On February 1, 1860, after nearly 40 unsuccessful ballots for Speaker of the House, a forgotten and milquetoast moderate Republican, William Pennington of New Jersey, was chosen for the position in the face of a bitterly divided House of Representatives that was unable to coalesce around any of the more leading Republicans, who were judged as being “too extreme” to command a majority of the votes. Pennington did not cut an impressive figure, and in an ominous historical period, he did not clothe himself with any glory, nor win the lasting renown that has come to notable people with that office throughout the course of history. He is most famous not as an officeholder, but as a symbol of the repercussions of the larger divides within society that were already threatening the health of the American republic.
It is never a good thing when an era’s political symbolism matches with the dangerous period just before the American Civil War. But these are the times in which we live, and so we have to accept that these times carry with them a sense of danger that results from being driven by similar divisive forces. Would it have made a difference in the course of American history if a more resolute member of the 36th Congress, like my favorite Civil War political general, Samuel Ryan Curtis, then a representative from Iowa, later the hero of Pea Ridge and Westport, had served in the office instead? Probably not. The heroism that earned Curtis the lasting appreciation of Union supporters would have been out of place in a deeply divided Congress that accomplished little, not even being able to have a Speaker to conduct business during the first term, and spending most of the latter part of their lame duck session trying desperately to avoid staring the coming Civil War honestly in the face.
It does not follow that a do-nothing Congress is necessarily a bad thing. It is by far preferable that a Congress makes no laws than to make bad laws. For various reasons, politicians often prefer to pass terrible compromises than to let laws fail and deny them the force of precedent and the power of law. If one is in a divided period where it is unclear what the best course of action would be for the people, where passions are heated, and where legitimacy in the institutions of government are lacking, it is better to do nothing and tread water than it is to try to force through one’s own ideas for laws without a clear mandate, simply because one has the opportunity to do so. That was the key mistake of Dred Scott, for example, and it is a mistake that has been frequently repeated.
For now, at least, there is laughing about the disgrace of a barely ruling party being unable to coalesce behind a candidate for Speaker of the House so that the House can get to its business of voting on terrible laws and engaging in grandstanding political theater and the attempt to find something, anything, that would motivate a more decisive swing of the electorate less than two years hence. But as was the case in the late 1850’s as the Civil War came close, the laughter soon turned to mourning easily enough. Will that be the case for our own wicked generation as it was for that of Mr. Pennington and his associates? Only time will tell.