The Democrats and Republicans in the House were doing everything they could think of to force the hands of their opponents into appointing the House Speaker. However, no one could secure the majority number of votes to take over the position. The crisis reached a breaking point when a congressman actually suggested that everyone from the House resign in order eliminate the issue entirely. With every passing day, party lines became clearer and our Loco‐Focos were at the core of the anti‐slavery Republican movement.
Why was there a speakership crisis? How did the House overcome the crisis? What happened to the Loco‐Focos in the 1850’s? Did the speakership crisis just serve as a foreshadowing of the trouble to come for the U.S.?
Wilentz, Sean. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2005.
Bigelow, John. William Cullen Bryant. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. 1980. (Original printing: 1890).
Brooks, Corey M. Liberty Power: Antislavery Third Parties and the Transformation of American Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2016.
00:03 Anthony Comegna: In December 1855 American politics was a mess. The Whig party was practically dead, and any remaining Whigs were so in name only, many simply called themselves the opposition party. In the vacuum the Democratic Party clung to power, but was left without any legitimacy. The xenophobic and nationalistic American or know nothing party, rocketed to national prominence almost out of nowhere, literally emerging from secret societies of fearful nativists and the Free Soil Party, was now wholly dissolved into the Republican Party, just two years old. Their first major test of staying power was not a presidential or midterm election. The real test was a party’s ability to rango factions in Congress. Kansas and Nebraska occupied center stage of course, and divided up the body accordingly, about one third of the new house were pro‐Kansas, Nebraska, Democrats and two thirds opposed admitting new slave states. Two‐thirds of the anti‐Nebraska contingent were Know‐Nothings. So, if Democrats could force them to vote with Southern interests they would forever kill free soil, if the Americans voted Republican though, it would mean certain revolution. Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
01:38 Anthony Comegna: As the new house gathered in Washington in December 1855, anti‐slavery activists and party organizers knew exactly how important the speakership contest would be. They did not know that they were in for the longest speakership crisis in American history. It was also the key moment when American party nativism gave way to the Republican Parties’ anti‐slavery, consolidating our old Loco‐Focos and former Whigs into a stable coalition. The Democrats nominated Illinois doughface William Richardson and remember a doughface was a northerner, who would essentially sell out their anti‐slavery voters to satisfy Southern allies.
02:23 Anthony Comegna: It was an explicit shot at the anti‐Nebraska majority, perhaps taken to agitate the partisan divide between nativists and Republicans. Neither new parties’ leadership would allow for a joint nominee. That would undermine their own parties’ claim to major status, district to district though, many representatives were elected by the strength of both nativist and anti‐slavery votes. So any individual members loyalties could not necessarily be counted on by their party. The era of Van Buren’s old, highly disciplined party system was long gone by the winter of 1855. Balloting began with a dismal first place showing. Ex‐Whig and nativist Louis Campbell received only 53 votes, a new speaker needed well over 100. The next week, Massachusetts’ Nathaniel P. Banks crossed the 100 vote threshold, but still fell 11 short. Another week and he picked up a few more, but still not enough. A majority of the Know Nothing faction was holding fast to their man from Pennsylvania, Henry Fuller.
03:31 Anthony Comegna: Richardson, Banks and Fuller tilted for 133 ballots all the way into February. Americans and Republicans cast about for potential replacements, or compromise candidates and a committee of Banks men, plotted strategy every night. Factions did all the arm‐twisting of their own colleagues as possible, and then turned on their constituents. Republicans contacted northern Know Nothing voters and begged them to petition their representatives to vote for Banks as speaker. As Southerners took the floor to threaten secession, Northerners howled at them with laughter, and proceeded to suggest ways they might actually break the stalemate. Once again, every wild and anti‐democratic tactic was on the table. Vote by plurality to lower the necessary threshold, or how about deliberately leaving the speakership unoccupied, and devolving the duties on the Ways and Means and foreign policy committees.
04:27 Anthony Comegna: Or constant alphabetical voting for one member after another until one received the majority. Some suggested making the house as physically uncomfortable as possible, turning off the heat, banning blankets, food and drinks, so members would either quit or submit. And the most glorious suggestion of all, the entire house resigns in mass leaving the country without a congress.
