As Zeb prepared to return to Washington for the opening of the first session of the Thirty-sixth Congress, the sectional peace that he had noted in his February 7 speech was shattered. On October 16, 1859, John Brown and his associates seized the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and tried to instigate a slave uprising. North Carolinians reacted with panic, their sense that slavery was a threatened institution having been renewed. Politicians in the state who favored splitting the Union and creating a new Southern nation used the incident to inflame public opinion in North Carolina against the abolitionist threat from the Northern states.1 While Vance's personal reaction to Brown's raid has not been recorded, there is little doubt that he was outraged by it. At the same time, he must have recognized that North Carolinians' almost hysterical reaction to the raid would make it much more difficult to preserve the Union.
Unfortunately for Vance and the United States, the first order of business in the new Congress was the election of a Speaker. The membership of the House was so badly divided between Republicans, Democrats, and Whig–Know-Nothings that no party could command a majority. Adding even more difficulty to the selection of the Speaker, Republican candidate John Sherman had endorsed Hinton Rowan Helper's inflammatory book, The Impending Crisis. Helper, a North Carolinian, was a racist who challenged the institution of slavery. Using statistics from the 1850 census, he purported to show that the South had lost ground economically because of slavery. Helper was forced into exile in the Northern states, and Sherman's endorsement of his attack on slavery only further infuriated Southern congressmen already greatly upset by John Brown's raid. In this poisonous atmosphere, Vance occupied a very moderate position. When a Whig candidate for Speaker materialized, he voted for that candidate.2
But with a sure sense of where his own political future lay, Vance was willing to vote for only those Democratic candidates who took a national perspective on the dispute between the North and the South. A friend from Asheville warned Zeb that his course was alienating some of his friends. They apparently wanted him to vote more consistently with the Democrats