The Populist Parties and Their Conspiracy Theories, Part II: The American Party

In the 1840s, immigration from Ireland and Germany was ramping up and many who were born in America were disturbed by this increasing presence of people who were Catholic, increased job competition, and were blamed for rising social problems. Anti-Catholicism itself had been rather common in the United States: Protestant leader Lyman Beecher had written in Plea for the West (1835) that Catholics should be excluded from settling westward and in 1843, Lewis Charles Levin (1808-1860) became editor of the penny newspaper Daily Sun and founded the American Republican Association, both which he made anti-Catholic and against Catholic immigration. Nativist fears grew when Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick voiced opposition to reading from the King James Bible and having students sing hymns in public schools. They exploded after a Catholic school director, Hugh Clark, proposed suspending Bible reading in Philadelphia schools until the school board could accommodate Protestants and Catholics alike the following year and led to what became known as the Philadelphia Nativist Riots based on false rumors that he had called for ending Bible reading altogether. The riots resulted in over 20 Irish American deaths, numerous homes of theirs being destroyed, and the burning down of three Catholic churches. Although Levin did not commit a single act of violence during these riots and voiced his opposition to rioting, he and his penny newspaper had played a major role in inciting it with the anti-Catholic rhetoric and rumors spread.

That year, Levin founded the “Native American Party” (as in, “born in America”) and in the party’s first try for Congress they won six seats, with Levin winning a seat from Philadelphia. The others were elected only from New York (four) and Pennsylvania. Levin was himself a first as he was the first Jewish representative and served for six years. He was noted for his masterful oratory which would whip up crowds but in 1850 he was defeated for reelection by a Democrat. The Native American Party was an anti-Catholic party that called for immigration restrictions and believed in a conspiracy that Catholics were trying to make America subservient to the Pope. The platform of the party was to prolong naturalization to 21 years so immigrants could not vote until then, only permit people born in America to be elected to public office, and to prevent foreign involvement in all American institutions. This party was not very successful initially as the Democrats and Whigs remained the two dominant forces and their seats dwindled until they had no seats in the 31st Congress. They were ideologically more with the Whigs than with the Democrats, but they occupied a position near the middle. However, the growing tensions between free and slave states would come to increasingly define American politics and presented an opportunity for this seemingly defunct party. In 1849, however, an organization was formed called the ”Order of the Star Spangled Banner” was it would come to support the American Party and, like the Masons, was secretive and had many lodges. This is one respect this populist movement differed from its predecessor, in its stance on secret societies. Its members, when asked about their membership or activities in the order, gave the scripted response of “I know nothing”, thus leading to the party being known popularly as the “Know-Nothing Party”. 

In 1854, President Franklin Pierce signed the notorious Kansas-Nebraska Act, which produced the catastrophe known as “Bleeding Kansas”. This issue resulted in a disastrous election year for both major parties, with the Democrats suffering major losses as well as the Whig Party, with the latter dissolving in the next year. The major party that benefited was the now renamed American Party, which won 51 seats from their previously held zero. American Party Congressman Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts was elected Speaker of the House in an anti-administration coalition, as many who were elected that year also had not settled on a new party yet. However, the newfound success of the American Party had not extended to its founder, Lewis Charles Levin, who lost in his Senate bid to former Democrat Simon Cameron. The Know Nothing Party had both Northern and Southern members and did not focus on slavery, rather anti-Catholicism. Irish immigration had only increased since 1844 due to the Irish Potato Famine, as did German immigration due to economic instability. This massive influx came with growing social problems, as described by historian James McPherson,

“Immigration during the first five years of the 1850s reached a level five times greater than a decade earlier. Most of the new arrivals were poor Catholic peasants or laborers from Ireland and Germany who crowded into the tenements of large cities. Crime and welfare costs soared. Cincinnati’s crime rate, for example, tripled between 1846 and 1853 and its murder rate increased sevenfold. Boston’s expenditures for poor relief rose threefold during the same period” (p. 131).

Such problems led to the election of Know Nothing mayors in major cities in 1854 and 1855 including Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. One state they absolutely swept was Massachusetts, with a Know Nothing governor, legislature, and House delegation. The legislature unsuccessfully pushed for requiring 21 years before legal immigrants could vote and two more before they could run for office and an amendment prohibiting anyone who owed allegiance to a “foreign prince, power, or potentate” from running for office (Taylor, 169). Connecticut and Massachusetts passed laws requiring literacy tests in English to vote, and other New England states followed suit with Know Nothing politics. Other policies pushed by the New England Know Nothings included Prohibition, corporate regulation, women’s rights, aiding railroads in constructing them, and they were firmly anti-slavery. Even the use of written Latin was attacked. In California, the Know Nothings backed Chief Justice Hugh Murray for another term, a virulent xenophobe who had written the decision of People v. Hall (1854), which ruled against permitting testimony from Chinese people against whites in court and thus made it much easier for whites to get away with murdering Chinese.

Abraham Lincoln himself was privately not a fan of the Know Nothing Party but he did not publicly denounce them as he needed their support for his anti-slavery politics. As he wrote to his friend Joshua Speed, “I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty-to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy” (NPS). Despite Lincoln’s apparent pessimism in this letter, he and his politics would outlive the Know Nothings.

The Southern Know Nothings did not embrace the anti-slavery politics of the North but were generally anti-secession. Many of them would vote for the Constitutional Union ticket in 1860. Some politicians who joined up with the Know Nothings would later rise to prominence during the Lincoln Administration, including Senator Simon Cameron, future Vice President Henry Wilson, and Thaddeus Stevens (again!). The legendary Sam Houston of Texas also joined up with the Know Nothings given his strong unionist stance making him unpopular in the Democratic Party. Former President Millard Fillmore accepted their nomination for president in 1856 despite his private disapproval of their anti-Catholic views and having never been consulted about it, and won only the state of Maryland as another party had taken the place of the Whigs as the primary opposition to the Democrats: the Republicans. Many of these new political Know Nothing figures had lacked political experience and this, combined with the increasing focus on the issue of slavery and their tendency to jack up taxes did them in. The Northern Know Nothings mostly joined up with the Republican Party, including the opposition Speaker Nathaniel Banks, who had left the Know Nothings during his time as speaker along with many others. In 1857, membership in the Republican Party grew further after the Dred Scott decision with the Know Nothings only remaining a force for a few more years in Southern state parties.

As for Lewis Charles Levin, his health was declining and he appeared to be developing mental illness by 1856 as he increasingly became disconnected with the party he started and by 1859 he had become violently insane. He died the following year in an asylum and the Know Nothing Party went with him. Although the party was gone, nativism was not: Northern members joined up with the Republican Party and nativist sentiments and policies would gain more political currency after the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The American Protective Society would form in 1887, a bipartisan secret anti-Catholic group, and between 1875 and 1924 increasingly severe immigration restrictions would be passed.


Boissoneault, L. (2017, January 26). How the 19th Century Know-Nothing Party Shaped American Politics. Smithsonian Magazine.

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Curran, C.E. (2011). The social mission of the U.S. Catholic church: A theological perspective. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.

Lincoln on the Know Nothing Party. (2015, April 10). National Park Service.

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McPherson, J.M. (1988). Battle cry of freedom. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Schrag, Z.M. (2018, October 22). Lewis Levin Wasn’t Nice. Tablet Magazine.