04:53 Anthony Comegna: I can barely get the words out, the prospect is so exhilarating. And as one sly old anti‐slavery man remarked, “That would be fine, if President Pierce also resigned.” But the new Republicans were ready for this period of political warfare and their personalities were well composed for it in one respect or another. One night in a move to force their opponents hands, the Democrats refused to vote for adjournment, accepting the challenge Republicans joined in and also refused to adjourn. The day’s session dragged on for 21 hours into late the next morning. One Republican wrote from the floor that Democrats had been drinking all night long and were thoroughly besotted by morning. Meanwhile, the Banks men were dry as a meeting of the Temperance Society. Drunk and angry at their failure, the Democrats caved and adjourned for some sleep. To the long time anti‐slavery politician Joshua Giddings it was a spectacle of moral sublimity for the whole country to see. Over and over again, for weeks more the house hopelessly voted in pursuit of a speaker and while none was produced the representatives were engaged also in the priceless work of constructing a new party system to organize all of this chaos.
06:11 Anthony Comegna: Giddings wrote to his son Grotius that the speakership crisis was the most exhilarating contest, a wonderful opportunity to discover their true political friends, a band of union for those engaged in it, the more ballots, the more drawn out the struggle, the better. He wrote that the lines between parties were hardening into place according to the slavery question more so than anything else. And for Giddings this was when we got our party founded, consolidated and established. A feat of far more importance than the election of a speaker. But finally, on February 2nd, Democrats thought they spied yet another way of electing their man. They switched out candidates, dumping Richardson for the South Carolinian, William Aiken. They believed Aiken could pull enough Know Nothing votes from Fuller to kick him out of the race, and let Know Nothings cleanly ally with the democracy.
07:09 Anthony Comegna: The house voted for a plurality rule, but the Democrat’s gamble backfired, Banks finally won with 103 votes to Aiken’s 100. The victory was glorious, unmatched by any other in the history of political anti‐slavery. Thurlow Weed exulted in it declaring the Republican Party is now inaugurated. For Horace Greeley the speakership struggle was in fact the commencement of a new era in our history. These former leaders in the anti‐Masonic and Whig parties should have known too, they had spent two lifetimes performing the most intricate of political calculations, while sparring against rivals like Van Buren, and most of the time they lost. Winning then tasted especially good accompanied by the knowledge that the Republican Party was here to stay. Move over Know Nothings, the Know Somethings are running the show. And from Chicago to Bangor Maine, citizens fired 103 gun salutes in Banks’ honor. One for every vote wrung from the slave power over the last three decades.
08:19 Anthony Comegna: But who were these Republicans? They proved themselves in Congress and came within two states of winning the presidency the next year in the election of 1856. But what exactly has happened to our Loco‐Foco Movement in the meantime? Where did early libertarianism fit into this new party system? Well, our heroes were the very heart and soul of this new organization, along with the stragglers from the old Liberty Party, The Loco‐Foco Democrats were the most hardcore anti‐slavery Republicans, and their dedication earned the respect of new converts. Their numbers were strong enough to force the Republicans to tamp down their nationalist Whig economics and ramp up their anti‐slavery. They were the Republican’s answer to the Know Nothings. The Loco‐Foco Republicans knew plenty and they had spent decades putting it all before the people.
09:18 Anthony Comegna: It takes us slightly backward in our timeline, but to give you an idea of where a Loco‐Foco political and intellectual activism was going, we turned to media coverage of their movements earlier in 1855, well before the speakership crisis helped solidify the Republican coalition. Hoping to begin peeling away Know Nothings, Ohio Free Soilers, borrowed our original New Yorkers phraseology founding the independent order of the friends of equal rights or Know Somethings. They mocked the American parties origins as a secret society while embracing a measure of their anti‐Catholicism. And remember this kind of bigotry was common among Loco‐Focos, like even Walt Whitman who believed Catholics were slavishly devoted to church hierarchy. From Ohio the Know Somethings spread out to other states and caught on, especially in Massachusetts and New York. The New Yorkers held their own small convention in the summer of ’55.
10:22 Speaker 2: New York Daily Tribune. On August 3, 1855, the Know Something fusion. On Tuesday of this week, pursuant to concerted arrangement, the two bodies of Know Somethings of this state, the New York Grand Lodge, and the New York Grand Council, the Choctaws or Jonathan’s met at Rochester, for the purpose of bringing about a union or what is now the popular term, A Fusion. The attendance on both sides was very fair, in fact large for this season of the year, and among both organizations there were many of the solid men of the State having a common object, common principles and looking now to a common head, the national organization formed at Cleveland in June. There seemed to be not only great propriety but an actual necessity to condense these two state lodges into one. Committees were appointed in each body to hold a conference and report terms and in the intermission, the usual business in regard to the workings of order was attended to.
