As Republicans continue to battle over the House Speakership, it’s easy to forget that we’ve been here before–in the 19th century.
The position was last contested this fiercely during the decades of sectional conflict that culminated in the Civil War.
The longest, toughest race to-date occurred in 1856. It took 133 ballots for the House of Representative to elect Massachusetts Republican and future Union General Nathaniel Prentiss Banks.
Yet even those fights came decades after 1789, when the newly formed House elected its first Speaker.
As the nation’s representatives struggle to determine their chamber’s future, a glance backward at that initial decision may offer some lessons, particularly for those who wonder what the Founders would make of our current situation.
Notably, the then-new Constitution did not require the Speaker to be an elected representative.
Article 1, Sec. 2 of the document merely states that “The House of Representatives shall chuse [choose] their Speaker and other Officers.”
Although former President Donald Trump has repeatedly affirmed his support for Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in McCarthy’s bid for Speaker, nothing in that Article 1, Sec. 2 language precludes him from serving in the role himself–a possibility raised with Rep. Matt Gaetz’s (R-Fla.) Jan. 5 vote for Trump as Speaker.
First Speaker a Minister
Our nation’s very first Speaker was a man of the cloth.
Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg was born in Pennsylvania in 1750, the son of German Lutheran pastor Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, namesake of Muhlenberg College and a founding father of American Lutheranism. His brother, John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg, would go on to serve as a general during the Revolutionary War.
He went to Germany at age 13 to be educated. His learning culminated in the study of theology at the University of Halle. After almost seven years, he returned to the New World and, in 1770, became a Lutheran pastor in his home colony.
One scholar, Oswald Seidensticker, described Muhlenberg’s experience of preaching to a crowd not far from the Susquehanna River in 1771, when central Pennsylvania was much more rugged and remote:
“Before the sermon, Muhlenberg baptized eighteen children. The service in this wilderness–the motley crowd seated upon the ground and rising for prayer, their devout demeanor and chant–had a solemnity of its own, which much impressed the young preacher. Sixty persons took part in the communion.”
A brief stint as a minister in colonial New York City ended in 1776; the young patriot left with his family when it became clear the British were on the verge of capturing it.
After serving in the Continental Congress during 1779 and 1780, Muhlenberg was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. He was also its Speaker from 1780 through 1783.
That experience prepared him to serve as the House’s first Speaker, at a time before formal political parties existed.
His rise likely reflected Mid-Atlantic Pennsylvania’s quest for greater sectional power in the emerging federal government. The South had President George Washington, while New England had Vice President John Adams.
Meanwhile, the location of the new country’s capital had yet to be decided.
“If it [Pennsylvania] could win the speakership, its chances of winning the capital would be enhanced,” wrote political scientist Ronald Peters in his 1990 book “The American Speakership: The Office in Historical Perspective.”
On a personal level, Muhlenberg was seen as moderate, dignified and fair.
Partisanship Quickly Reigned
The Annals of Congress record the pivotal moment when Muhlenberg became Speaker. It took place in New York City’s Federal Hall, where the House held its first session.
On April 1, 1789, enough members had reached the meeting to form a quorum. The House resolved to choose a speaker by ballot, quickly settling on Muhlenberg.
After winning, “Mr. Muhlenberg was conducted to his chair, from whence he made his acknowledgements to the House for so distinguished an honor.”
The new role Muhlenberg occupied little resembles the one being fought over today. Fundraising chops and power over committees, the meat and potatoes of modern party politics, would prove more relevant to the decision as the party system gradually took hold.
“In the days of Muhlenberg, the speakership was not fundamentally a partisan office. In the contemporary Congress, the organization of the chamber is fundamentally partisan, and the Speaker is chosen precisely because of her or his relationship to the party organization,” wrote political scientists Jeff Jenkins and Charles Stewart in their 2013 book “Fighting for the Speakership: The House and the Rise of Party Government.”
In later Congresses, Muhlenberg would fall victim to intensifying partisan conflict.
Muhlenberg’s 1793 bid to be Speaker of the House in the Third Congress succeeded, but only after three ballots.
Once a supporter of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton’s faction, he had joined the nascent party of Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and James Madison that would be known as the Democratic-Republicans. His rival in that 1793 speakership contest, Massachusetts’ Theodore Sedgwick, represented Hamilton’s new Federalists, and would go on to serve as Speaker in the Fourth Congress.
Muhlenberg’s fall came in 1796, when he was no longer Speaker. As a committee chair, he bucked his party to cast the tiebreaking vote that financed the controversial Jay’s Treaty between the United States and Great Britain. Also called the Treaty of Amity Commerce and Navigation, it was seen by some as a betrayal of revolutionary ideals.
While the Federalists backed the treaty, Thomas Jefferson and others in Muhlenberg’s party strongly opposed it, viewing it as overly deferential to the new country’s former masters.
Muhlenberg’s vote so outraged his brother-in-law, Bernard Schaeffer, that he stabbed the Congressman on the streets of Philadelphia.
Muhlenberg would go on to lose his seat later that year.