Samuel Jones Tilden (New Lebanon, New York. February 4, 1814 - August 4, 1886) was the Democratic candidate for the US presidency in the disputed election of 1876, the most controversial American election of the 19th century. When two sets of returns were sent to Washington from the states of Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and Oregon, the two houses of Congress agreed to the appointment of an extra-constitutional body, the Electoral Commission. Though Tilden appears to have won the popular vote enough Commission votes from the Republican-controlled states in the Reconstruction South to throw the election into the U.S. House of Representatives. The House awarded the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes after he promised to end Reconstruction.
Tilden grew up in New York State. Briefly at Yale College and at the College of the City of New York, he was admitted to the bar in 1841 and became a skilled corporate lawyer, with many railroads as clients in the shaky railroad boom decade of the 1850s. His legal practice, combined with shrewd investments, made him rich.
In 1848, largely on account of his personal attachment to Martin Van Buren, he participated in the revolt of the 'Barnburners' or Free-Soil faction of the New York Democrats. He was among the few such who did not join the Republican Party and in 1855 was the candidate of the anti-slavery faction for attorney-general of the state. After the Civil War Tilden became chairman of the Democratic state committee and soon came into conflict with the notorious Tweed ring of New York City. As the systematically corrupt New York judges were its tools, Tilden, after entering the Assembly in 1872 to promote the cause of reform, took a leading part in their impeachment. By analysing the bank accounts of certain members of the ring, he obtained legal proof of the principle on which the spoils had been divided. As a reform-spirited Governor in 1874, he turned his attention to a second set of plunderers, the 'canal ring', made up of members of both parties who had been systematically robbing New York State through the maladministration of its canals. Tilden succeeded in breaking them up.
His successful service as governor gained him the presidential nomination.
After losing the presidency to Hayes, Tilden counselled his followers to abide quietly by the result, but he declined renomination in 1880 and 1884. The remainder of his life was spent in retirement at his country home, Greystone, near Yonkers, New York. He died a bachelor in 1886.
Of his fortune (estimated at $5,000,000) approximately $4,000,000 was bequeathed for the establishment and maintenance of a free public library and reading-room in the City of New York; but, as the will was successfully contested by relatives, only about $2,000,000 of the bequest was applied to its original purpose; in 1895 the Tilden Trust was combined with the Astor and Lenox libraries to found the New York Public Library, whose building bears his name on its front.
In 1878 the Republican New York Tribune published a series of telegraphic despatches in cipher, accompanied by translations, by which it attempted to prove that during the crisis following the 1876 election, Tilden had been negotiating for the purchase of the electoral votes of South Carolina and Florida. Tilden denied emphatically all knowledge of such despatches, and appeared voluntarily before a Congressional sub-committee in New York City to clear himself of the charge. The attempts to implicate him in corrupt transactions were not successful; but his political opponents endeavoured to make capital in subsequent campaigns, out of the so-called 'Cipher Dispatches'.