What the Antebellum Abolitionists Can Teach Us about AOC and Medicare for All

Should left-wing House members try to force action on Medicare for All by threatening to withhold their votes for Nancy Pelosi as House speaker? The idea has sparked controversy, but it's nothing new. In the decades before the Civil War, it was a key tactic for antislavery radicals as they struggled to keep the slavery issue on the national agenda.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York City, 2019. (Dimitri Rodriguez / Wikimedia Commons)

The debate on the left about Nancy Pelosi’s speakership candidacy — and whether Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and allies should threaten to vote against it in exchange for a floor vote on Medicare for All (or something else) — is acrimonious but not entirely new. There is in fact a quite striking historical precedent. (Which long predates the Tea Party.)

For earlier generations of radicals, speakership elections were key opportunities for political spectacle, dating back to the very first such election conducted by voice vote, in December 1839. Here I’m referring to third-party antislavery radicals — the Liberty and Free Soil Parties.

Because speakership elections are one of the few contests in which majority, not plurality, rules apply, a small but committed bloc can gain sway far beyond what is possible in most American elections.

One of the first groups to appreciate this fact was the diminutive but committed faction of political abolitionists who condemned the Whig and Democratic parties both as inherently and irreparably proslavery, since they depended for their survival on a North-South coalition.

In 1840, a small group of political abolitionists created the Liberty Party. Though tiny — they won less than one-fortieth of the 1844 popular vote — and never able to elect their own congressmen, the third party nevertheless wielded real power in several Upper North constituencies.

In such places, they frequently forced major party organizations (usually Whigs) to nominate antislavery candidates like Joshua Giddings (OH), William Slade (VT), and Seth Gates (NY).

When such men went to Washington, political abolitionists put pressure on them, especially when the House was closely divided and a small minority could actually deny both major parties a speaker, as was the case in December of 1839.

So political abolitionists were livid when several antislavery men, including Giddings, Slade, and Gates ended up casting their votes for Virginia slaveholder (and future Confederate secretary of state) Robert M. T. Hunter in a speakership election won so narrowly that his majority on the tenth ballot was achieved by only three votes.

Two years later, six members of the Whig caucus, outraged at their party’s insistence on elevating Kentucky slaveholder John White to the speakership, cast antislavery protest votes, but the Whig majority at that time was large enough that such a protest could be easily overlooked as White cruised to victory.

The House would again be close enough for protest votes to matter in 1847 — and now the slavery conflict had escalated considerably as a result of Mexican War–inspired debates.

In this instance, Giddings, still a Whig, and two allies demanded not only a non-slaveholding speaker, but a guarantee that critical committees would be appointed to ensure that antislavery legislation would be reported to the House floor, a demand that speaker candidate Robert Winthrop refused. After three ballots and three hours, Winthrop gained a bare majority (after an independent Philadelphia nativist switched his vote and a South Carolina Democrat abstained in dramatic fashion).

Two years later, the drama was considerably heightened because the most deeply antislavery Whigs, Democrats, and Liberty partisans had come together in the new Free Soil Party — a far more moderate, but also far more influential, antislavery third-party than the Liberty Party had been. And this party, unlike the Liberty Party, actually managed to elect congressmen — maybe a dozen (depending on how one counted those with multiple loyalties) — enough to control the balance of power between Whigs and Democrats.

And so the House speaker election began. Balloting stretched on, business ground to a halt for nearly three weeks, and the antislavery congressmen refused to bend. Finally, after fifty-nine ballots a bipartisan majority decided to take a plurality speaker, and on the sixty-third ballot, Georgia slaveholder Howell Cobb was chosen.

The Free Soilers didn’t necessarily gain tangible policy outputs from this gambit. But they did create a spectacle that put the new party — which controlled not much more than a twentieth of house seats — at the center of national political debate, along with its criticisms aimed at both parties for their temporizing on the slavery issue.

For many abolitionists, that was precisely the point. The stalemate made “obvious to the whole American people,” Wisconsin Free Soiler Charles Durkee wrote, “that the great struggle is between the slavery propagandists and the slavery restrictionists.”

Later, as members of the newly founded antislavery Republican Party, political abolitionists, former Free Soilers, and more moderate ex-Whigs and ex-Democrats came together in 1856 to finally elect a (moderately) antislavery speaker of the House — though that took over a hundred thirty ballots and a new plurality rule.

The Republican victory in the speakership election that year, after at least seventeen years of plotting by political abolitionists, marked perhaps the single greatest turning point in solidifying the newly founded GOP’s role as a major party in American politics.

What do these antebellum speaker fights tell us about today’s controversy?

Left commentators are correct when they argue that speakership elections constitute a rare opportunity for balance of power politics in a closely divided House. However doomed to fail in the short term, the spectacle such events create can have real consequence for long-term political and policy discourse.

The North, despite its temporizing, was growing increasingly antislavery, so when its representatives were exposed as craven politicians who would always prioritize party loyalty over antislavery, it mattered for Northern public opinion. Perhaps AOC and her allies believe a similar dynamic could take hold in the fight over universal health care.

Of course, there is a key difference. Liberty and Free Soil men sought no less than the destruction of both of the major parties of their day. They didn’t care if attacking moderately proslavery Whigs gave somewhat more proslavery Democrats control of the House. Though some today might see little difference between a Republican-controlled House and one led by a centrist-establishment Democrat, I suspect that’s not what AOC and her House allies believe.

So the tactical question remains: how to balance the very real value of spectacle for the cause of radical change (perhaps especially potent when the issue is single-payer health care in midst of a pandemic) against whatever potential seat at the table might be sacrificed by being obtrusive.

Perhaps, as AOC has implied, such negotiations are in fact being pursued behind closed doors. Perhaps, as some on the left have implied, she and her allies have become too sensitive to pressure from party institutions, as so many northern Whigs were.

Or perhaps they’ve simply made a considered tactical judgment that this is not the moment to play hardball for the sake of spectacle. If that is in fact the case, it does raise the question of when and where they could find better a opportunity than a majority-rule speaker election in a closely divided congress.