A Majority or a Coalition? The Speaker Election of 1917
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The 65th Congress (1917–1919) began historically: Montana’s Jeannette Rankin became the first woman to serve in Congress, President Woodrow Wilson delivered his war message, and Congress declared war on Germany.
On April 2, 1917, 428 Members-elect of the 65th Congress (1917–1919) gathered under unusual circumstances in the House Chamber to open the new legislative term.
In that era, before the Twentieth Amendment set the start date of the new Congress in early January, the House would have waited for 13 months after the elections—until December of odd-numbered years—to begin its proceedings. But President Woodrow Wilson had called Congress to the nation’s capital early for an extraordinary session under he looming shadow of global conflict.
Three years earlier, in the summer of 1914, a web of entangling alliances in Europe had drawn Britain, France, and Russia into war with Germany and what was then Austria-Hungary. During the ensuing three years, in fields and forests and towns across the French and Belgian countryside, armies dug mud-filled trenches and choked the surface with a maze of barbed wire. Advancements in weapons technology paired with outdated military strategy and unhygienic conditions killed millions of young men, traumatizing a generation of war survivors.
The White House had initially pursued a policy of neutrality. But German belligerence in diplomatic circles and at sea—including the sinking of U.S. merchant ships and the deaths of American citizens killed by Germany on board British passenger vessels—eventually made neutrality untenable. An aggressive and dominant Germany threatened not only freedom of the seas, but what a prescient political observer called “the Atlantic community,” a network of trade and shared culture that bound America to the Western European nations. Wilson had won close re-election in part by appealing to voters who wanted to avoid the conflict. “He Kept Us Out of War” became a Democratic rallying cry during the campaign. But now the President was ready to ask Congress to have America join the fight abroad. In doing so, he sought to fulfill his constitutional duty to seek congressional approval for American intervention and align the nation behind the war effort.
The Balance of Power
But congressional action was bound up with a much more basic question: who would serve as Speaker in the new Congress, so that the House could be organized and receive the President? The problem was one of simple math. The 65th Congress featured the closest party split in American history. Just one seat separated the two major parties. And for the first time since 1879, neither Republicans nor Democrats held an outright House majority—which meant that neither party had the votes it needed to elect its candidate for Speaker on the strength of its own caucus. As a result, all eyes turned to the House’s third-party lawmakers—a handful of Progressives, one Independent Republican, one Prohibitionist, and one Socialist—whose votes would likely decide the Speaker election. After months of uncertainty during the lead up to the new Congress, it seemed probable that they would side with Democrats. But whether they would follow through was still anyone’s guess.
At a moment when the Wilson administration not only sought national unity but needed party continuity to lead the war effort, the balance of power on Capitol Hill remained uncertain. “Control of House Hangs in Balance,” declared the frontpage of the Atlanta Constitution two days after the election: “The situation in the House at this hour is so indefinite that it is impossible to declare whether democrats [sic] will maintain control.” While some journalists trod carefully around the election results, others readily predicted a GOP victory. “Republicans appear certain to carry the national house of representatives,” the Detroit Free Press announced.
By the end of election week, as results trickled in from around the country, the Atlanta Constitution arrived at a far different conclusion. The paper expected Democrats to hold 217 seats and Republicans to claim 214 seats in the House (and Democrats to retain the Senate). And while its prediction was ultimately off by a few seats—Democrats ended up with one fewer seat than Republicans—it was spot on regarding the most important point: neither party had won a majority. With only a plurality in the House, the paper observed, “a working majority for the democrats [sic] is impossible unless some of the minority members should choose to cast their lot with the administration forces.”
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
Born in Russia, Meyer London immigrated to the United States in 1891 and attained his American citizenship in 1896. He was active in labor movements before his first election as a Socialist to the House in 1914.
Because neither Republicans nor Democrats seemed set to capture an outright majority in the House, attention came to center on the handful of third-party lawmakers whose votes were pivotal to determining the Speaker election. Their influence was such that the Washington Post ran a headline declaring “Independent Members May Control the Lower House.” The Atlanta Constitution concurred. “Power in Congress to Independents,” a December headline said. “A handful of independents will determine which side will control the organization.”
The spotlight fell on five legislators in particular. Although they were routinely described as “independents,” four of the five did, in fact, have party affiliations. Thomas David Schall of Minnesota had been elected as Progressive. Meyer London of New York served as a Socialist. Whitmell Pugh Martin of Louisiana entered the House as a Progressive-Protectionist. Charles Hiram Randall of California won election as a Prohibitionist. And Alvan Tufts Fuller of Massachusetts served as the lone Independent. By March 1917, Progressive Melville Clyde Kelly of Pennsylvania had also become involved.
