“Uncle Joe” Cannon, the real ghost haunting John Boehner this summer as Speaker of the House.

Joseph Gurney Cannon (R.-Ill.) circa 1920, after being
toppled as House Speaker, voted out of Congress,
then elected to return. 

I have bent your ears many times about Joseph G. Cannon (R.-Ill.), the legendary, autocratic Speaker of the House who ultimately was stripped of power in a dramatic House floor revolt back in 1910.   (See “Uncle Joe” Cannon, November 10, 2010.)  Cannon was such a towering figure that Congress ultimately decided to name its signature building after him, the Cannon House Office Building, today one of the most familiar landmarks in Washington, D.C.  

Cannon on the cover of Time Magazine, 1923.

This past week, the painful, sometimes-humiliating spectacle of our modern Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-Ill.), trying to corral his divided Republicans, including over 80 freshman “Tea Party” members, in the high-stakes confrontation over raising the federal debt ceiling, has once again put Joe Cannon in the news.   Commentators as diverse as Doris Kearns Goodwin (CNN), Norman Ornstein (New York Times Book Reviewand Jeffrey Lord (American Spectator) all have invoked Cannon’s name in analyzing Boehner and modern Capitol Hill.   

Were we better off in the old days when Capitol Hill oligarchs like Cannon could twist arms and intimidate Congressmen into swallowing a deal they didn’t like — in contrast to Boehner’s repeated last week frustrations with his Tea Party faction?  Did those old days ever really exist at all?    

Joe Cannon truly is the ghost haunting Capitol Hill this summer.    Cannon — everyone from president to shoe shine boy called him “Uncle Joe” — presided as Speaker from 1903 to 1911, the height of Theodore Roosevelt’s era.  When he left Congress in March 1923, he had served almost fifty years and been elected twenty-two times, a record back then. Time Magazine that month put his face on the cover of its first-ever edition. Tall, lanky, and outgoing, always a cigar in his teeth, quick with a smart off-color joke, a back-slapping poker player, Cannon received 58 votes for president of the United States at the 1908 Republican Convention and had his picture on two different brands of chewing tobacco.

Washington Star front-page cartoon the morning after
Cannon is stripped of powers.

“Uncle Joe” could be charming, but also coarse and tough.  As Speaker, he felt perfectly entitled to punish recalcitrant members of his own party in ways no modern Speaker would dare.  He stripped them off committees, silenced them on the House floor, cut off their patronage, insulted or abused them, and even recruited challengers in their home districts.  

His caucus mostly went along — it was simply the way things worked back then.  Even President William Howard Taft, when Cannon asked him to cut off White House patronage from a few renegade Congressmen who opposed Cannon on a rule change,  followed orders.  

What connects the Joe Cannon of 1910 to John Boehner today, however, is not that Cannon was a bully.  Rather, it’s the opposite: that Cannon the autocrat ultimately fell on his face.

Congressman George W. Norris (R-Neb), leader
of the anti-Cannon uprising, circa 1913.

In March 1911, those abused junior members in Cannon’s caucus finally found the courage and strategy to rebel and strip Cannon of his leadership powers.  The revolt, led by young Nebraska congressman and future senator George W. Norris, played out in full public view, an unprecedented spectacle on the floor of Congress, a three-day parliamentary seige during which Cannon had to filibuster from the Speaker’s chair just to be heard.  In the end, Norris and his insurgents (they would later call themselves Progressives) succeeded in bringing down not just Cannon but also President Taft and an entire class of Washington’s old guard.

Congress was broken and dysfunctional in 1910 under Joe Cannon no less than today.  But that generation found a way to fix things.  By toppling Cannon in 1910, they demonstrated that old fashioned bosses could no longer rule the roost on Capitol Hill.  Since then, Speakers have had to walk on eggs, build support, and cater to all factions in their caucus.  

In short, John Boehner had it tougher than Joe Cannon.  Boehner never had the option (nor apparently any inclination) to be a bully, to strong-arm members of his caucus — even when they embarrassed him by balking at his key proposed to resolve the debt ceiling impasse.  Instead of twisting arms or buying support with earmarks, committee slots, or campaign cash, Boehner had to do the hard work of dealing with his Republicans — all of them — as adults, entitled to respect, listening to their concerns and addressing them.   It was not easy, and he did it gracefully. 

Whatever one thinks of the final Debt Ceiling deal (personally, not very much), I do give a hats off to John Boehner for living with the ghost of Joe Cannon.   Now, if only we could get Boehner to work with Democrats.  
 [So how did Joe Cannon bounce back from this personal black eye to the point that, just a few years later, Congress would name its Office Building after him?   More on that some other time…. ] 

Joe Cannon: A Few More Images

A few days ago, I mentioned Joseph G. Cannon, Speaker of the US House of Representatives (1903 to 1911), namesake of today’s Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C., who served fifty years in Congress (a record back then) and was the only Speaker ever to be stripped of powers in a public revolt on the House floor. For me, part of the appeal of Cannon’s story is that so much of it was captured in images: newspaper cartoons, photographs, campaign posters, and the rest. I thought you might enjoy seeing a few:

First, on the good side, when Cannon finally left Congress in 1923 as 87 year-old elder statesman, Time Magazine put his face on the cover of its first-ever edition.

