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The life of Samuel J. Tilden online

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is that compared with the good government of a city.

" I know that some of our friends have sometimes thought
that the majority for State and National officers was in-
creased by having the impulsion coming from a contest in
the city government at the same time ; but I think that
in a large and general sense it will always turn out
that what is best for the whole people will be best for any
party which happens to be in the majority. I ventured to
say several years ago that while we might perhaps get the
majority for this year, by and by a time might come when
some evil or wrong in the municipal affairs would create a
commotion in State and Nation. Sir, the interest of the


parties is the interest of the entire people. I believe with
a spring election you would have the best advance towards
a system of minority representation that can be well de-
vised. There would be apt to be differences of opinion
among the members of the party largely in the majority,
and there will be a chance for the minority to assert itself.
It is not good for any party to hold irresponsible power.
Jefferson, the father of Democracy, said that Democracy
was founded not in confidence, but in jealousy and distrust.
No man, no set of men, no party ought to be tnisted with
irresponsible power, for it is one of the calamities of our
time that the Republican party in the interior and the
Democratic party on the seaboard are too strong respec-
tively. K you could distribute the majority so as to make
a sharp and active competition in all localities, it would
be a great deal better. The slightest undulations of public
opinion would have been felt in the elections if the majori-
ties were moderate in every locality. It is for these
reasons, sir, that I entirely approve of this provision in
regard to a spring election. On the occasion when I was
consulted in regard to this charter I objected to giving the
legislative power to a single body. Wherever parliament-
ary government had been known among our race, we have
needed and adopted the checking, restraining, revising
power of a second chamber. In all the thirty-seven States
of this Union, as well as in the federal government, that
principle is adhered to. I do not think there is a publicist
of any authority who entertains any doubt on this point.
I know it is said that the existence of two bodies in New
York has been the cause of a great deal of wrong. Sir,
the regulations in regard to bills passing through the Com-
mittee of the Whole were devised to prevent hasty legisla-
tion. Do they always accomplish that purpose? We
know they do not. Shall we now strike off these re-
straints, or shall we strengthen them? I know it is. said
further that the city of New York is simply a municipality,
and that there are a great many cities that do not have two
chambers. Sir, New York city is no longer a village.
The executive officer of New York city is the governor of
a million of people, and experience has shown that the
interests of that large community are so various and con-
flicting that it needs all the check and balance of parlia-
mentaiy government. There is not a goverijment under


the sun where every security is more requisite than New
York city. I, therefore, advise my friends of the Com-
mittee of Seventy that they ought not to attempt any inno-
vation here. In the first place, I told them that it presented
a grave constitutional objection. The first form in which
anything of this sort was presented to the public was the
system which was called limited voting, — voting for one
man and having two elected. I ventured on the earliest
occasion when that scheme was presented to foretell a dis-
aster. I thought I had observed enough of the practical
workings of politics to see that that was tantamount to put-
ting all the power in the hands of the caucuses. AVhat is
the use of scratching when the men on both sides are
elected anyhow? It is now generally agreed that that
system is a total failure. After having devoted a great
deal of time during my life to the reading of subjects of
this character, and to thought upon them, — it having been
rather a favorite mode of occupying my leisure, — I find my-
self unable to foresee exactly what is going to happen from
this system. In the convention of 1867 it was proposed
that to a very limited extent we should adopt it in the
election of the judges of the Court of Appeals. I thought
it might do for one occasion, when men were not tempted
and had not learned the methods on which abuses could be
successfully practised under it. We carried it out in the
election of the judges without any great inconvenience.
I took the greatest pains to induce the leading Democratic
lawyers to attend the convention to make the best nomina-
tions. I appealed by two thousand circulars to all the
lawyers of the country. They responded, and the result
was favorable ; but even then we had some very eccentric
results. There was something of a scramble, of course, as
to who should run highest on each ticket."


