Shortly before seven o’clock in the evening, on Saturday, February 2, 1856, Nathaniel P. Banks of Massachusetts, strode to the well of the House, climbed the rostrum’s few steps to the Speaker’s chair, and sat down. He paused for a moment. With his thick dark hair swept to one side and a prominent mustache obscuring his upper lip, Banks then stood to address his colleagues.
A few minutes earlier, Banks had been elected Speaker for the 34th Congress (1855–1857). He had celebrated his 40th birthday just three days before, but now faced perhaps the toughest job in American politics at the time: leading a House that seemed hopelessly divided. His election as Speaker came almost two months to the day after the House first met on December 3, 1855. Members had cast 132 ballots for Speaker before finally electing Banks on the 133rd.
When he spoke, Banks, a former journalist-turned-lawyer from a town just west of Boston, thanked the House “for the honor” to serve as Speaker, but admitted it was a weighty task. “It would afford me far greater pleasure in taking the chair of the House,” he said, “were I supported even by the self-assurance that I could bring to the discharge of its duties—always arduous and delicate, and now environed with unusual difficulties—any capacity commensurate with their responsibility and dignity.”
What he unassumingly called “unusual difficulties” was, in fact, the fallout from the most chaotic period in House history.
The Speaker election that opened the 34th Congress was utter bedlam. The traditional two-party system that had dominated the House for the previous two decades no longer existed. As previous Congresses begrudgingly compromised over slavery, sectional lines in the House hardened between northerners and southerners. Existing party sympathies grew stale and new issues exacerbated lingering legislative battles. The Whig Party was on life support and the Democrats had seen their numbers in the House cut nearly in half. In 1854, a protean new group, the American Party (also called the Know Nothings), captured 51 seats behind a nativist platform, while a fledgling Republican Party hustled to build a workable coalition. Broadly speaking, the House was left with a fractured Democratic Party, a large bloc of Know Nothings, and an amorphous Opposition Party working against the administration of President Franklin Pierce. In perhaps a perfect understatement, the Baltimore Sun confessed to its readers on the eve of the 34th Congress, “It is a difficult matter to give the exact political complexion of the House.”
As a result, no one seemed to have an accurate gauge on the upcoming Speaker election. “Members are coming in slowly,” the New York Daily Tribune reported a week before the start of the session. “The Speakership, so far, is all in doubt, there being no satisfactory indication of the result.”
Some of the disparate coalitions had begun to consider nominations for Speaker, but another wondered whether it was even worth the trouble or whether it was better to just “vote it out in the House.” The excitement around the Speaker race, observed one Washington correspondent, was “intense.”
The uncertainty and excitement quickly gave way to deadlock. On Opening Day, Monday, December 3rd, after 21 Members received votes for Speaker on the first ballot, the House was off to the races. It held four votes that day, five more on Tuesday, six more on Wednesday, another six on Thursday, six again on Friday, and six more on Saturday before taking Sunday off. Like a recurring nightmare, this went on and on through December. The House ultimately held 84 votes for Speaker that month, unable to settle on a candidate.
The year 1856 opened the way 1855 ended: with more and more votes for Speaker. But after the 107th ballot on January 11, 1856, Felix Zollicoffer of Tennessee, a second-term Member from a district that stretched west of Nashville, introduced a provocative bill that he hoped would help clarify the choice for the House.
Believing, as he said on the floor, that “when men aspire to political office, it is their duty, frankly and fully, to answer all questions which relate to questions involved in their election,” Zollicoffer, an old Whig now identifying with the American Party, submitted a bill to have the main candidates for Speaker—Henry Fuller of Pennsylvania, William Richardson of Illinois, and Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts—publicly state their opinions of Congress’ recent actions on the spread of slavery to the western territories. This, his bill reiterated, was “in conformity with the fundamental principles of a great popular government.”
Some Members considered Zollicoffer’s measure a trap or at best a delay tactic, arguing that after more than a month of voting everyone already knew where the candidates stood. But ultimately, the House passed the bill, 154–39. Interestingly, Fuller, Richardson, and Banks all voted for Zollicoffer’s resolution.
The Tennessean really just wanted to corner the Democratic candidate, Richardson of Illinois, but when the House met the next day on Saturday, January 12th, the candidates answered the questions, one after another, with Richardson going first, Banks second, and Fuller third. A fourth candidate, Alexander Pennington of New Jersey, who had also been in the mix, agreed to answer the questions at the end despite being what he called “a candidate so obscure and unpromising as myself.”
