electors numbered at least 196.  By what means the casting of these twelve (if not nineteen) electoral votes was transferred from the Tilden electors to the Hayes electors history will yet write in burning letters upon the pages of its abiding record.

     Every Republican member of the Electoral Commission voted (eight to seven) to give effectual validity to the reversal, by the State Returning Boards, of the people's choice of Tilden electors,--voted to receive the vote of every disqualified elector.  All were necessary to enable them to seat Hayes by a majority of one.

     We cannot more fitly close this too brief sketch of an unexampled private and public career than by quoting Governor Tilden's own words, on the 12th of June, 1877, upon this, "the most portentous event in our political history":

     "Everybody knows that after the recent election the men who were elected by the people President and Vice-President of the United States were 'counted out,' and men who were not elected were 'counted in' and seated.  I disclaim any thought of the personal grievance, which is, in truth, the greatest wrong that has stained out national annals.  To every man of the four and a quarter millions who were defrauded of the fruits of their elective franchise it is as great a wrong as it is to me.  And no less to every man of the minority will the ultimate consequences extend.  Evils in government grow by success and by impunity.  They do not arrest their own progress.  They can never be limited except by external forces.  If the men in possession of the government can in one instance maintain themselves in power against an adverse decision at the elections, such an example will be imitated.  Temptation exists always.  Devices to give the color of law, and false pretenses on which to found fraudulent decisions, will not be wanting.  The wrong will grow into a practice if condoned--if once condoned.  In the world's history changes in the succession of governments have usually been the result of fraud or force.  It has been our faith and our pride that we had established a mode of peaceful change, to be worked out by the agency of the ballot-box.

     "The question now is whether our elective system, in its substance as well as its form, is to be maintained.  This is the question of questions.  Until it is finally settled there can be no politics founded on inferior questions of administrative policy.  It involves the fundamental right of the people.  It involves the elective principle.   It involves the whole system of popular government.  The people must signally condemn the great wrong which has been done to them.  They must strip the example of everything that can attract imitators.  They must refuse a prosperous immunity to crime.  This is not all.  The people will not be able to trust the authors or beneficiaries of the wrong to devise remedies.  But when those who condemn the wrong shall have the power they must devise the measure which shall render a repetition of the wrong forever impossible.  If my voice could reach throughout our country and be heard in its remotest hamlet, I would say:  "Be of good cheer.  The republic will live.  The institutions of our fathers are not to expire in shame.  The sovereignty of the people shall be rescued from this peril and re-established.'  Successful wrong never appears so triumphant as on the very eve of its fall.  Seven years ago a corrupt dynasty culminated in its power over the one million of people who live in the city of New York.  It had conquered or bribed, or flattered and won, almost everybody into acquiescence.  It appeared to be invincible.  A year or two later its members were in the penitentiaries or in exile.  History abounds in similar examples.  We must believe in the right and in the future.  A great and noble nation will not sever its political from its moral life."