Samuel Jones Tilden was born in New Lebanon, New York, a small community southeast of Albany and close to the Massachusetts border. His schooling was sporadic on account of his chronic ill health, a condition that would plague him for the remainder of his life. He later attended Yale and the University of the City of New York, but did not graduate. Tilden studied the law and was admitted to the bar in 1841. His practice prospered, primarily from work he did for the major railroads; his considerable fees were invested in real estate, enabling him to become wealthy at an early age.
Tilden was a backer of the Democrats and Martin Van Buren. He served briefly in the New York legislature in the 1840s and became a Free-Soiler, but unlike many of his allies did not become a Republican in the 1850s. Tilden was a supporter of the Union effort in the Civil War, but was critical of Abraham Lincoln and the development of an increasingly strong central government. He was later an opponent of Radical Reconstruction.
Following the war, Tilden played a leading role in the reorganization of the Democratic Party in New York State and came to national attention through his efforts to throw out the corrupt Tweed Ring. His image was further enhanced by destroying the Canal Ring, a group of dishonest New Yorkers of both parties who had profited immensely from bogus canal maintenance schemes.
Riding the crest of reform sentiment, Tilden was nominated for president by the Democrats in 1876. The infamous Disputed Election held the potential to touch off a national crisis, but Tilden instructed his followers to accept a verdict that was clearly counter to the voters' will.
Tilden was approached again by the Democrats in 1880 and 1884, but he refused to consider another nomination.
A portion of Tilden’s fortune was left for the creation of a free public library; that bequest was merged with others in 1895 to establish the New York Public Library.
Samuel J. Tilden was a strange mixture for a politician. He was not an imposing man, tending to be nervous, small-voiced and almost timid. However, he overshadowed those qualities through intelligence and a strong sense of organization. Tilden was respected, not loved, by the voters.
A number of historians have suggested that a more forceful figure would have managed to shame the Republicans out of their successful effort to steal the election in 1877.
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