1814–86, American political figure, Democratic presidential candidate in 1876, b. New Lebanon, N.Y. Admitted to the bar in 1841, Tilden was an eminently successful lawyer, with many railroad companies as clients. He became a strong partisan of Martin Van Buren and the Barnburners in New York Democratic politics. Unlike other Free-Soil Democrats of the 1850s (see Free-Soil party), he did not join the new Republican party and later disapproved of the Civil War. As state Democratic chairman after 1866 he sought reform and gathered much of the evidence of corruption that broke the notorious Tweed Ring (see Tweed, William Marcy). Elected governor of New York (1874), he further enhanced his reputation for reform by his successful attack on the corrupt “Canal ring,” which made illegal profits on repair and extension of the state canal system.
Tilden thus became the outstanding Democrat in the nation, and in 1876 his party nominated him for President. Rutherford B. Hayes was his Republican opponent. The campaign resulted in one of the most famous election disputes in American history. By a slim margin, Tilden received a majority of the popular vote, but there were double and conflicting returns of electoral votes from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina and a contest over one Oregon elector. To settle the unusual question, not covered by the Constitution, Congress created an electoral commission of five senators, five representatives, and five Supreme Court justices. Eight were Republicans and seven were Democrats, as plans for one independent failed. The commission, by partisan division, awarded (Mar. 2, 1877) Hayes all the disputed votes, making his total a majority of one (185 to 184). Tilden discouraged further contest. In his will he left a large sum toward establishing a free public library in New York City, and in 1895 this trust was joined with the Astor and Lenox libraries to form the New York Public Library.