If you’re under 50 you probably don’t remember when telephone “numbers” weren’t all numbers. From the 1920s until the mid-1960s most phone “numbers” began with two letters corresponding to certain digits on a common telephone dial. KL7-1234, for example, was read as “Klondike 7-1234.”
My family’s number was TI3-8597. The letters were meant to honor a man I never knew of or appreciated until long after the switch to all digits—Samuel J. Tilden. He deserves to be much better remembered as something other than part of a defunct phone number. A strong case can be made that he was, as the subtitle of a recent book by screenwriter Nikki Oldaker suggests, “The Real 19th President.”
Tilden was born nearly two centuries ago on February 9, 1814, in New Lebanon, New York. After studies at Yale and New York University, he became a successful lawyer, a shrewd investor, a wealthy man, and a promising politician in the Democratic Party. A crusader against the corruption of the infamous Tammany Hall political machine in New York City, Tilden was catapulted from the New York state assembly to the governorship in 1874. From that perch he quickly earned a national following and gained the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 1876.
No Democrat had occupied the White House since James Buchanan passed the office to Abraham Lincoln in 1861. Fifteen years later the country was ready for a change. Tilden comfortably beat Ohio Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the popular vote, 51 to 47.9 percent, but a nasty political battle resulted in a dubious deal. Behind closed doors Hayes was awarded enough disputed votes in the Electoral College to edge Tilden there by one vote. In exchange the Republicans agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South and end Reconstruction. Tilden remains one of only four presidential candidates in U.S. history to win the popular vote but lose the Electoral tally—the others being Andrew Jackson (1824), Grover Cleveland (1888), and Al Gore (2000).
Tilden was known for assessing policy options according to right and wrong versus the typical political (and Machiavellian) rule of what can get you elected and reelected. “Successful wrong never appears so triumphant as on the very eve of its fall,” he once said. “We must believe in the right and in the future. A great and noble nation will not sever its political from its moral life.”
Hayes turned out to be a clean and decent one-term president, but Tilden just might have shined as one of our best. I’ve come to admire him because he was rigorously committed to all the right things: limited government, sound money, free trade, and low taxes—which is to say that he’d have a hard time getting to first base today, particularly within his own party. Most 21st-century libertarians would be very comfortable with the 1876 Democratic Party platform on which Tilden ran.
Money. The big money questions of the 1870s were 1) what to do with the hundreds of millions of paper dollars (“greenbacks”) issued during the Civil War; and 2) whether to subsidize and re-monetize silver as a means of inflating the currency. Tilden and the Democrats were the country’s leading advocates of fulfilling the original promise to redeem greenbacks in gold and in opposing subsidies for silver. As advocates of sound money they had no interest in monetary expansion to goose the economy and help debtors because they believed it was fundamentally dishonest.
“Reform is necessary,” asserted the Tilden platform, “to establish a sound currency, restore the public credit, and maintain the national honor. We denounce the failure for all these eleven years of peace to make good the promise of the legal tender notes (the greenbacks), which are a changing standard of value in the hands of the people, and the non-payment of which is a disregard of the plighted faith of the nation.” Taking direct aim at the Republicans, it went on to declare: “We denounce the financial imbecility and immorality of that party which . . . has made no advance towards resumption—no preparation for resumption—but instead has obstructed resumption by wasting our resources and exhausting all our surplus income.”
Tariffs: Taxes on imported goods were the primary source of federal revenue for most of the nineteenth century. Since Lincoln, the Republican Party stood for high tariffs not just for the revenue but also for the “protection” of domestic industries. The free-trade Democrats saw protectionism for what it really is: an attack on consumers for the benefit of producers with political connections. The Tilden platform’s critique of it is as relevant today as it was in 1876:
"We denounce the present tariff, levied upon nearly four thousand articles, as a masterpiece of injustice, inequality, and false pretence. It yields a dwindling, not a yearly rising, revenue. It has impoverished many industries to subsidize a few. It prohibits imports that might purchase the products of American labor. It has degraded American commerce from the first to an inferior rank on the high seas. It has cut down the sales of American manufactures at home and abroad, and depleted the returns of American agriculture—an industry followed by half our people. It costs the people five times more than it produces to the treasury, obstructs the processes of production, and wastes the fruits of labor. It promotes fraud, fosters smuggling, enriches dishonest officials, and bankrupts honest merchants. We demand that all custom-house taxation shall be only for revenue."
Government spending: Virtual one-party (Republican) dominance since 1865 had produced huge increases in federal expenditures, largely for pork-barrel projects. Tilden denounced the spending explosion, and his people inserted strong language against it in the 1876 platform: “Since the peace, the people have paid to their tax-gatherers more than thrice the sum of the national debt, and more than twice that sum for the federal government alone. We demand a rigorous frugality in every department, and from every officer of the government.” The Tilden Democrats were squarely in the tradition of their Jefferson-Jackson forebears and light-years apart from their Democratic descendants of today. It was a tradition that would continue through the last great Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, only to be thoroughly forsaken by the next (and arguably the worst) Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson.
On many other vital issues of the day Tilden and the Democrats staked out the moral high ground. They opposed an imperialistic foreign policy and favored Civil Service reform to minimize political patronage and corruption. Because they respected the rights and sovereignty of free individuals, they fought against sumptuary laws to regulate personal behavior. They denounced the use of government power to advantage one group over another. And they pushed to treat the southern states once again as equal partners in the Union.
Today dozens of streets, townships, libraries, and schools from Wichita Falls, Texas, to Washington, D.C., bear the Tilden name. A statue of him and his home, both in New York City, still stand. But otherwise, sadly, the memory of this man who stood for liberty and should have been president is fading as surely as my old phone number.