Jun 16, 2020, 05:57AM

The Best Man

Samuel Tilden and the fraudulent presidential election of 1876.

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On November 7, 1876, Samuel Jones Tilden, Democrat of New York, won the election to succeed Ulysses S. Grant as President of the United States by an absolute majority of the popular vote.

On March 5, 1877, a Republican from Ohio stood before the Capitol, placed his hand on the Bible, looked the Chief Justice in the eye, and repeated, “I, Rutherford Birchard Hayes, do solemnly swear…”

The Presidential election of 1876 is unique: the only time when we know for sure that the result was fixed and the loser entered the White House.

Tilden was born in New Lebanon, New York in 1814. His father manufactured Tilden’s Extract, a popular patent medicine derived largely from cannabis. He was also a wheel horse of the Albany Regency, the Democratic machine created by Martin Van Buren, “the Little Magician,” that dominated state politics from 1820 to 1840. Tilden grew up among the Regency’s leaders. Having inherited his father’s knack for analysis and deduction, Tilden simply listened to their conversations on great issues and low politics. By 18, he was publishing political articles in the Albany Argus; by 19, essays and pamphlets on taxes and banking. He often advanced his agenda with the pen: his research was thorough, his logic impeccable, and his prose logical, cool, and unemotional.

The writing reflected the man. Tilden was cold and aloof. His only passions were politics and the law. He never married. Nothing indicates he had any interest in sex whatsoever. Harry Thurston Peck, a close observer, wrote, “He treated his friends as though at some time they might become his enemies.” Peck may be overstating it: Tilden had no friends. He didn’t need them.

With a few scraps of formal education, including a term at Yale, he clerked in a law office while attending what’s now New York University Law School. In 1841, he was admitted to the bar and two years later became New York City’s corporation counsel. Two years later, he was elected to the State Assembly, where his land reform legislation ended the Anti-Rent Wars. This was a class struggle between the Patroons, the great hereditary landlords holding vast land grants received when New Amsterdam was a Dutch colony, and their tenant farmers, who were at their mercy. Tilden’s success won him a reputation for statesmanship.

Back in private life, he specialized in corporation law, particularly reorganizing bankrupt railroads. Tilden made millions in salvaging, rearranging, and combining sickly corporations. He was a Van Buren loyalist, and as the Little Magician moved left, Tilden went with him. He even bolted the Democratic Party to support Van Buren’s 1848 presidential campaign on an anti-slavery ticket, the Free Soil Party.

Behind his façade of worldliness and good manners was a shy, calculating hypochondriac. One had to know him well to dislike him. He could do nothing about his appearance: sallow, with a prominent nose and jutting chin, graying hair, and a pronounced stoop. His voice was hoarse, even unpleasant. Yet the voice carried, an important gift in an age before the amplifier, and the mind behind it manufactured a clear, persuasive rhetoric that struck sparks in the minds of Tilden’s listeners. Few so cold have ignited such passion in their followers.

Tilden supported the Civil War while considering the Republicans revolutionaries, creating an excessively powerful federal government to impose their social agenda regardless of its effect on individual freedom.

During the 1860s, as William M. Tweed dominated Tammany Hall, the New York City Democratic organization, Tilden quietly noted Tammany’s growing corruption—he observed everything—until Tweed began raiding the City treasury beyond reason and good taste. When The New York Times, then a Republican rag, broke the scandals in 1870, Tilden was initially cautious. Then he decided to destroy Tweed to save the party. He personally financed much of the investigation that made inevitable and successful Tweed’s prosecution.

The Democrats needed a gubernatorial candidate who could distract voters from the Tweed scandals. Thousands agreed Tilden was the only man who could clean up the state. He agreed with them. In 1874, Tilden was elected governor. He exposed and shattered the Canal Ring, a conspiracy of contractors and officeholders who had grafted millions from the state waterways. The local hero became the presidential contender.

