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Speaker Joseph Cannon Dethroned

Written by: Joseph Postell, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Compare the goals and effects of the Progressive reform movement

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative to explore the impact progressives had on the legislative branch during the early twentieth century.

When Representative George Norris of Nebraska came to the House of Representatives to serve his first term in 1903, he was already something of a fish out of water. A progressive Republican, he disagreed with party leaders on a variety of issues, from railroad regulation to tariffs to support for labor unions. The problem for Norris was that his party had the power to thwart him at every turn.

Portrait of George Norris leaning on a column.

George Norris in 1913 as a young representative from the state of Nebraska.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the House of Representatives was a body dominated by party leadership, especially by the Speaker of the House, who was commonly referred to as a “czar” The Speaker had three powers in particular that commanded obedience from the members of the party. First was the power to make all appointments to congressional committees, including selecting the powerful chairs of committees. Therefore, members had to be on good terms with the Speaker to advance their legislative careers. The Speaker also chaired and controlled the Committee on Rules, which had the ability to schedule bills for votes on the floor of the House. A bill had to go through this Rules Committee to be passed, and the Speaker controlled that committee. Finally, the Speaker had the power of “recognition.” When someone rose to speak on the floor of the House or to make a motion, the member had to be recognized by the presiding officer of the House. The Speaker was that officer. By simply asking, “For what purpose does the gentleman rise?” the Speaker could control who got to speak on the House floor.

The Speaker who held these powers for most of Norris’s tenure in the House was Joseph Cannon. Known as “Uncle Joe,” Cannon was a formidable Speaker who exerted strong influence over the members of the House. He was so influential that he graced the cover of Time magazine’s first issue when he retired from Congress in 1923.Timecalled Cannon “the supreme dictator of the Old Guard,” and he had little patience for Norris. Norris once requested a seat on the House’s Judiciary Committee but Cannon dismissed the request, telling him to “get a reputation” first. From that day forward, Norris kept in his pocket a resolution that would strip the Speaker of his immense powers, waiting for the right opportunity to introduce it.

Cannon smokes a cigar and holds a gavel while he stands behind a podium. He says,

Political cartoons at the turn of the century depicted the Speaker of the House as a larger-than-life figure who ruled tyrannically over his colleagues in the House of Representatives.

Norris was not alone in his opposition to the concentration of power in party leadership. Most Progressive reformers in the early twentieth century thought political parties were too powerful and needed to be weakened, if not abolished altogether. In their view, parties made the government corrupt and unaccountable by acting as an invisible government pulling the strings of the elected representatives. Progressives advanced several reforms that would weaken parties by creating a more direct democracy, rather than a representative democracy in which parties played a mediating role by filtering out candidates and controlling the legislative process. Progressives wanted to eliminate parties’ ability to nominate candidates at conventions, for instance, so they advocated for direct primaries instead, at which the voters would select candidates themselves through direct elections. And they introduced campaign finance and civil service laws to strip parties of their ability to raise money and appoint cronies to office. Parties were the strongest institutions in American politics in the late nineteenth century, and progressives intended to change that in the twentieth.

Norris was the one to weaken party control over Congress. He bided his time for years until the opportunity finally arrived: St. Patrick’s Day, 1910. Cannon was present in the House, but many of the Republican “regulars,” as the defenders of party loyalty were called, were out, celebrating the day in the streets of Washington. Norris saw that enough of them were absent to swing a vote on the Speaker’s powers in favor of Cannon’s opponents. Progressive Republicans, with the support of Democrats who relished the opportunity to embarrass Cannon, could finally end the reign of “czar” Speakers.

Norris rose to introduce his resolution as the celebrations flowed outside the Capitol. He moved to take the Speaker off the Rules Committee and strip him of his power to appoint the Committee’s members. This would put the entire House, not the party leaders, in charge of deciding which bills were up for debate and passage. But the difficulty was getting the Speaker to agree even to debate Norris’s resolution. Because the Speaker controlled the flow of business in the House, he could simply refuse to entertain Norris’s motion. Norris contended that his resolution was privileged under the Constitution and so took precedence over other matters according to the rules of the House. Cannon had to make a ruling on Norris’s contention, so he allowed a lengthy debate to take place, stalling while his supporters rushed into the streets and barrooms to find reinforcements.

The debate over whether Norris’s resolution was out of order lasted through the night. Shortly after midnight, in support of the resolution, the House voted to order the Sergeant-at-Arms to take absent members into custody and bring them back to the Capitol to produce a quorum and continue the debate. In the middle of the night, the Sergeant-at-Arms and his deputies traversed the city, cajoling a handful of members to return voluntarily but arresting none. Some members sang together on the floor, passing the time as they waited for Cannon’s ruling. It was chaos. As Cannon himself later admitted, “The fact is, the House for the time being had gone a little mad and was no longer governed by reason.” All the while, representatives from both camps were meeting privately to agree to a compromise, but no deal could be reached.

The spectacle continued into the following morning. More than 24 hours passed as the House sat in continuous session, debating the propriety of Norris’s notion. At 2 p.m. on March 18, the House finally voted to take a brief recess. When that was over, Cannon announced that he was prepared to decide whether Norris’s resolution was, indeed, privileged. But abruptly, some members called for another recess until the next day, and their motion passed. The clash between the party regulars and the insurgents would have to wait one more day.