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Schrag, Z.M. Nativist Riots of 1844. The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

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Taylor, S. (2000). “Progressive Nativism: The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts”. Historical Journal of Massachusetts, 28(2).

The Populist Parties and Their Conspiracy Theories, Part I: The Anti-Masonic Party

The fundamental philosophy of populist parties and movements, be they left or right, is “A small group of people have a disproportionate amount of power in society, it is to the detriment of the public, and we must do something about it.” This philosophy resounds with populism that surrounds support for Donald Trump and the condemnation of “elites” and “Washington insiders”. Trump’s views as well as his entertaining and embracing of conspiracy theories are not at all new to populist movements. They characterize them and have done so since the formation of the first such party, the Anti-Masonic Party.

In 1826, John Quincy Adams was president but Andrew Jackson was a rising political figure who himself had a lot of support from working people and was himself a populistic candidate, but his status as a Mason made him suspect for some. An event of that year would put the issue at the forefront of national attention, and that was what happened to a Batavia, New York brickmason named William Morgan. Morgan’s life is surrounded in controversy, including his reliability and his fate. He claimed to have been a Master Mason in Canada and appears to have attended at least one meeting in Rochester. Morgan publicly announced he was going to publish a book, Illustrations of Masonry, that was apparently going to have exposed all their secret workings after an apparent conflict with other Masons. This was a violation of an oath of secrecy that Masons take of the proceedings of such meetings, and several of them in Batavia made their displeasure public. He and his publisher, David Cade Miller, were subsequently subjected to threats and harassment as well as an attempted arson of Miller’s newspaper office. After being jailed for not paying a loan and apparently stealing a shirt and tie by the sheriff, Morgan was released by his publisher and then jailed again, with two men subsequently abducting Morgan from jail and taking him to Fort Niagara, never to be seen again. Although his fate is technically unknown, he is widely believed to have been murdered by Mason extremists.

The story of William Morgan made headlines, and conspiracy theories about the Masons spread like wildfire. There were public protests, a Masonic lodge was ransacked, and parading Masons were pelted with rocks. Thus, was birthed the Anti-Masonic Party, which was of course against the Masons and secret societies overall. They believed that the Masons were engaged in a conspiracy to control the American government and were as a group strongly Christian and anti-elite. They opposed Andrew Jackson, a Mason, and had some young political activists who would later play more significant roles in American politics, such as Millard Fillmore, Thurlow Weed, Thaddeus Stevens, and William H. Seward. Stevens denounced the Masonic Lodge as “a chartered iniquity, within whose jaws are crushed the bones of immortal men, and whose mouth is continually reeking with human blood, and spitting forth human gore” (Medved).

The Anti-Masonic Party also arose during a time of social and economic change as the frontier was expanding and white settlers were moving west, thus resulting in great uncertainty and angst as social capital declined. Major political players took advantage of the scandal to attack their opponents, with John Quincy Adams condemning Andrew Jackson for being a Mason himself. He would run for governor of Massachusetts on its ticket in 1833. In the 1828 elections, the Anti-Masonic Party won five seats in Congress, the first time a third party had done so. Two years later, they gained twelve more seats. They did especially well in the states of New York and Vermont and many voters vowed not to vote for any candidates who were Masons to curb their influence. Some even sought the end of Freemasonry altogether, with the Anti-Masonic Advocate of Wilkes-Barre holding, “To overcome this evil is a work of intelligence, and a work of time. We have scotched the snake, not killed it. We have forced it to hide in darkness — but though unseen, it is not less dangerous” (Gilmore). However, by 1831 many in the party had come to regard not Freemasonry the greatest threat, rather President Andrew Jackson himself. One leading member, Samuel Miles Hopkins, even admitted that in the last election he had voted for anti-Jackson candidates, even if they were Masons (Burt). The party had adopted additional positions, including support for protective tariffs and internal improvements. They succeeded in pushing making kidnapping a felony, called for anti-trust laws, and many prominent members would be known as fierce opponents of slavery. In 1832, the party nominated former Attorney General William Wirt for president, a protege of Thomas Jefferson and a former Mason himself who differed from party platform by defending the Masons, and they only won the state of Vermont. Their numbers again grew in the House, to 25. However, the 1834 and 1835 elections reflected the weakness of the party at this point, with them only retaining five seats. In the 1838 and 1839 elections, the Anti-Masonic Party retained no seats. Anti-Masons had moved to the Whig Party and in 1840 backed William Henry Harrison, who had earlier aligned himself with the Anti-Masons. The party dissolved in December of that year.

William Wirt, Anti-Masonic Presidential Candidate, 1832.

An Actual Conspiracy?

Although the idea of Masons trying to take over America was a conspiracy theory, the circumstances surrounding Morgan’s disappearance do point to an actual conspiracy…in the form of a cover-up. Although only a few Masons perpetrated the kidnapping and likely murder, many prominent people in Batavia and in New York politics altogether were Masons, including the sheriff who arrested Morgan twice. Prominent Masons even went as far as to defend Morgan’s fate as something he deserved. Freemasons also impacted the trials surrounding Morgan’s disappearance, as Nicholas Gilmore (2020) notes, “In the Genessee grand jury trials of 1826-27, five of the six foremen were Masons, including one who was implicated in the scandal. The juries — picked by sheriffs at the time — were full of Masons, or their brothers or sons, and the few Masons who spoke out against the fraternity’s militant protection of its own were expelled from their lodge. Similar circumstances stalled or obstructed justice in Ontario County trials as well”. The sentences handed down for the kidnapping ranged from only one month to two years. According to historian Kathleen Smith Kutolowski, “Masonry was a more widespread phenomenon than people understand, and they dominated political office” (Gilmore). New York’s governor at the time, DeWitt Clinton, was himself a high-ranking Mason and at one time the top ranking member in the nation. Eleven men were found to have been involved in the kidnapping of Morgan, but they were given light sentences. No murder convictions were handed down as no body was found. Anti-Mason political victories resulted in the end of sheriffs picking jurors.

The next post will be about the American Party, but it’s more common and derided name is the “Know Nothing Party”. 


Burt, A. (2015, May 15). The Mysteries of the Masons. Slate.

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Gilmore, N. (2020, October 26). The Conspiracy Theory That Spawned a Political Party. The Saturday Evening Post.

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Medved, M. (2008, July 23). A Long Tradition of Fringe Parties and Paranoia. Townhall.

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The Disappearance of William Morgan. Lab for the Education and Advancement in Digital Research.