Under the intense glare of the national press corps, these lawmakers largely avoided commenting on the Speaker election in the months before the opening of Congress. “All of the independents are maintaining strict silence regarding their attitude on the Speakership,” multiple papers reported on December 27. Two months later, in February, London, Martin, Randall, and Fuller met to inquire whether they could work together to influence the Speaker election and reform House Rules. The group pledged to remain uncommitted in the race for Speaker before Opening Day. They also planned to meet again after “sounding out both Democratic and Republican leaders as to their attitude on reforms favored generally by” their group.
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Whitmell Pugh Martin, a lifelong Louisianan, was a chemist, school superintendent, district attorney, and judge before his first election to Congress as a Progressive in 1914.
Over the winter of 1916 and into the spring of 1917, both parties worked to pick off the votes of the “independents.” Democrats anticipated support from London and Randall, while Republicans expected Schall and Fuller to vote their candidate. Both sides went after Martin. Adding to the messiness of the inter-Congress period was the fact that some observers expected that a handful of former Progressives who had since won election as Republicans to refuse “to be bound by caucus rules”—that is, regardless of who the Republican Party nominated for Speaker, they would vote for whomever they pleased.
Eventually, congressional leaders refused to be pressured by the independents into providing concessions in exchange for votes on Opening Day. Instead, party leaders considered an unprecedented power-sharing arrangement in the new Congress. On March 10, reports emerged that “some members of both of the old parties would not be surprised to see a coalition agreement entered into . . . and the slate carried through with a rush before the end of the first day.” At the time, President Wilson had not yet formally set a date for a special session in April regarding the war. And while much could happen before the new Congress, “neither side proposes to permit weeks of wearisome and useless balloting for Speaker to tie up important Government business,” the Baltimore Sun wrote.
Under the proposed coalition plan, Democrat Champ Clark of Missouri, who had served as Speaker during the three previous terms, would share responsibilities with James R. Mann, the Republican Leader in the House. In essence, a journalist observed, they “may alternate as speaker [sic].” The plan also proposed creating “one small coalition committee to handle all matters coming before the house at the special session of Congress.” Mobilizing to join on the side of American allies in the world war necessitated such measures, an unnamed lawmaker was quoted as saying. “It would mean death to either party to cater to six persons of doubtful political faith and allow them to dictate the policy of the house [sic] for the next two years. I am sure neither side will enter into any improper arrangement with the independents.”
Ultimately, the coalition plan proved unnecessary, receding as quickly as it had come into view. Just a day later, Schall announced he would not take part in the independents’ movement to determine the Speakership. “While I am reserving my right to vote independently . . . I am not going to join a group of men and block legislation for the mere purpose of gaining patronage. Patriotism means more to me than mere party victory, and I shall do my best to expediate public business,” he said. With Schall out, party leaders expected the effort by the other independents to wither away. Even still, the New York Times noted on its frontpage, “the coalition idea has received much discussion . . . and the tentative plans sufficient for carrying it into effect soon can be laid if, in the opinion of leaders, it becomes necessary.”
Wilson sets the special session
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Pictured here in 1915, James Beauchamp (Champ) Clark served as Speaker for eight of his 26 years in Congress. As Minority Leader, Clark helped cultivate the successful 1910 revolt against Republican Speaker Joe Cannon’s autocratic control of the House. Clark died while in office and his funeral services were held on the House Floor.
On March 21, 1917, the coalition plan almost did become necessary when President Wilson declared that a special session of Congress would begin on April 2 to debate America’s entry into the war. The urgency meant party leaders had less time than they expected to try and find the votes needed to organize the House. Almost immediately, Democratic Floor Leader Claude Kitchin of North Carolina announced that Democrats would meet in caucus in Washington on March 30 to discuss the opening of the session. Republicans also planned to caucus before the term opened. It was expected that both parties would renew discussion of the coalition agreement, while also considering whether to lower the threshold to win the Speakership from a majority to a plurality. The last time the House used a plurality to elect a Speaker was during the longest multi-ballot Speaker contest in House history, which lasted from December 1855 to February 1856.
Just days before the start of the special session, Mann, who had just returned from vacationing in Haiti, surprised many on Capitol Hill when he offered to drop out of the race for Speaker if Democrats would be willing to advance the bipartisan coalition plan to organize the upcoming Congress. Mann’s offer became much less attractive when Charles Randall of California, one of the independents, arrived in Washington from Los Angeles a short while later. When Randall learned of Mann’s offer, he said the GOP Leader “was too late.” Despite earlier reports that the coalition plan would be needed to avoid a stalemate, Randall confirmed what many on Capitol Hill had come to suspect: that Democrats had enough votes to re-elect Champ Clark as Speaker. “There have been indications for several days that the Democratic leaders had received satisfactory information concerning the independents,” the Baltimore Sun reported on March 27. “Speaker Clark and other spokesmen of the party have predicted the outcome apparently with complete confidence.”
