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Liberty PowerAntislavery Third Parties and the Transformation of American Politics$

Corey M. Brooks

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780226307282

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226307312.001.0001

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“A New Era in Our History”: The Longest Speakership Contest in American History and the First Republican National Victory, 1855–1856

“A New Era in Our History”: The Longest Speakership Contest in American History and the First Republican National Victory, 1855–1856

(p.207) Interlude Five “A New Era in Our History”: The Longest Speakership Contest in American History and the First Republican National Victory, 1855–1856
Liberty Power

Corey M. Brooks

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This section chronicles the long and contentious contest for speaker of the 34th House. The discussion here demonstrates the vital role that this 1855-56 election for Speaker of the House played in consolidating the Republican Party and ensuring that the antislavery Republican Party and not the nativist American Party would emerge as the Democrats’ main opposition in the northern states. Radical and moderate anti-Nebraska men alike united behind Massachusetts Republican Nathaniel P. Banks, and, after two months and 133 roll calls, the Republicans triumphed when the House adopted a rule to select its speaker by plurality. In this fight for the speakership, a much deeper Republican Party unity was forged in advance of the 1856 presidential election. When Banks finally won his plurality, political abolitionists widely celebrated the fulfilment of their longstanding hope of placing in the speaker’s chair a man pledged against the Slave Power.

Keywords:   1855-56 election for Speaker of the House, Nathaniel P. Banks, Republican Party, anti-Nebraska, Speaker of the House, Slave Power, political abolitionists

Like so many antislavery political initiatives, the move to consolidate the Republican Party centered first on Congress. After watching slaveholders occupy the speaker’s chair for thirty-one of the previous thirty-five years, antislavery men anxiously awaited the organization of the new House with hopes of finally electing an anti–Slave Power speaker. Doing so, they understood, would powerfully cement the Republican Party and establish its supremacy over Know Nothings in antislavery constituencies.

After the wave of indignation at the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Democratic congressional candidates had been routed across the North. Pro-Nebraska Democrats made up less than a third of the House that convened in December 1855, but it remained unclear how, or whether, the diverse opposition would coalesce. When elected in 1854 or early 1855—before Southern Know Nothings had secured a proslavery national platform at the June 1855 Philadelphia party conclave—almost two-thirds of the anti-Nebraska members were also affiliated with the Know Nothing movement; still others had run as candidates of the now all but defunct Whig Party. By the time Northern representatives arrived in Washington, only a fraction of those elected as members of the American Party seemed likely to act with Southern co-partisans. By one historian’s estimates, the incoming House included about 121 members who had been elected as Know Nothings and 115 elected as anti-Nebraska candidates, but with only 92 sharing both affiliations. To assemble an anti-Democratic majority, either nativism or antislavery would have to be submerged. Facing even greater confusion than in the 1849 contest, the 34th House voted for speaker into February, balloting 133 times before selecting Massachusetts’s Nathaniel Banks by plurality. This time, though, it was the burgeoning antislavery forces who benefited from a plurality election. This struggle and ultimate victory of Banks’s anti-Nebraska coalition played a vital role in establishing (p.208) anti–Slave Power Republicans, and not the nativist American Party, as the leading party in the North.1

When the House opened on December 3, amidst packed galleries and unseasonably pleasant weather, only the Democrats stood behind a single candidate: Illinois’s William Richardson, the representative most closely identified with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In choosing “perhaps the most audacious of the whole set of traitors from the North who sold the interests and peace of the Union to the slaveholders of the South,” the Democrats intentionally rebuked the anti-Nebraska movement. The Democratic nominating caucus, however, in what would prove a crucial mistake, also passed a unanimous resolution condemning the Know Nothing movement.2

For the Republican and American Parties, unified nominations were impossible. Initial Republican efforts to unite the anti-Nebraska forces had foundered, when only twenty-five members showed up at a November 30 caucus. Two days later, though, seventy anti-Nebraska men unanimously adopted Joshua Giddings’s resolution “that we will support no man for Speaker who is not pledged … to organize the standing committees of the House by placing on each a majority of the friends of freedom.” This, to antislavery veterans, was far more pressing than agreeing at the outset on any particular nominee.3

