Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Edition for Educators—Speakers of the House

Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg/tiles/non-collection/1/10-29-Muhlenberg-2005_16_1-1.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
As the first Speaker of the House, Muhlenberg treated the office as a caretaker position. Years later, the Speakership evolved into a more partisan position of power.
“. . . 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.”
—Speaker Joseph G. Cannon of Illinois, (1903–1911)

This Edition for Educators highlights the Speaker of the House. Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution states: “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers.” When Congress first convened in 1789, the House chose Frederick A.C. Muhlenberg as its Speaker. The Speaker acts as leader of the House and combines several roles, including the institutional role of the presiding officer of the House, the partisan leader of the majority party, and the representative role of an elected Member of Congress.

Featured Institutional Information

Origins & Development: 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. Learn about the origins of the House and how the position has evolved.

Featured People

Speakers of the House (1789 to present)
Use this resource for an overview of the Speakership, a list of Speakers of the House from 1789 to present, and elections for the leadership position decided by multiple ballots.

Seal of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives/tiles/non-collection/1/10-29-Speaker-Seal-2012_069_000-2.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
This stamp was used for much of the 20th century to imprint the seal of the Speaker on House documents. The seal's image appears regularly on gallery passes and ceremonial items.

Featured Blog Post

The Speaker Inquisition of 1856
Shortly before seven o’clock in the evening, on Saturday, February 2, 1856, Nathaniel P. Banks of Massachusetts, strode to the well of the House, climbed the rostrum’s few steps to the Speaker’s chair, and sat down. He paused for a moment. With his thick dark hair swept to one side and a prominent mustache obscuring his upper lip, Banks then stood to address his colleagues.

Featured Educational Resource

This fact sheet includes fast facts about the Speaker of the House. Use this page to learn the name of the first Speaker of the House, the longest-serving Speaker, and the first Speaker to serve as U.S. President.

Featured Historical Highlight

The Speaker’s Broken Gavels
June 22, 1906
On this date, Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon of Illinois broke a gavel while putting the House into the Committee of the Whole for further consideration of a bill. The Speaker banged the gavel hard enough to knock off the head, which landed between the clerks on the lower tier of the rostrum. Instances of gavels breaking during a session were not uncommon.

Featured Exhibitions

Speaker’s Rooms in the Capitol
The Speakership symbolizes the House of Representatives’ power and authority. Across two centuries of American history, distinctive personalities and events have shaped the physical surroundings and lore of the Speakers’ rooms that reflect the stature of the office. Explore each one in this online exhibition.

Featured Video

The Speaker's Lobby—situated directly outside the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol—is a long corridor featuring portraits of past Speakers of the U.S. House of Representatives. In this video, House Curator Farar P. Elliott describes and recounts the history of the space.

Featured Map

Since the 1st Congress (1789–1791) elected Pro-Administration Pennsylvanian Frederick Muhlenberg Speaker of the House, Members from across the country have served as the chamber’s leader. (Select “Speakers of the House” in the dropdown at the top of our interactive map.) Starting with the election of Theodore Sedgwick in the 6th Congress (1799–1801), Massachusetts is the home of the largest number of Speakers with eight. Texas boasts the longest-serving Speaker, Sam Rayburn, elected to the position in 10 different Congresses from 1940 until 1961. Men from these two states constituted the majority of Speakers from 1940 to 2000.

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. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.