Historical Highlights

Speaker of the House William Pennington of New Jersey

February 16, 1862
Speaker of the House William Pennington of New Jersey Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
A one-term Member from New Jersey, Speaker of the House William Pennington became the first sitting Speaker to lose re-election.
On this date, former Speaker of the House William Pennington died in Newark, New Jersey. Born in Newark in 1796, Pennington graduated from Princeton College, clerked for the U.S. district court in Newark, and began practicing law in 1820. A member of the New Jersey state assembly, Pennington later served as the state’s governor. After declining an appointment by President Millard Fillmore to serve as Governor of the Minnesota Territory, Pennington ended a political hiatus to run for a seat in the House of Representatives in 1858. He won election to the 36th Congress (1859–1861) as a Republican candidate who garnered support from northern Democrats disaffected with the James Buchanan administration. Pennington’s reputation as a moderate propelled him into unlikely contention for the House Speakership—a position rarely accorded a freshman legislator. The new Republican majority lacked the votes to elect their leading candidate—John Sherman of Ohio. After two months and 44 ballots, the House chose Pennington as another in a long line of antebellum compromise candidates for Speaker. He faced a Sisyphean problem as a presiding officer: seeking to move legislation and preserve decorum in a chamber split by north-south divisions over slavery. Pennington played a key role in creating the “Committee of 33,” comprised of one Member from each state and charged with finding a compromise to avert the secession crisis. The group failed, in part because Pennington appointed a membership of too few fellow moderates and too many Radical Republicans and pro-slavery southerners. In 1860, when anti-Buchanan Democrats abandoned northern Republican congressional candidates (including Pennington), he garnered just 49 percent of the vote, becoming the first sitting Speaker to lose re-election to his House seat. In his final floor speech, Pennington spoke of his belief in the “ancient ties that have bound us together under institutions framed by our fathers, and under a Constitution signed by the immortal Washington.” He also reflected on his willingness to work on behalf of preserving the Union: “I would do so for the national honor committed to the experiment of free institutions. I would do so for the love I bear my countrymen in all parts of our beloved land, and especially so for the sake of the noble band of patriots in the border States, who, in the midst of great opposition, have stood firm. . . .” Upon leaving the House, Pennington retired from public service and returned to New Jersey.

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