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The life of Samuel J. Tilden online

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^Miile the thesis so earnestly elaborated in this letter was
under consideration in the family council, Samuel was keep-
ing a sharp eye upon the courses of the ship of state.

Some planters in South Carolina, under the leadership
of John C. Calhoun, were restless under the tariff acts of
1828, commonly and not unjustly denominated the Bill of
Abominations, and under the failure of their efforts satisfac-
torily to modify it in 1832, and justly indignant at the dis-
criminations of both acts in favor of Northern industries,
signified their intention to avail themselves of what they
claimed to be the reserved right of every State, as an inde-
pendent party to the original compact of States, to disregard
any legislation of the federal government — to use their own
expression, to "nullify" it — whenever they were satisfied
that such legislation was not in accordance with their view
of the conditions upon which the Union was formed. They
took the ground that the power to withdraw subsisted as
completely after the Union as the right not to enter existed
before the Union.

Under the provocation of this defiant attitude on the part
of these nullifying statesmen. President Jackson issued his
memorable proclamation, warning the people of South Caro-
lina and their sympathizers of the perils of their attitude
towards the general government, and giving them to un-
derstand that the Union must and would be preserved at all

This proclamation was followed in January, 1833, by his
" Nullification Message " to Congress, and by the introduc-
tion into Congress of a force bill designed to secure the
prompt collection of the revenue in South Carolina, should
the threatened resistance be offered. This was followed by
the introduction and final adoption of Mr. Clay's " Compro-
mise Tariff."

Young Tilden watched the evolution of the centrifugal
forces in our Constitution which were developed in this
nullification controversy, but not as an idle or indifferent

Vol. I.-S


spectator. He used such weapons as were at his command,
with no inconsiderable skill, in defence of the President and
the indissolubility of the Union. In the "Kinderhook
Sentinel " he published an article entitled " Nullification
and the Opposition," and in the "Columbia Sentinel" he
published another article on "The Clay Compromise of
1833 and NuUification."i

These papers are only noticeable for the judgment and
tact with which the points of attack are selected and arrayed,
and the evidence they afibrd that the author already wielded
the pen of a formidable partisan.

But then, as in his maturer years, Mr. Tilden was not the
uncompromising advocate of extreme measures when deal-
ing with public opinion or sectional interests. Of this an
interesting illustration is given in the following extract from
a private letter which found its way into the columns of the
"Columbia Sentinel " of January 17, 1833. It must have
been written some days before the appearance of President
Jackson's nullification message, which was sent to Congress
on the 16th.

" I am decidedly friendly to a protective system (though
not a prohibitory one) and should regret exceedingly to see
it abandoned, but if it can only be sustained by producing
such deep and settled dissatisfaction as exists at the South,
and which has enabled a few disappointed demagogues to
bring us to the very verge of disunion, it must go. Mutual
conciliation and compromise is preached from every quar-
ter, but every man seems waiting for his neighbor to
practise it.

"Let us then set the example. Let us meet our oppo-
nents on the middle ground ; and if that is not sufficient, let
us go farther. Let the protection system be made a peace
offering on the altar of union. Let the protection of our
manufactures be reduced until it can fairly be considered as
incidental, but let this be so gradually done as not to ruin
the thousands who have engaged in them, and to whom the

> " Writings and Speeches of Samuel J. Tilden," Vol. I. pp. 11-26.


faith of the nation is virtually pledged. I must confess that
so far as I have considered the project of the Committee of
"Ways and Means, it seems to me, to say the least of it, too
sudden in its changes. I can see neither the justice nor
propriety of bringing real evil, if not ruin, upon one class
of our citizens, in order to hasten the period in which we
shall redress those of another class which are believed by
the majority to be in a great measure imaginary.

" Nor do I think so meanly of our Southern brethren as to
believe they require it. I am much more sanguine than
you express yourself to be, in the expectation that the pres-
ent Congress will provide for a reduction of the tariff so as
to satisfy all who are willing to be satisfied ; and I hope
that, in doing it, they will avoid those sudden changes
which are the bane of our legislation."

