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Congressional Lions: Joseph G. Cannon


In my forthcoming book Congressional Lions, I discuss Joseph Gurney Cannon, a long-time Republican congressman from Illinois who served as a powerful speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1903 to 1911. He was known for his exuberant oratory and dominant, charismatic personality. “Uncle Joe,” as he was sometimes called, was so dictatorial in his control of the House that eventually many of his colleagues led a congressional revolt to limit the powers of the speaker. During his tenure, Cannon reserved the right to appoint House committee chairs as well as members of standing committees. As a representative of the “old guard” in Congress, he frequently opposed President Theodore Roosevelt, a champion of the Republican Party’s progressive wing. Speaker Cannon believed that Roosevelt’s activist approach to governance represented a genuine danger to the republic. He once commented that the president had “no more use for the Constitution than a tomcat has for a marriage license.”

He was born in Guilford County, North Carolina, to a family of Quakers on May 7, 1836. When he was a boy, his family and 10 other Quaker families migrated to Annapolis, Indiana, 30 miles north of Terre Haute, supposedly to escape the horrors of slavery. His father, Horace Franklin Cannon, a country doctor, drowned when young Joseph was 15 years old. The elder of two sons, Joseph took care of the family farm. His brother, William, eventually rose to prominence as a banker and realtor.

As a young man, Cannon became enamored of the law. He studied under John Palmer Usher, a prominent Terre Haute lawyer and politician who later served as secretary of the Interior in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet. It was an era when a budding lawyer need not attend law school, although Cannon nonetheless spent a semester studying at the University of Cincinnati. He was admitted to the bar in 1858.

In 1862, he married a local woman, Mary P. Reed, and the couple produced two daughters. One source described Mary as “a lovely cultured woman who did much to help her husband overcome the disadvantages of his lack of formal education and whose memory Cannon cherished during the more than forty years that intervened between her death and his.” For all of the young woman’s fine qualities, however, she was not a Quaker, which caused a stir within the family and inside the church congregation. Joseph’s prim mother reputedly indicated her displeasure with a curt remonstration: “Joseph, now thee is married. Thee must get thee a cow, a pig and a hive of bees.”

Instead of settling down to the farming life and acquiring a hive of bees, the Cannons moved to Danville, Illinois, Joseph’s home for the rest of his life. In the meantime, his legal career improved when he was elected to a position as the state’s attorney, a post he held for most of the 1860s. Slowly and surely, Joe Cannon climbed the ladder of success in his chosen profession.

By the 1870s, Cannon was ready to stand for election to Congress. In 1872, the year that Ulysses S. Grant won reelection as president, Cannon won a seat in the United States House of Representatives. Except for momentary defeats in 1890 and 1912, he served continuously until he voluntarily retired ahead of the 1922 election.

As he ascended into the House leadership, Cannon revealed himself to be a champion of the status quo, a fierce resister of anything resembling reform. His philosophy of government was decidedly minimalist. Cannon believed, as did many political leaders of his era, that government is inherently oppressive, and its powers must be limited whenever possible. “You may think my business is to make appropriations,” he reputedly said after he became chairman of the House committee of the same name, “but it is not. It is to prevent their being made.”

To modern sensibilities, Cannon sounds like a libertarian, but his preference for a government of restraint was a mainstream idea, and it made him popular among his constituents, a force to be reckoned with in the House. To capitalize on his lengthy service record and his developing legislative skills, he set his sights on capturing the top prize in the leadership ranks. It was not easy. Cannon ran as a candidate for speaker on four occasions before he succeeded. He rose to the pinnacle of power in the House at the age of 67, apologetically ruling over the 58th through the 61st Congresses with an iron hand. He had waited a long time to assume the mantle of leadership, and Cannon resolved to make the most of his opportunity.

With a trademark cigar clenched between his teeth, he faced the press and was usually ready with a colorful, audacious quote. He knew that reporters needed good copy, and he was determined to meet their insatiable desire for a juicy story. On one memorable occasion, he was asked how he killed time. “Raising the tariff in the afternoon and the ante at night,” he quipped, referring to his penchant for working hard and playing even harder at the card tables.

He was powerful and seemingly omnipotent, but he was not immune to criticism. Detractors characterized Cannon as a tyrant, a self-aggrandizing megalomaniac who pretended to be genial and rustic, but who loved power for power’s sake. Because he served as both speaker and chair of the Rules Committee, which decided when and under which conditions bills were passed to the House floor for debate, Joe Cannon dictated virtually every step of the legislative process in the House of Representatives. Virtually nothing was voted on if he decided that it should be tabled. Scholars have long debated his motives—did he exercise power as the means to some higher end, or as an end in itself?—but few could deny Speaker Cannon’s stranglehold on the legislative process.

“Cannonism” entered the lexicon as a pejorative description of legislative impediments imposed by a willful speaker acting on personal whims. So powerful was the speaker that he could decide the fate of legislation without consulting with anyone. As a reporter noted in the New York Times, important decisions on legislation were not made in the committees or on the floor of the House, “but in Uncle Joe Cannon’s little red room across the hall.”

