SAMUEL J. TILDEN (D)
Winner: RUTHERFORD B. HAYES (R)
The biographers assure us that Mr. Tilden was born at New Lebanon, Columbia County, in this state, in 1814, and he must, consequently, be 70 years of age; but the impression which he makes, not less by his appearance and deportment than by his plans and occupations, is that of a much younger man. On the south side of Gramercy Park a magnificent double facade is being erected to join two old, substantial houses. This facade is decorated with polished stone, terra-cotta work, carved ornaments and busts of Shakespeare, Milton, Franklin, Goethe and Dante. Stop and ask the workmen for whom this splendid city residence is designed, and they will tell you that it is the mansion and library of Governor Tilden. To project such an edifice, to expend so much money upon it, to undertake the formation of such a library as that for which the house is intended — these are the labors of a young or middle-aged man, not of an old gentleman close upon the seventies. Yet from his personal supervision of every detail of the building it is evident that Mr. Tilden designs the Gramercy Park mansion for himself, and looks forward to many long years of otium cum dignitate among his favorite books.
In 1845 Mr. Tilden began his political career by being elected to the Assembly. In 1846, his abilities being already recognized, and again in 1867, in the full maturity of his powers, he took an important part in the revision of the State Constitution. He was re-elected to the Assembly in 1864, and held firm ground as a reformer of the Democracy and an opponent of the New York Ring. In the meantime, he had made an immense fortune as a railway lawyer and speculator. Tweed and his staff could not understand Tilden, and under-estimated him, as Goliath sneered at David. To get rid of his opposition and use him as a figure-head, they selected him as Chairman of the Democratic State Committee. "It will give the old fool something to do and keep him quiet," said Tweed, contemptuously. It gave Tilden a great deal to do, and he did it so well that when he began his crusade against the Ring, in 1870, he had the whole Democratic organization at his back. The success of his ring reform made him Governor in 1874. He was a reforming Governor, and attacked the Canal ring with the same vigor which he had displayed against the Tweed ring. This policy displeased the machine politicians; but Tilden's nomination for the Presidency in 1875 was assured, as his nomination for Governor had been, by what is now known historically as his "still hunt."
The theory of American politics is that a candidate is selected by the people, through primary meetings and conventions. The practice is that political leaders choose an available tool and make him a candidate by manipulating the primary votes and convention delegates. A candidate who goes to work to nominate himself, using influence, money, intrigue, and the press to secure an important office, is almost unknown in our political history. Aaron Burr was such a candidate; Tilden adopted his methods without his rascality and his unpatriotic ambition. The methods by which he operated were more French than American. The position in which Tweed had placed him gave him an intimate acquaintance with the Democratic machinery, and he employed this for his own aggrandizement. The Northern delegates, who went to St. Louis bitterly opposed to him, found the Southern delegates already pledged to his support. His nomination became a political necessity; his election was so far conceded that Mr. Hayes, his Republican opponent, declared in a public speech that the Democrats had carried the country.
Then came the bold despatch of Senator Chandler, claiming the victory for the Republicans, and weary months of doubt, confusion, crimination and recrimination followed. An Electoral Commission, to which both parties agreed, gave the Presidency to Mr. Hayes. Whether or not Mr. Tilden consented to this Commission, or induced his friends to believe that he had consented, is still an open question; but his indignant exclamation, "I will never agree to raffle for the Presidency," has the true ring. Since then he has posed as a President defrauded of his office, and the American people, without admitting all that he claims, are rather proud of him in this capacity. All the monarchies of Europe have pretenders to their thrones, and why should the American Republic be without its Comte de Chambord?
But to insist upon running for Governor or for President again in order to vindicate these pretensions would be a mistake. Mr. Tilden's position is unique. He has the dignity of a President de jure, without the responsibilities of a President de facto. He is surrounded by a little court, and his manners have grown courtly and diplomatic to meet the emergencies of his position. A bachelor, with more money than he can expend, he is able to gratify all the tastes and ambitions of an actual ruler without the formality of wearing a legal title. If he were President, his influence could hardly be greater in his own party and his advice more eagerly consulted by the party leaders. Besides, even a second term would give him only eight years in the White House, while now, in a handsomer residence, he is at liberty to remain an ex-President de facto all his life.
From Off-hand Portraits of Prominent New Yorkers by Stephen Fiske. Originally published by G.R. Lockwood & Son in 1884.