Tuesday’s vote to elect a new Speaker of the House quickly progressed from amusing to interesting to deeply compelling to actually historical.
With the House set to resume efforts today at noon to actually elect a Speaker (to do some pretty important things, such as swear in new members of the House) there is no chance (please!) that 2023 will come when close to 1856 in the complexity of electing a new Speaker.
The 1856 House of Representatives leadership election was a significant moment in American history, as it marked the first time that a Speaker of the House was elected after multiple ballots. The election took place on December 2, 1856, and it ultimately took 133 votes before Nathaniel P. Banks, a member of the American Party, was elected as Speaker.
The context for this leadership election was the highly charged political climate of the mid-1850s. The country was deeply divided over the issue of slavery, and tensions were running high. The American Party, also known as the Know-Nothings, was an anti-immigration, anti-Catholic party that had gained a significant amount of support in the North. Many members of this party were also vocal opponents of slavery.
On the other side of the aisle, the Democrats were largely pro-slavery and had the support of many Southern politicians. The Republicans, who were still a relatively new party at the time, were also opposed to slavery, but they were not yet a major force in national politics.
The election for Speaker of the House was held on the first day of the new Congress, and it quickly became clear that it would not be an easy process. The Democrats nominated James L. Orr, a Representative from South Carolina, while the Know-Nothings nominated Nathaniel P. Banks.
The first vote was taken on December 2, and neither candidate received the necessary majority. A second vote was taken on December 3, with the same result. The process continued for several days, with neither candidate gaining a significant advantage.
As the votes continued to be taken, the tensions in the House grew. Members of both parties accused their opponents of trying to block the election of a Speaker in order to gain political leverage. There were even physical altercations on the floor of the House, as tempers flared.
Finally, on December 18, the 133rd vote was taken, and Nathaniel P. Banks emerged as the winner. He received 93 votes, while James L. Orr received 52.
So while everything we’re seeing this week is a perfect snapshot as to what many would argue is the level of dysfunction in Congress, while it pales in comparison to the scope of the 1856 House of Representatives leadership election, there are similarities.
As Florida attorney, Adriana Gonzalez, points out:
“Both of these leadership elections may eventually be seen as turning points in the legislature as
both demonstrated the deep divisions that existed within the country at the time.”
While the 1856 vote reflected deep divisions over the issue of slavery. It also marked the beginning of Nathaniel P. Banks’ tenure as Speaker of the House, which would last until 1857. Despite the acrimony of the election process, Banks went on to serve as a respected and effective Speaker, and he played a key role in helping to navigate the country through a tumultuous period in its history.
With hope, the end result of this process can (as unlikely as it seems today) heal some of the divisions in Congress and bring a productive two years in the House before the 2024 election.
About Aron Solomon
A Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital and the Editor-in-Chief for Today’s Esquire. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in Forbes, CBS News, CNBC, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Fortune China, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, NewsBreak, and many other leading publications.