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Art & History

The Opening of the 34th Congress

December 03, 1855

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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Office of History and Preservation, Office of the Clerk, http://clerk.house.gov/art_history/highlights.html?action=view&intID=260, (December 02, 2010).

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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). Oil on canvas, Robert W. Vonnoh, 1887, Collection of U.S. House of Representatives

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