Stories from the Road: Cemetery of the Evergreens - New Lebanon, NY (December 23, 2017)
The road leading up to the cemetery is pure ice. Even as I pull in the small inlet by the driveway, I know there is no way my car (or my nerves) can make it up this hill and back. I’d already spent too long on the slippery roads that wind between New York and Massachusetts. Stopping in New Lebanon, NY was an unplanned final detour before I had to take the last winding highway (referred to by all my family members as simply ‘going over the mountain’). Just thinking about it had me making promises to God, Jesus, and Santa Claus (it was December, after all), that if I made it home safely I would never, ever, ever drive in bad weather ever again.
Even before the iced over cemetery driveway, the day had been something of a wreck. Having lived South for 13 years (‘South’ as in ‘warmer-than-Massachusetts’ Pennsylvania), I’d forgotten how bad New England snow can be, even if the sun is shining and you’re driving an SUV. Still, I’d bravely driven (and, alright, slipped) my way to a holiday brunch over the New York state line with a college friend and felt vindicated in my success over the winter weather. While brunch was lovely, the unexpected weakness in the soles of my boots meant I’d spent most of the most morning with sopping feet and an impending sense of dread. (Honestly, it is what I get for refusing to buy new boots for the past three years.)
But, before the onset of bad weather, I had gotten it in my head that I needed to visit the Cemetery of the Evergreens because somehow this would be my one and only chance. (Which, of course, is crazy — not least of which because obviously it and its inhabitants are not going anywhere anytime soon.)
However, sitting in my car, at the bottom of the hill, occasionally moving my toes to ensure they were still attached, I knew that I couldn’t leave. I don’t know offhand how many people visit Samuel J. Tilden’s grave every year, but I’m guessing not many. I couldn’t come this close only to leave. It would seem too ironic of an insult for a man whose entire historical career is about coming so close, only to leave (or, rather, lose).
If there was a popularity contest between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden, I’m not really sure who would win. I’m hoping that more people would choose Hayes, only because I want to believe in the American public’s ability to recognize their presidents, even the less notable ones. But who knows. However, the presidential election (arguably the most consequential popularity contest to ever exist) in 1876 was one of the closest ever. While historians are still arguing about what exactly took place that ended with Hayes being named the winner, Tilden was either totally cheated out of the presidency, or came close enough to winning that a lifetime of bitterness would be understandable. (I won’t get into the whole affair here, but it includes contested states, the electoral college, and a winner who had lost the popular vote. Sound familiar?) Suspicions ran high at the time, which led to the timelessly clever (although unfortunately forgotten) presidential nickname ‘Ruther-fraud B. Hayes’. But a few votes here and there and Tilden becomes a man completely forgotten to history, as opposted to Hayes who is mostly forgotten, except for the fact that he (along with his 44 presidential counterparts) hangs on the wall of every elementary school classroom in America.
Still sitting in my car at the bottom of the cemetery driveway, there as no other choice but to walk. If the driveway was ice (which it was), and I wanted to see the grave (which I did), then I was going to have to shiver my way up the hill and hope the cemetery wasn’t larger than it appeared. Sometime between turning off my car and realizing that walking actually made my feet colder, I began to run. Running through the snow and across patches of ice while I could literally hear the water slopping in my shoes does not make sense. I get that. But neither does the fac that I couldn’t wait for a different (aka warmer) day to visit the grave of a forgotten presidential wanna-be. Suspend rational belief. (Or just judge me — because I’m honestly starting to judge myself as I tell this story.)
My fears of a big cemetery or a nondescript grave were both thankfully unfounded. When I finally crested the hill, I saw a huge, lone stone sitting in the middle of wide grassy circle. (Honestly, the headstone reminds me of a gravy boat, but I couldn’t tell you why.) The front of Tilden’s grave reads ‘Still I Trust the People’, which is some sort of reference to the 1876 election that I’ve never understood. Which people does he still trust? His supporters? Voters in general? If he’s referring to either of those, then its all nice and good, except those aren’t the ones who potentially robbed him of a presidential victory — unless he trusted that the vote count was correct and people didn’t vote for him for good reason? If it truly is a reference to the 1876 election, then it seems like maybe it should say ‘Still I trusted the wrong people’.
But, mean-spirited humor aside, standing in front of grave in the worst weather of my life (ok — maybe a small exaggeration), I wanted to believe that maybe Tilden was talking about his trust in someone other than simply his contemporaries. Maybe his trust was in those who would eventually write the history books — the people who determine if he was unfit or if he was robbed. Those who could remember his as a good and honest foil to ‘His Fraudulency the President’ (another unfortunately forgotten epithet).
Maybe he just trusted that we would remember him at all. Because, if we’re being honest, he’s not doing too much worse than Hayes in terms of obscurity. Maybe he simply trusted that he would be the most decorated grave in his hometown cemetery and occasionally people would trek through the snow to come find it. Maybe that isn’t so bad after all.