Three anti-Nebraska frontrunners emerged, all with ties to both the fledgling Republican Party and the Know Nothing movement. Among them, Ohio ex-Whig Lewis Campbell was initially considered the most antislavery but was also the most committed nativist. Massachusetts ex-Democrat Nathaniel Banks had opportunistically used the Know Nothing movement to help him win election on an anti-Nebraska platform, and this disingenuousness actually made him appealing to antislavery Republicans seeking to downplay nativism and focus on combating the Slave Power. If Campbell and Banks both failed, many in the anti-Nebraska ranks planned to try New Jersey’s more conservative Alexander Pennington. Elected as a Whig, Pennington seemed to stand the best chance of attracting hesitant Know Nothing conservatives.4

When balloting commenced, Campbell led all anti-Nebraska candidates with 53 votes, but it quickly became evident that he could never approach a majority of the 220-some votes being cast. Antislavery men like Giddings led a trickle of support towards Banks, which soon became a flood. By the end of the first week, Banks had reached 100 votes, just 11 shy of a majority. The next Monday, Banks picked up several more and attained his high of 107. He led uninterrupted for the remainder of the contest, consistently within 12 votes, and often as few as 6 or 7, of a majority. Meanwhile, up to forty-one Know Nothings concentrated on Henry Fuller of Pennsylvania. Fuller further intensified the cross-pressures on conservative anti-Nebraska men clinging to the (p.209) American organization by announcing his preference for leaving the Kansas-Nebraska Act alone so as to avoid “agitation of the subject of slavery.” With Fuller’s declaration as added verification, Republicans hammered Northern Know Nothings’ submission to the Slave Power. Indeed, once the speakership contest turned into a three-way race between Banks, Fuller, and Richardson, ideological stances on slavery almost completely dictated members’ votes.5

With Banks so close to victory, antislavery Republicans designated him “as the Republican candidate.” Republican managers feared that if they retreated to Pennington, the American Party would claim his election as a victory for nativism rather than for the anti-Nebraska Republican cause, a fear borne out in the correspondence of Fuller voter Solomon Haven, the lieutenant and former law partner of ex-president and American Party presidential hopeful Millard Fillmore. Haven and his allies stood “ready to help elect Pennington” as “a good American” with “no such thing as republicanism in him.” A resolute Ohio Republican thus affirmed: “It is a point of honor with us who have thus sustained Mr. Banks, and identified him as the Anti-Nebraska candidate for speaker, not to yield.” A Banks steering committee met almost nightly to coordinate strategy. Identifying potential backsliders and lobbying hesitant Northern Know Nothings, the committee even sent out letters to wavering congressmen’s constituents, beseeching telegrams instructing their representatives to “Stick to Banks.” This steering committee of Republican managers found the more radical Giddings an especially eager collaborator in their efforts to promote Banks at all costs. After “eighteen years” in the “business” of “struggling with Slavery and the Slave Power,” Giddings exulted at the “good prospects of success” for an antislavery speakership. Thanking God that he could “witness some fruits of my labor,” Giddings marveled to “see 100 men standing firmly on the very doctrines for which I was expelled fourteen years since.”6

The stalemate persisted past Christmas, and then New Year’s, and then heavy snows began to fall, but the House remained deadlocked. Debates grew bitter, and Washington cough drop (“hoarhound candy”) sellers did brisk business soothing throats parched with bombast. As in 1849, the House’s struggles to organize became a spectacle that magnified rising sectional conflict. For two months, Southerners, seeing a long-held bastion of their power slipping away, regularly threatened disunion. Republicans responded with ridicule, making “the House ring with laughter.” Among proposed solutions to the impasse, the most obvious was election by plurality. Antislavery politicians, including veterans of the 1849 battle, now championed plurality election and unsuccessfully urged it on the House at least a dozen times. Banks’s opponents, meanwhile, proposed a range of less conventional, often preposterous, alternatives including: organizing the House without a speaker by simply (p.210) appointing Ways and Means and Foreign Policy committees; voting up or down on each member in alphabetical order until one received a majority; banning “meat, drink, fire, or other refreshments” to expedite the winter debates; and having every member of the House resign (to which Republican congressman and former Liberty man Edward Wade wryly replied that President Pierce should then also resign).7

