Finding a Speaker

We left the 34th Congress deadlocked on who to elect Speaker of the House. Until they did, they lacked a presiding officer and could hardly get any business done. Someone had to become Speaker, but the administration’s candidate couldn’t get the required majority. The opposition coalition of Know-Nothings, Free Soilers, Whigs, Republicans, and anti-Nebraska Democrats together had the votes to fill the seat, but such a heterodox group has its own problems finding the right man for the job. They agreed on not accepting Franklin Pierce’s choice of William Richardson, but little else.

Lewis Campbell (Whig-OH)

Lewis Campbell (Whig-OH)

After Richardson won a plurality and, consequently, lost the first ballot the opposition made a go of uniting around Lewis Campbell, an Ohio Whig. Campbell earned their esteem through an attempted filibuster against the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the last Congress. Things went so well back then that Campbell nearly found himself physically attacked. That had to count for something, right?

Apparently not enough. Giving it another try after Campbell also failed to command a majority, a large group of Republicans settled on Nathaniel P. Banks. Banks, a Massachusetts man, had the kind of pedigree that would inspire mixed emotions in such a fraught time. In the Bay State, he had stood as a Democrat but then combined with free soilers. Lately Banks had hopped parties again, moving over to the Know-Nothings. That made him a traitor twice over, to more orthodox Democrats, and might look shifty to his latest band of allies. But his career also spanned contentious spectrum of party politics in the middle 1850s.

Bank’s fellow Know-Nothings preferred Kentucky’s Humphrey Marshall and without them he didn’t have a majority either. When Marshall’s run ended similarly, they tried Henry Fuller. The votes went on and on, with no winner emerging. Every ballot came with a new round of recrimination. The Republicans laid into anti-Nebraska men who opposed Banks, which naturally endeared them to their targets. The southerners and administration Democrats had their own frustrations in the minority, still voting for Richardson ballot after ballot.

William Aiken (D-SC)

William Aiken (D-SC)

The 34th Congress opened on December 3, 1855. Yet on the 24th, Allan Nevins reports that with the sixty-eighth ballot,

Banks has 101 votes, Richardson 72, and Fuller 31, with eleven for minor figures.

As part of the process, congressmen quizzed the candidates. Nevins relates how a Mississippian asked Banks if he believed in racial equality. Banks

responded that it seemed to be the general law that the weaker of two juxtaposed races was absorbed or disappeared altogether. “Whether the black race … is equal to the white race, can only be determined by the absorption or disappearance of one or the other, and I propose to wait until the respected races can be properly subjected to this philosophical test before I give a decisive answer.”

Nathaniel Banks

Nathaniel Banks

The House thought that pretty funny, but it probably didn’t win Banks any votes.

With the grinding process, the constant rounds of fruitless questioning and votes, and endless speeches, one might expect tempers to flare. Congressmen had assaulted one another on the floor before, and would again. But only Horace Greeley took any lumps, and he took them away from the floor of the House. I sought further details, but haven’t found a copy of the New York Weekly Tribune for February 2 online.

The battle for the Speakership wore on through December and January, not ending until the start of February when the House voted a rule to elect the Speaker with a plurality. Nathaniel Banks at last prevailed, 103-100, over South Carolina’s William Aiken, Jr. In settling on Banks, the opposition coalition had not repudiated nativism, but the majority within had clearly chosen an antislavery nativist, from Massachusetts no less, over proslavery or indifferent candidates available to them from climes further South. A victory barely managed out hardly made for a grand triumph, and Banks would use his powers in a decidedly impartial way, but the opposition had moved at least a small step beyond single-issue rejection of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and toward a consolidated party.

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