Here is Joe in his prime as autocratic House Speaker, around 1908. Cannon had a face that cartoonists loved: long, angular, big nose, big ears, white beard, and always the cigar in his teeth. He was tall, lanky, and twitchy, a whirl of motion who swung his awms when he spoke. Cannon was a penny-pinching conservative (“not one cent for scenery”) who believed in “standing pat” — his words — and used his power to block tariff reforms, labor laws, railroad regulation, and the whole Progressive agenda.

How powerful was he? In this front-page Washington Star cartoon by Clifford Berryman, Uncle Joe delights in presiding over a House consising of 390 little clones of himself.

The 1910 revolt to strip Cannon of his powers was a hugh public defeat and embarrassment. Here he is after the fight

Finally, here is what Joe Cannon actually looked like in 1910. Cannon loved photos like this, with the trademark cigar, the big top havd, and a grin, his eyes betraying no douht about who”s the smarted pertson in the room.

“Uncle Joe” Cannon, Speaker of the House

These days, watching Nancy Pelosi and her bloodied, defeated Democrats in the US Congress prepare to surrender power to presumptive Speaker John Boehner and his new Republican majority, I can’t help but think of Joseph G. Cannon.

Joe Cannon (R-Illinois) — everyone called him “Uncle Joe” — presided as Speaker from 1903 to 1911, the height of Theodore Roosevelt’s era. When he left Congress in March 1923, he had served almost fifty years and been elected twenty-two times, a record back then. Time Magazine that month put his face on the cover of its first-ever edition. Tall, lanky, and outgoing, always a cigar in his teeth, quick with an off-color joke, a back-slapping poker player, Cannon received 58 votes for president of the United States at the 1908 Republican Convention and had his picture on two different brands of chewing tobacco. Above is a newspaper sketch of him from his glory days.

In most history books, Cannon is cast usually as villain, the arch-conservative on Capitol Hill who routinely blocked TR’s progressive ideas, “the vulgar old man who rules the National house” by one Chicago newspaper.

But Joe Cannon, the most autocratic leader ever to assume a chokehold over the National Legislature, also has the distinction of being the only House Speaker ever to be overthrown by his own members in open revolt, to his face, in public session. It was a rare public rebuke, and a signature victory for the then-rising Progressive Movement. Their anti-Cannon revolt, launched in March 1910 and led by young Nebraska congressman and future senator George W. Norris, played out in full public view, an unprecedented spectacle on the floor of Congress, a three-day parliamentary seige during which Cannon had to filibuster from the Speaker’s chair just to be heard. In the end, Norris and his Progressives succeeded in bringing down not just Cannon but also Republican President Willam Howard Taft and a generation of Washington oligarchs. (The snapshot below shows Cannon and Taft, in top hat, shortly before their respective defeats.)

The lesson for Nancy Pelosi and company, however, is not in Cannon’s defeat, but in his comeback. Joe Cannon was 74 years old at the time he was outsted from the Speaker’s chair in 1910. But rather then stewing in bitterness or self-doubt, he jumped right back into action. Cannon’s Illinois neighbors voted him back into Congress in 1914 where Cannon quickly rebuilt his friendships and reputation. He reinvented himself as elder statesman. And when time came for Congress to put names on its three House Office Buildings in Washington, D.C., they picked Cannon’s immediately.

So don’t fret, Democrats. Yes, there are second acts in American life, thanks in part to Uncle Joe. The pendulum will swing back. There will be another day.

Click here for a few more cartoons and images of Uncle Joe. 

Photo of a pleasant afternoon.

This is one of my favorite snapshots: It’s from Inauguration Day 1921, showing the Presidential limousine en route up Pennsylvania Avenue for the sweaing in. In the back seat, outgoing President Woodrow Wilson, sickly, having suffered a massive stroke (thrombosis) in late 1919, chats quietly with his replacement, incoming President Warren G. Harding, who had trounced Wilson’s party in the 1920 November elections.

In the front seat, 84 year-old Joseph G. Cannon (R-Ill), long-time autocractic Speaker of the House nearing the end of his 48 years in Congress, stares ahead. He is without the trademark cigar stub clenched in his teeth, but pointedly refused to wear a formal top hat like the others.

The back-seat conversation?

Warren Harding later described it this way: He said he felt nervous around Wilson Wilson. So, to make small talk, he mentioned during the ride that he had a fondness for elephants based on his sister’s having lived in Siam as a missionary, where she owned one as a pet. When Harding said he always wanted to own one himself, Wilson shot back: “I hope it won’t turn out to be a white elephant.” Wilson laughed.

Where they were going?

The sweaing-in went beautifully that day, the first ever to use an electronic amplifier so people standing in the cold could hear Warrn Harding’s voice. By 1924, Harding’s successor Calvin Coolidge would reach millions through radio. Wilson Wilson, however, grew tired during lunch and went home to rest rather than attend the ceremony.

