The Disunited 34th Congress

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Dunn’s proslavery men left the Sparks home cruelly disappointed. They came to shoot a man and found him still away. That would not mark the end of Stephen Sparks’ trouble with Kansas’ slavery enthusiasts, but he managed to dodge the immediate threat. Reese Brown had less luck. The latest violence came from the free soil elections of January 15, where Kansas’ antislavery voters made Charles Robinson their governor and filled the other offices that the free state constitution had created. This development, like others in Kansas, did not go unmarked on the national stage.

As the events within Kansas have dominated our narrative for so long, we have to rewind the clock a bit to catch up with happenings elsewhere. Since the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Democracy had taken a beating. The Whig party continued its collapse. In the North, Democrats often followed suit. Those who didn’t cast themselves as foes of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the trouble it had brought. The anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party seemed, for a moment, poised to take the Whig’s place as the second party of American politics but had a serious competitor in the form of the new Republican party and its fortunes soon faded.

As 1855 wound down, the first session of the 34th Congress opened on December 3. For the first time, Republicans took seats in the Capitol. In the Senate, the Democrats outnumbered them two to one. Just across the building, one might as well have entered a new world. Franklin Pierce could count on a majority of 158 in the last House. The anti-Nebraska opposition now had a majority of 117. That might not have upset the House Democrats too much, as they knew their party’s disarray and probably didn’t have much hope of getting everyone back together and taking the customary whip. The last time that happened, they repealed the Missouri Compromise and eighty-four percent of those who voted for it found themselves in need of other employment. They might do better to find some moderate Republican who they could then blame for the House’s inevitable failure to get much done.

The Pierce administration had other ideas, and ensured that the Democratic caucus passed resolutions declaring the late elections a vindication of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, doubled down on religious freedom in terms offensive to the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothings, and pledged the Democracy to a hard line on both. The Democrats hadn’t entirely lost their minds. After some early reverses, they took encouraging results in some later elections as signs that they hadn’t entirely destroyed themselves. With the same kind of excellent judgment that led them to take elections they largely lost as signs of public approval, the Democrats settled on William A. Richardson, of Illinois, as their man for the Speaker’s chair. Richardson had managed the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act last Congress, which made him exactly as popular with the anti-Nebraska majority as one would expect.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Richardson simultaneously won and lost the vote. On the first ballot, the House gave him seventy-two votes. No other man came within twenty of that total. But the House rules required that the Speaker have a majority, not a mere plurality. The rules assumed two parties, but the 34th Congress had rather more than that. Just how much more, few could say. The Congressional Globe considered the mess beyond recovery and dispensed with the usual custom of listing men by party allegiance. In Race and Politics, “Bleeding Kansas” and the Coming of the Civil War, James Rawley reports the Tribune Alamanac’s best guess:

79 Pierce Democrats, of whom 20 were northerners, 117 anti-Nebraska man, all of whom were northerners, 37 Whigs of Americans [Know-Nothings] of proslavery tendencies, all but 3 of whom were from slave states. Of the 117 anti-Nebraska Congressmen, 75 had been elected as know-Nothings.

Allan Nevins gives a different arrangement in the second volume of his Ordeal of the Union:

The House membership was roughly classed as 108 Republican, 83 Democratic, and 43 Know-Nothing or American.

Though the numbers don’t agree, to the point of using different categories, they tell a similar story. The Democracy had lost its majority to someone, but no one quite knew who.

Know-Nothingism and anti-Nebraska sentiment often existed in the same person, part of the problem in classifying them, but they did not necessarily do so. Nor did party allegiance mean that when they did, nativism took precedence. Many Know-Nothings ended up as Republicans, some in suspiciously short order. Some probably joined specifically to subvert the organization in antislavery directions. They co-existed with men who felt otherwise and who had latched on to nativism as the issue to push slavery back out of the national discussion. As the seventeen candidates running against Richardson for the Speakership attest, the Opposition did about as well at agreeing on things as the Democracy did.

So long as the Speakership remained vacant, the House couldn’t commence its business. So long as the House couldn’t get to work, much of the national government ground to a halt. Soon much of Washington waited on the outcome.

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