As the Centennial opened, the Grant administration was exhausted by eight years of scandal. The President, personally honest and brave, “a lion among jackals,” was often blind to his friends’ dishonesty and incompetence. Like most revolutionaries, the Republicans had quickly grasped how to enjoy power once they’d seized it, and their corruption created a backlash for change.

Tilden won the Democratic nomination on the second ballot. The Republicans deadlocked for seven ballots before compromising on Rutherford B. Hayes. For once, compromise was a good thing. Educated at Kenyon College and Harvard Law School, Hayes was a successful lawyer-politician. In 1861, Major Hayes marched off with the 23rdOhio (one of the privates was William McKinley). In 1865, he returned home a major general. He was wounded five times, seeing more front line fighting than any other president. He was a competent, scrupulously fair administrator in part because he adhered to the truth that an officer’s first duty is his men’s welfare. Years later, his most faithful supporters were the men he had led in battle.

He was elected to Congress and then three terms as Governor of Ohio. Good-humored and kindly, Hayes was attractive, clear-eyed, eloquent, magnetic, and generous. Amidst the corruption of the Gilded Age, he was an honest man. Men admired Tilden. They loved Hayes.

An American presidential campaign is really a series of campaigns and much of it, like an iceberg, is invisible to a casual observer. In 1876, the Civil War had only been over for a decade. Much of the South was still ruled by Republican puppet governors upheld by the U.S. Army. As the Republicans were the party of abolition, Southern whites flocked to the Democrats. The elections became a time of terror. Army and other federal records, newspaper files, and collections of private correspondence make clear that, outside the state capitals and the lines of communication held by federal troops, white extremists conducted a war of fire and blood against Reconstruction. Unlike the lumpenproletariat comprising today’s Klan, these terrorists were often community leaders bitterly determined to destroy Reconstruction and all its works, disenfranchise African-Americans, and restore white rule. Tens of thousands of former slaves were intimidated from voting. Republican activists who didn’t get the message, whether African-Americans, carpetbaggers, scalawags, or the white women teachers who had come south to teach the former slaves how to read and write, were burned out, murdered, lynched, or raped. The nightriders, believing themselves entitled to rule, acted on an irrational resentment of anyone who even seemed to threaten their entitlement.

Above all this, the two major candidates fought it out on a high plane. Beneath them, the campaign sank lower and lower. Tilden was accused of having been a miser, tax dodger, traitor, a secessionist, and a supporter of slavery, with many smirking references to his bachelorhood.

Nonetheless, on November 7, 1876, Tilden polled 4,300,590; Hayes, 4,036,298; Peter Cooper, the inventor, financier, and founder of Cooper Union, polled 81,737 on the Greenback ticket, and other candidates polled 12,158. Hayes went to bed believing he had lost. Zach Chandler, the Republican National Chairman, went to bed to console himself with a bottle of whiskey.

Hayes’ managers had a better idea. With the cooperation of The New York Times, they planted stories in the mainstream media casting doubt on Tilden’s election by claiming Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina for the Republicans. The Republican National Committee converted that doubt to reality by challenging and invalidating returns from Democratic counties. Tilden’s 7000 vote majority in Louisiana vanished when the certifying board threw out 13,000 of his votes. In Florida, the certifying board ruled that Hayes’ electors had won despite Tilden’s majority. The concept of alternative facts isn’t new.

In South Carolina, Republican governor Robert Kingston Scott had presided over an extraordinarily corrupt state government, regularly executed state papers between entertainments in Charleston’s finer whorehouses, and had been elected and re-elected by voter fraud. What had worked for Scott worked for Hayes.

The new results threw the electoral votes of those three states to Hayes, giving him a margin of one vote: 185 to 184.

When the Electoral College voted in December 1876, the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives couldn’t even agree on how the votes should be counted. Tilden fought with the weapons honed over a lifetime: precedent, analysis, and reasoned argument. He wrote a brilliant series of articles and studies arguing that the votes should be counted before the House, so coolly sensible and persuasive as to prevent the Senate leadership from unilaterally accepting the contested results and proclaiming Hayes the President-elect. Politicians are rarely shamed from doing what they want by mere writings, but there it is.

