Shortly before seven o’clock in the evening, on Saturday, February 2, 1856, Nathaniel P. Banks of Massachusetts, strode to the well of the House, climbed the rostrum’s few steps to the Speaker’s chair, and sat down. He paused for a moment. With his thick dark hair swept to one side and a prominent mustache obscuring his upper lip, Banks then stood to address his colleagues.
A few minutes earlier, Banks had been elected Speaker for the 34th Congress (1855–1857). He had celebrated his 40th birthday just three days before, but now faced perhaps the toughest job in American politics at the time: leading a House that seemed hopelessly divided. His election as Speaker came almost two months to the day after the House first met on December 3, 1855. Members had cast 132 ballots for Speaker before finally electing Banks on the 133rd.
When he spoke, Banks, a former journalist-turned-lawyer from a town just west of Boston, thanked the House “for the honor” to serve as Speaker, but admitted it was a weighty task. “It would afford me far greater pleasure in taking the chair of the House,” he said, “were I supported even by the self-assurance that I could bring to the discharge of its duties—always arduous and delicate, and now environed with unusual difficulties—any capacity commensurate with their responsibility and dignity.”
What he unassumingly called “unusual difficulties” was, in fact, the fallout from the most chaotic period in House history.