Most dramatic was an all-night session in which Democrats, anxious to open Congress for Pierce, experimented for twenty-one hours with refusing to adjourn until a speaker was chosen, hoping to force pro-Nebraska Know Nothings to elect Richardson. Republicans accepted the Democratic challenge and joined in voting against adjournment as the January 9 session dragged on into the night, and then into the early morning, and then the not-so-early morning of January 10. Republican members won praise for their endurance and “orderly” conduct, and one participant boasted in a letter drafted at 8:15 AM that “not one” of the Banks voters was “in the least intoxicated,” whereas “not less than a dozen of our opponents have been & are still as drunk as owls.” Republicans cheered the “constant battle and confusion” as Democrats and Banks men together defeated the numerous Know Nothing-led attempts to adjourn. By daybreak, Democratic resolve began to waver, and around 8:30 or 9:00 AM the House finally voted to adjourn. Giddings proudly concluded that the overnight session had fortified the Republican ranks and would provide “a spectacle of moral sublimity” for the American people.8

Antislavery men recognized that the protracted contest would further bind the Republican Party together, and, as with previous speakership fights, focus national attention on the Slave Power. Veterans of antislavery third-party politics thus celebrated the “most exciting contest,” believing that “the Election of Banks will … consolidate the union of our friends.” Political abolitionists praised Banks votes as “strong testimonies against the Slave Power” and recognized that “even the struggle is a triumph—& should constitute a band of union for those Engaged in it.” “The more votes [meaning separate roll calls] for speaker the better,” an antislavery correspondent assured Banks, as “the lines between the Parties” would only become “more firmly consolidated.” The contest, Giddings likewise observed, “got our party founded, consolidated and established,” which was “of far more importance than the election of a Speaker.”9

On February 2, 1856, the House finally adopted a plurality rule with the support of several Southern Democrats who believed they had found in South Carolina’s William Aiken a Democratic candidate that pro-Nebraska Know Nothings would accept. By eliminating Fuller’s chances and making the vote a referendum on “this anti-slavery monster, so horrid that he makes gentlemen shudder,” Southern Democrats believed they could attract sufficient Know (p.211) Nothing support to defeat Banks. Instead, on the final, 133rd ballot, Banks was elected with a plurality of 103 votes over Aiken’s 100, with several Northern Know Nothings scattering to avoid their constituents’ ire at voting for a slaveholding South Carolina Democrat.10

When Banks won, old Free Soil stalwarts Charles Sumner and Joshua Giddings waxed eloquent that the “proud historic moment” was akin to arrival “in the promised land which flowed with milk & honey.” “Never,” wrote another Banks voter, “was there such a triumph gained by freemen for freedom over the Slave breeders & Slave Power.” Hardnosed party managers, like Albany wirepuller Thurlow Weed, similarly crowed that “for once the North has been faithful” and calculated that “the Republican Party is now Inaugurated.” When the House declared Banks victorious, his supporters both on the floor and in the galleries unleashed “vociferous cheers,” cried, and waved handkerchiefs triumphantly, while many of Aiken’s backers hissed and “swore like pirates.” Banks’s hometown of Waltham fired a one-hundred-gun salute, and Republican celebrants in New York, Chicago, and Bangor all commemorated the winning plurality with hundred-and-three-gun salutes. Even so uncompromising an abolitionist as Lewis Tappan exulted at this “first victory freedom has had in Congress for many years.”11

