In 1994, an Appropriations Committee staffer discovered an old wooden trunk tucked away in the attic of the Cannon House Office Building. The trunk, it turned out, contained letters older than the building itself and belonged to none other than the powerful Speaker of the House, Joe Cannon.
Along with building furniture for Representatives’ offices, House carpenters constructed basic trunks for retiring Members to use for transporting their papers. Painted on the lid of the box discovered in the attic were the words “Hon. J.G. Cannon, Danville Ill.” But this trunk never made it to Illinois. Although Cannon’s grand-daughters donated the rest of his congressional papers to a repository in his home state in 1941, the trunk remained behind in Washington, its contents hidden for more than 70 years after Cannon left the House in 1923.
The discovery of the trunk was notable enough, but its contents have proven to be even more remarkable. Inside the trunk were notebooks, letters, telegrams, and private correspondence that revealed how the House operated and how Cannon managed committee assignments—information that Cannon would have wanted to keep secret at the time. The letters to Speaker Cannon and their handcrafted container highlighted several aspects of the behind-the-scenes work of the House.
The letters to Cannon came from Members or those lobbying on their behalf (other Members as well as outside entities). Although some were all business, others shared intimate details and carried a whiff of gossip. All hoped to secure the favor of the Speaker for one reason or another: some because they felt they earned it through years of service; some because they believed it was their due, having delivered victory for the Republican Party in their district; and some because they sought favor for their business, which they felt would be aided by having their Congressman sit on a particular committee. Altruism was in short supply.
These letters, hidden for so long, illuminated how the committee system worked at the turn of the 20th century. Committee assignments were essential to a Member’s successful, and continuing, career in the House. They allowed Members to influence legislation that came out of the committee, with the potential to benefit their district and state and, in turn, possibly increase the chances of re-election. If you were from a district where agriculture was a key industry, you wanted to sit on the Agriculture Committee. If the shipping industry was the linchpin of the economy, the Committee on Rivers and Harbors was an attractive seat. Speaker Cannon controlled all the assignments, and letters in the trunk used every tool of persuasion to secure the right spot. Members and citizens jockeyed for other favors and attention by passing along any scrap of information, rumor or fact, that might raise their standing with the powerful Speaker. A selection of the records from his trunk demonstrates the power of the role of Speaker and the individual who occupied it.
In a 1902 letter, Journal Clerk Henry H. Smith conveyed scandalous details about another candidate for Speaker who may have been blackmailed by a mistress. On top of that, Smith also reported that the Republican establishment had cooled on the tainted candidate. Smith didn’t disclose his sources in the letter, but referred to them as “reliable” and said he would share names in person. As he campaigned for the Speakership himself, this was valuable knowledge for Cannon.
Determining the party ratio for a committee was the prerogative of the majority party and another source of power for the Speaker of the House at the turn of the century. As Speaker, Cannon closely tracked each committee’s membership to ensure it would be an effective tool in implementing his agenda. An undated list showed a careful accounting of vacancies for each party on each committee, with columns for the “number of places that might be taken from the minority within precedent.” For comparison, the list showed the majority and minority proportions in the Democrat-controlled 52nd Congress and in the Republican-controlled 54th Congress. Cannon followed the precedent set by his party in the 54th Congress.
The contents of Cannon’s trunk are compelling primary source evidence of the power of the Speaker at that time. By 1910, some Members felt that the Speaker’s power over the House was too great. They revolted, forcing a change in the House Rules that weakened the power of the office, including stripping the position of its power to make committee assignments. The story started with a trunk made by House woodcrafters and closed with a revealing discovery that historians are still mining for insights into power, the committee system, and the role of the Speaker of the House.
Sources: Record Group 233, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Materials from the Speaker of the House Joe Cannon’s Trunk, 1903–1909, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration; Forest Maltzman and Eric Lawrence, “Why Did Speaker Henderson Resign? The Page 799 Mystery Is Solved,” Public Affairs Report, vol. 41, no. 4 (September 2000); “Begin Filing of 5,800 Items of ‘Joe’ Cannon’s Papers,” 15 January 1941, New York Times: 7; Richard F. Fenno, Jr., Congressmen in Committees (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973); Steven S. Smith and Christopher J. Deering, Committees in Congress, Second Edition (Washington: CQ Press, 1990); Scott A. Frisch and Sean Q. Kelly, Committee Assignment Politics in the U.S. House of Representatives (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006); Eric D. Lawrence, Forrest Maltzman, and Paul J. Wahlbeck, “The Politics of Speaker Cannon’s Committee Assignments,” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 45, no. 3 (July 2001): 551–562; Charles J. Finocchiaro, “Party Theory and the Cannon Speakership: Committee Assignments during the Partisan Era of the House,” Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, August 29–September 2, 2001, San Francisco, CA; Keith Krehbiel and Alan E. Wiseman, “Joe Cannon and the Minority Party: Tyranny of Bipartisanship?” Legislative Studies Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 4 (November 2005): 479–505.Follow @USHouseHistory