Panel Picks a President

The presidential election of 1876 required the country to rely on an untested method.

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Amid the challenges of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, the hotly disputed presidential election of 1876 required the country to rely on an untested method of deciding who won the White House. Democratic presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden, governor of New York, won the popular vote by 250,000 votes and garnered 184 electoral votes, compared with the 165 electoral votes won by his opponent, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio. However, that's not counting electoral votes in Oregon and three southern states, Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, that were disputed in part because Democrats were seeking to suppress black votes for the Republican candidate, says presidential biographer Richard Norton Smith. The vote totals from the three southern states were widely considered illegitimate.

Facing a bitter impasse without constitutional guidance on resolving disputed votes, Congress appointed a special bipartisan commission, including one politically independent member, to decide the matter. When the first choice for the independent slot withdrew after being elected to the Senate, Democrats accepted the appointment of Republican U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Bradley. After nine days of intense debate, Bradley supported the Republicans' choice of Hayes. Democrats went along on the promise that Hayes would remove federal troops from the South. Congress declared Hayes the winner on March 2, 1877, but the country never again used an electoral commission to handle disputed races.