May 29, 2024

Historic Highlights: Nathaniel Banks battled for Speaker in 1856

The fight for Speaker of the U.S. House has been an ongoing political headline for months. The last time there was this much turmoil over the Speakership was in 1856, and an Illinois man was involved.

Massachusetts Congressman Nathaniel Banks, who survived a bitter two-month ordeal to win the position amid sectional divisions, later lived in the Land of Lincoln, where he was a director of the Illinois Central Railroad. He went on to a failed military career in the Civil War.

His battlefield exploits – or lack thereof – reflect the enigmatic life of Banks, who certainly had the credentials to serve as Speaker. Born in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1816, he left school at age 14 to work alongside his father in a cotton mill.

Nathaniel P. Banks

Banks displayed an industrious streak, and found work in a customs house at a young age. He also edited a newspaper before earning admission to the Massachusetts bar at age 23.

His ambition caught the eye of one of Massachusetts’ top political leaders, Robert Rantoul, who was also a director on the Illinois Central board. The namesake of the town in Champaign County, Rantoul became a valued mentor to Banks.

In 1848, Banks won a seat in the Massachusetts House as a Democrat, serving until he was elected to Congress in 1852. Around that time, Banks morphed into a Know-Nothing, a third party built on anti-immigrant feeling that was a significant force in American politics from 1849-57.

Banks was re-elected amid a Know-Nothing wave in 1854, when the party captured 52 Congressional seats. Though he did not share the extreme anti-political views of many Know-Nothings, he became one of the most visible leaders of the party.

However, Banks began moving over to the new Republican party in the mid-1850s. His many changes led one source to call him “something of a political opportunist.” He was about to seek the greatest political opportunity of his life.


Congress in the mid-1850s was riddled with strife, fiercely divided by slavery and immigration. There was also no clear majority, as the dissolution of the Whigs and the rise of the Republicans, along with the Know-Nothing presence, further clouded the political landscape.

Banks saw a chance for advancement, and he was not alone; over 21 House members declared their candidacy for speaker in December 1855. Banks, however, rose to the front, but the process broke down into what one historian called “utter bedlam.”

That “bedlam” lasted for an unbelievable 132 ballots over two months. Finally, the House voted to allow a plurality, rather than a majority, to decide the speaker. With the change, Banks finally prevailed by a mere three votes on the 133rd ballot on Feb. 2, 1856.

Banks did not stay for long after the bruising fight. He was re-elected in 1856, but the following year, he successfully ran for Massachusetts governor as a Republican. Banks resigned from Congress on Dec. 24, 1857. He was re-elected as chief executive in 1859, but was again looking for something more.


Though his term as governor had not expired, Banks was appointed as a resident director of the Illinois Central in mid-1860. His duties included the sale of railroad lands, a key source of revenue for the company. Banks’ annual salary was $7,000, the equivalent of over $250,000 today.

In late 1860, Banks and his family settled into a fine residence in Chicago’s exclusive Park Row neighborhood. Today, Banks Court in Chicago’s Gold Coast is named in his honor.


That November, Abraham Lincoln won the Presidency, and many believed Banks was a strong candidate for a Cabinet position. Not surprisingly, that suggestion drew mixed reviews from Lincoln’s friends and associates.

Banks did not land a Cabinet post, but instead was appointed as a major general of volunteers by President Lincoln on May 16, 1861. He became an early example of a “political general,” a label with a suspect reputation in the field.

In Banks’ case, that was well-deserved. He performed poorly in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign in the spring of 1862, as well as the battle of Second Bull Run that August.

Reference historian Mark Mayo Boatner assesses Banks as “consistently unsuccessful as a tactician.” Other sources are less charitable, including one that calls his military record “dismal.”

In 1864, Banks headed the Red River Campaign, a joint armed-naval venture that is considered one of the biggest miscues of the war. William T. Sherman called the campaign “one damn blunder from beginning to end.”

Illinois men who served under Banks were particularly critical. In the 117th Illinois, Capt. David McFarland wrote of the “becility and stupidity” of Banks and the other generals, while Sgt. Sidney Robinson declared “Banks has acted the part of a coward [and] has brought disgrace and contempt on the American arms.”

One source writes that Illinois troops “retained a bitterness which time would never erase” against Banks.

The Macomb Eagle summarized the failed Red River campaign when it wrote of Banks, “It is possible that if he had indulged less in champagne he might have made a better campaign.”


Banks’ military reputation has never recovered, as Civil War scholars still believe he was among the poorest of Union generals. His political career, though, revived quickly, as he served seven more terms in Congress following the war.

However, Banks retired from Congress in 1890 due to, as one source writes, “an increasing mental disorder.” He was committed to a psychiatric hospital before his death on Sept. 1, 1894.

The struggles of McCarthy and Banks are two of only 15 times in American history that voting for the speakership went beyond a single ballot. Thirteen of those occurred before the Civil War.

• Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Illinois. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or