A History of Party Evolutions
The Unexplored Side of the Speaker Battle
On Friday, January 6, the House of Representatives finally selected Kevin McCarthy as the next speaker. It took 15 ballots. Much ink has been spilled describing the chaotic circus that was the House floor last week. I won’t rehash it here, but I will say that my jaw actually fell open as Rep. Richard Hudson put his hand over Rep. Mike D. Rogers’s face to pull him away and prevent a fistfight.
Aside from the sheer insanity of the moment, it was obviously a historic week. You’ve probably seen this Washington Post graphic that was floating around, depicting the length of speaker races. One quick note, in 2023, the House cast between 3-4 votes for speaker per day. In 1855, they were much slower. If they had employed the same pace, it would have been just over a month.
While history never repeats itself, these historic parallels are informative and can help us better understand our current moment. I’ve read excellent commentary from some of my favorite historians, including this piece on the 1923 battle by Christopher Nichols and Maxine Wagenhoffer:
This piece by Joanne Freeman also reminds us of the stakes. Yes, the ridiculous behavior is entertaining, and I will admit to savoring the schadenfreude. But it’s also serious:
But as I look at the graph, one historical element jumps out at me and I haven’t really seen it mentioned anywhere, so I wanted to share it with you today. All these contested races came at times when the existing party structure was in flux. New parties were emerging, old ones were crumbling, or existing structures were significantly weakened by intraparty factionalism.
Let’s walk through the races and I’ll show you what I mean:
The 1790s are especially interesting because they show the beginnings of the two-party system and the emergence of the speaker as a thing. 1793 was the first year that President George Washington experienced real criticism. France had declared war on Great Britain and the conflict threatened to drag the United States into the global war. Democratic-Republicans and Federalists had increasingly disagreed on the French Revolution, and they split again over whether the U.S. should or should not provide support to France. The Democratic-Republican Party further fractured internally over France and neutrality.
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In 1799, the two-party system had hardened, but the Federalist Party had experienced its own discord. In February 1799, President John Adams had nominated another peace commission to negotiate with France. Adams’s allies and the Democratic-Republicans favored a diplomatic solution to the Quasi-War with France. The High Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, Timothy Pickering, and their allies in Essex County, Massachusetts, preferred to pursue war, and the large standing army that it would require.
The following year, these simmering tensions would burst into the open when some Federalists opposed Adams’s reelection for president. The divisions in the party contributed to Democratic-Republican victory in the 1800 election.
Jefferson’s election as president was accompanied by a Republican wave, leaving his party in control of both chambers of Congress and the executive branch. While the Republicans were ascendant, that didn’t mean they were always unified. [Note: they called themselves Republicans, but this was not the Republican Party that emerged in the 1850s or the one today.]
The next two contested speaker races, in 1805 and 1809, reflect the divisions within Jefferson’s Party between the more moderate wing (like James Madison) and the more radical wing (characterized by John Randolph). Different factions of the party also disagreed over key policies, like the Embargo of 1807, which decimated the economy and hit certain regions particularly hard. Nonetheless, these races were both decided on the 2nd and 3rd ballots, so they weren’t as lengthy as votes that would come later.
Things start to get really exciting in 1819, when it took 22 ballots to elect John W. Taylor. Just two years later, it took 12 ballots, and four years after that John W. Taylor was back in the Speaker’s chair on the 2nd ballot.
This decade was part of the “Era of Good Feelings”—named for the one-party rule that dominated the federal government. The Federalist Party had consistently lost support since the election of 1800, but their threats of secession during the War of 1812 proved to be the final straw. The Federalists put forth a presidential candidate in 1816, but gave up by 1820, and James Monroe ran unopposed for reelection.
The Era of Good Feelings was anything but warm and fuzzy. Most politicians may have considered themselves Democrats by this point, but they agreed on little else. For example, during Monroe’s second term, his cabinet was completely disintegrated over who would succeed him. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Secretary of War William Crawford, Speaker of the House Henry Clay, and war hero Andrew Jackson all ran as Democrats.