In this letter, written in his nineteenth year, is the first if
not the only place in which ]Mr. Tilden ever volunteered his
personal opinion upon the subject of protective tariffs until
he became a candidate for the presidency, and it may be
worth while to allude briefly to some of the circiunstances
which doubtless had their influence in shaping it on this

Silas Wright, the close political friend of Van Buren and
Jackson, had been elected to the Lower House of Congress
in 1827. He was then in the thirty-second year of his age.
He was placed on the Committee of Manufactures ; advo-
cated and voted for the tariff act of 1828, as did most of the
delegation from New York, the sentiment of the State, out-
side of New York city, being practically unanimous in
favor of the principle of protection.

Mr. Wright lived not only to regret this vote, but in the
most public way to apologize for it. On the passage of the
memorable tariff law of 1842, and then being the leader of
the Democratic party in the Senate, he made the amende
honorable for this vote in the following terms :

His first service in Congress, he said, was as a member of
the Committee on Manufactures in the House of Kepresenta-


tives during the session of 1827-1828, when he assisted to
form, and voted for, the tariff bill of 1828, which has been
so extensively denominated the "Bill of Abominations."
He was then wholly without experience in legislation of
this class and character ; but his experience from that action
had taught him the truth of the adage that "men's evil
deeds follow them:" He became very soon convinced that
he had committed a great error on that occasion, and it was
possible he was about to commit another as great now. It
grieved him to know and feel that many friends within the
reach of his voice, whose judgment he most highly respected,
and whose good opinions were most valuable to him, would
so look upon his present vote. He could not. The occa-
sions appeared to him to be wholly dissimilar. The tariff
of 1828 was avowedly passed for protection, and if consid-
erations of revenue had any connection with it, they were
only incidental to the main object of protection. There
was no complaint of want at the Treasury ; no alleged ne-
cessity for increased revenues; and no blemish upon the
public credit, so far as his recollection served him.^

It will be observed that in 1842 Mr. Wright had aban-
doned the doctrine of " protection for the sake of protec-
tion ; " had already reached the conclusions announced in
his famous Watertown speech in 1844, in favor of " a tariff
for revenue with incidental protection," on which the battle
was fought which resulted that year in the election of Mr.
Polk to the presidency.

Nine years before Mr. "VYrighfs peccavi, and eleven years
before his Watertown speech, it is worth noting that Mr.
Tilden, in the letter last quoted, had taken the same ground.
"Let the protection of our manufactures," he said, "be re-
duced until it can be fairly considered as incidental." He
was familiar with the economical teachings of Adam Smith
which it is safe to say Mr. Wright was not, and it is doino-
the latter no injustice to suspect that his young friend in

'Niles' Register, Vol. XLIV. p. 21.


New Lebanon had something to do with the abandonment
of the views he had professed in 1828, and with the adop-
tion of those he avowed in 1842 and 1844.

The tariff was one of the very few questions of public
economy controverted in his time which Mr. Tilden never
publicly discussed. Though later in life his views of the
protective system, as set forth in the above-cited private
letter, underwent considerable modification, and he would
have declined to be classified as a protectionist, the conflict-
ing pecuniary interests involved in the question during his
time were so enormous and so utterly irreconcilable that he
never saw the moment when he thought it wise to make of
it an issue in our national politics, nor an obstruction to the
success of other practical measures.

At this early age, as throughout life, the question with
him was not what was the best that can be imagined, but
what is the best that can be done.^

Mr. Van Buren's election to the vice-presidency in 1832,
having made him the most prominent candidate of his party
.for the presidency to succeed President Jackson, drew
upon him the hostile fire of all the partisans of rival candi-
dates. Mr. Tilden, of course, promptly enrolled himself
among the Vice-President's active champions. In the
"Columbia Sentinel" of September 12, 1833, appeared an
article from his pen not unworthy of a preferred place in
the literature of American politics, though the grounds
upon which he rests Mr. Van Buren's cause are, I fear,
upon a higher plane than would be eifective in modern
politics.^ In the course of this paper he says :

