The Impending Crisis

Today’s post  was going to be about my plans for 2023, however, the ongoing debacle that is the Speaker of the House election caused me to go in a different direction.

As many of you know, I have a PhD in American history from Columbia University. The first step in that process was obtaining a master’s degree. To achieve that I had to take courses and write a master’s essay. My master’s essay was entitled “A Perceptual study of the Ante-bellum Yeomanry 1820 to 1860.”

I looked at non slaveholding whites in the southern states, analyzing travel narratives and political documents. One of the books I explored was The Impending  Crisis by Hinton R. Helper, published in 1857. The book played a significant role in one of the country’s earlier protracted Speaker contests.

Here is an excerpt from my 1978 master’s essay:

On December 5, 1859, the first session of the thirty-sixth Congress convened in Washington. Three days earlier John Brown had been executed and the atmosphere was extremely tense. A major problem facing the Congress was the lack of a party majority in the House of Representatives. There were 101 Democrats, 109 Republicans and twenty-seven Know Nothings – all but four from the South. There were also a few independents. Many congressmen were armed, and John Branch of North Carolina challenged Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania to a duel.

The tension and potential for violence focused around the selection of a speaker of the house. This position had particular significance since many politicians believe the 1860 presidential election would be decided by the House of Representatives. The speaker, who had wide appointive powers, would obviously play a vital role in such an event. At the end of the first ballot, John Sherman, Republican from Ohio, and Thomas S. Borock, Democrat of Virginia, emerged as the two major candidates. John B Clark of Missouri then introduced a resolution declaring:

“… the doctrines and sentiments of a certain book called “The Impending Crisis of the South – How to Meet It”, purporting to have been written by one Hinton R. Helper, are insurrectionary and hostile to the domestic peace and tranquility of the country, and that no member of this House who has endorsed and recommended it, or the compendium from it is fit to be speaker of this House.”

This resolution served as the basis of a two month debate of the sectional controversy which had confronted the nation for many years.[1]

Because John’s Sherman was an endorser of the compendium, Clark’s resolution was directed against him. Republican responses ranged from complete denouncement of The Impending Crisis to a denial of knowledge of the “true” nature of the book. Since the compendium had been modified, others admitted signing without having ever read the work.

Sherman’s explanation of his position contained several of these arguments, but none were particularly successful in breaking the deadlock. On February 1, 1860, two months into the term, Sherman reluctantly withdrew his candidacy. After forty-four ballots, William Pennington of New Jersey, a member of the People’s Party, was elected.[2]

The speakership contest greatly increased The Impending Crisis’s popularity, but the conflict is important historically for its prefiguring of the succession crisis of 1860-1861. Both the rhetoric and actions of the Southern Democratic congressman tell us much about their fears, concerns, and ideological justifications which are crystallized significantly since 1850 and would ultimately propel the nation towards civil war. …

The level of violence in the Congress rose dramatically and the tenseness of the atmosphere was increased by the fact that some southerners “favored disruption over the issue of John Sherman’s election to the speakership, as the spark which would set off the explosion they desired.” Most southerners did not consider secession as a viable option at this time, but the conflict increased the probability of disunion if a Republican became president.[3]

Hinton Rowan Helper c.1860 Engraving by Alexander Hay Ritchie.

[1] Congressional Globe, 36 Cong., 1st Sess. Washington, 1860, 1-3.

[2] Ibid., 147-148, 546, 548.

[3] Ollinger Crenshaw, “The Speakership Contest of 1859-1860, John Sherman’s Election A Cause of Disruption, “ Mississippi Valley Historical Review, XXIX, o. 3 (December 1942), 336.

© Amy Mittelman 2023. Do not reproduce without the author’s permission.

2 thoughts on “The Impending Crisis”

  1. Who knew your master’s thesis would turn out to have such contemporary relevance. Thanks for posting it.

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