- Historic Sites
December 1975 | Volume 27, Issue 1
What is probably the first congressional filibuster took place in the first session of the House of Representatives, then sitting in New York, in early June. The issue that touched it off had been brewing since the start of the session, and it pitted large state against small state, section against section, and the Senate against the House. Hours of debate on the floor and days of behind-the-scenes negotiation were expended in the search for a permanent site for the government. Pennsylvanians pressed for Philadelphia; Virginians hoped for a location on the Potomac; the New England delegations wanted New York.
There was, however, another complication; the Hamiltonian funding program to establish the national credit and to pay the revolutionary debt had become inextricably combined with the legislation establishing the nation’s capital. The Pennsylvanians, for example, had agreed to work against a part of Hamilton’s plan in return for votes favoring their choice of site. Within a matter of weeks “this despicable grog-shop contest,” as Fisher Ames of Massachusetts called it, had become hopelessly clouded.
After an initial defeat in May the Pennsylvania delegation in the House mustered enough votes in June to pass a resolution in favor of Philadelphia. The Senate, however, refused to go along with the proposal, the deciding vote being supplied at the last minute by the ailing Senator William Johnson of Connecticut, who was carried into the chamber on a litter.
Undaunted, the Pennsylvanians tried again to push their proposal the next day, moved in part to do so because it was raining and Johnson would be unable to attend the Senate. Outraged by the haste and by what they took to be political wiliness, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and William Smith of South Carolina filibustered the House until adjournment late in the evening with a series of dilatory motions and lengthy speeches.
The whole affair drew to a close in late July as a result of a compromise. Dealing directly with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton secured their support for his funding program (and through them the support of Congress) in return for locating the capital at Philadelphia for a period of ten years, after which the seat of government would move permanently to a site on the banks of the Potomac.
Throughout the first half-century of government and for some years beyond, filibustering was more often the hallmark of the House of Representatives than of the Senate, in part because the House was for a while considered the more prestigious body and, until the emergence of men like Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun as senators, more likely to attract outstanding figures to its ranks. Moreover, for twenty years the membership was not unduly large, and extended debate was possible.
As the nineteenth century lengthened, however, the size of the House increased (to 243 in 1860; to 332 in 1880), and as a result the chamber’s business was more commonly conducted in committee than on the floor. Nonetheless filibusters took place with great regularity, principally through parliamentary motions. The 34th Congress, for example, was unable to conduct any business for two months of its session in 1855 because 133 ballots were required before a Speaker was elected. Between ballots brutally long speeches and delaying motions were introduced by every faction in the House to prevent anyone from getting the upper hand. Four years later the 36th Congress experienced a similar two-month deadlock, although this time only 44 ballots were cast, because the presiding clerk submitted every point of order to floor debate among the members, many of whom daily entered the chamber conspicuously armed with bowie knives and revolvers—none of which, fortunately, were used.
The quintessential House filibuster, however, took place in the 35th Congress in 1858. The session had begun smoothly enough; the members had chosen a Speaker on one ballot for a change. But the issues that produced the Civil War had kept the floor debates at a boil.
Early in February the House took up the disputed Lecompton Constitution from Kansas, which was seeking admission as a state after four years of bloody war between free-soil and proslavery forces. The members of the House had to decide the validity of the document and were asked to choose between referring it to the committee on territories or a select committee of fifteen. Passions ran inordinately high as the chamber divided along party and sectional lines. Neither side was willing to give an inch, and each was determined to prolong the session by whatever means were needed.
On Friday, February 5, when it seemed unlikely that any serious business would be conducted, President fames Buchanan, the Speaker, and several others scheduled a round of dinners to enlist support for the administration’s position in favor of the constitution, and by 3:30 P.M. the chamber began to empty. At that point an anti-Lecompton representative moved the previous question, which had been temporarily set aside the day before.
By 4 P.M. the few administration men remaining in the House were leading a desperate filibuster by invoking a running series of roll calls and quorum calls. The sergeant at arms was sent into the streets and unceremoniously led the absent members away from their dinner parties. At midnight the filibusterers were still in full cry. The exhausted representatives slept in their places, lounged along the back walls of the chamber, or, significantly, revived their flagging spirits with what one writer called “stimulants” in the cloakroom.