Veterans of antislavery politics understood this election of a speaker independent of the Slave Power as a momentous turning point. Political abolitionists who had long fought the Slave Power’s control of Congress hailed the “anti-Slavery party[’s]” triumph over the “Administration and American factions of the pro-Slavery party” as the “First Victory of the North!,” sharing Republican editor Horace Greeley’s optimism that it marked “the commencement of a new era in our history.” Banks’s election and the lengthy contest beforehand had played crucial roles in solidifying the Republican coalition, such that of the seventy-two final-ballot Banks voters who ran for reelection, sixty-nine ran on Republican tickets. By uniting opponents of the Slave Power in advance of the 1856 presidential campaign, the contest had thus established the Republicans, rather than the Know Nothings, as the Democrats’ main competitor in the North, ensuring that the slavery question would henceforth organize national political debate. At long last, former Free Soilers and Liberty men could rally behind a major national party independent of the Slave Power and dedicated to the longstanding abolitionist goal of divorcing the federal government from slavery.12


(1.) Thirteen of sixteen free states held elections for the 34th Congress during the summer or fall of 1854, and the remaining three had concluded their elections by April 1855. Kenneth C. Martis, The Historical Atlas of the Political Parties in the United States: 1789–1989 (New York: MacMillan, 1989), 33–34. Martis notes that the Whig label was used in only six states, all of which held congressional elections between August and November 1854; Tyler Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know-Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 166–169; David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1976), 251; William E. Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 240–241, estimates the anti-Nebraska strength at 118. For additional information about this contest, and the institutional power it offered to antislavery Republican House members, see Jeffery A. Jenkins and Charles Stewart III, Fighting for the Speakership: The House and the Rise of Party Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 177–208.

(2.) New York Evening Post, Dec. 3, 11, 1855; Robert D. Ilisevich, Galusha A. Grow: The People’s Candidate (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988), 108; Charles Henry Jones, The Life and Public Services of J. Glancy Jones (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1910), 1:266.

(3.) JG, History of the Rebellion: Its Authors and Causes (New York: Follett, Foster & Co., 1864), 383; George W. Julian, The Life of Joshua R. Giddings (Chicago: A. C. McClurg and Company, 1892), 322.

(4.) Gienapp, Origins, 241–242; Michael F. Holt, Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 962–963.

(5.) CG, 34th Congress, 1st Session, 3–4, 7–8, 11–15; JG, History of the Rebellion, 384; Fred Harvey Harrington, “The First Northern Victory,” Journal of Southern History 5 (May 1939): (p.285) 192. Thirteen of the forty-one Fuller supporters were Northerners: Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery, 199. Fuller explained that if forced to vote on restoration of the Missouri Compromise, he would vote for it, but he “opposed” continued “agitation of the question.” He further clarified his sentiments by averring his willingness to admit Kansas as a slave state if the territorial population so chose. CG, 34th Congress, 1st Session, 54–55; Washington (DC) National Era, Dec. 13, 20, 27, 1855. During the last week of January, Democrats switched to South Carolina’s James Orr, in hopes he might fare better with Southern Know Nothings than Richardson had, but found no significant change, and then, as discussed below, William Aiken of the same state replaced Orr on the final ballots; Jeffery A. Jenkins and Timothy P. Nokken, “The Institutional Origins of the Republican Party: Spatial Voting and the House Speakership Election of 1855–56,” Legislative Studies Quarterly 25 (Feb. 2000): 101–130, as well as Jenkins and Stewart, Fighting for the Speakership, 182–185, 201–205, show convincingly that ideological positions on slavery (computed from congressional voting data) were highly predictive of these speakership votes, and also that Banks organized most House committees to repre Joel H. Silbey, “After ‘The First Northern Victory: The Republican Party Comes to Congress, 1855–1856,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 20 (Summer 1989): 1–24.

(6.) Edwin B. Morgan to Henry and Richard Morgan, Dec. 12, 1855, in Temple R. Hollcroft, “A Congressman’s Letters on the Speaker Election in the Thirty-Fourth Congress,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 43 (Dec. 1956): 450–451; National Era, Dec. 20, 1855; Gienapp, Origins, 245; JG, History of the Rebellion, 386; Solomon Haven to James M. Smith, Dec. 11, 1855, and Dec. 20, 1855, Solomon G. Haven Papers, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Timothy Crane Day to John Bigelow, Dec. 30, 1855, John Bigelow Papers, NYPL. Prominent members of the steering committee included ex-Democrats Galusha Grow (PA) and Francis Spinner (NY), ex-Whigs Schuyler Colfax (IN, also a Know Nothing), William A. Howard (MI), Edwin B. Morgan (NY), Justin Morrill (VT), Benjamin Stanton (OH), Cadwallader Washburn (WI), Elihu Washburne (IL), and Israel Washburn, Jr. (ME), and ex-Free Soilers Anson Burlingame (MA) and Mason Tappan (NH), both also Know Nothings: Gienapp, Origins, 245, Harrington, “First Northern Victory,” 195, Ilisevich, Galusha A. Grow, 112; JG to LMG, Jan. 27, 1856, G-J Papers.