That election and the rematch in 1828 between JQA and Jackson were so contentious that it effectively ended one-party rule and produced the beginnings of a new party. In 1828, JQA ran under the “National Republican” umbrella. The nasty election battles paralleled fights in Congress over legislation and congressional leadership.
After Jackson’s victory in 1828, the National Republicans partnered with the “Nullifier” and the “Anti-Masonic” parties to try and defeat Jackson’s agenda and reelection. This coalition coalesced into the Whig Party by 1833. The 1833 and 1839 speaker elections required 10 and 11 ballots, respectively.
By the late 1840s, the Whig and Democratic Parties were beginning to show signs of stress fractures. Regional and ideological divisions, largely prompted by slavery and accompanying economic and power issues, split the party bases. The 1848 election featured a three-way contest between Whig candidate Zachary Taylor, Democratic candidate Lewis Cass, and Free Soiler Martin Van Buren.
The Free Soil Party, which only survived from about 1848 to 1854, (unsurprisingly) opposed the expansion of slavery into the western territories. The fact that it existed demonstrates that neither the Whig nor Democratic Party had taken unified pro or anti-slavery positions, but instead contained supporters of both positions. Accordingly, the 1847 speaker race took 3 ballots, but the 1849 race required 63 ballots!
These divisions only worsened with time. By 1856, the Whig and Free Soil parties had collapsed and formed the nascent Republican Party. A separate party, the Know Nothings, fielded Millard Fillmore as their candidate. The Know Nothing Party was based on a nativist platform and acquired its name from the requirement that its members answer “I know nothing” when asked about the group.
The 1855 race, the one we’ve heard so much about the last few weeks, was decided on the 133rd ballot. But just four years later, it took 44 ballots to choose a speaker. These combative battles were predictably characterized by the divisions over slavery in both Congress and the nation.
The 1923 vote offers an interesting capstone to this little tour. The significant gap between 1859 and 1923 reflected the domination of Republican rule for several decades after the Civil War. Once the Democratic Party reemerged on the national stage, the two-party system was fairly sturdy, despite Theodore Roosevelt’s best efforts to stage a third-party campaign in 1912.
As the article above reveals, divisions between the more conservative and progressive elements of the Republican Party fomented the contentious race. What’s perhaps more surprising is that similar contests didn’t occur in the early 1900s and 1910s, as both Democratic and Republican Parties grappled with progressive and conservative wings of their parties and competed for voters accordingly. Put another way, party divisions or evolutions are correlated with multi-ballot speaker races, but perhaps not sufficient to produce one.
All these lengthy races can’t just be attributed to party changes of course. Rarely does anything in history happen because of just one factor or event. Individual interactions, personalities, economic conditions, and diplomatic pressures shape any given speaker race. But the fact that these contested votes all came at a time when parties were in flux sheds light on our current moment.
Since 1923, the Republican and Democratic Parties have dominated the political scene and created deeply entrenched political networks. When faced with partisan and factional tensions, the existing parties trade, swap, and battle over various constituencies and platform issues, rather than creating new parties. I’m not sure that will be sufficient this time, given the intense partisan divide of the current moment, the increasingly radicalization of the primary process, and the abandonment of certain political norms.
I refuse to make hard predictions because a) historians are bad it, and b) I’m not a political pundit. But it sure seems like the conditions are ripe for us to rethink the party system and consider ways to facilitate other perspectives. And in the meantime, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more multi-ballot speaker votes.
If you are new to my newsletter, thank you! If you’d like to read more, please consider The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.
“Easy on the Doomscrolling: Two Years After January 6, There Are Reasons to Be Hopeful,” Washington Monthly, January 6, 2023.
The Thomas Jefferson Hour, January 10, 2023, #1529: American History with Lindsay Chervinsky (Part Two)
The Thomas Jefferson Hour, January 3, 2023, #1528: American History with Lindsay Chervinsky (Part One)
“Biden’s Cabinet has been a source of stability,” National Journal, January 4, 2023.
“Presidential historian on the release of thousands of previously classified JFK files,” CBS News, December 16, 2022.
“What’s new in thousands of JFK assassination docs released by National Archives?” WCBS 880 Extras, December 16, 2022.
April 12: Mourning the Presidents at the FDR Presidential Library, details to come
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