Fighting for the Speakership: The House and the Rise of Party Government

Fighting for the Speakership: The House and the Rise of Party Government

Fighting for the Speakership: The House and the Rise of Party Government

Fighting for the Speakership: The House and the Rise of Party Government


The Speaker of the House of Representatives is the most powerful partisan figure in the contemporary U. S. Congress. How this came to be, and how the majority party in the House has made control of the speakership a routine matter, is far from straightforward. Fighting for the Speakership provides a comprehensive history of how Speakers have been elected in the U. S. House since 1789, arguing that the organizational politics of these elections were critical to the construction of mass political parties in America and laid the groundwork for the role they play in setting the agenda of Congress today.

Jeffery Jenkins and Charles Stewart show how the speakership began as a relatively weak office, and how votes for Speaker prior to the Civil War often favored regional interests over party loyalty. While struggle, contention, and deadlock over House organization were common in the antebellum era, such instability vanished with the outbreak of war, as the majority party became an "organizational cartel" capable of controlling with certainty the selection of the Speaker and other key House officers. This organizational cartel has survived Gilded Age partisan strife, Progressive Era challenge, and conservative coalition politics to guide speakership elections through the present day. Fighting for the Speakership reveals how struggles over House organization prior to the Civil War were among the most consequential turning points in American political history.


This book both tells a story and uses that story to explore an institutional feature of legislatures that has heretofore gone unappreciated in political science: the organizational cartel. The story is about how the election of the Speaker of the House of Representatives has evolved over the past two centuries from an ad hoc proceeding devoid of partisan structure to a ritualized proceeding that seals near-monopoly control over the tools of lawmaking by the majority party. Stated in terms of a single question, the story asks, how did we get from the world of the first Speaker, Frederick Muhlenberg, to the world of the current Speaker, John Boehner?

This story forms the structure on which a larger, more abstract argument is made: that the history of how speakership elections developed was propelled forward by a desire to establish an organizational cartel in the House. An organizational cartel is a device through which the majority party asserts exclusive control over the speakership and other top offices in order to achieve three goals: to control House patronage, distribute authority among important factions of the majority party, and influence the agenda-setting apparatus of the House. This last goal suggests both theoretical and empirical affinity with the procedural cartel championed by Gary Cox and Mathew McCubbins (1993, 2005). Needless to say, we have not chosen our label randomly.

As our families, colleagues, and editor have often reminded us, this book has been more than a dozen years in the making, if we trace its origins to the first working papers that went into it. What took us so long? Part of an honest answer is that we were sometimes distracted by other projects, but those distractions probably only added a few months, maybe a year, to the book’s gestation period. The real answer is that the book project itself transmogrified after we had signed our contract with Princeton University Press in 2002 and began to write the book in earnest.

Once we shifted gears from writing a series of related papers and articles to writing a book with a unified argument, it became obvious that our original ideas about how antebellum speakership fights fit together needed revision. What originally drew our attention to speakership elections was the spectacle of speakership battles that stretched over days, weeks, and even months. Modern political scientists long for a “hung” presidential nominating convention. We had a topic that was almost as good: a series of hung speakership elections. Very little has been written about these episodes by . . .

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