Wilson and Harding both would be dead within three years. Harding would die mysteriously, apparently of food poisioning, returning by train from a trip to Alaska in August 1923. A few gossips would speculate that his strong-willed wife Florence poisoned him over his extramarital affairs. Harding’s presidency would be remembered primarily for the Teapot Dome scandal, involving abuses in his Interior, Veterans, and Justice Departments (though not directly touching Harding), considered then the most disgraceful since the President Grant scandals of the 1870s.

Woodrow Wilson would die six months after Harding, in February 1924. He would spend his final years convalescing in a townhouse near Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle, despondant over his failure to win American approval of the Versailles Treaty, containing a League of Nations. Wilson had negotiated the treaty at the close of World War I and touted the League as justification of the loss of 100,000 American soldiers during the War. The ratification failure left his argument hollow.

Rather than securing peace, historians mostly would view the Versailles Treaty as simply planting the seeds for the even-bloodier World War II.

As for “Uncle Joe” Cannon, he would serve one more term in Congress and then retire to his home in rural Danville, Illinois. Cannon had been humiliated in 1910 when Congressional “Insurgents” — a coalition of Progressives and Democrats chafing after years of Cannon’s bullying — stripped him of his powers in a famous St. Patrick’s Day uprising on the House floor. As a result, Cannon lost his House seat altogether in 1912. But Cannon, duly chastened, made peace with his enemies and returned to Congress in 1914 for another eight years. Not long after his 1926 death, Congress would honor him by putting his name its massive new office building, today a landmark of Capitol Hill.

Life in the moment.

But for now, they sat there amiably in the limousine, like three normal people on a pleasant afternoon, enjoying the fresh air, the company, and the crowds in the street, ignorant of the dramas ahead. They barely knew each other personally, but were thrown together in a car for a fleeting encounter, each being graceful enough to keep it pleasant. Life is made of moments like this.

See how I rated Wilson and Harding in the C-SPAN 2009 Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership.


Gasp!!! It’s been five months now since I last posted anything on this Blog. Is that pathetic, or what? Well, if you thought I was gone, you were wrong. I have not dropped off the face of the earth. You are not rid of me. I have decided to come back.

The truth be know, I have largely shelved my writing-historian life the past five months and happily returned to my first profession, practicing law. Yes, by day, I am a registered, card-carrying Washington lawyer-lobbyist. You can look it up. Here’s a link to my latest public report at OpenSecrets.Org: http://www.opensecrets.org/lobbyists/lobbyist.asp?txtname=Ackerman%2C+Kenneth&year=a&txttype=l ) The work has been interesting and productive and — no apologies here — it’s been lucrative too. Writers have to eat and pay bills, and I like to eat well. And a few months of hourly billings certainly helps.

But so much water has run under the bridge these past few months: Hillary, Obama, McCain, easily the most exciting Presidential sweepstakes in memory, not to mention the ongoing drama between George Bush’s last gasp White House and Nancy Pelosi’s stumbling Congress, and now the economy bumbling over, of all things, subprime mortgages. And that’s not even counting the New York Giants. What woeful, thrilling times we live in. How can a historian be silent?

Yet here I am, sitting silently all these months, a mere spectator. No, I haven’t given up being a fervid political junkie. I continue to read my three newspapers each day (the Washington Post, NY Times, and Roll Call). I listen to POTUS 08 on XM radio, check the DrudgeReport and other internet sites, and tune in pundits for hours on end. No excuses. I like it, and wouldn’t have it any other way. But every time I sit down to try and write a Blog post or an article, about politics, history, or anything else, I get distracted. Words dry up. I find other things needing attention. Writer’s block? Perhaps. But these blocks don’t come out of thin air.

Since my last book was published in May 2007 (Young J. Edgar: Hoover the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties, 1919-1920), I admit that I’ve researched at least half a dozen good ideas for next topics, including possible narratives about figures as diverse as Emma Goldman, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, American socialist founder Eugene V. Debs, long-time autocratic House Speaker Joe Cannon, feminist pioneer Victoria Woodhull, John Adams and the Boston Tea Party, and even the adventures of a once-famous British ocean deep-sea diver from the 1880s named Alexander Lambert. All these ideas have great promise, real keepers. But here too, the writers block sets in. I find problem at every turn, and no path out of the forest.

So I’ve made a decision. To start writing again, I need to write. And be published. That’s the only way to beat writers block. And in this modern world of cyberspace, the way you do it is through a Blog. So here I am Blogging — and in this initial effort, I am Blogging in the worst stereotypical way: with a self-absorbed, nascissistic, whiney, inconclusive essay about nothing but myself. But I guess that’s how you start. It doesn’t become literature overnight.

So expect to see me posting more often on this space. What I’ll write about, what shape it will take, ony time will tell. But plan to spent time having Coffee with Ken. I am going into writer’s training. Any encouragement would be appreciated.

So that’s it from the home front. Hope you’ll put up with me in the meantime.

Thanks, and all the best. –KenA