And next I looked on Tantalus . . . standing in a lake
A parliamentary insult hurled at a Republican freshman had the effect of briefly banding his colleagues into a memorable (and merry) bloc.
Early in 1902, Eugene Loud of California, the chairman of the Post Office and Post Roads Committee, was explaining provisions about rural delivery in a postal bill to the full House. Freshman Robert Nevin of Ohio asked permission to speak—a seemingly innocuous act except for the fact that no other newcomer had dared to do so in the months’-old 57th Congress (1901–1903). Loud, a Civil War veteran of Phil Sheridan’s scorched-earth tactics in the Shenandoah Valley, warily consented but soon found Nevin’s question irritating. He dismissed Nevin as an upstart freshman trying “to get his name in the Congressional Record. I do not think I will gratify his ambition.”
As Nevin retreated to the Republican Cloakroom most of his 49 first-term GOP colleagues followed. The group agreed that Loud’s behavior was “outrageous,” but it reflected a universal sentiment that freshmen should be seen not heard. Junior members had long chafed over their lack of respect and poor committee assignments. Freshman impatience intensified in the early decades of the twentieth century as more Members of Congress were serving longer. The new Member of Congress, observed the Boston Globe, “is a very small toad in a very big puddle now, and it seems to be the delight of his older colleagues to make him feel it.”
So, early in the spring of 1902, Nevin and his colleagues joined forces, creating a social club open only to their class and future GOP freshmen. Samuel Powers of Massachusetts suggested naming it for Tantalus, the mythological figure condemned by the gods to stand for eternity with water up to his chin and with low-hanging fruit trees overhead. When he tried to drink, the water receded; and when he reached for the fruit, the wind swept the branches away. “It seemed to me that the new member of Congress was very much in the situation of Tantalus,” Powers recalled. “Everything that he wanted was just out of his reach.”
During the club’s half-decade, it became known for its lavish banquets—a fantasy-like departure from freshman life in the House. Sumptuous dinners included Clear Green Turtle soup, planked shad, fillet of beef a la rose, champagne, chilled apricot brandy and cigars. Tantalus members wielded gavels, debated mock bills, and roasted their seniors. Their Sergeant at Arms “resplendent in a gorgeous sash of red, white, and blue” brought unruly members to heel with the club mace—a large, stuffed, snowy owl atop a long staff. At the inaugural meeting, Tantalus members considered several “bills,” including one to “extend the civil service law over the United States Senate, and provide that hereafter all United States Senators shall be selected by the Civil Service Commission upon competitive examination.” Members always toasted their “patron saint,” Tantalus, before roasting VIPs or other targets of opportunity.
At an early gathering the jesting included an exchange between Tantalus president Powers and Speaker David Henderson of Iowa—the guest of honor. After a toast to Henderson’s health, the Speaker stood up from his seat. “For what purpose does the gentleman rise?” Powers asked. “For the purpose of giving you kids some good advice,” Henderson shot back. “The gentleman is out of order and he will be seated,” ruled Powers. The Sergeant at Arms plunked Henderson on the head with the mace, scattering white owl feathers across the head table. “With a burst of laughter the Speaker, fully appreciating the humor of the situation, subsided,” reported the Washington Post. The dinner made an impression—Henderson remained a regular at Tantalus gatherings even after he left the House in 1903. Later, regular guests included Speaker Joe Cannon of Illinois and senior Republicans such as John Dalzell of Pennsylvania and Sereno Payne of New York, various cabinet officials, and diplomats. The political cartoonist Clifford Berryman illustrated the club’s ornate menu booklets, and the Tantalus acquired a popularity rivaling the Gridiron Club.
By 1907, as Powers and many of the founders left the House, the Tantalus Club lost some of its relevance. With a third incoming class of freshmen from the 1906 elections—club Members formed a virtual majority of the Republican Conference. Nevertheless, Powers believed that the club had the important purpose of creating “the right kind of comradeship, and brought the members closely in sympathy with one another.”
Ironically, Tantalus thrived at the zenith of centralized powers in the House—during the Cannon Speakership. By the 61st Congress (1909–1911), when Uncle Joe’s arbitrary rulings and despotic leadership had alienated many in his own party, just 11 of the original Tantalus founders still served in the House. What’s more, they were establishment figures. Cannon had lifted them into senior leadership ranks: six were committee chairmen (including Agriculture and Foreign Affairs). Ten of the 11 voted to support Czar Cannon as Democrats and Insurgent Republicans famously stripped him of the chairmanship of the Rules Committee in the Cannon Revolt of March 19, 1910, initiating an unraveling of the Speaker’s powers. Unlike Greek mythology, in the House the passage of time, a little camaraderie, and invaluable seniority had healed old grievances and brought that tantalizing fruit within reach.
And Chairman Loud? He lost his re-election race in fall 1902.
Sources: Samuel L. Powers, Portraits of a Half Century (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 1925); Neil MacNeil, Forge of Democracy: The House of Representatives (New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1963); Boston Globe, 8 December 1907; Washington Post, 2 March 1902, 16 March 1902, and 2 April 1902; Congressional Record (23 January 1902 and 19 March 1910).Follow @USHouseHistory