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Samuel J. Tilden (1814-1886), a New York Democrat, ran against Republican Rutherford B. Hayes for the presidency in 1876 and won the popular vote by a very small margin. He was denied the office after a congressional commission voted along partisan lines to award all disputed electoral regions to Hayes.

Tilden was a successful lawyer with many railroad corporations as his clients. He was one of the few Free-Soil Democrats who did not become a Republican upon the founding of the party in 1854. A native and resident of New York, he spent many years rooting out corruption and seeking reform, including dismantling the New York City political machine known as the Tweed Ring in 1866. He was elected governor of New York in 1874 and then made a successful attack on the corrupt "Canal ring," which derived illegal profits from the repair and extension of the state canal system. While corruption had reined during the previous Republican administration of Ulysses S. Grant, Tilden was like a breath of fresh air to constituents. Additionally, whites in the South were just re-gaining power and wanted to showcase their support for the Democratic candidate, no matter who he was.

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