March 19 came and with it Cannon’s decision. Cannon determined that Norris’s resolution was not privileged and that only the Rules Committee, which he controlled, could originate changes to House rules. Norris and his allies immediately appealed Cannon’s ruling to the entire House, where Cannon was overruled by a vote of 182 to 163. The Norris resolution was then put to a vote, and it passed by a 191 to 156 margin. The Speaker would no longer control the Rules Committee, one of the cornerstones of his authority.

Cannon was not surprised at the outcome, but he had prepared one last move to save face. In a dramatic speech, he rose to defend himself and his leadership of the House. He refused to apologize for any wrongdoing and declared that because no coherent Republican majority existed in the House, he would entertain a motion to overthrow himself and select a new Speaker. This was a direct challenge to Republican insurgents such as Norris. Would they vote for the Democrats’ candidate for Speaker, giving control to the other party, or would they support Cannon? They did not have the votes to elect one of their own.

The next day, a Democrat from Texas, Albert Burleson, took Cannon’s bait and introduced a motion to vacate the Speakership. Norris immediately saw the trap and called for the House to adjourn. Cannon refused to allow it, since Burleson’s motion had already been introduced, and once again the House descended into chaos. This time, however, Cannon prevailed, and Burleson’s motion to strip him of the Speakership failed, 192 to 155. Cannon had managed to reassert at least some measure of his power.

The nation was transfixed by these events. The Wall Street Journal wrote, “The clock has struck for Uncle Joe. He has stood between the people and too many things that they wanted and ought to have.” With the Speaker removed from the Rules Committee, other pillars of party power in the House began to fall. Soon the House took back the Speaker’s power to appoint all committees, not just the Rules Committee, and the era of centralized party control of the House came to an end.

Portrait of Joseph Cannon.

Joseph Cannon, shown here in 1906, used his power to block reform legislation proposed by Progressives, which ultimately contributed to his downfall.

The implications of the dramatic Revolt of 1910 reverberate through Washington, DC, even today. The Speaker of the House has never regained the enormous powers held by Speakers before Cannon. Today, individual members of Congress are more independent of their party leaders, free to challenge them without fear of reprisal. On the one hand, this has given members of Congress greater freedom to represent their own constituencies rather than being controlled by their parties. On the other hand, it has made Congress less efficient and weaker because there are seldom leaders who can forge and maintain coalitions long enough to pass major legislation. The decline of leaders in Congress paved the way for leaders in other branches, especially strong presidents, to influence and direct Congress. By ousting its own leaders, members of Congress succeeded not in eliminating leadership altogether, but in shifting it to other parts of the government.

Review Questions

1. The power of the Rules Committee in the House of Representatives is based on its ability to

  1. decide who writes the majority opinions for Supreme Court decisions
  2. set operating regulations for all three branches of government
  3. schedule bills for a vote in the lower house of Congress
  4. establish electoral college voting procedures

2. Progressives believed the effect political parties had on government was

  1. neutral, because party loyalty did not translate to political power
  2. negative, because political parties drew power away from the people
  3. positive, because political parties best represented the people’s wishes
  4. negative, because the state legislatures selected members of the House of Representatives

3. The “invisible government” that progressive reforms sought to control was the

  1. secret ballot
  2. political party
  3. immigrant voter
  4. electoral college

4. Progressive political reforms designed to limit the power of political parties included all the following except

  1. direct primaries
  2. civil service laws to limit patronage
  3. direct election of U.S. senators
  4. elimination of national nominating conventions

5. Changes to the power of the Speaker of the House in 1910 led to

  1. growing independence of individual members of Congress to report to their constituents
  2. increased power for political parties in the House of Representatives
  3. increased likelihood of passing major legislation with bipartisan support
  4. growth in the overall power of Congress compared with that of the president

6. Which power of the Speaker of the House was stripped during the Revolt of 1910?

  1. The power to recognize members who wished to speak on the floor of the House
  2. The power to create committees and refer legislation to them
  3. The power to chair the Rules Committee
  4. The power to impound specific items in spending bills

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain the progressives’ objections to political parties.
  2. Explain the legislation passed by Progressive Era reformers to limit the power of political parties.
  3. Discuss the implications of the Revolt of 1910 on the powers of Congress today.

AP Practice Questions

Cannon smokes a cigar and holds a gavel while he stands behind a podium. He says,

This 1908 political cartoon of House Speaker Joseph Cannon is titled, “The House is in session according to the minority point of view.”

Refer to the image provided.

1. This cartoon reflects the minority political party’s view that

  1. the Speaker of the House controls all that occurs in the House
  2. women should be granted the right to vote
  3. political parties are losing power
  4. the House of Representatives lacks party discipline

2. The situation in the provided image most directly reflected a growing belief that

  1. political reform needed to start at the city level
  2. Progressive Era political reforms needed to give power to citizens
  3. rural states held too much national political power
  4. trusts were a part of American economic life

3. Which of the following was a direct result of the partisan events depicted in the cartoon?

  1. Rejection of immigration restrictions on Southern and Eastern Europeans
  2. Rejection of the Treaty of Versailles
  3. Lessening of political party influence in Congress
  4. Entry of the United States into World War I

Primary Sources

“The Revolt of 1910.” In The U.S. Congress: Core Documents, edited by Joseph Postell. Ashland, OH; Ashbrook Press, 2019.

Suggested Resources

Busbey, L. White. Uncle Joe Cannon: The Story of a Pioneer American, as Told to L. White Busbey. New York: Holt, 1927.

Gwinn, William Rea. Uncle Joe Cannon: Archfoe of Insurgency. New York: Bookman Associates, 1957.

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