The first telegraphic message ever sent traveled from the U.S. Capitol building to a Baltimore train station on May 24, 1844. A year earlier Congress had given the telegraph’s inventor, Samuel Morse, $30,000 to fund his research and erect 40 miles of cable. With Congress’s support, Morse began a communications revolution. Within decades, telegraph lines stretched across the nation and news and information spread at the blink of an eye.
Future Speaker of the House Joe Cannon of Illinois had just celebrated his eighth birthday when Morse’s invention suddenly shrank the accepted conventions of time and space. The telegraph, combined with the railroad, helped create the world of Cannon’s early years. Congress saw its utility and readily adopted the wire technology. By the late 1850s, the House of Representatives had installed a telegraph office near the House Press Gallery. And by the early 1880s, when Cannon served as a U.S. Representative from the town of Danville, Illinois, the telegraph desk outside the House Chamber bustled with activity.
But it was another invention, one that also upended the physical dimensions of American life, that revolutionized Cannon’s later years: the automobile.
Much like the telegraph, Congress decided early on to adopt automotive technology in the federal government. In 1909 Congress appropriated money specifically to purchase automobiles for the President; only months later, it considered providing the Speaker and the Vice President with similar funding. But not every Member believed the government should spend public money on what would essentially be a private car, and not every Member wanted to give Cannon such a generous perk. The telegraph had started a new chapter in American history. The automobile would, eventually, do the same. The question this time was whether Congress would go along for the ride.
Democratic Representative Harry Benjamin Wolf of Maryland was only 27 when he took his seat as the youngest Member of the 60th Congress (1907–1909). Just three weeks into his House career, a reporter caught up with Wolf at his law office in Baltimore to ask about his experience so far on Capitol Hill. Wolf said he was still getting his “bearings,” but believed he had “a pretty fair idea” about how the House operated and about his status as a first-term Member in the minority party. “The new man on the Democratic side might just as well not be there,” Wolf lamented.
Wolf told the journalist he had learned one thing immediately, however: that House Speaker Joe Cannon—who had served on Capitol Hill longer than Wolf had been alive—was powerful and venerated for a reason. “Regardless of the fact that he is a Republican, ‘Uncle Joe’ is a splendid fellow and it does not take very much insight to see why he is so popular,” Wolf said. “The truth is . . . Speaker Cannon runs the House of Representatives as completely as a chauffeur runs an automobile.”
Wolf served just one term, but he was right about the Speaker. During the first decade of the twentieth century, Cannon was in Congress’s driver’s seat. As Speaker, the affable Cannon dictated nearly all of the House’s legislative operations: he made committee assignments, named each committee chairman, determined which bills were brought up for debate, and which Members spoke on the floor. Under his leadership, Democrats had been rendered nearly powerless, and Republicans who did not go along with his program were quickly ostracized. The Speaker was loved by many, but not by everyone—and his opposition was growing, especially among fellow Republicans who wanted to reform House Rules and empower the rank and file. His adversaries called him Czar Cannon because of his total control over the chamber.
Cannon was a conservative during a progressive moment in America. In the 1890s, when Cannon was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee overseeing the nation’s treasury, he once remarked that his job was to prevent federal spending rather than approve it. As Speaker, he largely opposed the reform ethos of the early 1900s and worked to limit the popular progressive agenda of President Theodore Roosevelt. “We will have to both pull the load and apply the brakes,” Cannon said about dealing with Roosevelt.
Applying the brakes came naturally to Cannon in another sense as well. He loved cars, and his Speakership coincided with the rise of automobiles in America. At the turn of the century, cars were expensive enough that only the well-to-do could afford to own and maintain them. But a four-wheeled revolution emerged as the nation’s manufacturing capacity improved. Assembly line innovations increased production and lowered costs. In 1900 there were only 8,000 motor vehicles registered in America. In 1903, the year Cannon became Speaker, there were almost 33,000. By 1911 the number of cars and trucks reached an astounding 639,500. When Joe Cannon died in 1926, roughly a decade after the Ford Motor Company began mass producing the Model T, there were more than 22 million registered vehicles.
