With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

When the House Needed 133 Votes to Pick a Speaker

For the first time in exactly 100 years, the U.S. House of Representatives may need more than one round of voting to elect a speaker when the new Congress convenes on Tuesday.

But a few extra rounds of balloting would be a far cry from the nearly two months and 133 votes the House took to choose its leader in 1856 — the longest and most contentious speaker election in its history.

The race pitted antislavery Rep. Nathaniel “Bobbin Boy” Banks, a member of the nativist American Party from Massachusetts, against candidates who were open to expanding slavery to new states and territories. The debate raged on amid mounting violence between proslavery and antislavery settlers in “Bleeding Kansas.”

Today, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is struggling to win enough votes to be elected speaker when Republicans take narrow control of the House, as he faces opposition from some right-wing members of his party. As a result, it may take more than one ballot for anyone to gain the 218 votes, or the majority of votes cast for candidates, needed to win the speakership. McCarthy has warned fellow Republicans against a floor fight, saying, “If we play games on the floor, Democrats could end up picking who the speaker is.”

The last time a speaker election took more than one ballot was in 1923, when Speaker Frederick Gillett (R-Mass.) was reelected on the ninth ballot.

But the longest speaker vote began on Dec. 3, 1855, when the 34th Congress convened. Democrats controlled the Senate, but no party controlled the House after the disintegration of the Whig Party. About a third of House members were Democrats. The rest belonged to a mix of parties, including the new Republican Party. Many were members of the secretive American Party, also known as the Know Nothing party.

On the first day, 21 candidates vied for the speakership. Four votes were taken. The early leader was Rep. William Richardson (D-Ill.), who favored permitting future states to allow slavery, with 74 votes, far short of the 113 needed for a majority. A few days later, antislavery members lined up behind the American Party’s “Bobbin Boy” Banks, who as a boy worked in a textile factory carrying bobbins of thread to the women who operated the looms. The 39-year-old Banks, the New York Herald reported, was “a good looking man” with a stiff, puritanical manner who “is even said never to have drank a glass of liquor in his life.”

Read entire article at Washington Post