As a citizen and a lawyer, trained to better standards,
Mr. Tilden had seen the descent of the bench and bar with
deep regret ; he had often felt that those at the bar who,
like himself, had ceased to be dependent for a livelihood
upon professional earnings, ought to feel themselves under
a providential call to open to the younger members of the
profession a better future than that which seemed to be


closing in upon him ; a future in which personal and profes-
sional honor would not be incompatible with pecuniary

It came to his knowledge during the session that a large
fund was raising for the corruption of the committee
charged with the impeachment of the accused judges. If
spent, it proved unsuccessful. The impeachment was
carried; but even then an effort, which came near being
successful, was made to defeat the ends of justice in the
choice of managers. Here again the fortune of the day-
was saved by a proposition of Mr. Tilden, which was
adopted, by which the selection of counsel for the prose-
cution was to be satisfactory to the Bar Association. The
prosecution of these impeachments, the conduct of the
suits which had been commenced on behalf of the city,
the gathering of the fruits of the various investigations he
had made or instituted, occupied him most of the ensuing
summer. The results were the arrest, imprisonment, or
flight of all the parties who, only a few years before,
seemed to hold the wealth and power of the Empire State
in the hollow of their hands.

The bar of Xew York, encouraged by Tilden's example,
energy, and courage, cooperated with him in his efforts in
a way as creditable to its members as to him, and to an
extent of which its history furnished no precedent. It is
only a grave necessity and a stern sense of duty that can
justify a lawyer in jeoparding the interests of his clients
by administering to any judicial officer of a court in which
he practises, a public censure ; and it is a flattering evi-
dence of the confidence of his brethren, not only in the
motives of Mr. Tilden, but in his extraordinary resources
for accomplishing the task he had undertaken, and in his
ability to develop a rebellion into a revolution, that
through the whole of this angry and desperate contro-
versy they stood by and sustained him whenever and to
whatever extent their aid was invoked. That he enjoyed


and appreciated this support, he neglected no suitable
opportunity of confessing. When the struggle was near-
ing its triumphant close in the spring of 1872, he was
invited to preside at an adjourned meeting of the Bar
Association of New York city.

His remarks on taking the chair belong to the history of
this the first, if not the only, successful attempt to impeach
any member of the New York judiciary.

" Gentlemen : I congratulate you on the substantial
progress which has been made in purifying the judiciary.
Everything which at the beginning of the late legislative
session you set before yourselves as practicable, everything
which you were afterward encouraged to undertake, has
been accomplished. You asked for an inquiry into abuses
in the administration of justice. You have had an investi-
gation, patient and thorough, during seven weeks, in ses-
sions continued from ten in the morning until late at night,
carried on in the presence of the accused and their counsel.
It is true the inquiry could only touch a small part of the
evils, the specific cases presented by you. But every judge
against whom you made charges has been put on his trial,
except one who fled from the ordeal.

" I repeat to you to-night what I said at the meeting at
which this association was organized. It was on Feb. 1,
1870, when the shameful perversions of judicial process and
judicial power that characterized 1869 were fresh in the
public mind, and the corrupt oligarchy whose tools these
judges were seemed to sit enthroned over the prostrate
people of our metropolis :

" ' If it will do its duty to itself, the bar can do every-
thing else. It can have reformed constitutions, it can have
a reformed judiciary, it can have the administration of
justice made pure and honorable.'

"One word as to the pending impeachment of Judge
Barnard. I do not share the fears which have been ex-
pressed in the public journals as to the result. First: I
know that in the investigation which extended to all the
witnesses the accused desired to produce, and with full
cross-examinations, there was developed more impeacha-
ble matter, ten times over, than can be found in the eight


principal cases of judicial impeachment, four resulting in
convictions, which have occurred in this country. Secondly :
I believe that the leading members of the committee of
managers will faithfully prosecute the trial. Thirdly: I
have the most absolute confidence in the abilities, profes-
sional skiU, and earnest patriotism of the counsel who will
represent the people, and on whom the real burden of the
trial wiU fall.

