Whispering Sammy

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Weeks passed, and the election result remained up in the air. Louisiana’s officials offered a solution: One million dollars would put the state in the Democratic column and make Samuel Jones Tilden the nineteenth President of the United States. Such a bribe was unthinkable for a coldly legalistic follower of correct procedure. Two hundred thousand, then? asked the Louisianans. They did not know their man.

November slipped away, and December, and January, Tilden’s winning margins in the three states decreasing day by day. He offered no clarion call demanding justice, remaining as distant as always, and it came to the white Democrats of the South that fate was offering an opportunity to put paid to venal carpetbagger and equal-rights idealist alike and to bring in home rule and white supremacy. Overtures were made to the hard Gilded Age nonideologue moneymen of the Republican party of after-the-war: If Hayes were given the Presidency, would he contract to take the Yankee troops away and leave the South to its own methods of dealing with the Negro?

No one could say, two days before Inauguration Day, who it was that was going to be inaugurated.

All this was done quite in the open. An “unspeakable calamity” was in the offing, an illicit, fraudulent decision, said Harper’s . And “Tilden or blood,” said the newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer as the former Army of the Potomac commander George B. McClellan spoke of marshaling hundreds of thousands of armed men to assure a rightful decision. What would a South American strongman not have done, or a Mexican caudillo, or Cromwell, or Bonaparte—or Bobby Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson! But Tilden spent his time compiling an endless brief detailing precisely how winning majorities back to George Washington had been arrived at, all the records, debates, rules, and laws, with citations for sources. Anyone who appealed to him for a firm stand, a cry from the heart, left his presence saying, “Oh, Tilden won’t do anything; he’s as cold as a damn clam,” reported the New York Tribune .

No one could say, two days before Inauguration Day, who would be inaugurated. Then, at 4:00 A.M., a federal electoral commission ruled it would be Hayes. The Democrats of the House of Representatives countered with a vote that it would be Tilden, and in Albany he was told that he should present himself to a justice of the peace, take the oath, and make for the White House. In Washington troops filled the streets, and gunboats the Potomac. Ever the complete stranger to passion, dwelling on his ailments. Tilden sat and did nothing and so, said Democratic National Chairman Abram Hewitt, “threw the Presidency away.” The final tally showed he got a quarter million more votes than Hayes and one less electoral vote.

He lived ten years more. A portion of his estate went for the construction and stocking of New York City’s Public Library, at Fifth Avenue and Fortysecond Street. That is his most abiding monument. There is another. It stands above where he lies in New Lebanon, a mile from Shuji’s. A passerby knowing nothing of him will wonder what on earth the words mean, just above his name. Those who understand catch their breath even as they shake their heads to see in great letters what he said when all was over, this strange, this unfathomable man: I STILL TRUST THE PEOPLE.