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Art & History

Weekly Historical Highlights (November 30 through December 6)

December 1, 1879

The House arrived for the second session of the 46th Congress (1879?1881) in 1879 to improved ventilation in the House Chamber.
On this date, the 2nd Session of the 46th Congress (1879–1881) convened. Speaker Samuel Randall of Pennsylvania gaveled in the House at noon and began to conduct a number of congressional housekeeping tasks. First the Clerk called the roll call and a quorum of the 293 Members answered present. The House continued its business by swearing in six new Members: two from special elections (Waldo Hutchins of New York and William Thompson of Iowa) and the four Members from the California delegation who were elected in September (C.P. Berry, Horace Davis, H. F. Page, and Romualdo Pacheco). As was tradition, Congress received the annual message, submitted in writing, from President Rutherford B. Hayes. The House then adjourned for the day. While Congress had taken recess after the first session, the Architect of the Capitol made improvements to the ventilation in the House Chamber and created what is now known as the Speaker’s Lobby and Members’ Retiring Room. Multiple walls and offices were removed from the area outside the south wall of House Chamber (behind the Speaker’s rostrum) to create one large, open room. Portraits of Speakers of the House were first formally displayed in the lobby at the turn of the century.

December 2, 1875

Former Representative William M. ?Boss? Tweed eventually ran the Tammany Hall political machine, which controlled New York Democratic politics.
On this date, former Congressman William M. Tweed of New York escaped from prison in New York City. With an assignment on the Committee on Invalid Pensions, Tweed served one lackluster term as a Representative from a Bronx-based district in the 33rd Congress (1853–1855), voting in favor of the Kansas–Nebraska Act. He then devoted himself to New York politics, holding numerous offices including a stint in the state senate and on the New York City board of supervisors. “Boss” Tweed acquired most of his power in the 1860s and 1870s by running Tammany Hall, the New York organization that controlled Democratic nominations. In 1874, he was found guilty of embezzling millions of dollars from state and city government contracts to line his pockets and those of his supporters. Sentenced to 12 years imprisonment, Tweed was incarcerated at the Blackwell Island prison. By prison standards, he maintained the lavish lifestyle to which he had become accustomed as the city’s most powerful political figure: resting on a spring board mattress and adorning his cell with a velvet sofa and library books. Tweed’s sentence was subsequently reduced. Freed after one year, he was immediately re-arrested to face civil charges. During this second incarceration at the Ludlow Jail—while on a supervised visit to the home of a family member—Tweed escaped. He fled to Cuba and then sailed to Spain, where authorities arrested him as he disembarked and returned him to New York City. Tweed spent his final years in jail. Shortly before his death in 1878 he reportedly said, “My imprisonment will have a moral effect.”

December 3, 1855

Deeply divided over the issue of slavery, the House took 133 ballots and two months to choose Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts (pictured above) as Speaker in the 34th Congress (1855?1857).
On this date, Representatives badly divided over the slavery issue convened in the Old House Chamber (present-day Statuary Hall) to commence the 34th Congress (1855–1857). The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 roiled Washington and increased sectional divisions, and its reverberations profoundly shaped the new Congress. House proceedings immediately bogged down as the chamber faltered in its most basic organizational tasks—highlighted by the longest-ever battle to elect a Speaker. With no party holding a majority of seats (100 Opposition Party, 83 Democrats, and 51 American Party Members), the House adjourned after four unsuccessful attempts to elect a Speaker on opening day. Clerk of the House John Forney presided over what became a drawn-out voting process. Twenty-one individuals initially vied for the position, but as the balloting dragged on some withdrew hoping to end the impasse and begin legislative work. Representative Lewis Campbell of Ohio, an early frontrunner in the contest, submitted to the Congressional Globe a copy of an editorial he wrote to the National Intelligencer concerning the debacle. He withdrew his name, observing, “The struggle to elect a Speaker has been surrounded with much embarrassment.” On February 2, 1856, after two months, Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts became Speaker by a vote of 155 to 40 on the 133rd ballot.

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