The nation slid toward civil war. There were rumors of violence and military coups. Demonstrators chanted, “Tilden or Blood.” Democrats began drilling. Army officers hinted their restive troops were ready to march on Washington, to win a second time at bayonet point the victory Tilden had already won in the ballot box.

We don’t know when the moment’s ripeness became clear to Tilden. But for a few days in the winter of 1877, he held the power to ignite a second Civil War. No one could’ve blamed him. He’d won the presidency, only to have it taken from him by one vote in a shabby burglary. It would’ve required a single word, a nod, perhaps only a moment’s convenient silence.

It didn’t come. He publicly denounced even the suggestion of the use of force. He insisted that he’d take power by law.

To end the deadlock, on January 29, 1877, Congress created by a bipartisan Electoral Commission to resolve the dispute. Both Hayes and Tilden denounced the Electoral Commission as unconstitutional and both announced they’d accept the outcome of its deliberations. The Electoral Commission began working on February 2, 1877. Inauguration Day was on March 5.

At some point, the Commission chose not to go beyond the official returns. This served both parties. The Republicans didn’t want their corruption of the Southern elections exposed. The Democrats wouldn’t risk a possible investigation into their relationship with the nightriders.

On February 26, 1877, four Southern Democrats and five Ohio Republicans, including future President James A. Garfield, met at the Wormley House, a Washington hotel. Nothing was put on paper. They agreed that Hayes would take office and withdraw Federal troops from the South, thus ending Reconstruction and restoring white rule.

Once the deal was made, the Commission voted for the Hayes electors along party lines, eight to seven, making Hayes the 19thPresident. The results were announced on March 2, 1877. Hayes was privately sworn in at the White House on March 3, 1877, just in case, and went through the public ceremony two days later.

On learning of the Commission’s decision, Tilden smiled, saying, “It is what I expected… I can retire to private life with the consciousness of having been elected to the highest office in the gift of the people, without any of its cares and responsibilities.” He withdrew into his Gothic Revival brownstone townhouse on Gramercy Park South and his estate at Greystone in Yonkers. There he raised saddle horses and dairy cattle and grew exotic plants in his greenhouse.

Tilden died in 1886, leaving most of his fortune to create what’s now the New York Public Library. He was buried in New Lebanon, his hometown, in the Cemetery of the Evergreens. Ernest Flagg, architect of the U.S. Naval Academy and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, designed his monument. It bears the dates of his birth and death and the office that he had held.

On the side that bears his name is an epitaph, taken from a speech Tilden made after the final outcome of the 1876 election: I STILL TRUST THE PEOPLE.

Few men so unloving have done so much for their country. By breaking up the great Dutch land grants, his land reform laws created thousands of independent farmers. The Tweed Ring was smashed with his money. Not one dime was ever repaid. At the supreme moment of his life, he refused to let his followers install him by force in the Presidency he’d won by right. His posthumous gift that created the New York Public Library has enriched millions of lives, including mine.

Rutherford B. Hayes kept the bargain made in the Wormley House. On April 24, 1877, less than two months after taking office, Hayes ordered the Federal troops back to their barracks. The Reconstruction state governments collapsed and white supremacy was restored in the South for generations to come. Former Governor Scott fled South Carolina, followed by a series of indictments involving a fraudulent issue of state bonds he had authorized in a brothel, and “celebrated Christmas Day, 1880 by committing a homicide.” After serving one term, Hayes went home to Spiegel Grove, Ohio, where he died on January 13, 1893, aged 70. Only a few still called him “His Fraudulency the President.”

Nearly 80 years ago, Irving Stone published They Also Ran, a collection of essays on losing major party presidential candidates. Tilden is the only subject of the section entitled “Heroes Stand Alone.” Stone thus sums up the election of 1876: “It had been a photo finish, with history serving as the infallible camera. By the time the film could be developed, the wrong people had collected their money and gone home, the stands were deserted, the track dark. Yet there remains the picture for all time, with Tilden out front by a nose.”


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