11:27 Speaker 2: In a short time the committees reported as the basis of fusion the national platform making the Temperance Clause a good deal stronger and recommending this as the platform of the united body, when the Fusion should be complete. This platform as amended is as follows: State platform of the Know Somethings of New York, as servility to the slave power characterizes the national organizations of the existing political parties and as this servility is perilous both to the manhood of the north and the liberty of the Republic, we declare first, that the issue before the American people is whether freedom shall be limited to the free states or whether slavery shall be limited to the slave states. Second, that this issue has been forced upon the country by the slave power by repeated aggressions and by acts which have violated National faith, solemn compacts and sacred covenants.
12:25 Speaker 2: Third, that these aggressions, especially the Nebraska outrage with the brutal assault upon the elective franchise in Kansas have aroused the Freemen of the Republic to a just sense of their duty and their danger. And though they will invade no right of any state, they will maintain every right of freedom and resist the admission of another slave state, or the addition of another foot of slave soil. Fourth, that we shall meet this issue thus forced upon us in the spirit our fathers met the issue of their day and believing as they believed that rightfully man can hold no property in man. We will maintain the nationality of freedom. Fifth, that freedom being one in aim and end the world over, the friends of freedom in this republic should make principles and character, not birth place, the test of admission to citizenship and its constitutional rights.
13:25 Speaker 2: And we further declare, sixth, that the right to worship God according to the dictates of individual conscience being inviolable we will labor to strengthen this great immunity through wise state laws, but we will repel every politico‐ecclesiastical interference in political affairs by potentate, pontiff or priest or their abettors as destructive alike of this right and our common liberty. Seventh, that we are opposed to the repeal of the prohibitory liquor law of this state or to any modification thereof, except such as experience and its workings clearly show to be necessary to its efficient and thorough enforcement. Eighth, that free schools, free labor the improvement of rivers and harbors, an honest republican official representation abroad, all measures that tend to elevate man, establish the material prosperity of the country and give stability to the union shall receive our hearty support.
14:28 Speaker 2: Ninth, that to ensure practical success, we will strive to fill all offices with men of undoubted integrity and sobriety, of ability and of nerve to resist aggression upon right come when, where, or in what shape it may. Tenth, that for these objects, vital alike to humanity and the Republic we are ready to unite with all men under whatever name or organization who will aid us in carrying into successful operation these great principles. This platform was eminently satisfactory and was adopted in both bodies without a dissenting voice. The committees also reported in part as to the details of union, but nothing was done at the evening session except speech‐making on trifling points.
15:19 Anthony Comegna: A few months later Free Soil pioneer, Salmon Chase use the Know Something movement to win election as Governor of Ohio, gaining significant numbers of nativist votes without having to adjust the Republican platform in their favor. The tactic proved wildly successful during the speakership crisis. The Know Somethings with all their devotion to Loco‐Foco economics, and a sharply limited state with their new mix of cultural conservatism, and anti‐slavery radicalism, they helped to fine the new Republican party for better and for worse, in ways, almost entirely overlooked.
16:03 Speaker 2: On Wednesday morning a more elaborate and perfect arrangement of the plan was reported, it was in effect abdication of the Grand Council, they coming into and adopting the Constitution, ritual and work of the Grand Lodge. And as soon as possible, assimilating the organizations throughout the state and at the semi‐annual session soon to be held to elect a single set of grand officers. This completely satisfied all parties and was adopted in each body with perfect unanimity and boisterous approbation. At noon, the united bodies met as a state convention, for the purpose of adopting resolutions, more especially referring to state matters, not withstanding the departure of a considerable number of representatives there was still a large attendance. A proper committee on business was raised and the convention adjourned for dinner.
16:56 Speaker 2: On reassembling, the committee reported the following resolutions of the joint convention of Know Somethings of the State of New York. Whereas the great practical bane of national policy now before the people is whether freedom or slavery shall dictate the action and shape the accomplishments of our government, whether the progress of freedom or of slavery shall be arrested and whereas this issue has been forced upon the country by the unreasonable demands and unwarrantable aggressions of the slave power aided by the votes of representatives who were recreant to the true principles of their constituents and in view of the recent outrage upon freedom by the National Congress in the repeal of the Missouri Compact, by the pro‐slavery men of Missouri, in their armed invasion of Kansas and crushing out of the sacred right of franchise, the great safeguard of liberty.
17:51 Speaker 2: And finally, the recent full consummation of that outrage by the President in the removal of Governor Reeder, the only official opponent of the Missouri invaders. For these and other enumerated reasons resolved that the aim of national and state legislation should be on all occasions the advancement of complete civil and religious liberty and to circumscribe, restrict and ultimately annihilate the system of legal human bondage. Resolved, that we will in every lawful manner to the utmost of our ability oppose the admission into this union of any more slave states, or any Slave Territory whatsoever. Resolved, that inasmuch as man cannot hold property in man, we will labor earnestly for the repeal of all laws which compel the subjugation to the condition of chattels or slaves of any persons found within the jurisdiction of a free state, whether their presence there be voluntary or involuntary. Resolved, that intemperance is a public evil, perilous alike to the best interests of society and the stability of the republic over which, as such, the legislative power of the state may be legitimately exercised.
