- - Sunday, November 15, 2015

Now that the process of electing Paul Ryan as the Speaker of the House to replace John Boehner is over, it should be noted that the office in historical terms, in spite of the recent drama in finding a candidate, has attracted little attention. Textbooks on any level of the education hierarchy rarely mention speakers, even in states such as Texas where Sam Rayburn (1882-1961) held the all-time record as speaker for 17 years, two months and two days. And professional historians would be hard-pressed to name more than a handful or two of the 54 who have served since 1789.

To be sure, the office is not a figment of the imagination of the First Congress, for the Constitution mandates a speaker (who doesn’t have to be a member of the House — an option never chosen). But few holders over the years have been noted for rising above and beyond the lower chamber’s gavel. The office falls between a publicity rock (the president) and a hard spot (vice president), no matter that in an exigency the speaker is in line after the veep to succeed to the White House.

The major problem was that speakers represented small state districts and thus had an absolutely impossible task in ascending to what was believed higher office at the time (governorships) or even the White House. Henry Clay of Kentucky (1777-1852) is a classic case in point. Clay was speaker for six Congresses, from 1811 to 1821 and 1823 to 1825. But his two attempts in winning the White House in 1824 and 1832 failed. In fact, only one speaker rose to the presidency, James K. Polk (1795-1849) in 1845, and with that fait accompli, subsequent House members vied for the speakership, with eyes on the White House.

But Polk’s nomination by the Democratic Party and election were flukes. Indeed, Polk was the first dark-horse candidate to win the presidency. And he resigned his two terms as speaker (1835-1837 and 1837-1839) to run for governor of Tennessee, a post he held for only a year before retiring to a private life that was interrupted by the surprise drafting by his party.

The most notable speaker’s race came in 1855-56 when it took two months and 133 ballots to elect Nathaniel P. Banks (1816-1894), again, not a household word, even in the homes of historians. But his rise to the top post in the House was about as complicated a story as the nation’s politics at the time, tangled with a myriad of party names, immigration and slavery matters.



Born in Massachusetts, Banks had an uneventful early life, with work in a cotton factory, with newspapers and then with the study of law. His outstanding trait was a mellifluous voice in this pre-microphone age and an ability to speak articulately. So in 1848 he was elected to the Massachusetts House as a member of the Free Soil Party, which opposed the extension of slavery into the Western territories. Three years later he was elected speaker and was reelected a year later.

In 1853 Banks became a member of the U.S. House, again as a Free Soil party member. When that party soon faded, he joined the American or Know-Nothing Party, a nativist group opposed to immigration. Still, Banks kept his allegiance to antislavery views as an American party member and in 1855 became a member of the newly emerging Republican Party.

Banks’ one-time affiliation with nativism didn’t help his rise in the 34th Congress that convened for the first time on Dec. 3, 1855. Democrats prevailed in the House. And by putting his hat in the ring for the speakership, it led to a protracted debate and record balloting to Feb. 2, 1856, although in the final analysis most members opposed to slavery backed Banks. A total of 21 individuals vied for the post, with Banks defeating Democrat William Aiken of South Carolina by the razor-thin margin of 103 to 100.

Although reelected speaker in 1856, Banks resigned his seat a year later, lured to run for the more prestigious office, governor of Massachusetts, serving to 1860. In that same year presidential election fever overcame him, but his past membership as a member of the American Party did him in, no matter his speaking ability, with Abraham Lincoln emerging as the GOP’s candidate.

Afterwards, Banks turned to business for his livelihood, becoming a director of the Illinois Central Railroad in Chicago, then service as an officer in the Civil War and subsequently as a member of Congress once more and a U.S. Marshall — and, like most speakers, as a member of the historically obscure.

Thomas V. DiBacco, professor emeritus at American University, is lead co-author of “History of the United States” (McDougall Littell, 1997), a high school text still in print.

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