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 a 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 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 minority Democrats 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 Cannon 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).
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.
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.
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 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.
The Honorable Joseph G. Cannon. The City of Tuscola.
The House’s All Night Session to Break Speaker Joe Cannon’s Power. United States House of Representatives.
The Nation: Uncle Joe Cannon: Iron Duke of Congress. (1973, January 15). TIME Magazine.