“The latest fad among our national statesmen is the Congressmen’s Bicycle Club,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle in 1892. Ever since, Representatives have gone from teetering atop high-wheeled penny-farthings to racing on road bikes. Members of Congress have spun gleefully around the capital, mixing both politics and fun into the ride.
In the 1890s, a bike craze skidded through the House. After Ohio Representative Tom Johnson introduced several Members to cycling, the congressional team took full advantage of the city. The Chronicle explained that “the expansive streets and avenues of Washington, paved with the finest asphalt and the smoothest of concrete blocks, afford ideal facilities for bicycling, and the club avails of these superior conditions to the fullest extent.” Johnson perfected the “pedal mount” and was “able to execute to perfection some of the most intricate figures in fancy riding.” His colleague Jerry Simpson of Kansas was considered less fancy but more philosophical on the bike. When Simpson got bored with debates in the House, he would slip out of the Chamber for a bike ride down Capitol Hill.
But the most influential 19th-century cyclist in the House was Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed. Initially anti-bike, Reed put the brakes on bike culture around the Capitol. He discouraged riding in public, and refused to let House Members and staff keep their vehicles in the House side of the Capitol. But after being converted by the Congressmen’s Bicycle Club, Reed rolled around. The Speaker rode a high penny-farthing in Maine, but switched gears to a lower, safety bicycle in Washington. With Reed’s approval, the Capitol crypt—once intended as the burial spot for George Washington’s body—became prime bike storage. By 1896, a bike rack was installed, and the Washington Post smirked that “the place looked like a bicycle shop.”
While Reed, Johnson, and other Members saw bikes as a fun, healthy pastime, the bicycle was also getting a political spin around gender and women’s rights. As bicycles became popular, both men and women rode them. The Woman’s Rescue League began an anti-bicycle crusade, arguing that bikes led to downfalls—but just for young women and their morals. Charlotte Smith, president of the league, proclaimed, “Many fallen women have told me that their downfall dated from their first bicycle ride.” Smith lobbied Congress to protect women from falling because of bikes (and not just off them).
After the initial craze subsided, bicycling became a normal part of life, and even a lifestyle, for some Representatives. Before serving in Congress, James Bowler was a racing champ. He participated in long endurance relays around tracks, called six-day races. “Bowler for years was one of the best bike racers the game ever knew,” the Chicago Daily Tribune reported. In addition to being a top-ranked cyclist, Bowler was an “expert steersman on the multicycle pacing machines, quads, quints, and sextuplets.”
Although not a professional racer, Lewis Douglas, a Representative from Arizona, bicycled to the House daily. In 1933, he left Congress at the end of his third term to become Director of the Budget Bureau. Colleagues considered his bike commuting a good sign: It demonstrated his economic smarts and thriftiness, both ideal qualities for a budget director during the Depression. As Douglas knew, his bicycle added an economic and political spin to his resume.
The political significance of the bike coasted through the mid-20th century. In 1964, cardiologist Paul Dudley White touted the health benefits of cycling to Congress and other government officials. He led a group of Members and Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall on a bike ride to the Capitol. They dressed in suits and ties (but not helmets, because head protection was yet to be widely adopted). As the Christian Science Monitor reported, White proposed “that the city of Washington—as a pilot plant for the nation—consider installing bicycle paths and trails along its broad streets and avenues. Countless visitors to the capital could do their sight-seeing by bicycle.” A photograph shows their vigorous, grinning ride up Capitol Hill.
Capitol Hill can be a pretty steep climb. But as current-day Washingtonians can attest, White and Udall’s dream of bike trails and cycling sightseers was not too far off. Since the 1890s, cycling Representatives have found that excitement and politics can ride tandem.
Sources: San Francisco Chronicle, April 24, 1892; Washington Post, April 29, 1896; Daily Boston Globe, February 24, 1933; Chicago Daily Tribune, August 24, 1941; and Christian Science Monitor, April 30, 1964.Follow @USHouseHistory