If History Is Any Guide, a Chaotic House Speaker Vote Is Just the Beginning

In recent days, we’ve watched congressional Republicans reap the whirlwind. In campaigning for the 2021 midterm elections, the G.O.P. rode a wave of extremism, saying little about the politics of hate and denial practiced by some of its candidates in an effort to capture votes.

The party is now paying a price for its silence. Its members are grappling with the reality of working with people who loudly and proudly challenge political institutions and the democratic process — in a democratic institution. During the speakership battle, that small group of extremists held the House of Representatives hostage.

This was far from the first time the House was mired in a stalemate over the speakership. It’s the 15th such battle in Congress’s history, and the ninth time that electing a speaker required more than three ballots.

Each of those times, the struggle was a litmus test of the state of party politics and the state of the nation. Our recent contest was much the same, exposing party fractures and irreconcilable differences, but unlike previous battles, it lacked a policy- and legislation-bound core. More than anything else, it was about power — a gap that reveals much about the state of the nation.

Take the speakership struggle of 1855-56, the longest in American history. It ultimately lasted two months and 133 ballots. Why? Because the fight over the fate of slavery created party chaos. The Whig Party was dying. The Democratic Party was splintered over slavery. A newer third party — the nativist Know Nothing Party (or the American Party) — had gained a block of seats, and there was an amorphous antislavery party forming: the Republican Party.

In this way, the 1855-56 speakership contest was like the present one. It was a product of fractured party politics. Finding one candidate who satisfied the many voting blocs was near impossible, and on the unyielding question of slavery compromise was difficult, if not impossible.

Congress’s opening day presaged the months to come. On the first ballot, 21 different congressmen received votes for speaker. There were 84 ballots in December 1855 alone. In desperation, in early January Felix Zollicoffer of the American Party proposed a bill requiring the three main candidates to publicly state their views of Congress’s recent legislation on slavery’s expansion to the West. The bill passed, and there was a congressional slavery inquisition of sorts.

Yet voting went on for another three weeks during which congressmen made their preferences known with force as well as with votes. When the New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley denounced Albert Rust, a Democrat of Arkansas, for trying to disqualify the Republican speaker candidate Nathaniel Banks, Rust responded with his fist, punching Greeley in the head on the Capitol grounds, then hitting him with his cane near the National Hotel a short while later.

Ultimately, the stalemate seemed so unbreakable that the House lowered the threshold for victory from a majority to a plurality for only the second time in its history. In the end, Nathaniel Banks squeaked through a victory, a major accomplishment for a coalescing party — and an antislavery party, at that. Southerners had held a majority of speakerships, a product of their longtime hold on the national government, so this was both noteworthy and a sign of struggles to come.

But the 1855-56 battle was different from the current contest in an important way. Although it was fueled by fractured parties, it was grounded in a vital policy difference: the fate of slavery, which was the core of the period’s politics, inescapable, growing hotter by the moment and entangled with American fundamentals like the economy, sectionalism and citizenship.

It was for good reason that congressmen wanted to know who they were dealing with given the coming struggle. Once installed, the speaker would be staffing committees, fundamentally shaping Congress in the process.

The speaker election of 1849 — the second longest — ended after 63 ballots, the 1859-60 election (the third longest) after 44; both were also centered on slavery. In the latter case, the struggle over slavery’s fate had reached its peak. Instead of two parties, there were sectional blocs going head-to-head, with Southern extremists — the so-called fire-eaters — prepared to resort to violence rather than subject themselves to an antislavery speaker.

And indeed, there was violence. In the 1859-60 election, during the first eight weeks of the first session, there were nine physical fights and numerous nonviolent confrontations. One fight broke out on the street. During debate, Republican John Hickman scoffed that the ardent abolitionist John Brown of Harpers Ferry raid fame had terrified the entire state of Virginia with a handful of men. When the Virginia Democrat Henry Edmundson happened to pass Hickman on the street, he slugged him, but was pulled away by Representative Laurence Keitt of South Carolina.