" The causes of Mr. Van Buren's success are obvious and
simple. Xever rash nor extravagant either in action or opin-
ion ; guided more by the influence of judgment than the
impulse of passion ; sagacious in foreseeing the effects and
prudent in the adoption of measures, — he has avoided the

' He was elected an honorary member of the Cobdea Club in 1877.
* " The Writings and Speeches of Samuel J. TUden," Vol. I. p. 25.


errors into whicli most politicians have fallen. "With happy
conversational powers, an insinuating address, and an amia-
ble disposition, he never fails to gain the affection and con-
fidence of all with whom he has intercourse. Combining,
with those qualities, great talent, untiring perseverance,
and an intuitive and unequalled knowledge of character, he
possesses a remarkable degree of ability to concentrate and
wield the energies of men.

" One thing more is necessary to account for his extraor-
dinary success and his imperviousness to every assault. It
is the force of public and private virtue. There is a magic
in the direct pursuit of a virtuous course which the vicious
cannot understand ; they do not feel its influence, they can-
not comprehend its power. In every age the most impor-
tant and glorious results of virtue and of talent have been
attributed to the arts of intrigue or the aid of magic."

Mr. Tilden's name figures also among the speakers
at a meeting of the Democratic-Republican young men of
New Lebanon, on the 19th of September, 1833, which the
local paper represents him to have addressed " in a spirited
and eloquent manner." He also figures, with his brother
Moses, among the delegates from New Lebanon to a county"
convention to be held at Hudson to ratify the nomination
of Jackson and Van Buren for president and vice-president,
and Marcy for governor.

At the Hudson convention, on his motion a general
corresponding committee for the county was appointed, of
which his elder brother Moses was made chairman. He
also wrote " The Address of the Convention to the Demo-
cratic Young Men of the County of Columbia," which is a
merciless indictment of the United States Bank, the charter
of which had expired, and the friends of which were clam-
oring at Washington for a recharter.

While the address revealed some of the inevitable intel-
lectual limitations of a lad of only nineteen years, it
revealed yet more distinctly the intellectual resources of a
thoughtful, earnest, and logical mind. He denounces the
bank —


1st. For debauching the press.

2d. For acquiring by its favors an undue influence
over the members of Congress.

3d. For deliberately, and with malice aforethought,
deranging the currency and disturbing the exchanges with
the view of producing widespread commercial embarrass-
ment, in the hope thereby to extort from the fears and
necessities of the people a renewal of its charter.

4th. For refusing to submit its conditions and operations
to congressional investigation, upon the extraordinary
ground that it should not be required to criminate itself.

He then considers the consequences, if it should succeed
in securing a recharter; how "the capitalist class had
banded together all over the world and organized the
modern dynasty of associated wealth, which maintains an
unquestioned ascendency over most of the civilized portions
of our race, and which is now striving to extend its domin-
ion over us,'' — the United States Bank being the Briareus
with its hundred arms by which this dominion is being
established in the United States. He then asks :

" Are these apprehensions of the tendency of our moneyed
system unfounded? We point you to the admonitory
example of the nation from which we derived that system.
What is it which has hung for ages like an incubus upon
England, repressing the rising spirit of freedom, and para-
lyzing every effort to ameliorate her political condition,
which, at this moment, exerts an influence over her far
more mighty than that of her hereditary aristocracy, and,
in truth, sways her destinies? A heartless, soulless
moneyed power — a tyranny sternly inexorable and unrelent-
ing, when, as in the recent glorious struggles for reform,
even the monarch and many of the titled nobility were
ready to yield something to the just complaints of an op-
pressed people. And can we be insensible to the rapid and
fearful strides which the same power is making in our own
country? Are not monopolies and corporations springing
up like hydras in every part of the nation ? Are they not
obtaining an alarming ascendency over our legislative


