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Boehner’s Fight: A Pale Imitation of First GOP Speaker’s Raucous Election

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

Modern elections for speaker tend to be clean-cut affairs. And though the re-election of John A. Boehner of Ohio this week was a bit messier than he might have hoped , the latest Republican speaker had a considerably easier path than the first.  

For Speaker Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts, it took almost two months and 133 ballots to be installed as the chamber’s top office.  Republicans commanded a plurality — but not a majority — in the 34th Congress, which convened in December 1855. And it was by no means clear that the new party, founded less than two years earlier, would become the dominant opposition to the Democrats. The American Party, better known as the Know Nothings, was challenging Republicans for supremacy in the North with a platform based on limiting immigration and slowing the process of naturalization for immigrants already in the country.  

Most of the members had been elected 13 months earlier in the wave that swept Northern Democrats out of office in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which called for organizing the new territories on the basis of “popular sovereignty,” allowing the people of the territory to decide the issue of slavery.  

In some state elections in 1854-55, Republicans and Know Nothings had worked together on fusion tickets. Now, in Congress, the anti-Nebraska forces had to come together to prove they could govern. But what began as a regional and personal battle among anti-Nebraska congressmen would evolve, over almost two months, into a national fight over slavery.  

On the first ballot held on Dec. 3, 17 anti-Nebraska candidates received votes, and all trailed the candidate of the minority Democrats, William Richardson of Illinois. The top anti-Nebraska man was Lewis Campbell of Ohio. But nobody was close to the 113 votes needed. Three more ballots achieved nothing.  

The anti-Nebraska forces caucused the next day and decided to see how high they could push Campbell. Assuming he would peak well short of a majority, they would then dump him and proceed with the next man in line — Banks. If that didn’t work, they would switch to Alexander Pennington of New Jersey.  

On Dec. 5, Campbell got as high as 81 votes. That was still 30 short of the necessary number, and he could go no higher. The next day, Campbell crashed to 46.  

Now some of Banks’ supporters hesitated, fearing that to try their man early and fail would doom his candidacy. So they suggested switching the order and making a move with Pennington next. That stoked heated debate, which ended with an agreement to ride Campbell a little further. That proved to be a non-starter, and Campbell withdrew, a move Banks supporters predicted would decide the question.  

It didn’t.  

On the first roll call after Campbell’s withdrawal, Banks garnered a mere 40 votes. That sparked another night of caucusing. When the House returned on Dec. 8, Banks jumped to 86 votes, and then 100. On the 10th roll call, he stood at 107, close enough to feel the gavel on his fingertips.  

And there he stayed.  

The northern wing of the Know Nothings, realizing they held the swing votes, offered to support an anti-slavery, pro-nativist candidate, either John Wheeler of New York or Pennington. Republicans rejected Wheeler out of hand, but Pennington had some latent support. It surfaced when the Republicans caucused, but the Banks forces maintained their discipline and voted him down. The Republicans, for better or worse, would stick with Banks.  

At first it seemed like it would be for the worse.  

“The third week of the session is gone and no Speaker yet,” Georgia’s Howell Cobb wrote to his wife. “As usual the town is full of rumors that we will elect tomorrow but I do not see that there is any better prospect for it now than there has been all the time.”  

Desperation drove lawmakers to sometimes silly extremes. One proposed that no member of the House “be allowed to indulge in the use of meat, drink, fire, or other refreshments, gaslight and water only excepted, until an election of Speaker shall be effected.” More practically, some suggested longer sessions and weekend work, limits on debate, and election by plurality — a proposal made 15 times.  

Outside the chamber, tensions were rising as well.  

Newspaper Editor Horace Greeley was twice assaulted by a sponsor of a plurality resolution, Arkansas Democratic Rep. and future Confederate Gen. Albert Rust. In an ominous precursor of the violent year ahead, some Northern lawmakers began showing up for work with sidearms. Visitors in the galleries also grew conspicuously more armed.  

The House held an all-night session on Jan. 9, 1856, and through 18 hours of desultory speeches and roll call votes, nothing changed.  

The American Party, meanwhile, was committing political suicide in the North by refusing to support Banks. After another candidate, Know Nothing Rep. Henry Fuller of Pennsylvania, refused to renounce repeal of the Missouri Compromise or support abolition in the District of Columbia, popular Northern sentiment shifted dramatically in Banks’ favor and began turning the arcane political debate into a national anti-slavery crusade, with Banks as its unlikely champion.  

Still, Fuller’s supporters were emboldened enough to make an offer — a plurality winner in exchange for Banks’ withdrawal. It was a moment of truth for the fledgling party, and its members did not blink. The proposal was voted down.  

It began to occur to some Democrats, who held the White House and a huge Senate majority, that they would be better off with a Republican-led House than with no House at all. On Jan. 30, another plurality resolution was brought to the floor. This one called for four more votes — three to see if anyone could gain a majority, then, if no one did, a fourth on which whoever got the most votes would be speaker.  

Six weary Democrats joined the Banks men in supporting the resolution, which failed, 106-110. The next day they tried again, and again it failed, 108-110. The trend looked clear and worried Southern Democrats began hatching another proposal.  

Future Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens of Georgia, who relished parliamentary maneuvering almost as much as he abhorred the possibility of an anti-Nebraska speaker, proposed that Democrats acquiesce in the plurality rule, run through two roll calls, and on the third, offer William Aiken — an amiable South Carolinian — as their candidate.  

Stephens’ well-laid plan was undone by a pair of over-eager supporters, who on Feb. 1 — before the plurality resolution was adopted — made a motion to elect Aiken. Without the resolution in place, election required a majority, which Aiken failed to get. Stephens’ surprise was spoiled, and Banks’ forces won time to secure their lines.  

The next day, Feb. 2, a motion was made to adopt the four-step plurality plan, and it carried, 113-104. Democrats cried out for adjournment but were gaveled down, and the first roll call began.  

The totals looked familiar: Banks 102, Aiken 93, Fuller 14 and 6 spread among a handful of candidates. Nothing of substance changed on the second ballot, and another motion to adjourn was voted down. The third ballot was the same. The anti-Banks forces hollered for adjournment. Again they were voted down.  

After two months, it had come to this. The House was about to hold its 133rd roll call vote in search of a speaker.  

Having received assurances that Aiken was not anti-nativist, seven pro-Nebraska Know Nothings came over. But he needed more than that, and a handful of Fuller supporters who had backed Stephens’ proposal the day before now stuck with Fuller, rather than switch to Aiken. Threats were hurled about. Pleas were made. One Fuller man was asked to vote for Aiken at the risk of “black Republicans” sweeping the House and destroying the Union. “I’ll be damned if I do!” he shouted. Southern men hung their heads, and the clerk called out the result above the din: Banks 103, Aiken 100, Fuller 6, Campbell 4 and Daniel Wells 1.  

Aiken escorted Banks to the dais, where the tall, white-haired, stern-faced Ohioan Joshua Giddings awaited him. An abolitionist and advocate of true equality, Giddings betrayed no hint of ambivalence as he boomed out the oath. “You do solemnly swear that you will support the Constitution of the United States, so help you God?”  

In a somewhat quieter voice, Banks responded, “I do.”  

While Boehner’s re-election was merely the latest conservative defeat, Banks’ election as speaker in 1856 was dubbed “the first Northern victory.” Georgia Sen. Robert Toombs wrote that “the election of Banks has given great hopes to our enemies” and Stephens noted that Banks did not receive a single vote from a Southern lawmaker. It was an ominous portent of the future.  

John Bicknell is a former editor at CQ Roll Call and author of

“America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation.”


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