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When Another Speaker Stood Firm Against Obstructionists in His Own Party | Commentary

On March 1, the House met to consider Vermont. The hard-liners insisted on telling Ferry that he must reverse his ruling. But Randall announced that, as much as he disagreed with the merits of Ferry’s ruling, Ferry was entitled to make it and the House must acquiesce. The hard-liners were apoplectic. They demanded that the House vote on their position. Randall said no: Ferry’s ruling was final, and the House had no power to defeat it.

Randall then faced an incipient revolt from the obstructionists in his own party. Some say it was the House’s “stormiest session.” The New York Times reported that “ladies,” fearing violence, “left the galleries.” The Times of London added that some House members “grasped their revolvers.” Randall had to call out the sergeant-at-arms to restrain his fellow Democrats.

But Randall prevailed, the count continued and Hayes was sworn in on time.

Many credited Randall with single-handedly averting a major constitutional crisis. One student of the speakership wrote, “Randall reached a sublime height on that day when he put before himself the good of the country.” Other scholars concurred: “Calamity to the country might not have been averted” but for Randall’s “firmness and conscience.” A leading historian proclaimed that Randall “deserved the respect and admiration of the nation and the world” for defying his fellow Democrats.

Randall was also re-elected speaker. Although on March 1 he could not have been certain of this vindication within his own party, his fortitude that day ultimately did not harm him politically.

The parallels between Randall’s situation and Boehner’s are not exact. The current crisis concerns fiscal policy, not counting Electoral College votes. Still, Randall’s example is a useful reminder of how history rewards virtue, as we all await the ultimate resolution of Washington’s ferocious budget battles.

Edward B. Foley is a professor of law at Ohio State University, where he also directs its election law program.

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