Tilden was also the democratic presidential candidate in the election of 1876, one of the most controversial elections of the 19th Century. Tilden was a descendent of Nathaniel Tilden, an early English settler who came to America in 1634. Tilden studied law at Yale and then transferred to New York University. After the election of 1876, his health began failing and he retired from politics, living quietly at his Yonkers Estate.
After his death he donated his fortune to the City of New York, with one specific request, that the funds be used for a public library with a reading room. Although relatives contested the will, the New York Public Library was founded by the Tilden Trust. The building still bears his name on the front. The Samuel J. Tilden House, located at 15 Gramercy Park South is now used by the National Arts Club.