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FDR’s Early Misdeed: The Newport Sex Scandal

In 1912, New York State Senator Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a fateful decision when he backed Woodrow Wilson for the Democratic nomination early and Wilson took notice of this energetic young man opposed, like him, to bossism and corruption. In March 1913, he was nominated Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President Wilson and unanimously confirmed by the Senate. Roosevelt was directly in charge of human relations, naval operations, and contracts while Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels dealt with big picture and political issues. He was 31 years old and an energetic administrator, just the type of man Wilson thought made for an ideal public servant. On the outbreak of the First World War, Roosevelt knew the significance and that the US would eventually become involved. Like Theodore Roosevelt, he stressed preparedness and building up the navy, a position that was not too popular in the Wilson Administration nor among many Democrats, including Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. While he performed well in his role during World War I, it was what he did after the war that proved scandalous.
FDR as Assistant Secretary of the Navy

In February 1919, two patients at Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island, got to chatting. One of them, Thomas Brunelle, confided to the other, Petty Officer Ervin Arnold, that at the Army and Navy YMCA and the Newport Art Club in the city were hotspots for homosexual sex and companionship among naval personnel and civilians and that he had participated in it. He revealed names of people involved, which included an Episcopal chaplain. Arnold investigated the matter for himself and it confirmed what Brunelle had told him and he found heavy use of alcohol and cocaine at these parties in which the men cross-dressed. He reported this to the Naval authorities and Roosevelt gave an official investigation his approval. Arnold managed to convince the Naval authorities in Newport to put him in direct charge of the operation given his nine years of experience as a detective in Connecticut. He assembled a group of sailors under 30 years old who were willing to go undercover with the approval of naval higher-ups. The situation got rather out of hand, as author John Loughery (1998) describes, “The specific duties the recruits were charged with fell into three areas: to gather information about “cocaine joints” and the sale of liquor; to gather information “pertaining to cocksuckers and rectum receivers” and any network of “said fairies”; and to gather information about prostitutes in the area. In reality, once their project hit its stride, Arnold’s band of investigators showed no interest to speak of in the “fallen women” of Newport and only minimal concern with the illegal drug traffic. What went on behind closed doors at the YMCA or in the romantic shadows of Cliff Walk was another matter. In their pursuit of the “cocksuckers” Arnold had charged them to find–and in the fairly staggering amount of oral sex they enjoyed in the line of duty–this group of young men was all but tireless. In fact, their assiduous performance was to become by the end of the summer a profound humiliation to the Department of the Navy and its leadership”.

After two months of sending sailors to have sex with other men and collecting evidence, Arnold started arresting the people named by his enthusiastic investigators and the sailors among them were incarcerated for three months in solitary confinement. On May 1, 1919, Lieutenant Commander Murphy Foster announced that fifteen sailors were going to be court-martialed, but Arnold wanted to cleanse Newport of homosexuality altogether. He expanded his scope and arrests to civilians, with the approval and funding of Roosevelt. The matter became explosive when Reverend Samuel Neal Kent was arrested and charged. The two trials that would occur had testimony from the investigators that proved damning…for the Navy. The public and the jurors were outraged by the methods used in the investigation and the notion that the Navy would be a place where young men would be used in such a manner was scandalous. Bear in mind that the actions these men engaged in were regarded as unprintable in this time. Kent was acquitted both times given the disgust over the methods used here. FDR staunchly denied criticisms of him and the operation, and this resistance to admit any wrongdoing was at least partly due to conservative journalist John R. Rathom getting on his case about it through his newspaper, The Providence Journal. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels started an investigation into the matter, but the report was a whitewash. In 1921, the Senate officially investigated and found that sailors had been denied legal counsel, beaten for confessions, and coached in said confessions. The investigating committee officially condemned Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Assistant Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt, finding the latter’s conduct in the matter “reprehensible”.  That same year, Kent was quietly disqualified from performing religious services. By 1928, the scandal had faded from public memory and Roosevelt was elected Governor of New York. As Roosevelt wrote to Daniels, “In the long run neither you nor I have been hurt by this mud-slinging… what is the use of fooling any longer with a bunch who have made up their minds that they do not care for the truth and are willing to say anything which they think will help them politically” (Brenkert).


Brenkert, B. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Forgotten Anti-Gay Sex Crusade. The Daily Beast.

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt – Assistant Secretary of the Navy. National Park Service.

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Loughery, J. (1998). The Other Side of Silence. New York Times.

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“Uncle Joe” Cannon: The House’s Beloved “Czar”

On April 19, 2018, I published “Quick Thought: Joseph G. Cannon: A Link from Old to Modern Republicanism”, which was a short bit back when I thought I’d be doing short entries here and there, on one of the most significant legislative players in American political history. Looking back on it, justice isn’t really done for him in my short entry. Such a character Joseph Gurney Cannon (1836-1926) was, he deserves a full post! Born in Garden City, North Carolina to Quakers, they moved to Bloomingdale, Indiana in 1840 as his parents wanted to escape the pro-slavery culture of the region. His father participated in the Underground Railroad and was even one time given a hefty fine for allowing a freed slave to work alongside young Joseph in a field (City of Tuscola).

Cannon pursued law as a young man and became a follower and friend of Abraham Lincoln’s after attending the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. While president, Lincoln appointed him regional prosecutor. As Republicans gained in Congress in the 1872 election that overwhelmingly returned Ulysses S. Grant to office, Cannon won his first race to Congress from Danville, Illinois. His earlier years placed him as a bit more moderate of a Republican and his views on currency issues could diverge significantly from his party as he was more favorable to inflationary currency than the more conservative Republicans of the Northeast. He supported the Bland-Allison Act in 1878, which established bimetallism over President Hayes’ veto. His record steadily overtime became more conservative, but he still wavered in currency and bankruptcy policy questions.

The 1890 Midterms and Rise to Speakership

Although Joe Cannon was usually popular in his district, 1890 was a difficult year for the Republican Party. Democrats had material for which to conduct a successful offensive. Among the issues they campaigned against the 51st Congress under Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine were the unpopular McKinley Tariff, spending the Cleveland surplus on naval expansion and Union veterans pensions, support for “English only” education laws in the Midwest, support for the Lodge Federal Elections Bill, and perhaps most of all the Panic of 1890. These combined to result in a 90-seat loss for Republicans in the House, and Cannon was among the defeated. However, he was not one to back down from life’s challenges and he regained his seat in the 1892 election which also elected President Grover Cleveland.

Although Cleveland and Cannon both opposed free coinage of silver, they parted ways on repeal of the Bland-Allison Act in 1893, as the latter at heart was still a bimetallist. By the McKinley Administration, however, Cannon was firmly in the staunch conservative camp. Indeed, there was a notable change in him from 1873 to 1897, and 1897 to 1923. In his congressional years in the former period, his MC-Index average score was 72%, moderately conservative. However, in the latter period, it was 95%, archconservative. Although Cannon had had too formidable of competition for the position of Speaker when up against the brilliant Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine, on September 16, 1902 he saw his opportunity with Speaker David B. Henderson of Iowa’s sudden announcement of retirement, which may have been due to a potential scandal or his increasingly poor health. Thomas Brackett Reed was no longer in Congress, having resigned over the Spanish-American War in 1899. Although Cannon was an older man than Henderson and had lost three prior races for the speakership, he was raring to go.

Speaker Joe Cannon

Upon his election in 1903, Cannon proceeded to consolidate power as no Speaker has since. Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed had greatly increased the powers of Speaker in the name of legislative efficiency, and Cannon proceeded to make the House in his image. His simultaneous post as Speaker and as chairman of the Rules Committee permitted him to determine what legislation would be given consideration as well as having the ultimate authority on who got on what committee. Thus, his Rules Committee would be stacked with loyalists among the Republicans. For Democrats, he chose to make nice with the leadership by giving Minority Leader John Sharp Williams of Mississippi, also a member of the Rules Committee, the authority to decide on Democratic committee assignments. Williams reciprocated this favor by excluding from important committees Democrats who particularly irked Cannon. On his role in the Rules Committee as part of the minority, Williams joked, “I am invited to the seances but I am never consulted about the spiritualistic appearances” (Bolles, 54). Cannon also could permit or deny representatives the floor for speaking. Although he was criticized as a dictator for his iron-fisted rule of the House and like his strong predecessor Reed was given the label “czar”, he was personally well-liked by just about everyone for his honesty and integrity and was affectionately known as “Uncle Joe”. His philosophy on political power he stated, “Sometimes in politics one must duel with skunks, but no one should be fool enough to allow skunks to choose the weapons” (Hill). 

