On a December Friday in 1859, after 10 days of bitter weather and bitter balloting, the House of Representatives was so divided against itself that the members representing the nation’s 33 states could not complete the new Congress’s first order of business: electing a speaker.

The leading candidate, Republican John Sherman of Ohio, had been denounced in language beyond nasty, a vivid reminder that today’s political polarization is neither unique nor new. A fanatic, said Southern Democrats. A menace. A “Negro-stealer.” An “insurrectionist” who endorsed the reprint of a Southerner’s “treasonous” antislavery broadside for distribution throughout the North. When the speakership contest finally ended in exhaustion after seven weeks of shouting and invective, the animosity did not.

The Sherman showdown played out 159 years before Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) reached a deal Wednesday with Democratic rebels in her quest for the House’s most coveted leadership position.

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Like Pelosi, her political forerunner in 1859 did not have a lock on the job. Like Pelosi, Sherman’s fate rested largely on a small group of newcomers with no loyalty to him. Unlike Pelosi, who is on the verge of clinching enough dissident votes to win election Jan. 3, the young Sherman needed every member of his party to hold fast — and then he had to find a half-dozen or so votes among two dozen or so refugees from the established or disintegrating parties, including a collection of Southern renegades calling themselves simply “the Opposition.”

The country’s divisions were even more stark than today. Slavery was the dominant issue, with Congress engaged in a daily tug of war over abolition and slaveholder rights.

Northerners had grown increasingly resentful of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which they decried as unconstitutional, saying it essentially required the North to act as slavery’s enforcement arm. Southerners were furious at the North’s resistance to what they saw as a legally protected system of labor and property ownership in the 15 slave states.

Into that maelstrom came the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which declared that people of color — whether free or enslaved — were not and could never be citizens, further inflaming the North and encouraging the South.

President James Buchanan and his Democratic administration had put the North on notice that it would not tolerate opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act. In 1858, when antislavery activists in Oberlin, Ohio, banded together to prevent Kentucky slave hunters from seizing a presumed runaway, a federal grand jury brought charges against 36 of the rescuers. Only two of the indictments went to trial, but those prosecutions blossomed into a very public metaphor for the country’s divisions.

Much like today, the political landscape was in turmoil. The Whig Party, which had sent two winning candidates to the White House in the 1840s, had crumbled, its Northern and Southern factions irreparably at odds over slavery’s expansion into territories and new states. Sherman had been a steadfast Whig. Into the vacuum had come the Republicans, born in 1854 as an antislavery party, but regarded by the South as “sectional” and uncompromising.

In five short years, the Republicans went from nascent to potent, seizing a near-majority in the 36th Congress without the help of a single Southern district. They were six or seven or eight votes shy — the number was frustratingly fluid — of the 119 necessary for outright control. Six or seven or eight votes shy, from Sherman’s perspective, of a path to the speakership.

The Republicans had thrown their near-majority behind Sherman, confident in their ability to win over a few members of the Southern Opposition. Sherman was one of the party’s stars, although that cliche wasn’t one that anyone would have used in those days. He was 36 years old, a onetime engineer turned lawyer. He had earned his party’s plaudits as a legislative force during his first two terms as a representative.

It was maddening enough to the Southern delegations that they would, eventually, be forced to accept a critic of slavery in the speaker’s chair. But Sherman? A man who had lent his name to his party’s embrace of a poisonous antislavery tract, “The Impending Crisis of the South,” written by Southern turncoat Hinton Helper?

Helper, a North Carolinian turned Northern bestselling author, had become an abolitionist darling. Here, in charts and tables and statistics, was proof of slavery’s ravages, the antislavery forces had trumpeted. Slavery, an economic disaster! Slavery, a roadblock to Southern prosperity! Slavery, indefensible financially as well as morally!

Sherman had never met Helper, but his destiny now seemed tied to the man. Helper’s densely written tome hadn’t drawn much notice after its initial publication in 1857. Then, after the Republican effort to put the tract into as many Northerner hands as possible, “the Helper book” had joined “John Brown’s raid” — a failed slave revolt led by a white abolitionist — as Southern rallying cries on the House floor. Accepting Sherman as speaker, fumed the Southerners, would be tantamount to surrender.

After 10 days and eight ballots, Sherman could get no closer to victory than a tantalizing four votes. Four years earlier, a more protracted stalemate had led the House to abandon majority rule and accept a winner by a plurality. Not this time.

Day after day, Sherman bore the brunt of Southern hyperbole. He was attacked as a collaborator with the most extreme abolitionists, men such as William Lloyd Garrison, who had famously declared that the Constitution’s protection of slaveholder property made it a “covenant with death, and an agreement with hell.” (To show the depth of his unhappiness, Garrison set fire to a copy of the nation’s seminal document during the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s Fourth of July picnic in 1854. Garrison also had turned a copy of the Fugitive Slave Act into ash.)

A Kentuckian, William Simms, joined the parade of Sherman castigators. On Friday, Dec. 16, the Democrat stood to deliver a speech that the New York Tribune called “an onslaught upon the North.”

Simms said “Northern madmen” were driving the country toward “disunion” by refusing to honor the Fugitive Slave Act — while, at the same time, profiting from slavery’s bounty of cotton and tobacco products. And whom did Simms blame for such intransigence and hypocrisy? Why, men like John Sherman and his “Abolition Party,” which was “poisoning the public mind of the northern people” by scattering “their incendiary documents throughout the length and breadth of this land.” Incendiary documents such as the seditious Helper book — the “Black Republican bible,” Simms called it.

Sherman, in defending himself, offered several olive branches. “I would not trespass on a right of a single Southern citizen,” he said to the House early on. “I am opposed to any interference of the people of the free States with the relations of master and slave in the slave States.”

That brought applause from Southerners on the floor and in the House gallery, along with grimaces from a good many Republicans. But Sherman’s enemies weren’t impressed with his attempts to minimize his involvement with the Helper book. Hadn’t read it? Hadn’t seen it? Had only given his consent to the use of his name, and then only if there was “nothing offensive or improper” in the book? Why then, Mr. Sherman, did you endorse it? What sort of man — nay, what sort of speaker — would lend his good name, his good reputation, to something he hadn’t even read?

Nothing worked. Sherman stuck it out for 35 ballots before conceding. A substitute Republican candidate, William Pennington of New Jersey, won on the 44th ballot, by a single vote. It was Feb. 1, 1860. The House finally had a speaker, and yet the country seemed closer than ever to a rift that could not be repaired. A year later, the desks of five Southern delegations sat empty, the first states in rebellion.

Sherman’s career did not end there. For the next 40 years, he was a Washington fixture, serving 32 years in the Senate and twice as a Cabinet officer. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, a pivotal piece of federal legislation, bears his name.

His defeat doesn’t define him, but it offers a baleful reminder to today’s Congress: Discord and rancor are symptoms, not the disease.

Steve Luxenberg, a Post associate editor, researched the 1859-60 contest for House speaker while writing his new book, “Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation” (W.W. Norton), to be published in February.

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