“. . . I venture to say that, taken as a whole, the House is sound at heart; nowhere else will you find such a ready appreciation of merit and character, in few gatherings of equal size is there so little jealousy and envy. . . The men who have led the House, whose names have become a splendid tradition to their successors, have gained prominence not through luck or by mere accident. They had ability, at least in some degree; but more than that they have had character.”
Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution states: “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers.” And when Congress first convened in 1789, the House chose Frederick A.C. Muhlenberg as its Speaker. More than a century later, the House chose Joe Cannon of Illinois to serve as its leader. A self-described “hayseed” from Illinois, Cannon ruled the House with an iron fist. Learn more about colorful “Uncle Joe” Cannon and the Office of the Speaker.
Origins & Development of the Speaker of the House
The Speaker is the political and parliamentary leader of the House. The Constitution mandates the office, but the House and Speakers have defined its contours over time. Some Speakers have aggressively pursued a policy agenda for the House while others have, in the words of Speaker Schuyler Colfax of Indiana, “come to this chair to administer [the] rules, but not as a partisan.”
Speaker’s Rooms in the Capitol
Elected by the House membership as the chamber’s presiding officer, the Speaker of the House symbolizes the institution’s power and authority. Over time, the grand spaces within the Capitol used by the Speaker have reflected that stature.
Portrait of Speaker Joseph Gurney Cannon, 1912
A 1926 commentator called Speaker Joseph Cannon’s portrait a “thoroughly attractive” work, combining good technique with a convincing likeness of the sitter. William T. Smedley, who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with Thomas Eakins, had a successful early career as an illustrator, which segued to portrait commissions by the turn of the 20th century.
Image of Joseph Gurnery Cannon, 1916
Joseph “Uncle Joe” Cannon illustrates to guests at a Republican National Convention banquet how toothpicks can stand in for buttons on suspenders. During his nearly 50 years in the House, the legendary Cannon served as chairman of the Rules, Appropriations, and Expenditures in the Post Office Department Committees, as well as Speaker of the House, and was a gleefully irreverent figure for his entire service, calling himself “the hayseed from Illinois.”
The Capitol Celebration of Former Speaker of the House Joe Cannon of Illinois
On May 7, 1920, “Uncle Joe” Cannon of Illinois celebrated his 84th birthday. Born on May 7, 1836, in Guilford, North Carolina, Cannon served in the House of Representatives for nearly 50 years and was Speaker of the House from the 58th through the 61st Congresses (1903–1911). Senator Carroll Page of Vermont hosted an “elaborate luncheon” in honor of Cannon’s birthday. The celebration, which featured New England trout and “near beer,” included the seven oldest sitting Members of Congress. Throughout the day, Cannon received numerous congratulatory messages as well as a thunderous ovation on the House Floor when Representative Frank Mondell of Wyoming announced the former Speaker’s birthday. “Men wiser than I long ago said that the first blessing of earth is toil; and the second blessing health, which wealth cannot buy,” Cannon replied. “I accept both and believe that the first contributes much to the second. At 84 I can wish no greater blessings to the present and coming generations than those of work and health.” Even at the end of his long congressional career, Cannon maintained a busy schedule. In addition to attending committee meetings and participating in the proceedings on the House Floor, he greeted visitors, read constituent mail and newspapers, and burnished his reputation as an adept dominoes player.
The House’s All Night Session to Break Speaker Joe Cannon’s Power
On March 17, 1910, the House of Representatives “stayed up all night” during a marathon session lasting 29 hours, debating the power of the Committee on Rules. Seizing an opportunity to challenge the power of Speaker of the House Joe Cannon of Illinois, Representative George Norris of Nebraska introduced a resolution as a matter of constitutional privilege to change the House rules. His resolution removed the Speaker as chairman of the Committee on Rules and expanded its membership from five to 15, made up of groupings by state, which would effectively strip the Speaker of much of his power. Representative John Dalzell of Pennsylvania objected to the resolution, arguing that it should not take precedence over pending business. Dalzell’s objection allowed for debate to continue, and for reinforcements to be recruited through the night, until the Speaker delivered his ruling. Cannon’s fellow Republican Jacob Sloat Fassett of New York, chided his colleagues who had allied with the Democrats, saying “This is not [a] question of a change of rules, it is a question of a change of party control. It is a question of whether, by an unnatural and foreign alliance with our natural enemies, these rules are to be changed.” “Insurgent” Republican Congressman Henry Allen Cooper of Wisconsin responded, “That word ‘party’ has been . . . the club with which men here have been browbeaten into submission. They have shouted ‘party,’ ‘party,’ as though an honest effort to amend the rules of this House constituted some sort of treason. The rules of this House give to the Speaker more power than is accorded the presiding officer of any other legislative body on earth.” On March 19, 1910, facing inevitable defeat and personal humiliation Cannon nevertheless sustained Dalzell’s point of order. His decision was appealed to the House and overturned, and Norris’s resolution was adopted, breaking the deadlocked session and weakening Cannon’s iron-fisted rule.
Fact Sheet on Speakers of the House of Representatives
Who was the longest serving? Which state has had the most Speakers of the House? Who was the youngest Speaker? Find out fascinating facts about the Speakers of the House.
Speakers of the House Bibliography and Resources
Who were the transformative Speakers in House history? How has the Speakership changed? This bibliography is a compilation of scholarly analyses of the House Speakership, both its development and the individuals who have shaped it.
This is part of a series of blog posts for educators, highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. The series will appear monthly. For books, lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.Follow @USHouseHistory