🔎 Speaker Joseph Cannon Dethroned

So powerful Cannon was that reportedly after one constituent wrote their Congressman asking who made the rules in the House, he was sent back a photo of him. Speaker Cannon could scarcely be seen without a cigar hanging out of his mouth and frequently told off-color jokes. Although Cannon was a character himself, he had to contend with the larger-than-life Theodore Roosevelt, with whom he had some key ideological differences. Roosevelt wanted to be more activist while Cannon was a “standpatter” who supported high tariffs and wanted government’s hand on business to be light. While Roosevelt was a staunch advocate of conservation, the speaker said in response to a forestry bill that he would spend “not one cent for scenery” (TIME). His appraisal of Roosevelt’s adherence to the U.S. Constitution was that he “had no more use for the Constitution than a tom cat has for a marriage license” (Hill). Nonetheless, Cannon did help Roosevelt pass the Food and Drug Act of 1906, and its final product was a form that was acceptable to Republican conservatives. A scholar of the day said of him, “There is some room for saying Cannon is even more powerful than the President of the United States. Today, the Speaker is the absolute arbiter of our national legislation” (TIME). In 1907, Cannon was put forth as a “favorite son” candidate for president, but Theodore Roosevelt already had a successor in mind: William Howard Taft.

Joseph "Joe" G. Cannon, bust portrait, with cigar in his mouth LCCN2016651346.jpg

In 1909, Cannon had a more friendly president to work with in Taft and managed to limit the extent of tariff reductions in the Payne-Aldrich Act, ultimately only resulting in an average 5% reduction from the record high Dingley Tariff. This didn’t go over well with the public, and nor did the struggles the Taft Administration had with conservationist Gifford Pinchot in the Ballinger-Pinchot controversy. Cannon himself was facing trouble from an increasingly vocal contingent of progressive Republicans who were dissatisfied with his leadership and the Taft Administration. This band of rebels was led by George W. Norris of Nebraska, a man who had initially been friendly with the GOP establishment but had turned against the pro-business policies of the conservatives and had become an advocate for Theodore Roosevelt style progressivism. In 1910, the opportunity for the progressives came.

The Revolt

On March 17, 1910, many Republicans were out of the House to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Norris saw this as his opportunity to curb Speaker Cannon’s power. He proposed a resolution regarding his power and cited the Constitution in his assertion that this was privileged and thus could not be blocked. Cannon and his allies desperately summoned supporters to the House as ally John Dalzell of Pennsylvania objected to the resolution, resulting in a long debate over Norris’s resolution. The session on Cannon’s power lasted 29 hours, with the result being Cannon ruling against Norris’s resolution but the House overriding his objection on March 19th. The speaker was now prohibited from holding chairmanship of the Rules Committee, the committee’s size was expanded from five to fifteen, and unilateral authority over committee assignments came to an end. This would result in instead of the speaker exercising such powers, committee chairmen having such authority, and they themselves became quite powerful. Although Cannon was stripped of his more extraordinary powers, he survived a vote he proposed as a referendum on him as speaker: even progressive Republicans were not willing to surrender Republican control of the House to the Democrats. Despite this unwillingness, it happened anyway with the 1910 midterms ultimately serving as a referendum on Taft and Republican “standpatters”. This midterm, with all the results it produced in state legislatures, would set the stage for the direct election of senators and the income tax being ratified as constitutional amendments.

Defeat and Comeback

In 1912, Cannon was defeated for reelection by Democrat Frank O’Hair in what was a tremendous year for Democrats, thanks to the Republican vote being split between Cannon and a candidate from the Progressive Party. The upstart who led the revolt against his speakership, Norris, was elected to the Senate. Although he was getting well into his seventies, Cannon sought a comeback, and in 1914 he won his old seat back at the age of 78. In his final years in Congress he contended with the Wilson and Harding Administrations and retained his conservative viewpoints: on May 23, 1917, although he had voted for U.S. entry into World War I, he was one of sixty-one representatives to vote against raising income taxes to fund the war effort. Cannon opposed the Wilson Administration’s progressivism as well as the League of Nations, but he wasn’t entirely opposed to reform measures as he voted for both the Prohibition and women’s suffrage amendments.

In his final term, Cannon had an ideologically friendly president in Warren G. Harding. He voted for his economic agenda quite staunchly including reduced income taxes, increased tariffs, and voting to sustain his veto of the Veterans Bonus bill. In 1922, true to his old support for Reconstruction, Cannon voted for the Dyer Anti-Lynching bill. Upon his retirement at the age of 86, he was featured in the first cover for TIME Magazine. Cannon died in his sleep on November 12, 1926, at the ripe old age of 90. The Cannon House Office Building is named after him.

The commonly held significance of Cannon is that he was perhaps the most powerful Speaker of the House in American history and used this for a “hold the line” conservatism, but he serves a special significance to me as a historical researcher. This is a man who you can connect to the time of Lincoln and Grant, in which many of the issues of the day that involved left-right perspectives are rather unfamiliar and inaccessible to contemporary casual observers, Cannon served in office with only two brief interruptions over a period of 50 years. The votes he cast in his last few terms are far more accessible ideologically to the contemporary casual observer and point to a conclusion that is downright startling for the pundits in the mainstream media: the Republican Party has always been more or less conservative. Cannon, like the Republicans of today, was a conservative. Although social issues were not as ideologically telling back then as they are now, his support of anti-polygamy legislation goes nicely with contemporary Republican views on the nuclear family. And just imagine how Cannon would view the contemporary Democratic Party given its “woke” influences considering he said as speaker, “I am goddamned tired of listening to all this babble for reform. America is a hell of a success” (TIME).


Bolles, B. (1951). Tyrant from Illinois: Uncle Joe Cannon’s experiment with personal power. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Hill, R. (2014, September 21). ‘Mr. Speaker’: ‘Uncle Joe’ Cannon of Illinois. The Knoxville Focus.

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The Honorable Joseph G. Cannon. The City of Tuscola.

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The House’s All Night Session to Break Speaker Joe Cannon’s Power. United States House of Representatives.

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 The Nation: Uncle Joe Cannon: Iron Duke of Congress. (1973, January 15). TIME Magazine.

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Can the Senate Hold Impeachment Trials of Former Officers of the Government? A Look at Two Precedents

On January 14, 2021, President Donald Trump was impeached a second time, with the charge being that he incited the riot of January 6th, in which several hundred fringe right protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol, with four of them dying. Additionally, his call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger was added. While whether his words in the speech being incitement would hold up in court is questionable given that most of the rally participants didn’t storm the Capitol and that there was no direct call to violence, what is not questionable is that Trump pushed a most destructive lie in his “Stop the Steal” media campaign: that the election was stolen from him on account of voter fraud, and that the storming of the Capitol wouldn’t have occurred without this lie and the rally. However, since the Senate reconvenes on January 19th, it is impossible that a trial will be held before he leaves office the following day. Thus, the question here is, can the president be impeached after he has left office? On a national scale, there are two precedents that we can consult.   