Cannon was initially incredulous about automobiles—“Won’t a bicycle do?” he asked in 1900. But the Speaker eventually embraced the freedom of the road. In 1905 the Washington Post reported that Cannon had “become an automobile enthusiast. . . . He is now riding about town every morning in a splendid electric motor, which he guides with all the assurance of an experienced chauffeur. He dashes up to the White House or to the departments on an errand, then away to the Capitol.” Cannon was known to drive fast, and in 1908 a Washington, DC, policeman pedaling a bicycle pulled Cannon over for speeding. “When I seen it was ‘Uncle Joe’ himself, I was plumb fuddled,” the officer said. “He just looked at me and laughed and said, ‘You git now;’ and I got.”
Cannon wasn’t the only government official to admire the automobile’s convenience and liberating utility. In 1903 Congress appropriated $750,000 “for horse-hire or automobile allowance” for the Post Office Department. Six years later in February 1909, Congress passed an emergency spending bill that included $12,000 “for purchase, care, and maintenance of automobiles for the use of the President.” A month after that, in an annual funding bill, Congress included an additional $25,000 for contingent White House expenses covering record books, telephones, carpets, and automobiles.
The decision to fund this first presidential vehicle set a precedent that some in Congress wanted to extend to congressional leaders. In August 1909, during debate in the House on an urgent spending bill, Tennessee Democrat Thetus Sims called attention to a provision, inserted by the Senate during its markup, that allocated $6,000 for the purchase and maintenance of an automobile for the Speaker and Vice President ($12,000 in total).
For Sims, a lawyer from western Tennessee, spending public money on automobiles seemed like a “great extravagance.” Sims complained that near his trolley stop in northwest Washington, DC, “some staff officer” from the War Department had already started parking a government car on the street, exposing it to the elements. Albert Douglas of Ohio speculated that the car was being used by military officials at Fort Myer near Arlington, Virginia, testing the new “Wright machine”—the airplane, first invented by the Wright brothers six years earlier. Influential Republican James Mann of Illinois noted that many Members had just visited the facility in Virginia and that anyone who had made the long walk home across the Potomac River “would have appreciated an automobile.”
Sims made it clear he was criticizing the spending provision, not cars and certainly not Cannon. The Speaker was a notoriously frugal legislator. When advocates began calling for the federal government to better protect the environment, Cannon famously declared that “not one cent” would go toward “scenery.” Sims also knew firsthand that Cannon would never ask for such an appropriation because he had once gone underwear shopping with the Speaker. Sims had watched as Cannon turned down a $7 set of underwear and bought a different pair for just $1.50.
Some in the press didn’t give Cannon the same benefit of the doubt. A cartoon in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch skewered Cannon for his downhome persona, thrifty dress, and “Danville composure,” depicting him lounging, hypocritically, in an elegant roadster while smoking one of his trademark cigars.
Sims, however, was making a larger point about the need to prioritize government resources. Just months earlier, Congress had approved thousands of dollars to provide President William H. Taft with automobiles even as he continued “riding horseback and playing golf,” Sims said. Some government clerks told him they were having their salaries reduced, while war widows received at most only $12 a month. “This is a Republic, a simple Republic, and I am getting tired of aping the ways of royalty,” Sims declared.
Other Democrats shared Sims’s sentiment. Champ Clark of Missouri, the House Democratic leader, promised Republicans would struggle to pass the bill “if the automobile items are left in here.” Others mocked the Senate’s amendment for its vague wording. While it set aside funding specifically for a vice presidential automobile, the provision regarding the Speaker included the phrase “or other vehicle.” What other vehicle, Members wondered? “An aeroplane, a biplane, a monoplane . . . what is it to be?” What about a dirigible, someone else offered. “Are we going to compel the Speaker of this House to buy one of these little motorcycles that the police ride around town on. . . . Is the Speaker to become a motorcyclist, or will he follow the new fad and become an aviator,” Democrat Henry De Lamar Clayton of Alabama asked.
When the bill was brought up for debate again on August 4, the automobile provision remained a point of contention among Democrats and even certain Republicans. Critics continued to argue that taxpayers wouldn’t stand for the appropriation; another Member questioned whether it was really that urgent. Republican George Norris of Nebraska made the point that Cannon, who had not commented publicly on the car provision, did not even want the funding. “In the name of God, let us not force the Speaker in his old age to go into the automobile business.”