" I respect the sentiments of my brethren of the bar which
demanded that I should continue still further my connec-
tion with the movement to purify the judiciary. I mean,
of course, as one of the managers of the impeachment, for
you all know that I would not have acted as counsel.
While I did not feel at liberty, by my own act, to withhold
any service which you thought I could render to the great
reform, my opinion difiers somewhat from the public im-
pression. The great work of investigation, of collecting
evidence, and of securing suiBcient concurrence and coop-
eration to put the accused on trial, which has been an im-
mense and difficult labor, is done. The gentlemen whom I
met in conference after everything had been completed ex-
cept to decide on the form of procedure, when I consented
to impeachment instead of removal by concurrent resolu-
tion, — and I see several of those gentlemen present, — will
remember that I then stated my difficulty in engaging in a
prolonged trial during the summer.

" When the choice of the managers came to be made I did
not feel called on to enter into a canvass or to form combi-
nations. In everything else I had felt it my duty to exer-
cise all foresight, and every care, and devote whatever
power I possess to organize such elements as could be
found for good ends. In this I felt entitled to leave every
human being in the assembly to his spontaneous action. If
I should receive an honorable discharge I had a right to
accept it. I cannot be accused of selfishness if I did so
with delight. One care only remained for me ; that was, to
look after the choice of counsel. I communicated what
seemed to be, in the actual circumstances, the best sug-
gestions to Mr. Alvord, and met his prompt and cordial

"Of Mr. Van Cott, the senior member of the commit-
tee which represented you in the investigations, I need
not speak. The eminent jurist with whom he wiU be


associated, Judge Comstock, will bring to his duty great
abilities, ample stores of learning, and an honorable pride in
restoring the renown of the bench and the bar of this State.
I remember with what solemn earnestness he said to me
several years ago, that we could never reform the judiciary
of this district until we had first crushed the corrupt power
which stood behind it. I do not see that justice will be
more likely to fail, that the trial is to be conducted in the
light of open day, with the eager scrutiny of the bar of the
State and country, and under the eyes of a watchful, ap-
prehensive, and somewhat distrusting people.

" While what has been done toward purifying the judi-
ciary is just cause of congratulation, you will appreciate
the difficulties through which it has been obtained, if you
reflect that everything else in the way of reform has failed.
It is known to you that when I consented to go to the
Assembly it was with a view to the judicial reform and to
certain other measures more particularly interesting the
people of this city ; and that in that work I expected the
cooperation in the Legislature of Mr. O'Conor and Mr.
Evarts. This arrangement was defeated by subsequent
events. I believed that it was necessary to concentrate
myself upon a very few measures in order to accomplish

" The general demoralization growing out of the Civil, war
and paper money had produced wide-spread efiects. The
corrupt power which had just been overthrown in this city
had its origin in a partnership of plunder between men
nominally of diflerent politics, but, in fact, of no politics at
all ; and had established extensive affiliations throughout
the State in both parties and in both branches of the domi-
nant party, which now possessed three-quarters of the
Legislature. It had been necessary to the system, that
the capitol should be surrounded by an atmosphere of cor-
ruption. The ambition of some had been tempted ; the
interests of more had been addressed by making legislative
business profitable, and the golden showers had sprinkled
benefits in every direction. Some, even, who would not
take an actual part in the saturnalia, were content to be
silent spectators or consenting witnesses. I never for a
moment supposed that the knife and the cautery would be
agreeable remedies, or that the silent partners of prosperous
criminals would fall in love with those whose duty it is to


detect and to punish. I know, therefore, that obstructions,
under every pretext, were to be met at every step, and to
be overcome. Let us thankfully accept what has been ac-
complished, and let us here, to-night, renew our faith that
if the bar of this city and State will be united and per-
sistent, every judicial reform in respect to men and in
respect to systems will be at last successfully achieved."