Precedent #1: William Blount, 1797.


The first precedent that can be cited is the case of Senator William Blount of Tennessee. Blount, who had been a signatory of the U.S. Constitution, found upon being elected one of Tennessee’s first two senators that his ventures into land speculation had placed him deep in debt, and only his position as a senator had kept him out of debtor’s prison. He thus hatched a scheme to address this problem with Great Britain, which was currently at war with Spain, and the latter was rumored to be selling Florida and its New Orleans territory to Revolutionary France. Blount conspired to lead a group of white settlers and Choctaw Indians to conquer these lands and turn control of them to Britain, thus raising the depressed value of his land. An incriminating letter written by him managed to make it into the hands of President John Adams, who sent a message to Congress that was read aloud, to Blount’s horror. The Senate voted to “sequester” his seat, which was de facto expulsion, by a 25-1 vote on July 8, 1797 for his violation of US neutrality law. However, they also wanted to impeach him and tried to have him brought back to the Capitol, but Blount was under protection in Tennessee. The proceedings occurred in his absence, and his defense argued two points, that senators were not “civil officers” under the Constitution’s impeachment clause and that since Blount was already expelled that he was no longer under the jurisdiction of the Senate.

Blount’s impeachment was dismissed 14-11 on January 11, 1799, with all Jeffersonian Republicans voting to dismiss and Federalists voting against 7-11. The Senate had found him to not be an impeachable officer. Whether the senators had agreed with one of or both of the defense’s arguments is in question. No member of the legislative branch has been impeached since, with expulsion being the chosen method since of kicking them out of office. Despite Blount having been an expelled senator, he managed to continue having a political career in his home state, whose residents didn’t seem to mind that he had engaged in such a scheme. Future President Andrew Jackson, for instance, remained a loyal supporter. He served as speaker of the Tennessee Senate from December 3, 1798 until his death from an epidemic on March 21, 1800.

Precedent #2: William Belknap, 1876.

William W. Belknap - Wikipedia

The second precedent that can be cited is William Belknap. Belknap was President Ulysses S. Grant’s Secretary of War from 1869 to 1876 and was one of the reasons his administration became notorious for corruption. He regularly threw lavish parties in Washington that brought into question how he could afford to do so. On March 1, 1876, the House’s Clymer Committee, which had been set up to investigate Belknap, discovered a reason why. In 1870, he crafted an arrangement after he appointed at the behest of his wife Carita contractor Caleb P. Marsh as head of the trading post at Fort Sill in the Oklahoma Territory despite John S. Evans already being appointed to the post. This permitted Evans to remain head provided he allocate $12,000 in annual profits to Marsh, while Marsh had to pay half the sum to Belknap’s wife. After his wife and their child died, Belknap received the payments, and after marrying his late wife’s sister, Amanda, they shared the $6000. The House promptly drafted the impeachment and on March 2, 1876, Belknap tearfully handed his resignation to President Grant minutes before he was unanimously impeached. Despite his resignation, the Senate decided to consider an impeachment trial. All senators were agreed that he had accepted kickbacks from Marsh, but the question was whether an officer of the government could be impeached after having left office.

On May 29, 1876, the Senate voted 37-29 to declare as its opinion that Belknap could be impeached after he left office. Democrats voted 24-2 that this could be done while Republicans voted 13-27 against. However, although the majority of senators voted for all counts of impeachment none reached the needed threshold of 40 votes, and it failed on August 1st based on the objections as to the constitutionality of it by the minority. Belknap never held public office again yet remained popular with the veterans of his home state of Iowa and died in 1890. Perhaps if the Senate had mustered 40 votes for conviction, this would have been a decisive precedent and we wouldn’t be debating this today. Also interesting to note is that if Democrats vote in the case of Trump that this is proper and Republicans vote against, it would reaffirm their old positions about late impeachments.  

What we have here are two deeply unsatisfying precedents even though they involve two clearly guilty men. While Blount’s case was dismissed by the Senate, this could have been that senators didn’t think that members of the Senate were part of the definition of “civil officers” under the Constitution and not because they thought late impeachments were unconstitutional. The Belknap case is a bit more revealing as it deals with a cabinet officer whose trial took place after his resignation and doesn’t have the added complication of him being a senator, and although the Senate officially opined that it could be done, not enough senators agreed this was constitutional to warrant a conviction. We have a precedent for the Senate holding such a trial, but no consensus on whether this action was constitutional. After all, it’s not like Congress hasn’t acted in ways that were found unconstitutional before.

The division as to whether late impeachments can be tried by the Senate doesn’t seem any less divided now than it was 145 years ago: law professor Cass Sunstein and former appellate Judge J. Michael Luttig hold that late impeachments are not constitutional, while law professors Michael Gerhardt and Brian Kalt hold that they are, with the former believing that the impeachment itself must have happened while the officeholder was in office. What we have never seen, and what would be truly satisfying as a precedent, would be a conviction or a judicial ruling on whether this is constitutional. However, the Supreme Court has not been willing to intervene in Senate impeachment convictions so far: in the case of Nixon v. United States (1993), in which Judge Walter Nixon challenged his impeachment conviction for perjury, the court unanimously ruled that the matter was a political question and not subject to Supreme Court review, although some of the more liberal justices left open in a concurrence whether an “unjust” impeachment conviction could be appealed. This suggests that whether an impeachment trial is constitutional is almost if not entirely up to the Senate itself. In conclusion, this is a major gray area, and I cannot say I’m decided on which is right here.

Edit, 11/23/21: I have upon re-inspection of this post edited out the “murder”. Although officer Brian Sicknick was attacked by the mob on January 6th, in April the report of D.C.’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Francisco Diaz, revealed he had died of two strokes the day after. This was contrary to media reports at the time of his death.


Eschner, K. (2017, July 7). This 1797 Impeachment Has Never Been Fully Resolved. Smithsonian Magazine.

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Folmsbee, S.J. (1979). Blount, William. NCpedia.

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Fowler, R. (2019, February 27). Blount on the Run. Tennessee Bar Journal, 55(3).

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McFeely, W.S. (1981). Grant: A biography. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Nixon v. United States, 506, U.S. 224. (1993).

The Expulsion Case of William Blount of Tennessee (1797). United States Senate.

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The First Impeachment. United States Senate.

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War Secretary’s Impeachment Trial. United States Senate.

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Weiss, D.C. (2021, January 13). As House impeaches Trump for second time, some say Senate trial after his presidency is unconstitutional. ABA Journal.

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1921-1923 MC-Index

File:Warren G. Harding inauguration - convertible.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
On the way to inauguration in 1921, Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding in back, Rep. Joe Cannon (R-Ill.) and Sen. Philander Knox (R-Penn.) in front. Harding has the most Republican Congress of the 20th century to work with, the 67th.