James Tawney of Minnesota, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, closed debate on the bill by pointing out that Congress had years earlier approved funding for horses and carriages for even junior government officials. How could Members now deny “the same accommodations” to the Speaker and Vice President? “We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to the dignity of the bodies to which we belong, to at least place the heads of our respective bodies on an equality with” others in the executive branch. Despite the inordinate amount of time spent on the issue during debate, the money set aside for the Speaker’s and Vice President’s automobiles was a fraction of the bill’s total cost, which ran to more than one million dollars.
Champ Clark tried again to cut the funding for the Speaker’s car by filing a motion to recommit the bill to committee with instructions to strip the automobile clause. Clark’s motion failed, but 25 Republicans voted with Democrats to eliminate the car provision—a clear signal to Cannon that discontent was growing with his leadership in his own party. Minutes later, the full deficiency spending bill passed 137 to 85, with 15 Members voting present and 150 not voting. Twenty-one of the 25 Republicans who had voted to send the bill back to committee ended up voting for the final spending package. Norris was the only Republican to vote against both the car funding and the full appropriations bill; the three other Republicans either did not vote or voted present.
Congress did not always readily embrace technology in the twentieth century. The House did not begin regularly televising its proceedings until 1979, decades after televisions became ubiquitous in American living rooms. But in the long run, the decision to spend federal money on motor vehicles set a lasting precedent. In 2019 the United States’ General Services Administration reported that the executive branch of federal government, including the military and the U.S. Postal Service, had 645,047 vehicles in its fleet.
In the short run, however, the row over the Speaker’s automobile underscored a prominent and growing schism in the Republican conference—one that itself would have lasting consequences for the House and for the country. The vote on Clark’s motion to strip the automobile clause came only days before Cannon announced assignments to important vacant committee seats. Some speculated that the Speaker saw the vote as a loyalty test. Cannon seemed to confirm these suspicions when he named John Weeks of Massachusetts as chairman of the Post Office and Post Roads Committee, bypassing the committee’s ranking Republican, John Gardner of New Jersey, who had opposed the Speaker’s automobile.
But Gardner, George Norris, and the other progressive Republicans who voted to strip Cannon of his automobile allowance had much larger ambitions than simply keeping Cannon off the road. The generous funding was emblematic of Cannon’s near total control over the House, and they wanted to smash it. Cannon had driven the legislative agenda long enough, they felt. When questions about the Speaker’s power and funding for his car came up again a few month later, the insurgent Republicans were ready to confront the Speaker and steer the House in a new direction.
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 61st Cong., 1st sess. (2 August 1909): 4823–4825, 4833; Congressional Record, House, 61st Cong., 1st sess. (4 August 1909): 4908–4909, 4913–4915; Congressional Directory, 61st Cong., 2nd sess., 1st ed. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1909): 198; Baltimore Sun, 26 December 1907, 1 June 1908; Chicago Daily Tribune, 1 August 1909; Christian Science Monitor, 3 August 1909; Los Angeles Times, 5 August 1909; New York Tribune, 5 August 1909; St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 4 August 1909; Washington Post, 16 January 1900, 19 January 1905, 19 August 1909; An Act Making appropriations for the service of the Post-Office Department for the fiscal year ending June thirteenth, nineteen hundred and four, and for other purposes, Public Law 57-159 (1903); An Act Making appropriations to supply urgent deficiencies in the appropriations for the fiscal year ending June thirteenth, nineteen hundred and nine, Public Law 60-222 (1909); Making appropriations for the legislative, executive, and judicial expenses of the Government for the fiscal year ending June thirteenth, nineteen hundred and ten, and for other purposes, H.R. 23464, 60th Cong., 2nd sess. (1908); Public Law 60-326 (1909); Ronald M. Peters Jr., The American Speakership: The Office in Historical Perspective, 2nd ed. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); William Scott Rager, “Uncle Joe Cannon: The Brakeman of the House of Representatives, 1903—1911,” in Masters of the House: Congressional Leaders over Two Centuries (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998); “State Motor Vehicle Registrations, by Years, 1900–1995,” in Highway Statistics Summary to 1995, Federal Highway Administration, Office of Highway Information Management, accessed 5 February 2021, https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/ohim/summary95/; “Federal Fleet Report: FY 2019 Federal Fleet Open Data Set,” U.S. General Services Administration (June 2020), https://www.gsa.gov/policy-regulations/policy/vehicle-management-policy/federal-fleet-report.Follow @USHouseHistory