Mr. Tilden concluded with a stirring allusion to the
young men at the bar, for whose sake especially he said
he had been willing to undertake the arduous labors through
which he had just passed, in order that they who came
after him might find in their profession a career and
renown worthy of their talents.

For sixteen months Mr. Tilden had been withdrawn
entirely from his private business, and had consecrated
all his energies and talents, and not a little money, to the
public service.

" The total surrender of my professional business during
that period," he has said in one of his published communi-
cations, "the nearly absolute withdrawal of attention from
my private affairs and from all enterprises in which I am in-
terested, have cost me a loss of actual income, which, with
expenditures and contributions the contest has required,
would be a respectable endowment of a public charity.

"I do not speak of these things," he adds, "to regret
them. jIn my opinion, no instrumentality in human
society is so potential in its influence on the well-being of
mankind as the governmental machinery which administers
justice and makes and executes laws. ) No benefaction of
private benevolence could be so fruitful in benefits as the
rescue of this machinery from the perversion which had
made it a means of conspiracy, fraud, and crime against
the rights and the most sacred interests of a great com-
munity." '

'The following letter from Charles O'Conor appeared in the "Louis-
ville (Ky.) Jeffersonian Democrat" of the 4th of April, 1874. It deserves a


When Mr. Tilden thus wrote he had not then experi-
enced, nor probably foreseen, the legal consummation of his
labors in the condemnation of Tweed and several of his
confederates to the striped jacket and cell of a felon, nor
the recovery of verdicts which were destined to restore to
the city many millions of his ill-gotten plunder ; still less
the flattering consummation of his labors in the political
triumph of his friends, and his own elevation to the gover-
norship of the State in 1874, nor his selection two years

place here as the highest of testimony to the interesting fact that the two
foremost barristers engaged in the overthrow of the canal ring, whose
professional services in those days commanded a higher price than those of
any other two of their calling in the United States, received no compensa-
tion for their services in behalf of the city, beyond the satisfaction of hav-
ing been useful to it, and also as showing that the widely accredited rhetorical
allegation that " the age of chivalry is past" was at least premature.

'■'■Mr. Munnell:

" Dear Sis : I am sorry that you published this :

" ' The attorneys who prosecuted the ring thieves in New York have
been heard from. Tremaine and Peckham charged the city $75,000 fees.
O'Conor gave his services gratuitously. The latter is a Democrat.'

" Tremaine was a Democrat until the war fever took hold of him. It
destroyed the health of many others. Tilden was a war Democrat, and yet
believes he was right. Tilden did more than any one else in this matter.
Neither he nor I charge, to be sure. But this is only because we had both
retired from practice, and it would have injured the cause if we had made
any money by it. But we are both most anxious that no discrimination be
made to the disadvantage of others on that account. It would be very
unjust so to discriminate. No one who knew, all the facts and was a fair-
minded thinker would do it. Peckham is the very stanchest kind of a
thorough-going Democrat. His father was before him — the gentleman
recently lost in the ' Ville du Havre.' Peckham has done ten times as much
work as any one else ; he has been on hand, at all hours, toiling like a
slave. He is a young man, being about half my age ; and, in his position,
I certainly would have charged and taken, if I could, more than has been
awarded to him. The fee you name is the whole legislative appropriation.
Some of it remains, and what is spent has not all gone to counsel. Other
very large expenses were incurred. I know that they were all quite neces-
sary, being bound to examine all claims and required to concur in all

" Yours truly,

" Chaeles O'Conok.