The next two years we’ll have a slightly Democratic House, an evenly divided Senate, and Democratic President Joe Biden. This is a little bit of the opposite of how things were one hundred years ago. Democrats were dominant in the South while Republicans were dominant everywhere else given the 1920 election produced a supermajority for House Republicans. Northeastern Republicans were the most conservative in this time, and New York is a remarkable contrast in its senators to today. This Congress would in fact be the last one in which New York had two conservative Republicans representing the state in the Senate: William M. Calder and James Wadsworth Jr., who score 95% and 100% respectively. Wadsworth would later be one of the most hardline opponents of FDR’s New Deal, while being his ally on foreign policy. It is also the last Congress in which Republicans would hold a majority of New York City Congressional districts: the Democrats had done that badly in 1920 thanks to Woodrow Wilson! Today the GOP holds only hold one of New York City’s districts, the Republican leaning Staten Island.

Viewing the issues of the time, it is interesting how some of the issues involve similar arguments that we have now. Republicans, now as then, are concerned with the United States’ ability to compete abroad and want to use the tax code to help this happen. Most notable in the 67th Congress is Republicans voting for tax exemptions for U.S. businesses that operate in China as well as votes for tax reductions. Additionally present is a vote on a bill to exempt the Great Lakes from the crew requirements of the La Follette Seaman’s Act. Unlike now, they backed tariffs as a means to protect businesses while Democrats firmly opposed. Congress’s resident socialist, Meyer London of New York, scores a 13% in this Congress. “Uncle Joe” Cannon, a friend and protege of Abraham Lincoln’s from Illinois, who had served with only two interruptions since 1873, has his final term in this Congress and scores a 95%. Democrats showed support for the notion of states’ rights but in a different manner than you might think today as they were insisting that state authority be deferred to rather than ICC rulings for a bill that permitted interstate telephone companies to sell and purchase property. In this case, states were used as a check on the growing power of corporations.

Some notable issues are not on this scorecard because they don’t translate terribly well to ideology in this time. These include Prohibition and the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. For the former, there were conservative arguments for and against it, and for the latter civil rights didn’t figure on the liberal-conservative scale until after World War II…here its mostly the North vs. the South.

The first link is the legislative scorecard, and the second consists of descriptions of what was voted on. Democrats are in plain text, Republicans in italics. London of New York is a Socialist and Shreve of Pennsylvania is an Independent Republican.

The Gunman in the Capitol and the Man Who Disarmed Him

In light of the seditious riot by a group of alt-right extremists and conspiracy theorists who participated in the “Stop the Steal” rally on Capitol Hill on January 6th in which they stormed the Capitol, my thoughts go to other times in which it has come under attack. I already wrote about the 1954 Capitol Hill shooting by Puerto Rican terrorists that injured five representatives. However, there’s another story, one that involved great courage.

On December 13, 1932, the nation was in turmoil with the Great Depression and one disturbed man demanded to be heard. This was Marlin Kemmerer, a 25-year old department store clerk from Allentown, Pennsylvania, who chose to do so by pulling a gun in the House visitors’ gallery. He shouted that he demanded to be allowed to address the House on the depression. Most members fled the chamber, but three decided to stick around.

Edith Rogers (R-Mass.) and Melvin Maas (R-Minn.) spoke with the gunman. Rogers, who had experience dealing with shell-shocked war veterans, calmly said in a reassuring voice, “You won’t do anything” (Waters). Maas told him that by the rules of the House members can’t speak unless they are not armed. Kemmerer shouted in response, “I demand the right to the floor for 20 minutes” and Maas said, “All right son. Throw down your gun first” (Waters). He initially hesitated but dropped his gun to Maas. Fiorello La Guardia (R-N.Y) rushed to apprehend him along with a D.C. Capitol police officer.

Melvin J. Maas (1898-1964)

In response to the event, Rep. Thomas Blanton (D-Tex.) proposed that people who visit the gallery of the House should be properly vouched for and comes with a legitimate purpose and that “all this countenancing of cranks and crooks ought to stop. An anarchist has no business in a gallery of this Capitol of the people” (Petersen & Manning, 5). Ultimately no change occurred.

Kemmerer was incarcerated for a brief period but was released on January 13, 1933, on the request of the representatives. He ended up making good of his life: by his death on June 29, 2000, he had been married and had two children and seven grandchildren. Maas would receive a Carnegie Hero Fund silver medal for his courage and although he had lost reelection in 1932, he won again in 1934. Despite serving in the Democratic district of St. Paul he would continue to be reelected in three-way races as the Democrats and Farmer-Laborers would split the liberal vote. He would later serve in World War II from its start until fall 1942, and then again after his reelection loss in 1944 when the Democrats and Farmer-Laborers united behind a candidate. The flash from a bomb in his subsequent service would damage his optic nerve and over a four-week period in August 1951 he went completely blind. Already a champion for disabled veterans as a member of the Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, Maas continued his work and in 1954 President Eisenhower appointed him chairman. He carried out his duties energetically until his death on April 13, 1964, from complications of heart disease and diabetes at the age of 65.


A Gunman in the House Gallery in 1932. House of Representatives.

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Nelson, P. (2015, May 4). Maas, Melvin (1898-1964). MNopedia.

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Petersen, R.E. & Manning, J.E. (2017, August 17). Violence Against Members of Congress and Their Staff: Selected Examples and Congressional Responses. Congressional Research Service.

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Waters, D. (2020, January 19). The Depression-era gunman who tried to hold the House of Representatives hostage: ‘I demand the right to the floor for 20 minutes.’ The Washington Post.

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A Look at Election Challenges: 1877 and 2005
The 1877 Electoral Commission

There are a number of Republicans who wish to challenge the Electoral vote count ostensibly on the number of allegations of voting irregularities and fraud, and Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) raised the objection, apparently on behalf of those who are concerned over these allegations.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and ten other senators have proposed an Electoral Commission, with their joint statement holding that, “In 1877, Congress did not ignore those allegations, nor did the media simply dismiss those raising them as radicals trying to undermine democracy. Instead, Congress appointed an Electoral Commission — consisting of five Senators, five House Members, and five Supreme Court Justices — to consider and resolve the disputed returns. We should follow that precedent. To wit, Congress should immediately appoint an Electoral Commission, with full investigatory and fact-finding authority, to conduct an emergency 10-day audit of the election returns in the disputed states. Once completed, individual states would evaluate the Commission’s findings and could convene a special legislative session to certify a change in their vote, if needed” (Cruz). They will object to the counts in one to three states.

Critics of these senators regard this as an attack on democracy, presuming that their real aim is to try to hand the election to Trump in a “coup”. Senator Cruz already cited the 1877 commission as a distant precedent and Josh Hawley can cite the 2005 objection as a precedent. I intend to describe how the situations that were present in 1877 and 2005 are like today and how they are not.

1877 Electoral Vote Commission

The 1876 election was an incredibly contentious race. Democrats had their best chance at winning a presidential election in twenty years and they had ammunition to make their case for election. Their nominee, Samuel J. Tilden of New York, was a reformer who tackled Tammany Hall corruption under the notorious Boss Tweed. The scandals of the Grant Administration seemed to provide the perfect contrast for such a campaign. Additionally, in the Democrats’ favor was the increasing vote in the South for them, due in part to whites increasingly unifying behind them and also in part to using means legal and illegal to suppress the black vote. The Republican nominee, Rutherford B. Hayes, was ideal in some ways as well. He had a reputation as a moderate Republican, was not involved with the current administration, and was able to win the 1868 gubernatorial race in Ohio in a year that was tough on the GOP in the state. After Election Day, the results were that Tilden had scored the majority of the popular vote but three states were contested for the Electoral College: Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Oregon was also in play over a disputed elector, although the state was agreed to have been won by Republicans. All Tilden needed was one more electoral vote to secure the win, and accusations flew left and right. Republicans charged Democrats with employing physical intimidation and bribery to suppress black and white Republican votes in those states while Democrats charged Republicans with dirty election tactics of their own, among their claims was that the Republicans deliberately ruined Tilden ballots in Florida by smearing ink on them. Both sides claimed fraud and intimidation generally.

