Shortly after noon on an unseasonably mild Thursday in late February 1842, a hush fell over the House as the venerable John Quincy Adams creakily arose from his chair. Just weeks earlier, the House had considered censuring the gray-haired Massachusetts Congressman whom many knew as Old Man Eloquent to punish him for manufacturing a crippling debate about the evils of slavery.
But on this day Adams eulogized North Carolina’s Lewis Williams, whom colleagues revered as the “Father of the House”—the Member with the longest continuous service. The prior afternoon Williams had succumbed to pneumonia. His abrupt passing shocked colleagues and ended an unbroken run of House service reaching back to 1815—far longer than any of his peers in that 27th Congress, Adams included.
“Though my junior by nearly twenty years,” Adams said, “I have looked up to him in this House, with the reverence of filial affection, as if he was the father of us all.” That remark carried special weight given the breadth of Adams’ public service as President, Secretary of State, Minister to both Russia and England, Senator, and as a House Member for more than a decade. The aged statesman confided in his diary the deep sorrow he “felt at this sudden and melancholy bereavement,” noting, “Lewis Williams was one of the best men in the house or in the world.” The editors of the Daily National Intelligencer agreed, writing that they’d never known a Member’s passing “to produce a deeper sensation or more general gloom.”
The Whig congressman who commanded such respect hailed from a western North Carolina district where the Piedmont undulated toward the low-slung Appalachians. Williams became Father of the House in 1831, but by then he already had amassed a wealth of experience. Having first won election a year after the British burned the Capitol in August 1814, he took the oath of office when the House convened for the opening of the 14th Congress in December 1815 at its temporary quarters at Blodgett’s Hotel about a mile west down Pennsylvania Ave. During his early career Kentucky’s Henry Clay served as Speaker. In February 1825, Williams participated in the historic House election of a President—JQA himself—when Speaker Clay and others threw their support behind the New Englander to defeat Andrew Jackson. As a formal standing committee system solidified by the 1820s, Williams chaired two panels in his long tenure, the Claims and the Territories committees.
Most importantly, in an era when sectional politics—frenzied by the westward extension of slavery—divided the House, Williams’ moderation, tolerance, and instinct for compromise appealed to even his most partisan colleagues.
Like so many American legislative traditions, the idea of a “Father of the House” derived from the British House of Commons, where the honorific title seems to have been applied as early as the mid-eighteenth century. The first-known usage in the U.S. House occurred in 1816, when Virginia’s John Randolph referred to Richard Stanford of North Carolina as the “father of the House, as being the oldest member.”
The Father’s role swearing-in the Speaker to open a new Congress—a tradition the modern “Dean of the House” carries out—evolved between 1815 and 1825. At first, the eldest Member or the Member with earliest (but not consecutive) service performed that duty. By the 1810s, William Findley of Pennsylvania fit both criteria—then entering his eighth decade of life and having served non-consecutive terms dating to the 2nd Congress in 1791. In 1811 and 1813, Findley administered the oath to Speaker Clay to open the 12th and 13th Congresses.
But when the House reoccupied its renovated Capitol chamber at the opening of the 16th Congress in 1819, Thomas Newton, Jr., of Virginia swore in Speaker Clay—marking the first time that the individual with the longest continual service had ever done so. At the opening of the 19th Congress in 1825, when Newton swore-in Speaker John Taylor of New York, the Register of Debates—the official record of its day—for the first time referred to the Virginian as the “Father of the House.”
Having represented a Norfolk -centered district since 1801, Newton possessed unrivaled institutional memory, an understated style, and influence as chairman of the Committee on Commerce. Late in his career, Niles’ Weekly Register remarked that the Tidewater Virginian, who served as Father for more than a dozen years, was “as well acquainted with [the House’s] business as any other member—not much of a talker, but a zealous and honest doer,—knowing more of the public concerns than united hundreds of the babblers who have made their entrances and exits, and are forgotten as though they never had been, since he took his seat in that body.”
Since Newton, with few exceptions, length of continuous service has been the yardstick used to determine the Father of the House. In the 1920s, an unassuming linguistic change replaced “Father” with the more gender-neutral term “Dean of the House.” That innovation may well have been a subtle nod to the obsolescence of the term “Father” after the first women were elected to Congress.
While the rituals of the role developed over the years, Newton’s and Williams’ back-to-back tenures as Fathers of the House suggest that contemporaries valued them for reasons other than their long political resumes. Colleagues admired them as institutionalists who kept above the fray, fixed their eyes on a horizon beyond fleeting political passions, and offered example and inspiration.
JQA remembered Lewis Williams as such a leader. “His wisdom, his experience, his unsullied integrity, his ardent patriotism, his cool and deliberate judgment, his conciliatory temper, his firm adherence to principle—where shall we find a substitute for them?” Adams asked. “In the distracted state of our public counsels, with the wormwood and the gall of personal animosities adding tenfold bitterness to the conflict of rival interests and discordant opinions, how shall we have to deplore the bereavement of his presence, the very light of whose countenance, the very sound of whose voice, could recall us, like a talisman, from the tempest of hostile passions to the calm composure of harmony and peace.”
After having himself been at the center of the tempest only weeks earlier, JQA’s carefully chosen words sounded fittingly like those of the man who, in the next Congress, assumed the mantle of Father of the House.
Sources: Annals of Congress, 14th Cong., 1st sess. (1816); Register of Debates, 19th Cong., 1st sess. (1825); Congressional Globe, 27th Cong., 2nd sess. (1842); Daily Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), 12 February 1816; Niles’ Weekly Register, 20 March 1830; Daily National Intelligencer, 24 February 1842; Diary of John Quincy Adams, entry of February 24, 1842, Massachusetts Historical Society; Mark Sandford, “Father of the House,” 14 May 2015, House of Commons Library; Hind’s Precedents, Volume 2, section 1140.Follow @USHouseHistory