The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Will Kevin McCarthy be the next John Sherman?

The story of how dreams of being speaker can get crushed — and why McCarthy has some things working in his favor

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) walks to a closed-door meeting Tuesday for a vote on top House Republican leadership. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
6 min

The original version of this piece contained two small factual errors. Congress passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1890, not 1894. And the name of the Southern social theorist who wrote "The Impending Crisis of the South," is Hinton Rowan Helper, not Hinton Rowant Helper.

Although it took more than a week, media outlets on Wednesday projected that Republicans had won enough House seats to take over the chamber — albeit far more narrowly than expected. Now the question is: Who will be the next speaker? The current House minority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), faces challenges from the right within his own party; in an internal caucus vote on Tuesday, McCarthy received only 188 votes to be the Republican nominee for speaker, far short of the 218 he will need on the House floor in January. And although he has defused tensions in the past with the right-leaning House Freedom Caucus, that same coalition sank his last bid for speaker back in 2015 and may do so again.

Yet the increased political polarization in recent years may make McCarthy’s bid for speaker easier than in 2015.

Just ask John Sherman, an Ohio congressman, who fell victim to sectional politics on the eve of the Civil War and lost his bid for House speaker.

Sherman may be the most important American statesman you’ve never heard of. He’s the Sherman behind two famous bills: the Sherman Silver Purchase Act (1890) and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (1890). He served for over 30 years in the Senate, held a four-year tenure as secretary of the treasury and finished his career with a stint as secretary of state, America’s chief diplomat.

Sherman was the younger brother to another famous Sherman — William Tecumseh Sherman, the Civil War hero best known for leading military campaigns that conquered the South. Unfortunately, we tend to remember the general and forget the statesman.

Nevertheless, John Sherman was perhaps the poster child for contentious speakership battles gone wrong. In 1859, while serving his third term, Sherman had the inside track at winning the speakership should the Republicans win the majority. Yet his bid went sideways following a reprinting of Southern social theorist Hinton Rowan Helper’s “The Impending Crisis of the South.”

“The Impending Crisis of the South” was a scathing critique of Southern enslavement. Helper, a child of North Carolina’s Western Piedmont, argued that slavery, as an institution, stifled the development of industry in the South and suppressed the type of competition needed for capitalism to thrive — indeed, he compared large plantation owners to oligarchs, thieves and demagogues.

But Helper really ignited passions when he called on small-landowners and non-enslaving White people to rise up and overthrow their landed oppressors. In the aftermath of John Brown’s raid, powerful Southerners saw this call as a true danger to slavery’s continued viability.

Helper’s book became to nonfiction what Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to fiction. Within Congress, an uproar broke out when the book appeared with an endorsement from a group of congressional Republicans, including Sherman, all of whom hoped the book would influence the upcoming presidential election of 1860.

As the leading candidate for House speaker, Sherman became the presumed ringleader of the whole affair and the eventual scapegoat.

Though he claimed no knowledge whatsoever of how his name appeared on the book, the scandal doomed his chances of raising the gavel. One Southern Democrat in the Senate threatened to walk out of Congress and never return if the Republicans made him their choice.

Such threats worked because even amid the sectional crisis of the 1850s, the U.S. House was still enough of a consensus-seeking body that Sherman’s fellow Republicans heeded the words of their Democratic colleagues. The more-moderate members of his own party deemed him too toxic and sank his bid for the overall health of the Congress. They instead elected William Pennington of New Jersey, a freshman congressman, whose only virtue appeared to be offending no one and having no apparent agenda.

Sherman’s chances were further hindered because he sought the speakership during a moment of transition when the political parties were in flux.

While slavery had emerged as a dividing line between Republicans and Democrats, Republicans were still an upstart party. They were little more than a few years old, and party members, while all technically anti-slavery, possessed a range of opinions on not just slavery but on how best to confront proslavery Democrats.

The Democrats had issues of their own. For one, the party’s coalition changed throughout the decade. Many anti-slavery Democrats from the North migrated over to the Republicans as the sectional crisis intensified; Northern Democrats clashed with Southern Democrats. Indeed, Southern Democrats had already begun acting as a distinct faction within the party, and in 1860, they would even nominate their own presidential candidate, John Breckinridge of Kentucky.

There were also two other parties — the Southern Opposition Party and the Know-Nothings. Both groups were made up of former Whigs, who cut a middle ground between Republicans and Democrats and who, together, formed enough of a caucus to swing Congress in either direction. Sherman lost partly because he could never win enough support from these two groups.

In such an environment, where the parties were not as rigidly sorted as they are today and were relatively weak by comparison, Sherman’s anti-slavery appearances became a liability. While endorsing Helper’s book boosted his standing in key regions up North, it came across as too partisan and appeared too much like a political stunt elsewhere.

Sherman eventually rebounded. After losing the speakership in 1859, his Ohio legislature selected him to fill the Senate seat vacated by Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury. In the Senate, he served on the Senate Finance Committee and, along with Chase, spearheaded major pieces of legislation that helped raise money for the war.

From there, he went on to hold office for the rest of his life. He even unsuccessfully campaigned for his party’s presidential nomination throughout the 1880s. But in the 19th century, when political involvement doubled as an affair of honor, pulling political stunts (and getting caught) required paying the price.

Today, the partisan environment is different. Parties are more ideologically rigid. Perhaps more significantly, playing political games, trolling opponents and grandstanding when the cameras are rolling are not just routine aspects of the job, but thought to be how you win and gain prominence. This means that Kevin McCarthy can scheme away with near-impunity. In fact, not scheming, avoiding these stunts or appearing too statesmanlike may be a greater hazard.

So while McCarthy may have a challenge come January because of the razor-thin Republican majority, the present political environment makes his bid easier to maneuver. Not only are the parties stronger, polarization tends to mediate intraparty dissent, which makes whipping votes a more straightforward task.

As a result, McCarthy can rest assured that he’s unlikely to go the way of John Sherman, whose failed election crops up as a cautionary tale whenever there’s a new race for speaker.