The Electoral Commission was initially a balanced split: seven Republicans, seven Democrats, and one Independent, the latter who sat on the Supreme Court. The Independent was going to be Supreme Court Justice David Davis of Illinois, but he was elected to a Senate seat in Illinois, and his replacement was Justice Joseph P. Bradley, a Republican who had a reputation for being apolitical. The commission’s vote, unsurprisingly, was 8-7 for Hayes. Supposedly Bradley had received a visit the night before from a Republican senator who said to him, “whatever the strict legal equities, it would be a national disaster if the government fell into Democratic hands”, if Democrat Congressman Abram Hewitt’s account is accurate (Digital History). This of course didn’t satisfy the Democrats and talk of a repeat of the War of the Rebellion was at hand, but ultimately a compromise was brokered: they would agree to Hayes as president if Reconstruction was ended, funds were allocated for projects in the South, and a Southerner was appointed to his cabinet. Regarding Reconstruction itself, it likely wouldn’t have mattered if Hayes or Tilden were elected here. Tilden would have without doubt ended Reconstruction as Democrats of the time were unified against it, and the Democratic House would have hamstrung any efforts of the Republican Senate to continue. The nation was by and large tired of trying to get Southern whites to regard blacks as their social and legal equals…that would have to wait 80-90 years. Over the next 20-25 years, the Jim Crow process would be completed in the South. 

The 1876 election had the following official results in contested states for Hayes: Florida, 992 votes (1.97%), Louisiana, 4807 votes (3.3%), and South Carolina, 889 votes (0.49%). By contrast, the 2020 election results were as follows for Biden: Arizona, 10,457 votes (0.31%), Georgia, 12,670 votes (0.24%), and Pennsylvania, 81,660 votes (1.16%). The raw numbers are much lower in the previous case but the percentage difference is on average lower in the latter. The population is simply much, much higher with the states we’re looking at now. However, in raw numbers the highest margin for Hayes, Louisiana, is over 5500 votes less than Arizona, the lowest margin for Biden. It is much easier to mess with smaller numbers of ballots and particularly so in 1876, as fraudulent practices in voting were considerably more common. Also, the notion that there will be any “satisfactory” resolution to an Electoral Commission is wishful thinking at best. The vote was bitterly divided and many Democrats still didn’t accept Hayes as a legitimate president, taking to referring to him as “Rutherfraud” and “his fraudulency” throughout his presidency (Barnard). Senator John J. Ingalls (R-Kan.) reflected in a debate ten years later on the Electoral Count Act, “The Electoral Commission of 1877 was a contrivance that will never be repeated in our politics. It was a device that was favored by each party in the belief that it would cheat the other, and it resulted, as I once before said, in defrauding both” (Bomboy). I think these Republicans just want this commission to be a sounding board for anyone who signed an affidavit to air their grievances on how the 2020 election went, and people won’t change how they felt about the election. This was largely true of feelings of the 1876 election as well.

The vote on the electors has not been cast yet, but when it is some may remember the 2005 vote on the electors. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) officially objected to the total and cited Ohio. They cited allegations of voting irregularities in the state of Ohio. Although some currently serving senators, such as Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) who condemn Hawley’s objection praised Boxer for her objection at the time, she was ultimately the only one in the chamber to vote to object. In the House, 30 Democrats joined Tubbs Jones in her objection. Among those currently serving are Maxine Waters of California, Alcee Hastings of Florida, Ed Markey of Massachusetts (now a senator), and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina (who has condemned the current objection). Waters herself also objected to the count in 2016, and there was an objection in 2000 as well. These two, however, got no Senate support. Presumably, Hawley can make the same claim that Boxer can about his act here. After all, like in 2004, the winner prevailed with both the popular and electoral vote. There is also no question, that staunch Democrats in 2004, like staunch Republicans in 2020, had concerns about the voting process. The difference, however, lies primarily in the thoughts and actions of one man: the man who lost the election.

The objection of Boxer was not pushed for by John Kerry, who had conceded the morning following the election, and Kerry didn’t publicly express that this was his backdoor ticket to the White House. The same cannot be said for Donald J. Trump. Rather than this being an unexpected development on his behalf, Trump has not conceded and has led the push for this objection along with his most vocal supporters in conservative media. They have pushed wild claims about widespread and systemic voter fraud with no greater evidence than interpreting the voting statistics of the year as strange (admittedly true compared to past elections given the high turnout and mail-in ballots) and pointing out that mail-in votes came in overwhelmingly for Democrats, even though Trump himself told his supporters not to vote by mail. Although the vote has not been cast yet on the objection, it is looking like 12-13 senators will vote for it and possibly at least 100 representatives, all of course Republican. This is a major increase from one senator and 31 representatives, all Democrat. While you might argue that the senators who are engaged in this are acting on behalf of their concerned and angry voter base (and in the cases of Cruz and Hawley trying to get their votes for 2024) and are not really intending to overturn the election, the president is saying this is the case. Although the objection is officially about concerns that are very much like those of Boxer and Tubbs Jones in 2005, the leading role he has played here and the scope and magnitude of those objecting are substantive and cannot be ignored. Without Trump at the helm on this, yes, this could be compared well to the 2005 objection, if a bit larger. This objection is only somewhat comparable to the 2005 objection and the implications are far different given the actions and words of Trump, especially now with the infamous Trump-Raffensberger call, which make no mistake, was not made in good faith. If it were, Trump would not have asked Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger for just enough votes to win. And apparently, he’s engaging in this despite having privately admitted that he’s lost! According to Politico’s Anita Kumar, he wants to keep fighting to keep public attention on him and to please his fans. This makes the Republican senators who go along with this supporting actors in the final episodes of The Trump Show as it approaches the cancellation date of January 20th.

I think the complaint isn’t really at its heart about how the vote went down. Its about the entire political environment of 2020 that brought about the vote: the Trump impeachment, the riots that accompanied the massive anti-racism protests that followed George Floyd’s demise at the hands of the police and the Democrats’ tepid and milquetoast reaction to them, the stark contrast between the media coverage surrounding Trump and that surrounding Biden, the view that elected Democrats granted privileges in the wake of COVID-19 for woke activists and not for common people, and the rising “woke” culture. However, all these things and more cannot be the official reason behind the objection, but the political grievances of 2020 are the real reasons. The environment of 2020 itself was thought to be unfair, and a number of conservatives wish to use the electoral objection as a means to express protest…after all a few congressmen delivering speeches bemoaning the political environment of 2020 isn’t as memorable as an objection. However, other presidents of history could make the claim that the political environment was unfair to them. After all, it’s a damn shame for Herbert Hoover that in 1932 General Douglas MacArthur was far too gung-ho in carrying out his order to clear out bonus marcher encampments, that voters no longer liked his Prohibition stance, and that the Great Depression grew worse. It’s a damn shame for Jimmy Carter that the economy was in the crapper and the whole Iran Hostage Crisis was going on in 1980. It’s a damn shame for George H.W. Bush that despite having a war in Iraq that was by all metrics successful in 1991, economic recovery from a mild recession wasn’t moving along fast enough in 1992 to get him reelected and that Democrats used his willingness to compromise with them on tax increases against him on an election year.


