This Thirty-sixth Congress began its session three days after the execution of John Brown, and the election of a Speaker was the first work of the new House of Representatives. The Republicans, not having a majority, made no caucus nomination; but John Sherman, of Ohio, had the largest following on the first ballot, and thereafter received their united efforts to elect him. At this point a Missouri member introduced a resolution declaring: “That 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 [of North Carolina], are insurrectionary and hostile to the domestic peace and tranquillity of the country, and that no member of this House who has indorsed and recommended it, or the compend from it, is fit to be Speaker of this House.”
This resolution was aimed at Sherman, who with some seventy Republicans of the previous Congress had signed a circular indorsing and recommending the book upon the general statement that it was an anti-slavery work, written by a Southerner. The book addressed itself to non-slaveholding Southern whites, and was mainly made up of statistics, but contained occasional passages of intolerant and vindictive sentiment against slaveholders. Whether it could be considered “insurrectionary” depended altogether on the pro-slavery or anti-slavery bias of the critic. Besides, the author had agreed that the obnoxious passages should not be printed in the compendium which the Republicans recommended in their circular. When interrogated, Mr. Sherman replied that he had never seen the book, and that “I am opposed to any interference whatever by the people of the free-States with, the relations of master and slave in the slave-States.” But the disavowal did not relieve him from Southern enmity. The fire-eaters seized the pretext to charge him with all manner of “abolition” intentions, and by violent debate and the utterance of threats of disunion made the House a parliamentary and almost a revolutionary babel for nearly two months. Certain appropriations were exhausted, and the treasury was in great need of funds. Efforts were made to adopt the plurality rule, and to choose a Speaker for a limited period; but every such movement was resisted for the purpose of defeating Sherman, or rather, through his defeat to force the North into unconditional submission to extreme pro-slavery sentiment. The struggle, nominally over an incident, was in reality over a policy.
On January 30, 1860, Mr. Sherman withdrew his name, and the solid Republican vote was given to William Pennington, of New Jersey, another Republican, who, on February 1, was elected Speaker by 117 votes, 4 opposing members having come to his support. The South gained nothing by the obstructionist policy of its members. During the long contest, extending through forty-four ballots, their votes were scattered among many candidates of different factions, while the Republicans maintained an almost unbroken steadiness of party discipline. On the whole, the principal results of the struggle were, to sectionalize parties more completely, ripen Southern sentiment towards secession, and combine wavering voters in the free-States in support of Republican doctrines.