May/June 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 3
Sushi and sashimi are being brought out in Shuji’s Restaurant in New Lebanon, New York, around twenty-five miles from Albany, with the sliced ginger and that boiling-hot green pastelike stuff you mash into the soy sauce. We are in the stone and wood and bigverandah former residence of a longdead man called Samuel Jones Tilden. He is quite unknown to history. But some fifty yards across the street once stood the birthplace of another Samuel Jones Tilden, the uncle of the first one, and this Mr. Tilden, on the testimony of his best friend and authorized biographer, was deprived of the Presidency of the United States purely and simply because of a weak stomach, a very poor digestive system. As a television commercial of a few years ago put it, you can’t make this stuff up.
The Tilden we are concerned with was born in 1814. His troubles began in 1814, he believed. But perhaps this was not an accurate assessment and they actually commenced with a conception installing in him the genes of a hypochondriac. For his father, Elam, was a renowned worrier over illnesses who embraced his life’s main interests to become a purveyor of medical nostrums and drugs. When little Samuel was three, he was afflicted by a malady that caused him relentlessly to claw at his mouth. A physician gave him laudanum for relief, and this, he later decided, undid his stomach forever. Derivative from that, he came into his own as his father’s son and in time believed himself the victim, it was said, of every disorder known save for housemaid’s knee. He and his father made their illnesses the main component of their close relationship. “They relished these indispositions, and discovered infinite variety in them, like travelers in a strange and wonderful land,” wrote the historian Alexander Flick. In any letter the son wrote the father, said Tilden’s authorized biographer, John Bigelow, “health and medication were pretty sure to constitute one of the leading topics.”
The boy had no childhood, played no games, did not hunt or swim. Utterly charmless, he nevertheless at a very young age displayed remarkable logic in his thinking and held his own in discussions with grown men, including the family friend Martin Van Buren. He went to a preparatory school for Williams College, left because of his health, tried Yale, where he found it impossible to eat the bread because it was too freshly baked—"Yesterday it was scarcely cold,” he complained in a letter home—quit, went to New York University, withdrew. Eventually through private study he became a lawyer and swiftly rose to be the country’s richest member of that profession. His practice involved railroad and corporate mergers and ironore concerns. He had brilliantly analytic investment instincts and amassed colossal sums.
Dealing with real or imagined afflictions of the throat, lungs, and teeth and with colds, neuralgia, swellings, lameness, chills and fever, rheumatism, hoarseness, corrugated tongue, catarrh, arthritis, palsy, headaches, tremulous hands, a drooping eyelid, pulsations in the back of the head, interrupted sleep, dryness of mouth, diarrhea, and constipation, he took immense and varied medical potions, went to seashore and mountain health resorts, spent fortunes on doctors, and impressed all who knew him as the owner of a great reasoning intellect who was cautious, deliberate, slow to decide on anything, calculating, aloof, withdrawn, unexcitable, detached. He was the greatest possible contrast with the corrupt bravos of New York’s Tweed Ring, and as a concerned citizen he methodically destroyed them. On that basis he was in 1874 elected governor of New York, where he put to rout the Canal Ring, which was mulcting the taxpayers out of millions.
An automatic likelihood for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1876, he was at his Albany home, thereafter and to this day the Governor’s Mansion, when word came that he had been named on the St. Louis convention’s second ballot. “Is that so?” he asked in the low and lifeless tone that made people allude to him as “Whispering Sammy,” and he returned to sipping tea with a sister. (Women relatives served him as hostesses when required; he was, he told John Bigelow on at least two occasions, a virgin. “In fact,” Bigelow wrote, “he never knew any woman intimately enough to fall under the influence of sexual charms.”)
His Republican opponent was Rutherford B. Hayes. Tilden campaigned against high government expenditures and the protective tariff. Election Day was November 7. “We are defeated,” Hayes told reporters the next morning. “The Democrats have carried the country.” Tilden had garnered an unquestioned 184 of the 185 electoral votes needed for election, with Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina, the last states of the old Confederacy still occupied by Yankee troops, yet to be heard from. That these bastions of the Solid South would go Democratic appeared beyond doubt.
But to Republican National Chairman Zack Chandler it seemed possible that all was not yet lost. “Go ahead and do what you think necessary,” he told his associates, and the bayonetgovernment Republican state regimes started finding reasons to throw out Democratic ballots. Blacks had been intimidated, and Northern residents assaulted, it was declared; there had been riot and murder; and in a trice Tilden’s unofficial majority of twenty thousand Louisiana votes went to seven thousand and falling. South Carolina and Florida followed suit.
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?
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.