The election of the Speaker of the U.S. House in 1849 is one of the five bitter contests for the
posts in the history of the nation. The House devoted an entire month to a succession of ballots
for Speaker before reaching a compromise on the 63d ballot.
A large part of the problem was the divided nature of the House. In the elections of 1848-1849,
the Democratic Party regained a plurality of seats in the House. Its success was regional, as it
won 68% of the seats in slave states but only 39% of the seats in free states. The final party
breakdown was 113 Democrats, 108 Whigs, 9 Free Soilers, and two Independents.
When Congress assembled on 12/3/1849, the two parties were aware that choosing a Speaker would
not be simple. The Democrats held a caucus and nominated Howell Cobb, a Georgia moderate. Several
Democrats from free states were unwilling to cast a vote for any Democrat from the South, as their
tacit support of the Wilmot Proviso was needed for re-election. The Whigs had a similar problem.
The incumbent Speaker, Robert C. Winthrop of Massachusetts, was interested in a second term. A
handful of Southern Whigs refused to support him because he would not openly come out against the
Wilmot Proviso. The handful of Free Soil Representatives held the balance of power. Throughout the
balloting, the Whigs reminded them that they could elect a northerner as Speaker (the Whig
Winthrop) or a slaveholding Southerner (the Democrat Cobb). For the most