Cannon’s heavy-handedness could not last forever. After years of grumbling about the speaker’s tyranny, a group of Young Turks in the House revolted. Nebraska Congressman George Norris led the charge. In January 1909, the insurgents introduced resolutions to curtail the speaker’s authority to appoint members to specific committees, and they lobbied to introduce a Calendar Tuesday so that members could vote on legislation even if the speaker or the rules committee disagreed. Cannon and his supporters successfully outmaneuvered their opponents by establishing a Calendar Wednesday, which allowed a majority of the members to require a roll call from among standing committees. Legislation could be brought to the floor, but it proved to be an easy matter to slow down the legislative process. Cannon merely instructed his stalwart supporters to read reports from favorable committees, which required hours to complete and allowed the day to pass without considering substantive bills.

A few defeats would not deter the Young Turks. On March 17, 1910, 42 progressive Republicans and 149 Democrats moved against Cannon while his allies were not present in the chamber. Realizing that a quorum was present, Congressman Norris rose and offered a resolution that, he pointed out, was privileged by the Constitution. “It was the hour for which I had been waiting patiently,” he later recalled.

Norris was referring to a comment that Speaker Cannon had uttered the preceding day. The speaker had ruled that a resolution regarding the census must be allowed on the floor because the census was specifically mentioned in the United States Constitution, hence constitutionally privileged. It was exactly the sort of opening that Norris had sought. The resolution that Norris offered would increase the membership of the rules committee, allow committee members to select their own chair, and prohibit the speaker from serving on the rules committee. Stripped of these powers, the authority of the speaker would be greatly diminished. Norris contended that the Constitution allowed each chamber of Congress to establish its own rules for membership. Because the resolution proposed to determine House membership, it must be allowed to move into the floor as a constitutionally privileged matter, in line with Cannon’s remarks of the day before.

It was an ingenious, clever move. Cannon and his sycophants understood what the insurgents were doing. Pennsylvania’s John Dalzell, a loyal Cannon man, struggled to his feet and objected to Norris’ resolution, raising a point of order that the resolution was not privileged. Not surprisingly, the speaker ruled in Dalzell’s favor.

What followed was a 26-hour debate to determine the future of the House of Representatives. Members on both sides resorted to invective and accusations. In the meantime, Norris approached two Democratic House leaders, James Beauchamp “Champ” Clark of Missouri, the House minority leader, and Oscar Underwood of Alabama, Clark’s parliamentarian. He asked for their support in reforming the rules committee. If Norris could claim these powerful allies, he might prevail over Cannon in a floor fight.

Clark knew that his own chances to become speaker likely would increase if Cannon were curtailed, and if the Democrats seized control of the House in the 1910 elections, but he told Norris that the rules committee had to be reformed in a different manner. Despite Norris’s original plan, rules committee members had to be selected by the entire House, not by committee members. This change would preserve a large measure of the speaker’s authority because, in the normal course of House business, a speaker could count in support from the majority party. Norris was unhappy about the amendment—it was the sort of incremental reform that was preferable to the status quo, but only marginally so—but he had few options if he wanted to defeat Speaker Cannon. He reluctantly agreed. His colleagues were likewise outraged at the compromise, but they, too, capitulated when they realized that they had no other viable path to victory.

The next day, after loquacious congressmen had all but exhausted themselves in debate, Speaker Cannon reiterated his ruling that Norris’s resolution was not privileged. Norris appealed the ruling, which required a vote of the entire House membership. In years past, the vote would have been a foregone conclusion. Uncle Joe had ruled with an iron fist, and members who bucked his leadership would pay a steep price in the loss of power and prestige. This time, however, the world had changed.

The House voted 182 to 162 to overrule the speaker’s decision. Norris’s petition was deemed privileged. In accordance with his promises to Champ Clark, Norris amended his original proposal to allow for a total of 10 members of the rules committee, all of whom would be elected by the House membership, not appointed by the speaker.

Cannon knew that he had been outmaneuvered. He saved face by calling for an immediate vote to determine whether he should remain in his post as speaker. Fearful that a Democrat might be voted in, the Republicans closed ranks and left Cannon in place. Nonetheless, Uncle Joe’s days as the absolute ruler of the House had ended. Late that year, the Democrats won control of the House, and Cannon lost the speakership as well. In 1912, he lost reelection to the House, although he was reelected in 1914, and remained a member until he voluntarily retired at the end of his term in 1923. He died in 1926 at the age of 90.

Joe Cannon was an old-school, conservative politician. When he rose to a position of authority in the U.S. House of Representatives, he ably manipulated the committee structure to serve his purposes. Had he been a different kind of man, or had the House been a less rule-bound institution early in the twentieth century, he would not have left an indelible mark on the history of his era. Because he understood how to use power, and did so with little or no remorse over its consequences for a republican form of government, Uncle Joe Cannon is remembered today as a powerful legislator. (The Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C., is named for him.) Some public figures inspire awe and affection, while others remind us of the potential for mischief when power is consolidated in the hands of the unscrupulous. Speaker Cannon falls decidedly in the latter camp.


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© 2020 J . Michael Martinez