19:08 Speaker 2: That past experience demonstrates the efficiency of prohibition in its suppression and we will therefore, firmly maintain at the prohibitory law now upon our statute books, nor consent to any amendment or modification thereof, except such as shall manifestly tend to strengthen and perfect its efficiency, and power. Resolved, that principles and character, not birthplace, should be the test of admission to citizenship, that in guarding against the insidious wiles of foreign influence, we but obey the recommendation of the immortal Washington, the founder and preserver of the republic, that while we welcome to our fire sides, the oppressed of all nations, we are admonished to protect those fire sides from the intrusion of the depraved and prejudiced. That inviting the intelligent and the upright to participate in the institutions handed down to us by our forefathers.
20:07 Speaker 2: It is our duty to maintain those institutions in their full purity, that any political religious interference in temporal affairs, which tends to a union of Church and State, is at war with the fundamental principles upon which alone a free state can have a lengthened existence and that in the selection of public officers, those only should have a voice whose education will permit them to exercise their judgments regardless of priestly dictation or religious prejudice. Resolved, that the subordinate councils and lodges, be urgently requested to labor diligently and harmoniously for the selection and advancement of men who will firmly, consistently, and warmly labor to carry out the principles embodied in the foregoing resolutions.
20:57 Speaker 2: After a very brief discussion these resolutions were adopted by acclamation, and with the utmost enthusiastic cheers. A little business of no public importance followed and at 5 o’clock, the joint convention adjourned. The original grand bodies immediately reassembled in their separate halls, finished the routine business of the session, and at sunset both had adjourned without delay. The whole affair has been conducted with the most perfect harmony and good feeling, and as a consequence, the parties interested feel not a little elated at this latest accomplishment in the great fusion movement in favor of freedom, now in progress throughout the north. The news of Governor Reeder’s removal came just on the assembling of the conventions and created a profound sensation, as it was not generally believed that the president of a professedly free people would dare to bend so abjectly to the dictation of the slave oligarchy. Yours, Viator.
22:03 Anthony Comegna: The rise of a Know Something movement, Chase’s election as Governor of Ohio, Banks’ eventual election as Speaker of the House, John C. Fremont’s near election as president, the continued spilling of blood in Kansas, hints and helpers bombshell publication of the impending crisis of the South, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. At every step, the country came closer to civil war. Our old Loco‐Focos further dissolved into the major two parties, many of our original actors from New York’s Equal Rights Party of the 1830s, the door war and the Free Soil movement of the 1840s, they were simply dead by now, many others shed their youthful radicalism and became either incremental reformists or even conservatives, now quite comfortable in the Democratic Party. Most though, seem to have filtered into the new Republican ranks. It’s impossible to fix a number on the Loco‐Focos at any point in their history but one thing in the record is abundantly clear, as the 1850s dragged on, the word itself, fell out of popular usage.
23:13 Anthony Comegna: As their new party rose to major status, our Loco‐Focos now actually had what they’d been searching for since all the way back to the Working Men’s parties of 1828, and all it would cost them was their identity as an independent movement. For most the trade was fine, they loved democracy after all and they’d been slowly compromising their principles for decades trying to strike the right political notes. Abram Smith, our former president of Canada and the greatest of nullifiers, not only supported Lincoln, but worked for the administration in the South Carolina Sea Islands during the war. William Cullen Bryant and Leggett’s successor John Bigelow were among the most important unelected Republicans in the country. Frances Whipple our historian of the door war and California spirit medium delivered her famous funeral oration to champion abolition and later mourned Lincoln’s assassination in an epic poem about America’s libertarian manifest destiny.
24:21 Anthony Comegna: Walt Whitman fell deeply in love with Lincoln as a statesman and wept for his martyrdom. Even Martin Van Buren once again, abandoned his precious democracy to support the new president’s war effort. Politically Loco‐Foco‐ism was officially dead, killed by their own hands at the ballot box, replaced with compromise on all fronts. If anyone was left out there who held to Leggett’s plumb line Loco‐Foco‐ism and despised the way political parties diluted radical ideas. They would have to find another home for their activism and another word for their identities. Next week, we turn to perhaps the most important person in keeping the Loco‐Foco tradition alive and thriving after the third‐party system took shape. Lysander Spooner who showed us that libertarians can have their message echo across the ages without ever compromising with the state.
25:33 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes, for more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.