This was out of character for the fire-eater Keitt. When the South Carolina governor William Gist told his state’s congressional delegation that if a Republican were elected speaker he should be ejected by force if necessary, Keitt took his cue. Not long after, he and a group of Southerners made a plan of attack. At the opening of Congress in December 1859, his wife, Susanna, wrote to her brother in a panic. Her husband and three armed Southerners had just left her parlor, vowing to “fight to the knife there on the floor of Congress” if a Republican was elected, and “either take possession of the Capitol or fall.”

Ultimately, there was no bloody onslaught, though the passions of the moment were felt on the floor. When a Republican sneered at Southern threats of violence in the middle of the speakership contest, a Southerner rushed at him with fists waving, bringing a wave of Republicans and Southern Democrats in his wake, several of them reaching for guns.

This was far from the first such rumble on the House floor, but amid the raging sectional tempests of 1859-60, it seemed to promise worse to come. In the end, a freshman, Republican William Pennington of New Jersey, won the speakership as a compromise candidate of sorts, though the compromise was slight. Every Northerner in the House voted for him, and every Southerner but one voted against him.

In these cases, Northern and Southern voting blocks were arguing over concrete policy issues that could be debated, if not resolved. In the contentious 1859-60 battle for speaker, for example, a group of Republicans tried to persuade Southerners that they weren’t as extreme in their antislavery sentiments as they were made out to be. But there was little good faith to be found.

And there’s little good faith in today’s House. After years of election denial, promises broken and lies abounding, the left has little faith in the right. And some parts of the right have little trust in their own most extreme members who skillfully practice a politics of personality — playing to their constituents and to the nation at large with sweeping claims and broad denials, personal attacks on the opposition, and a willingness to upset core tenets of democracy, all with joyful exuberance at damage done.

The resulting speakership struggle was not about an issue. It was not about a policy. It was about power. Kevin McCarthy’s reported concession to empower the extreme right by making it easier to oust him as speaker was a surrender of power — and that’s all a potential speaker has to offer in today’s political climate. Promises to support key bills or logrolling mean nothing in a party that has very little real planned legislation and very few policies.

It’s tempting to laugh at the strut and fret that took place in the House, much of it seemingly signifying nothing. But it was not just theatrics, and it was not a joke. It was a symptom of a dysfunctional party that is questionably anchored in a democratic politics, and a glaringly obvious sign of things to come. Given Mike Rogers’s near-lunge at Matt Gaetz on Friday night, it’s also an eerie echo of things past.

The House has elected a speaker, but that won’t put an end to the internecine Republican battles. They will continue, entangling Congress and stymieing national politics in the process. Politics is a team sport that requires captains, congressional politics, even more so. Today’s congressional Republicans are not a team; they have no captain and they have displayed their failings for all the world to see.

In effect, we’re witnessing the rupture of the Republican Party, the ultimate outcome of Republicans’ continuing failure to stand up to the extremism in their ranks. In choosing to remain silent in the face of their right wing’s politics of destruction, they have essentially endorsed it. Their silence in the face of Donald Trump’s lies and his election loss denial did much the same, laying the groundwork for the upheaval that we’re watching now.

That upheaval reflects the state of our nation — but it’s shaping the nation as well. The speakership battles of 1855-56 and 1859-60 schooled the nation in the power of sectional threats, defiance and even violent opposition. The public learned their lesson and responded in kind. The lessons of our speakership battle are yet unknown.

It’s encouraging to think that there are moderate Republicans who don’t support this brand of politics. There are certainly many. But until they organize themselves and oppose their in-house opposition, they’re pushing the nation ever closer to a dangerous edge — and defining the Republican Party in the process.

Joanne B. Freeman (@jbf1755), a professor of history and American studies at Yale, is the author of “The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War” and a co-host of the politics and history podcast “Now & Then.”

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