(7.) Horace Greeley, editorial correspondence of Jan. 5, 1856, in New-York Daily Tribune, Jan. 7, 1856; New York Evening Post, Dec. 17, 1855; Edwin B. Morgan to Henry and Richard Morgan, Dec. 22, 1855, in Hollcroft, “A Congressman’s Letters,” 451. For examples of this derisive laughter at threats of disunion, see CG, 34th Congress, 1st Session, 61–62, and Greeley, editorial correspondence of Dec. 20, 1855, in New-York Daily Tribune, Dec. 24, 1855; Jenkins and Nokken, “Institutional Origins of the Republican Party,” 124n22; CG, 34th Congress, 1st Session, 27, 58–59, 72, 149; National Era, Jan. 17, 1856; JG to LMG, G-J Papers, Jan. 11, 1856.

(8.) JG to LMG, G-J Papers, Jan. 11, 1856; National Era, Jan. 17, 1856; Edwin B. Morgan to Henry and Richard Morgan, Jan. 10, 1856, in Hollcroft, “A Congressman’s Letters,” 454. For more on drinking and drunkenness in Congress, see Rachel A. Shelden, Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 26–30, 125–130; CG, 34th Congress, 1st Session, 170–199, Giddings quote on 199.

(9.) JG to Grotius Giddings, Dec. 12, 1855, JG Papers; Preston King to Francis P. Blair, Feb. 3, 1856, Blair and Lee Family Papers, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Manuscripts Division, Princeton University Library; LT to Sidney Dean, Jan. 5, 1856, LT Papers; Jn Jay to CS, Dec. 18, 1855, CS Papers; James W. Stone to SPC to Nathaniel P. Banks, Feb. 4, 1856, Papers of Nathaniel P. Banks, LC; JG to LMG, Feb. 1, 1856, G-J Papers.

(p.286) (10.) Aiken was considered most likely to win support from Fuller voters because he had avoided the Democratic caucus that had condemned Know Nothingism. On the plurality vote, he did indeed win the votes of most Southern Know Nothings, but several Northern Know Nothings along with a Marylander and Delawarean scattered their votes to Fuller or Campbell, allowing for Banks’s narrow triumph. CG, 34th Congress, 1st Session, 324, 335–337; Harrington, “First Northern Victory,” 200–202; Gienapp, Origins, 246; Jenkins and Nokken, “Institutional Origins of the Republican Party,” 114–115.

(11.) CS to CFA, Feb. 5, 1856, in Selected Letters of Charles Sumner, ed. Beverly Wilson Palmer (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990), 1:442–443; JG to LMG, Feb. 9, 1856, G-J Papers; Edwin B. Morgan to Henry and Richard Morgan, Feb. 3, 1856, in Hollcroft, “A Congressman’s Letters,” 457; Thurlow Weed to Nathaniel P. Banks, Feb. 3, 1856, Papers of Nathaniel P. Banks, LC; JG to LMG, Feb. 3, 1856, G-J Papers; JG, History of the Rebellion, 389; New-York Daily Times, Feb. 5, 6, 1856; New-York Daily Tribune, Feb. 5, 1856; Chicago Tribune, Feb. 5, 1856; “Chronological Resume of Lewis Tappan’s life written by him,” entry for Feb. 3, 1856, LT Papers.

(12.) GMF, Feb. 7, 1856; Concord, NH, Independent Democrat, Feb. 7, 1856; “The Triumph at Washington,” New-York Daily Tribune, Feb. 4, 1856; Jenkins and Nokken, “Institutional Origins of the Republican Party,” 118.