Section #17 - The Republican Party emerges from an unlikely fusion of Free Soil and Know Nothing factions

Chapter 196: After 133 Ballots The New House Selects A “Know-Nothing” As Speaker

December 3, 1855

Four Political Factions Vie To Elect Their Candidate As Speaker Of The House

Amidst the growing turmoil in Kansas, the 34th Congress convenes on December 3, 1855.  

It is marked by a dramatic turnover in the House, resulting from the Democrat’s loss of 75 seats in the mid-term voting and the near collapse of the Whig Party.

U.S. House Make-Up: December 1856
Party Coalitions# Seats
“Opposition Party”54
Anti-Nebraska/Free Soil37

The first order of business lies in selecting a Speaker, and each of the four factions puts forward their candidates. 

For the Democrats, the leading contender is William Richardson of Illinois, a close ally of Stephen Douglas, and best known for driving the Kansas-Nebraska through the lower chamber.  

The “Opposition Party,” consisting mainly of ex-Whigs, are split between two men, Henry Fuller of Pennsylvania, and Alexander Pennington of New Jersey.  

The Know-Nothings lack a clear front-runner. Some back “Bobbin Boy” Nathaniel Banks, erstwhile Republican, who begins as a mill worker, enters politics as a Democrat, breaks with the party over the Nebraska Bill, and joins the anti-slavery wing of the American Party in time for its 1856 sweep in Massachusetts. Others favor Southern options, notably Kentucky’s Humphrey Marshall, Felix Zollicofer of Tennessee and James Ricaud of Maryland. 

The Anti-Nebraska members are behind the Free-Soiler, Lewis Campbell, of Ohio, whose fiery rhetoric against the Douglas’s bill provokes a physical assault by a democratic opponent from Virginia. 

Major Candidates For Speaker Of The House: 34th Congress
Party Coalitions CandidatesStateTerm #
DemocratsWilliam Richardson
James Orr
William Aiken, Jr.
Thomas J. D. Fuller
John Wheeler
South Carolina
South Carolina
New York
“Opposition Party” Henry Fuller
Alexander Pennington
New Jersey
Know-NothingsNathaniel Banks
Benjamin Thurston
Humphrey Marshall
James B. Ricaud
Felix Zollicofer
Rhode Island
Anti-Nebraska/Free SoilLewis D. CampbellOhio4th

The traditional House rule demands that a Speaker win a majority of the votes cast on any given ballot, and the only person even remotely close on the opening count is William Richardson, with 38% of the total. 

First Ballot Cast For Speaker: December 3, 1855 
RepresentativesParty# Votes
William A. RichardsonDemocrat74
Lewis D. CampbellAnti-Nebraska53
Nathaniel BanksKnow-Nothing30
Henry FullerOpposition21
Alexander PenningtonOpposition17
16 Others—- 2

From this initial ballot forward it becomes clear that none of the four-party factions are willing to budge.  

A total of thirty-three separate votes are taken over six days. 

Session DaysFirstSecondThirdFourthFifthSixth
# Votes Taken456666

The first break comes after Ballot #23, when Lewis Campbell, who has actually surpassed Richardson on Ballot #14, drops from contention. By Ballot #30, it becomes clear that the bulk of his Anti-Nebraska/Free Soils support has shifted to another Northerner, Nathaniel Banks.  

Ballots Cast For Speaker Of The House: #14 — #30 
Know NothingsParty#14#23#24#30
William A. RichardsonDemocrat74 737473
Lewis D. CampbellAnti-Nebraska81 751
Nathaniel BanksKnow-Nothing8104198
Henry FullerOpposition21161928
Humphrey MarshallKnow-Nothing13000
Alexander PenningtonOpposition59184
All Others—-213667 16
Total223 220219 219 
February 2, 1856

Nathaniel Banks Is Finally Chosen By Plurality

Nathaniel Banks (1816-1894)

Banks continues to add supporters, and reaches 107 votes by Ballot #41, just six shy of the required majority. 

Ballots Cast For Speaker Of The House: #31 — #41 
Know NothingsParty#31#41
Nathaniel BanksKnow-Nothing99107
William A. RichardsonDemocrat7274
Henry FullerOpposition2928
All Others—-2116

But this is followed by a prolonged stalemate, lasting well over a month. On Ballot #115, Bank’s total has dropped to 88 votes and roughly 30 members decide against even casting their ballots.    

Ballots Cast For Speaker Of The House: #95 — #115
Know NothingsParty#95#115
Nathaniel BanksKnow-Nothing10188
William A. RichardsonDemocrat7365
Henry FullerOpposition2929
All Others—-11 13
Total214 195

The logjam is finally broken after Ballot #122 when the Democrat William Richardson withdraws, and Fuller’s support begins to fade. The South Carolina Democrat, James Orr picks up Richardson’s supporters, while James Ricaud, a Maryland Know-Nothing reaches a momentary high. 

Ballots Cast For Speaker Of The House: #122 — #123 
Know NothingsParty122123
Nathaniel BanksKnow Nothing9096 
William A. RichardsonDemocrat65
Henry FullerOpposition3012
James OrrDemocrat068 
James RicaudKnow  Nothing018 

The next shift occurs after Ballot #129, when Orr give way to another South Carolinian, William Aiken, Jr., owner of the mammoth rice plantation on Jehossee Island. Aiken also adds votes from Henry Fuller, in an evidently last-ditch effort to prevent Banks from winning. 

At this point, all sides have had enough, and the Know-Nothings and Democrats agree to hold three more ballots and, if no one achieves a majority, to settle the matter based on a plurality.  

On February 2, 1856, sixty-one days after polling began, the Know Nothing Nathaniel Banks wins the Speakership by a narrow 103-100 margin on Ballot #133. This surpasses the 63 ballots required to elect Howell Cobb in 1849, as one of the longest races in history. 

Final Ballots Cast For Speaker: #129 — #133 
Know Nothings Party129130131132133
Nathaniel BanksKnow Nothing99102102102103
William Aiken, Jr.Democrat0939392100
Henry FullerOpposition341414136
James OrrDemocrat690000
Total210 215 215 213214

In the end it appears that Banks victory traces to several factors: the current popularity of his Know-Nothing Party; his prior association with the anti-slavery wing of the Free Soil movement; and his regional appeal as a Northern Yankee, ready to blunt Southern wishes if need be. None of these reasons bode well for Franklin Pierce and the Democrats.

Sidebar: A Recap Of “High-Water” Vote Totals In The 1856 Race For Speaker

A total of fourteen different politicians enjoy serious levels of support, albeit often momentary, for the position of Speaker. Five of them – Banks, Aiken, Campbell, Richardson and Orr – gather upwards of one-third of total votes cast along the way. 

Top Vote Counts For Serious Speakership Contenders (1855-56)
Know NothingsStateTermPrior PartyHighest VoteOn Ballot #
Nathaniel BanksMass 2nd Free Soil103133
Humphrey MarshallKy. 3rd Whig304
James RicaudMd. 1st Whig18123
Felix ZollicoferTenn 2nd Whig1523
William R. SmithAla 3rd Democrat14 16
Benjamin ThurstonR.I. 4th Democrat826
William Aiken, Jr.S.C. 2nd Democrat100133
William A. RichardsonIll 4th Democrat785
James L. OrrS.C. 4th Democrat69129 
Thomas J.D. FullerMaine 4th Democrat1912
John WheelerN.Y. 2nd Democrat13 21
Henry FullerPenn 2nd Whig4157
Alexander PenningtonN.J. 2nd Whig2021
Anti-Nebraska/Free Soil
Lewis D. CampbellOhio 4th Whig8114