Zollicoffer had three major concerns:
Other Members, both northern and southern, submitted questions that day; some were serious, some less so. But Richardson, Banks, and Fuller took the time to reply.
What effect did the three-hour Q&A session have on the race? Well, very little it seems. As soon as Fuller gave his final answer, the House held its 108th vote for Speaker. And once again, no one captured a majority. Compared to the ballot for Speaker the day before, Banks had lost four votes, Richardson lost one, and Fuller had picked up two. At three o’clock that afternoon, the House adjourned until Monday.
“Are we or are we not to have a House of Representatives?” one Boston newspaper asked in its coverage of what it called “Mr. Zollicoffer’s purgation.” “Is the government of the country to go on?”
Everyone had to wait about three more weeks to find out. In total, the House held 133 ballots for Speaker to start the 34th Congress, delaying congressional action for two months. In fact, the gridlock was so bad the House voted to lower the threshold for victory from a simple majority to a plurality for only the second time in its history.
In the end, Banks won the Speakership with 103 votes, the Republican Party grabbed a foothold in American politics, and the spread of slavery subsumed all other policy issues.
It’s easy to see the Speaker race of 1855–1856 as something of a bizarre outlier. And by and large, it was: Speaker elections in the House of Representatives have usually been open and shut contests easily settled on the first ballot. In fact, of the 123 times the House has had to pick a new Speaker since 1789, there have been only 14 instances in which a Speaker election has required multiple ballots (the records for the 2nd Congress (1791–1793) are inconclusive, unfortunately, and the House has filled vacancies in the Speakership three times using a resolution). The last time a Speaker election required two or more votes on the floor happened in 1923.
But with the exception of the 1923 leadership race, every other multiple-ballot Speaker election—13 out of 14, or nearly 93 percent—occurred before the Civil War when national party affiliations weren’t as cohesive as they are today. In fact, the 13 instances that required multiple ballots before 1861 account for exactly one third of the total number of Speaker elections in the antebellum era.
That’s an important characteristic, because during the 19th century, and possibly as early as 1799, groups of like-minded legislators often nominated candidates for Speaker in caucuses before the vote ever reached the floor. But, as in the campaign to open the 34th Congress, more factions meant more candidates, which meant longer votes and delayed proceedings.
After 1856, only two more Speaker elections required multiple ballots—one before and one after the Civil War—suggesting that the absurdity of the 34th Congress presaged the end of that chapter of American history, and signaled the rise of the modern two-party system. As one recent study on the Speakership argues, the Civil War made it official only five short years later.
Sources: Congressional Globe, House, 34th Cong., 1st sess. (1855–1856); House Journal, 34th Cong., 1st sess. (1855–1856); Hinds’ Precedents, Vol. I, Chapter 7, section 218; The Sun (Baltimore), 4 December 1855; New York Daily Tribune, 29 November 1855, 1 December 1855; Detroit Daily Free Press, 2 December 1855; Boston Daily Atlas, 14 January 1856; Elias Boudinot, Diary, and Elias Boudinot to Hannah Boudinot, 2 April 1789, in Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, vol. XV Correspondence: First Session: March–May 1789, edited by Charlene Bangs Bickford, et. al (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004): 182–183; Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams vol. VII (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1875); Larry Gara, The Presidency of Franklin Pierce (Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 1991); Lewis L. Gould, Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans (New York: Random House, 2003); Ralph Volney Harlow, The History of Legislative Methods in the Period Before 1825 (Yale University Press, 1917); Michael F. Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1999); Jeffery A. Jenkins and Charles Stewart III, Fighting for the Speakership: The House and the Rise of Party Government (Princeton, 2013); Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., On the Hill: A History of the American Congress From 1789 to the Present (New York, Touchstone, 1979); Gerald R. Lientz, “House Speaker Elections and Congressional Parties, 1789–1860,” Capitol Studies, vol. 6, no. 1 (1978): 62–89; Kenneth C. Martis, The Historical Atlas of Political Parties in the United States Congress, 1789–1989 (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1989); Ronald M. Peters, Jr., The American Speakership: The Office in Historical Perspective (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990); David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis: 1848–1861 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976); James Brewer Stewart, Joshua R. Giddings and the Tactics of Radical Politics (Cleveland: The Press of Case Western Reserve, 1970); James Sterling Young, The Washington Community, 1800–1828 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966).Follow @USHouseHistory