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The Story of Former GOP Speaker Uncle Joe Cannon
“You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, and you can't change human nature from intelligent self-interest into pure idealism—not in this life; and if you could, what would be left for paradise?”
-Joseph Gurney Cannon, Former Speaker of the House of Representatives
“Listen, kids, back in my day, we …” How many sentences have begun with that phrase from an older person, often a parent, as the beginning of a lecture on how things were so much better in the past? Well, that is not entirely true.
Forty years ago, we could not download any song, look at weather forecasts, send messages on a pocket-sized computer, and instantly find out how many times the football networks cut away to Taylor Swift at a Chiefs game. But for members of the GOP who care what happens in the House of Representatives, things were different in my day, well, technically, my great-grandfather’s day. Watching the hapless Kevin McCarthy lose his Speakership, the ineffectual GOP conservatives who failed to prevent it, and the attention-hounding Matt Gaetz, things were definitely better under Joe Cannon.
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Hailing from the same state as Abraham Lincoln, Joseph Gurney Cannon was born at the beginning of Andrew Jackson’s second term in 1836 and died at 90 in Calvin Coolidge’s 3rd year in the White House. Cannon represented parts of Illinois in the United States House of Representatives for twenty-three non-consecutive terms between 1873 and 1923; upon his retirement, he was the longest-serving member of the United States Congress. From 1903 to 1911, he presided as Speaker of the House, becoming arguably the most powerful Speaker in United States history. And he was a member of the Republican Party.
After the slickster John Boehner and boy scout Paul Ryan, not to mention now ex-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a GOP super-powered Speaker of the House seems about as plausible as a doddering, near senile Walter Mitty wannabe squaring off for the presidency against a man facing 91 criminal charges across four different cases.
With McCarthy’s travails comes newfound respect, or trepidation, for Joe Cannon. Writing for Time Magazine, Olvia Waxman noted, “The only other time when there was a vote on a motion to oust the House Speaker was in 1910 when a similar rebellion by members of the Republican Party ganged up on Speaker Joe Cannon. However, the vote to oust Cannon did not succeed, so he was not removed from the position. Nicknamed ‘Uncle Joe,’ Cannon faced criticism that he was too resistant to attempts to reform the way the government worked.”
The early part of the 20th century was a turning point in our politics in which the two parties began to change their positions. Until the progressive era, the Democratic Party was pro-business, small government, and state’s rights. The Republicans were the big spenders with, in 1890, the first billion-dollar budget. As the Democrats were transitioning into the liberal party of today, the Republicans had two factions, a progressive one, and a more conservative caucus led by Cannon.
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At the age of 70, Cannon was seen as an obstacle to reform and, in many ways, represented the party's future. It was prominent Republicans such as Theodore Roosevelt and Wisconsin Senator Robert Lafollette who were the reformers, the advocates of change. As Time noted in a 1951 issue of the magazine: “Beginning in 1906 when he was already a man of 70, Joe Cannon set himself to use every power of the Speaker's office to stifle the reforms demanded by younger men. From liberals of that time, he earned a new and bitter nickname: ‘Cannon the Strangler.’”
At the Washington Post, Gillian Brockell noted, “Unlike McCarthy, whom lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seem to delight in calling ‘weak,’ Cannon was accused of being a tyrant.” According to writer Booth Mooney in Mr. Speaker: Four Men Who Shaped the United States House of Representatives, Cannon doled out committee chairs to friends and controlled what legislation—and what amendments to that legislation—could be debated on the floor. If a House rule didn’t work in his favor, he changed it since he was also the chairman of the House Rules Committee. If a Democrat or insufficiently loyal Republican asked to speak, Cannon would ignore him until he gave up. Some of his colleagues called him “Czar Cannon,” though he preferred the nickname “Uncle Joe.” Cannon said, “Sometimes in politics, one must duel with skunks, but no one should be fool enough to allow skunks to choose the weapons.”
Theodore Roosevelt, the President who pioneered the use of executive orders as the figure who issued more than all preceding presidents combined, was not a fan. As the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson University noted, “Although they were both Republicans, Cannon and Roosevelt disagreed substantially on the role of Congress. The President believed the federal government should curtail the excesses of American industries, especially when they valued profit more than the safety of American workers. Roosevelt was an enthusiastic conservationist, but Cannon famously dismissed environmental concerns, saying he would spend ‘not one cent on scenery.’”
In 1910, Cannon faced a revolt from within the ranks of his own Republican Party. Progressive Republicans, such as George Norris, were frustrated that Cannon used his powers to keep progressive legislation off the House agenda. Though Cannon survived as Speaker, the days of the dictatorial Speaker Cannon were in the past. Yet it was not the victory progressives had hoped. Instead of loosening the restrictions on passing legislation, the revolt transferred power from the Speaker to other institutions that filtered legislation in the House.
This illustrates the century-long quest of progressives, begun in full earnest by the odious Woodrow Wilson, to set aside those pesky Constitutional separations of power and those irritating checks and balances that stand in the way of their collectivist fever dreams.
What would a figure like Joe Cannon make of today’s GOP? In some ways, it would have been familiar. Unlike today's left, wherein even the extremist Squad sat well in harness to Nancy Pelosi, Cannon would have recognized a raucous faction within his party that questioned his decisions. The difference is that he would never have agreed to the concessions that eventually brought McCarthy down. And then there is the relationship with the president of their party. McCarthy said on January 13, during a debate over impeaching Trump, that the former president "bears responsibility" for the break-in to the Capitol on January 6. Yet just two weeks later, on January 28, he visited Trump's golf club in Florida to make amends.
Writer Michael Wolraich describes Cannon’s relationship with the presidents of his party, “When Cannon rebuffed his requests to revise controversial legislation, Roosevelt acquiesced. At the end of his term, Roosevelt advised his successor, William Taft, to avoid confronting Uncle Joe, and Taft heeded the advice. Even Senator Nelson Aldrich, the powerful “boss” of the Senate, deferred to Cannon.
I now have driverless cars and can watch someone named Zach King find zany hiding spots on TikTok to my heart’s desire, but I do not possess vertebrate leaders in Congress as the GOP had in the early 1900s. Well, kids, they do not make GOP speakers like they used to.
AD Tippet is the founder and Publisher of the Conservative Historian. Aves has conducted extensive research in Political, Religious, Social, and Educational history across all eras and geographies. He has been writing and podcasting for over 12 years. In 2020, he published his first book, The Conservative Historian. He has degrees in history, education, and an MBA. @BelAves
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