‘We are one as the sea”
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
Thomas David Schall ran away to the circus as a child before attending college and law school in Minnesota.
As lawmakers took their seats at noon on April 2, House Clerk South Trimble called the longtime Chaplain, Henry N. Couden, to the rostrum to offer an opening benediction. Couden, an angular man with a prominent white mustache, knew firsthand the consequences of war. Fifty years earlier, he had served in the Sixth Ohio Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War and lost the ability to see after being shot in the face during combat in 1863. Couden prayed for guidance, noting that if hostilities could no longer be avoided, “we pray that the heart of every American citizen shall throb with patriotic zeal; that a united people may rally around our President to hold up his hands in every measure that shall be deemed necessary to protect American lives and safeguard our inherent rights.”
Moments later, Thomas Schall, the Progressive, took the floor. “We are met to-day efficiently and harmoniously to organize the House and quickly to put into condition to transact the public business,” Schall began. “The issue of the organization of this House is the issue of the Nation. . . The question is whether the Nation, involved in an international crisis, shall show to the world a solid front.” Schall called on lawmakers to ignore party loyalty amid debate over whether to go to war. “To-day there should be just one party, and that is the American party.”
“Standing at the crossway of party and Nation, as an independent Progressive Republican I have no hesitancy as to which way is right,” he continued. “The responsibility of my vote has weighed heavily upon my soul. I have reviewed and rereviewed the situation from every possible angle, and I have again and again been forced to the same conclusion.” Schall then confirmed what many in attendance had assumed: he would support Democrat Champ Clark for Speaker. Calling himself “a Lincoln Republican,” Schall said he would have proudly supported Mann during a time of peace. But with war on the horizon, he felt compelled to “Stand by the President,” and ensure that a Democratic Commander in Chief had the support of a Democratic Congress.
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About this object
President Woodrow Wilson addressed a Joint Session of Congress on April 2, 1917, to ask for a declaration of war against Germany.
When Schall finished, the Clerk asked whether he was formally nominating Clark for Speaker. “It was not my intention,” Schall replied. “I merely wished to state the reasons and motive for my vote; but I deem it an unusual honor. I gladly place him in nomination for Speaker.”
Clark captured the Speakership for the 65th Congress with 217 votes to Mann’s 205 on the first ballot (a vacancy lowered by one the total number the winning candidate needed). Among the six independents who had caused so much consternation, Clark won the votes of Kelly, London, Martin of Louisiana, Randall, and Schall. Fuller, the Massachusetts Independent, voted for another candidate altogether—Irvine Luther Lenroot of Wisconsin—who picked up a second vote from Augustus Peabody Gardner, also of Massachusetts. Republican Frederick H. Gillett, who would go on to serve as Speaker in the next Congress, also picked up two votes. Two other legislators simply voted “present.”
In his brief opening remarks, Clark acknowledged the difficult task he faced “to discharge the duties of the Speakership in this House,” he said. “It will be almost impossible to do so without the hearty cooperation of the Members without regard to party affiliations.” That sense of cooperation also imbued Clark’s comments on the looming war. “On many questions we are ‘distinct as the billows, yet we are one as the sea,’ when the honor and safety of the Republic are involved,” he said. “Politics finds no place in this House when the general welfare and the common defense of the Nation are at stake.”
Later that evening, Wilson addressed the chamber with Speaker Clark—literally and figuratively—behind him. Four days later, in the early morning hours of April 6, 1917, the House overwhelmingly approved the war resolution. America had declared war on Germany.
Sources: George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008): 399, 402, 407; John Milton Cooper, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 2009): 358–359, 362–389; Walter Lippmann, “The Defense of the Atlantic World,” New Republic (17 February 1917); Warren D. Crandall and Isaac D. Newell, History of the Ram Fleet and the Mississippi Marine Brigade in the War for the Union on the Mississippi and Its Tributaries (St. Louis, MO: 1907): 288–289; Congressional Directory, 65th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, DC: GPO, 1917); Congressional Record, 65th Cong., 1st sess. (2 April 1917); Atlanta Constitution (9 November 1916, 10 November 1916, 27 December 1916); Baltimore Sun (27 December 1916, 10 March 1917, 27 March 1917); Chicago Daily Tribune (27 December 1916, 10 March 1917, 11 March 1917); Detroit Free Press (7 November 1916, 11 March 1917); New York Times (27 December 1916, 11 March 1917); St. Louis Dispatch (4 March 1917); Washington Post (10 November 1916, 18 February 1917, 22 March 1917).