To a large extent, the minority leader's position is a 20th-century innovation. Prior to this time congressional parties were often relatively disorganized, so it was not always evident who functioned as the opposition floor leader. Decades went by before anything like the modern two-party congressional system emerged on Capitol Hill with official titles for those who were its official leaders. However, from the earliest days of Congress, various House members intermittently assumed the role of "opposition leader". Some scholars suggest that Representative James Madison of Virginia informally functioned as the first "minority leader" because in the First Congress he led the opposition to Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton's fiscal policies.[17]

During this early period, it was more usual that neither major party grouping (Federalists and Democratic-Republicans) had an official leader. In 1813, for instance, a scholar recounts that the Federalist minority of 36 Members needed a committee of 13 "to represent a party comprising a distinct minority" and "to coordinate the actions of men who were already partisans in the same cause."[18] In 1828, a foreign observer of the House offered this perspective on the absence of formal party leadership on Capitol Hill:

I found there were absolutely no persons holding the stations of what are called, in England, Leaders, on either side of the House.... It is true, that certain members do take charge of administration questions, and certain others of opposition questions; but all this so obviously without concert among themselves, actual or tacit, that nothing can be conceived less systematic or more completely desultory, disjointed.[19]

Internal party disunity compounded the difficulty of identifying lawmakers who might have informally functioned as a minority leader. For instance, "seven of the fourteen speakership elections from 1834 through 1859 had at least twenty different candidates in the field. Thirty-six competed in 1839, ninety-seven in 1849, ninety-one in 1859, and 138 in 1855."[20] With so many candidates competing for the speakership, it is not at all clear that one of the defeated lawmakers then assumed the mantle of "minority leader." The Democratic minority from 1861 to 1875 was so completely disorganized that they did not "nominate a candidate for Speaker in two of these seven Congresses and nominated no man more than once in the other five. The defeated candidates were not automatically looked to for leadership."[21]

In the judgment of political scientist Randall Ripley, since 1883 "the candidate for Speaker nominated by the minority party has clearly been the Minority Leader."[22] However, this assertion is subject to dispute. On December 3, 1883, the House elected Democrat John G. Carlisle of Kentucky as Speaker. Republicans placed in nomination for the speakership J. Warren Keifer of Ohio, who was Speaker the previous Congress.[23] Clearly, Keifer was not the Republicans' minority leader. He was a discredited leader in part because as Speaker he arbitrarily handed out "choice jobs to close relatives ... all at handsome salaries."[24] Keifer received "the empty honor of the minority nomination. But with it came a sting -- for while this naturally involves the floor leadership, he was deserted by his [partisan] associates and his career as a national figure terminated ingloriously."[25] Representative Thomas Reed, R-ME, who later became Speaker, assumed the de facto role of minority floor leader in Keifer's stead. "[A]lthough Keifer was the minority's candidate for Speaker, Reed became its acknowledged leader, and ever after, so long as he served in the House, remained the most conspicuous member of his party.[26]

Another scholar contends that the minority leader position emerged even before 1883. On the Democratic side, "there were serious caucus fights for the minority speakership nomination in 1871 and 1873," indicating that the "nomination carried with it some vestige of leadership."[27] Further, when Republicans were in the minority, the party nominated for Speaker a series of prominent lawmakers, including ex-Speaker James Blaine of Maine in 1875, former Appropriations Chairman James A. Garfield of Ohio, in 1876, 1877, and 1879, and ex-Speaker Keifer in 1883. "It is hard to believe that House partisans would place a man in the speakership when in the majority, and nominate him for this office when in the minority, and not look to him for legislative guidance."[27] This was not the case, according to some observers, with respect to ex-Speaker Keifer.

In brief, there is disagreement among historical analysts as to the exact time period when the minority leadership emerged officially as a party position. Nonetheless, it seems safe to conclude that the position emerged during the latter part of the 19th century, a period of strong party organization and professional politicians. This era was "marked by strong partisan attachments, resilient patronage-based party organizations, and...high levels of party voting in Congress."[28] Plainly, these were conditions conducive to the establishment of a more highly differentiated House leadership structure.[29]

Minority party nominees for Speaker, 1865–1897

While the Office of the House Historian only lists Minority Leaders starting in 1899,[30] the minority's nominees for Speaker (at the beginning of each Congress) may be considered their party's leaders before that time.