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The Florida Case

January 29, 1877

The Florida Case before the Electoral Commission

On the third floor of the Capitol, to the left of the Senators' Family Gallery entrance, hangs a large historical picture. This dramatic oil painting, in a richly gilded Victorian frame, bears the title: The Florida Case Before The Electoral Commission.

On the night of the presidential election in November 1876, the headline of the New-York Tribune proclaimed "Tilden Elected." That verdict, of course, was premature. Although Democrat Samuel Tilden had won 250,000 more votes than Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, neither man gained an undisputed electoral-vote majority. To reach the 185 electoral votes necessary for election, Tilden needed one more vote; Hayes needed 20. Together, Oregon, Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana controlled 20 disputed electoral votes.

Without statute or precedents to help it determine which sets of electors to count in these states, Congress set up an advisory commission of five senators, five representatives, and five Supreme Court justices on January 29, 1877. The commission's eight Republicans and seven Democrats met in the Capitol's Supreme Court chamber—now restored as the old Senate chamber—for nine days at the beginning of February 1877. Commission members sat at the justices' bench; counsel for both sides occupied desks nearby; and members of the press jammed the gallery directly behind the seated commissioners. Each day, members of Congress, cabinet officers, and others forming a "who's who" of social and political Washington, packed every available inch of chamber floor space.

The painting on the Capitol's third floor nicely captures that epic scene. It is the work of Cornelia Fassett, an artist who specialized in portraits of notable government figures. During the summer of 1877, several months after the electoral commission rendered its party-line verdict in favor of Hayes, Fassett set up a temporary studio in the Supreme Court chamber. There she worked to capture the commission's architectural setting. She then filled her canvas with carefully detailed likenesses of 260 prominent Washington figures—some taken from private sittings, others from Mathew Brady photographs. Among these figures are 30 senators, Senate clerks, Senate wives and children, and Fassett herself, with sketch pad in the lower center of the picture.

Early in 1879, after heated debate, the Senate defeated a bill to purchase the picture on the grounds that the event was "so recent" and one "about which party passions are still excited." Several years later, however, with those passions cooled, Congress quietly acquired the painting.

Reference Items:

U.S. Congress. Senate. The Senate, 1789-1989, by Robert C. Byrd, S. Doc.100-20, 100th Congress, 1st sess., Vol. 1, 1988.

U.S. Congress.  Senate.  United States Senate Catalogue of Fine Art, by William Kloss and Diane K. Skvarla. 107th Congress, 2d sess., 2002. S. Doc. 107-11.