bodies, and over the people themselves ? Is not the most
mighty and dangerous of them now convulsing the country
by its struggles for continued existence ? Has it not already
arrayed the rich as an associated class in its support?
Has it not assailed the purity of the press, the fidelity
of our representatives, and the freedom of our elections,
the three great pillars which support the noble super-
structure of American liberty? Has it not betrayed the
just authority of Congress, and, with reckless audacity,
dared to dictate to us the choice of our rulers ? Has it not,
by its control over the currency and business of the country,
spread far and wide dismay, misery, and ruin, that it might
coerce and intimidate the people to an acquiescence in its
wishes ? Has it not engaged in an organized eifort virtually
to rob the mechanics and working classes of the right of
suffrage, by driving them from the employment upon which
they and their families depend for subsistence, unless they
would surrender this dearest birthright of freemen to the
dictation of those who, by means of their wealth, possess an
accidental power over them? And if it be successful in
effecting a recharter, is any one so infatuated as to hope
that, when the time for another renewal recurs, its applica^
tion can be resisted? If Andrew Jackson, with a long life
of glorious public service, with a degree of popularity and
public confidence never enjoyed before save by the Father
of his Country, and sustained by a party numerous, united,
and powerful almost beyond example — if he is unequal to
the conflict, who shall hereafter dare encounter its peril and
hazard? or who, having the patriotism and the firmness to
make the attempt, can have the slightest chance of success ?
No, fellow-citizens, this contest can never be refought.
Give to the bank extended existence, postpone the struggle
now when you are better prepared to meet it than you can
expect ever again to be, allow the bank to inweave itself
more closely with our commercial system, and to strengthen
its alliance with the wealth of the nation, — and every effort
to resist its power hereafter will be fruitless. In practice,
it will be perpetual. It will exist forever, the centre and
stronghold of the money power. New exclusive privileges
will soon be demanded. The means now employed to
effect its designs, if once successful, will again be resorted
to and be again successful. It will assemble around it all
the rich and aristocratic, giving unity to their efforts and


wielding their energies, till finally, as with advancing time
wealth accumulates and poverty becomes more excessive,
A MONEYED ARISTOCRACY wiU hold Undisputed sway over
this now free and happy people."

During the winter following these proceedings, he pre-
pared a really exhaustive argument to prove that the
Treasury is an executive department of the government.
President Jackson had removed Mr. Duane from the office
of Secretary of the Treasury, for refusing to comply with his
request for the removal of the government deposits from
the United States Bank, where he thought them insecure.

The friends of the bank in their desperation took the
ground that the Treasury was not an executive department,
and therefore its Secretary was not removable at the pleas-
ure of the President. Mr. Tilden's argument ^ is a model
State paper, and might have come from the pen of any
member of the President's cabinet without prejudice to
his reputation.

In a letter to his father dated 22d of March, 1834, he
shows that he was also taking a lively interest in the New
York municipal election then approaching, which resulted
in the choice of Cornelius W. Lawrence for mayor,

" The money market is becoming easier ; stocks have
risen considerably, especially those which possess only a
nominal value. Exchange (foreign) is going up ; some
bills sold yesterday, I understand, at 100^. The panic has
nearly spent itself; the efiects of the cash-duty system are
mostly over ; and, above all, business is assimilated to the
present condition of things. K nothing unusual occurs, I
see no reason to doubt that three months hence will find
everything quiet and prosperous. The charter election
will be fierce beyond parallel. The combinations — the
machinery which the opposition are putting into action —
are wonderful. They will no doubt gain much from the
infariation of many of the merchants, and the aid of many
who have not heretofore engaged actively in politics. I

' " Writings and Speeches," etc., Vol. I. p. 28.


cannot think the nomination of Lawrence the most judi-
cious ; for I have observed that negative men, men who are
not particular!}^ identified with principles or measures obnox-
ious to any part of the community, succeed best. I am not
confident, however, that a better selection could be made.
The opposition are raising enormous sums for the election
expenses. Some time ago they had obtained $20,000, and
have now, no doubt, increased that sum.

" I know of one firm, not doing more than an average
business, who were taxed (and this was a proportionate
assessment, as it was regularly taxed) and paid $50. Some
pay many times that amount.