"New York, March 30, 1874."


later as their favorite candidate for the chief magistracy of
the Union. 1

During a visit to Mr. O'Conor at Nantucket the summer
before his death, and in the midsfof^an4nteresting conver-
sation with him one day about Ms^part' in the forensic
struggle with Tweed and his confederates, he suddenly
rose, went to an alcove of his library^ where all the impor-
tant printed cases in which he hud been professionally
engaged were arranged, took down volume 55, and said if I
would read the manuscript nqte which he had appended to
the case of Clai'h vs. the Mayor of New Yoric, on page 915,
I would learn when, where, and how the New York ring
had its origin. ,J-,-,^^— :::::^=_^

Mr. O'Conor bequeathed these volumes, entitled " My

' The following letter addressed to Mr. Tilden by 'William Allen Butler,
Esq., the President of the Bar Association of Kew York, and a Republican,
gives an indiyidual estimate of Mr. Tilden's seryices in battling with the
Tweed conspiracy, which reflected Tery fairly the feelings, not only of the
bar, but of the general public :

william allen butlek to samuel j. tilden.

"Round Oak, Yonkeks,

"Nov. 27, 1873.
"My dear Me. Tilden:

" I seize a moment afforded by the leisure of Thanksgiving day to say to
you how often the thought has been in my mind, and how much satisfaction
I take in giving it expression, that to you more directly than to any one
else are we all indebted for the signal triumph of justice which has just
been achieved. Naturally the most prominent feature in the eye of the
public at this moment when the law is being enforced by its penalties, is
that of the judge who administers it ; but in the very act of the sentence of
Tweed he properly calls the attention of all to the fact that tliis most right-
eous consummation crowned your work.

" Old friendships are often interrupted by circumstances and the diverg-
ing lines of duty, but they are not destroyed, and it may not be unaccept-
able to yon to know that your part in all this struggle and success is
appreciated and borne in grateful remembrance by those who best know
the qualities of head and heart which have enabled you to render the State

such signal service.

" Very truly yours,

"William Allen Butler.
" Samuel J. Tilden, Esq."


own Cases," to the New York Law Institute. A copy of
this note, which it would be well for every taxpayer and
voter in the city of New York to make himself familiar
with, and which has never before been printed, wiU be
found in Appendix A. It shows the circumstances under
which the seal of the New York city's government was
practically translated to the State capitol, and explains the
origin and cause of much of what is most to be regretted
since in the government of that municipality, — evils
which were admirably summed up in the following re-
marks of jNIr. Tilden before a committee of the Senate on
the 4th of April, 1870, when a revised charter for New
York was under consideration. After referring briefly to
the history of the system of governing New York from
Albany by commissions, he proceeds :

""Without referring farther to that subject than I now
do, I shall allude to what was the real, strong, governing
objection to the system of commissions. It was that the
ordinary powers of government were seized hold of by
the party then dominant in Albany in the State govern-
ment, and that New York, in its local affairs, was gov-
erned by the State, and not by its own people. No doubt
there had been evils and abuses that led to that state of

" It is almost always the case that when usurpations of
power or perversions of power arise, that some public evil
is pleaded as the ground and excuse. Now, sir, what I
want is self-government for the people of the city of New
York to the largest practicable extent, and the criticism
which, it strikes me, this bill is in some degree subject to
is this, that by the frst appointment of these various
officers, self-government in the people of the city of New
York is in abeyance for from four to eigld years. Sir, by
that bill the appointment of all these officers is to be made
by a gentleman noio in office. It is precisely as if in the bill
it had read : Not that the mayor shall make these appoint-
ments, but the individual who to-day fills that office. On
the 31st December, by the provisions of this bill, the term
of office will expire. Then, sir, what will be the situation


of his successor? For two years lie will have no power
whatever over the administration of the government of
which he is the nominal head. All these functionaries sur-
vive him. Their terms go beyond his term, and he has not
the power to remove them, nor the power to enforce any
practical responsibility as against them. He is a mere
cipher. Then, sir, at the end of two years another election
takes place, another mayor is fleeted. Still these officers
extend their terms clear beyond his, the shortest of them
being for four years, and the longest of them for eight
years, many of them for five. Sir, I say in all kindness
and deference, this is not self-goveimment for (he next Jive
years: it is a government in which the people will have no

Online LibraryJohn BigelowThe life of Samuel J. Tilden → online text (page 18 of 35)