Barnard, H. (2005). Rutherford Hayes and his America. Newtown, Connecticut: American Political Biography Press.

Bomboy, S. (2021, January 4). Looking Back: The Electoral Commission of 1877. Interactive Constitution.

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Cruz, T. (2021, January 2). Joint Statement from Senators Cruz, Johnson, Lankford, Daines, Kennedy, Blackburn, Braun, Senators-Elect Lummis, Marshall, Hagerty, Tuberville. U.S. Senator for Texas Ted Cruz.

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Kumar, A. (2021, January 5). Trump privately admits it’s over, but wants to brawl for attention. Politico.

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Olsen, T. (2020, December 31). Democrats who praised 2004 objections to Electoral College certification now slam Hawley. FOX News.

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The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876. Digital History.

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Harold Knutson: 32 Years of Trial and Transformation

In 1916, Congressman Charles Lindbergh, Sr. of Minnesota (yes, the father of the famous aviator) decided to run for the Senate. He had throughout his career stood on the progressive wing of the Republican Party and was adamantly opposed to getting involved in World War I, the latter which cost him his Senate bid. Succeeding him was Harold Knutson (1880-1953), who almost immediately upon taking office found himself facing a vote of great importance: American participation in World War I.

Harold Knutson in 1917.jpg
Knutson in 1917.

Voting on War and Backing Harding

Public sentiment was overwhelmingly on the side of going to war given Germany’s increased aggression through unrestricted submarine warfare as well as the discovery of the Zimmermann Telegram in January 1917, in which German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann offered Mexico the states of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico if they should ally with Germany and prevail. Despite public pressure, Knutson voted against declaring war on Germany, one of fifty representatives to do so, a group that included the first woman in Congress, Jeanette Rankin, and the only Socialist in Congress, Meyer London. Those who voted against faced accusations of disloyalty. The electoral consequences for those who voted “nay” were real: seventeen representatives who had voted against lost reelection or renomination. Senators James K. Vardaman of Mississippi and Asle J. Gronna of North Dakota lost renomination in 1918 and 1920 respectively. Senator Harry Lane of Oregon had also voted against and was facing a recall but died only a month later. Fortunately for Knutson, his district seemed to like his vote and reelected him. In his first few terms in Congress he was a staunch advocate for farmers and veterans and politically was moderate conservative. Knutson gained enough respect as a legislator to serve as majority whip from 1919 to 1923 and in this role, he broadly supported the policies of President Warren G. Harding, but differed on veterans bonuses, voting to override his veto. In 1924, however, an event occurred that threatened his political career.

The Sex Scandal

Police found him in a parked car on the side of the road in Arlington, Virginia, with Labor Department employee Leroy M. Hull and arrested him on a “grave moral offense”. Knutson tried to bribe the officers with $100, but was indicted. This “grave moral offense” was probably sodomy, but a jury ultimately acquitted him after Congressional colleagues testified as character witnesses. Homosexuality was regarded as an unspeakable matter in 1924 (“don’t ask, don’t tell” comes to mind) and this incident may have given him some problems in his reelection bid, as his race was closer than in 1922. Nonetheless, Knutson survived.

Knutson: The Survivor

He continued to take some stances that were rather courageous, including changing his mind on Prohibition and voting against immigration restrictions when they had reached the height of popularity in 1924. Knutson even managed to thrive: he was one of the Republican legislators who managed to stay in office the entirety of FDR’s presidency. This was an impressive feat given the dire straits of the GOP during much of the Roosevelt Administration. He was initially open to some New Deal measures, such as the National Industrial Recovery Act, but by FDR’s second term he had become a staunch foe. A supporter of lower income taxes, he didn’t appreciate the hefty tax increases that came with maintaining the New Deal bureaucracy. On civil rights, Knutson’s record is mixed. He voted against an anti-lynching bill in 1937 and an anti-poll tax bill in 1943, but voted for anti-poll tax legislation in 1942 and 1947 as well as an anti-discrimination rider in 1946. Consistent with his views on entering World War I, he was a staunch non-interventionist up until the attack on Pearl Harbor. This time he voted to declare war.

Knutson and FDR’s “Fala Speech”

In 1944, Knutson had learned of a rumor that President Roosevelt had accidentally left his Scottish terrier, Fala, on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a Navy destroyer from Seattle to pick him up. Republican Thomas Dewey seemed to be riding high and Roosevelt’s campaign was not going so well: there were rumors flying about the poor state of his health and he had delivered a weak campaign address in Bremerton, Washington on August 12th. On August 31st, however, Knutson spoke in Congress about this rumor and accused Roosevelt of extravagance, which was echoed by Republican leaders and newspaper columnists. After the Navy issued a denial, Knutson instead charged that a plane had been sent, but this was denied as well. This gave Roosevelt a chance for a comeback, and he used it well. On September 23rd, he delivered a speech before the Teamsters Union which also played on the radio where he covered the matter:

“These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him – at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars – his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself – such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog” (Lewellyn, 66-67).

This speech helped reinvigorate his campaign and got the public to see that Roosevelt was good for another term. Exactly eight years later, Richard Nixon would invoke his own dog, Checkers, to save his career. As it happened, FDR wasn’t good for another term given his health and died three months into his fourth term.

Harold Knutson vs. Harry S. Truman

Knutson as chair of House Ways and Means Committee.

Knutson proved no friendlier to his successor, Harry S. Truman; he was one of his leading Congressional antagonists. The 1946 election gave him a chance to strike a blow for lower taxes. With the election of a Republican Congress, Knutson became the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and succeeded in getting passed a bill reducing income taxes over President Truman’s veto. He also remained non-interventionist in his views as evidenced by his votes against the Greek-Turkish Aid Act and the Marshall Plan. However, Truman’s numerous attacks on the 80th Congress, particularly on the issue of grain storage, proved quite effective against rural Republicans. In 1948, he lost reelection to political newcomer Democrat Fred Marshall. The last time a Democrat had won the district was in 1892. Knutson chose to retire rather than try for his old seat in 1950. A lot had changed since 1917 for Knutson: he was much older, far more conservative, and the American political consensus was behind internationalism rather than the unilateral nationalism of old. His MC-Index score averaged 70% in his first ten terms (1917-1937), but it averaged 93% in his last six terms (1937-1949). Knutson had become too confident in his ability to retain elected office and it cost him.


Congressman Knutson Arrested on Grave Charge. United States House of Representatives.

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Kestenbaum, L. Politicians in Trouble or Disgrace: Minnesota. The Political Graveyard.

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Llewellyn, J. (2010). Paws, Pathos and Presidential Persuasion: Franklin Roosevelt’s “Fala Speech” as Precursor and Model for Richard Nixon’s “Checkers Speech”. Communication and Theater Association of Minnesota Journal, 37(5), 64-75.

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