Newly elected lawmakers meet Wednesday to elect officers for the legislative session that starts in January. The House is divided 201-198, with one seat open, as the race ended in a tie. With such a narrow majority, leadership votes could get contentious quickly, and the opportunity for drama is higher than usual.
How dramatic could things get? It turns out that we have some precedent to look to for answers. And we looked at it. And, well, the words “uh-oh” come to mind.
Only once in New Hampshire history has the House of Representatives been more closely divided than it is for the 2023 session. That was in 1871, a time not renowned for its civility.
Just six years after the Civil War ended, New Hampshire elected a legislature evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. The Senate consisted of six Democrats and six Republicans; the House sat 165 Democrats and 164 Republicans.
When the House session opened on June 7, the stakes were not just high, they could hardly have been higher. Not only was House leadership up for grabs, but two Senate seats were unfilled, and filling them fell to the House. Oh, and the governor’s race that year also fell to the House. Control of the entire state government was on the line.
That was the situation when members gathered in the morning to elect officers. Election of a speaker was the top order of business, and it was conducted without a fight. On the first ballot, Rep. William Gove of Weare was elected speaker 164-162.
Rep. Gove was escorted to the chair by two members, whereupon he addressed the divided body as “gentlemen” and delivered a short and conciliatory speech.
“It may not, perhaps, be amiss for me to express the hope that we shall approach the duties and responsibilities of this session with that careful deliberation and earnest forethought which are so necessary to wise and impartial legislation,” he said.
And so the members of the House did proceed with careful deliberation and earnest forethought to deploy the diligently memorized rules, norms and customs of the people’s House in service of the most public-spirited effort to effect the destruction of their political opponents.
The first order of business after choosing a speaker was to elect the House clerk and assistant clerk. This simple task took the next two days. In the process, names were struck from motions, the speaker was challenged, votes miraculously changed overnight, and members tried to pass resolutions to expel their colleagues.
The initial motion to elect James Jackson of Littleton as clerk and James Colbath of Barnstead as assistant clerk was hit immediately with an amendment to scratch the names and “proceed by ballot to the choice of a Clerk.” The vote on the amendment was 160-159, so Speaker Gove had to cast his first vote to create a tie. The partisan maneuvering had begun.
An attempt to replace the clerk slate with two other names was killed 161-162, and it was followed by a motion to adjourn, which also failed, followed by a motion to table, which also failed. Then a member questioned the legality of the original motion, asserting that a special rule was needed.
Speaker Gove ruled that a special rule was not needed. In the ensuing series of votes, a motion to uphold his ruling failed 162-164. This was quickly followed by a vote to adjourn, which passed.
When Day 2 of the session opened at 10 a.m. on Thursday and a prayer was said, a member moved to draw seats, and another member moved to declare the drawing of seats null and void. Things went downhill from there.
A motion to adjourn until the next day was defeated, followed by a motion to lay the drawing of seats on the table, which was also defeated. Unable or unwilling to get anything else done, the House then adjourned until 3 p.m.
Upon returning, representatives drew their seats, then sustained the speaker’s ruling from the previous day. How? The majority claimed to have discovered overnight that the previous day’s 162-164 vote against the speaker’s ruling was in fact a 162-154 vote to sustain the speaker’s ruling.
The question was then moved to vote by ballot on the clerk and assistant clerk. The speaker ruled the motion out of order and refused to hear an appeal. A member from Somersworth asked to be excused from the voting but the speaker would not excuse him. A vote on whether to put the main question (of electing a clerk) was moved, and the vote was 163-163. The speaker broke the tie.
Then the gloves came off.
A member rose to offer a resolution to expel another member from the House on the grounds that he hadn’t lived in the state for at least two years, as required by the state constitution. The speaker ruled the resolution out of order. A motion to adjourn was made, but failed to pass.
Finally, the first half of the original motion, to elect Jackson as clerk, was brought to the floor and passed 164-162. A motion to adjourn was offered, ruled out of order, and the vote for Colbath as assistant speaker followed and was passed 163-162. The House adjourned, having accomplished the election of its three key officers over two days.
The representatives had obviously ignored Speaker Gove’s request in his acceptance speech that members conduct their business “with as little consumption of time as is consistent with due diligence and careful consideration.”
On Friday, June 9, the House reconvened, and members from both sides began bombarding the speaker with resolutions to expel other members for not being qualified to serve. A member from Milford was called to order for violating House rules by stating that Democrats had behaved poorly in former years and he was “going to give them some of their own medicine.”
On Saturday, members elected two senators and Democrat James Weston of Manchester (namesake of Weston Observatory, and pictured above) as governor.
With a one-seat House majority, Democrats managed to get their governor and a Democratic president of the evenly divided Senate. The hard-fought victories lasted only for that session, though.
The next year, voters elected a Republican governor, an 8-4 Republican Senate, and a 210-150 Republican House. Which could be a good reminder that, in politics, victories — and losses — are not always as high-stakes as they often feel.
(Editor’s note: The House records from back then are not as orderly as they are today. If any reader finds a minor error in the narrative of these votes, please let us know and we’d be happy to correct it.)