The 1923 Speaker Battle

Frederick H. Gillett, R-Mass.

After a fifteen-vote struggle as well as a prior rejection in 2015 in favor of Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy of California is finally Speaker of the House. The sort of fight we saw over the last few days has, as a number of publications have already written on, a century old precedent. The party in question was the same, but circumstances politically were a bit different. Although the party was conservative, the rebels were not from the right, rather from the left. The current fight was establishment vs. anti-establishment Republicans, with oscillations among the pro and anti-McCarthy factions about whether former President Donald Trump’s support of McCarthy was relevant. The most obvious presence among the rebels were Wisconsin Republicans. The state and its Republicans were in a state of rebellion against the national party and in 1924 Senator Robert La Follette (R-Wis.) would win the state’s electoral votes.

The first two years of the Harding Administration had proven awful from a progressive perspective. Lower income taxes, higher tariffs, pro-business policy, and limited government were the rule. Other issues included coal strikes, the economy still recovering from a mini-depression, and discontent over Prohibition enforcement. The Speaker of the House at the time was Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts. Gillett was a well-respected figure and a principled conservative. By DW-Nominate scoring, he gets a 0.662, making him the fourth most conservative representative in the 67th Congress. Gillett was also considered a passive figure who would go with what his fellow conservatives wanted. Much of the behind-the-scenes power was from former Minority Leader James R. Mann of Illinois. In 1922, the Republicans took a beating in the midterms, losing 77 seats in the House, much of the losses coming from urban areas. However, the Democrats had suffered worse in the 1918 and 1920 elections combined, leaving the GOP with a majority of 18 seats rather than 171. This gave frustrated progressives within the Republican Party an opportunity to fight for reform.

Unlike the rebels of 2023, who varied in the candidates they wanted between ballots with no solid consistent agreement about who should be speaker instead of McCarthy, the rebels in 1923 consistently championed Henry A. Cooper of Wisconsin for speaker. Cooper had, like Gillett, first been elected to Congress in 1892 and was a prominent member of the GOP’s progressive wing. He had only lost an election once, in 1918, when he lost renomination to conservative Clifford Randall due to his vote against World War I. A smaller contingent embraced another representative, Martin B. Madden of Illinois, who was less conservative (although not by that much) than Gillett and represented a majority black area in Chicago.

The GOP rebels for Cooper were:

Henry A. Cooper (R-Wis.), the leading choice of the rebels.

Frank Clague, Charles Davis, Oscar Keller, and Harold Knutson of Minnesota. Knutson was the least progressive among them and would become much more conservative later in his career.

Fiorello LaGuardia of New York. LaGuardia would later become arguably New York City’s greatest mayor.

James Sinclair of North Dakota.

Edward Voigt, John Nelson, John Schafer, Florian Lampert, Joseph Beck, Edward Browne, George Schneider, James Frear, and Hubert Peavey, all of Wisconsin. The monolithic rebellion from the Wisconsin delegation illustrated just how much Senator La Follette’s brand of politics had come to dominate the state, with the only detractor remaining in 1923 being Senator Irvine Lenroot, who was a moderate and a former ally. Cooper himself voted present as did the state’s Socialist, Victor Berger.

Farmer-Laborers Ole Kvale and Knud Wefald of Minnesota. The Farmer-Labor Party was a progressive offshoot of the Republican Party which would later merge with the Democrats. Thus, the state’s party being officially known as the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party.

Voting for Madden:

Martin B. Madden, R-Ill., minority choice of rebels.

Magne Michaelson, Frank Reid, and Edward King of Illinois. – All three were to the left of the median of House Republicans, were strongly pro-organized labor, and were certainly the most progressive Republicans representing the state at the time.

Roy Woodruff and William F. James of Michigan. – Although originally a Progressive of the Theodore Roosevelt mold, Woodruff would become extremely conservative during the Roosevelt Administration.

Ultimately, the rebels held out for three days in which eight votes were cast with no speaker decided. Finally, Majority Leader Nick Longworth (R-Ohio) reached an agreement with the rebels to loosen the rules and limit the speaker’s power, thus more potential for progressive legislation to reach the floor. Thus, on the ninth ballot, most of the rebels voted for Gillett. The exceptions were the third-party members Kvale, Wefald, and Berger. The rebels had won concessions…for now. In 1924, President Coolidge ran for a full term, and numerous progressive Republicans threw their support behind Senator Robert La Follette (R-Wis.). After Coolidge’s resounding victory, the progressives, particularly the ones who had sided with La Follette, were booted off committees in retaliation by the new Speaker, the man who had negotiated a truce with the progressives. Gillett had been elected to the Senate, defeating popular Democratic incumbent David I. Walsh, largely thanks to the coattails of the even more popular Coolidge. He served a single term.


Gillett, Frederick Huntington. Voteview.

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