"These things, and, what is more important, the feelings
which produce them, must have a great eifect. On the
other hand, I rely much upon a radical and deeply seated
hostility to the bank which I believe to exist among the
middle and lower classes. Among the counter influences
will be the reaction of an attempt (and there is abundant
reason to believe a very general, if not concentrated, at-
tempt) to intimidate and coerce the mechanics and laboring

" We of the country can hardly conceive of such a thing,
but one acquainted with the structure of New York society
can readily account for it. I do not expect it to be so
indignantly and overwhelmingly resisted here as it would
be in the country ; some men even think the influence will
be greater than the reaction, but, judging from htmian
nature as it exists everywhere, and relying upon feelings
so deeply implanted in the human heart that, however they
may be modifled by circumstances, they cannot be eradi-
cated, I think that all that is wanted to ensure for us decisive
benefit is perseverance on the part of those who are at-
tempting this high-handed and daring invasion of the right
of sufirage and the freedom of opinion.

" [Gideon] Lee, who would probably have been a
stronger man than Lawrence, would have been nominated
if he would have accepted. The opposition tried to induce
him to receive a nomination from them, but he refused,
saying that all his political consequence had been acquired
at Tammany Hall, and that he would stay there ; that he was
in the same boat with Jackson and Van Buren, and he
would sink or swim with them. As a matter of prudence
and safety, he afterwards declined any nomination. It is


well understood that Old Nick has his screws upon him.
His partner is a United States Bank director, and their firm
are supposed to have a rather larger discount account with
the bank than, in the present state of their afiairs (the
leather business having sufiered much more severely than
any other), it would be convenient to close.

" I have it as a profound secret that the ' Standard '
also is upon the rack, ready to be broken at any time Old
Nick 1 may turn the wheel. Mumford left it encumbered
with a load of debt, but the establishment must be in a
prosperous condition, as it has been wholly supported by
its collections. Efforts were making on Saturday (with
what success I have not learned) to get it in the hands
of some one in whom the party have confidence, and
to relieve it of its debts. As usual, the opposition are
sure of success. Nevertheless, I think that Lawrence
will be elected, by from two thousand to four thousand

_ " The late news from Virginia is of the most favorable
kind. The election of Bouldin was a great triumph. Now
that Webster has introduced his bill, and the nuUifiers
must declare themselves, and especially that the appear-
ances in Virginia are so threatening to them, the nuUifiers
are going back. The opposition in the House are broken
— they cannot now depend upon the Southern members.
The prospect is very fair that we shall prevail in Virginia,
and that Rives will be returned to the Senate. That would
be a most glorious triumph."

About this time young Tilden's nerve was subjected to an
unusual and severe test. The Mr. Huntington referred to
in the following letter was a merchant of about thirty-five
years of age, who was boarding with Mr. Tilden's aunt,
and who died there of small-pox, the result apparently of a
false diagnosis of his case by his physicians. Two of the
servants in the house also died soon after.

Young Tilden was the only person who slept in the house
the night following Mr. Huntington's death ; the rest of the
boarders and servants having fled.

' Nicholas Biddle, President of the United States Bank.



"New York, 29th April, 1834.

" Dear Father :

"Mr. Huntington died last evening at about ten, and
was buried at about the same hour this morning. For two
or three days previous to his death he was most of the time
delirious. The disease passed its crisis on Monday; and
the question to be determined was whether his system re-
tained sufficient vigor to re-collect its shattered energies and
resume its usual functions. He received food yesterday
with reluctance, difficulty, and consequently, I suppose, in
small quantities, and, unsustained at this critical moment,
nature yielded.

"I doubt whether if he had been able to receive nutri-
ment, it would have availed more than to prolong for a very
short time his suffering ; for I can hardly conceive how even
a vigorous constitution could disencumber itself of such a
mass of disease as he is represented to have been. The

Online LibraryJohn BigelowThe life of Samuel J. Tilden → online text (page 4 of 35)