No Going Home for the Holidays
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Representative Ralph Church's efforts to prevent the House of Representatives from adjourning before Thanksgiving earned him the title of "The Most Unpopular Member."
We’ve all been a part of those Thanksgiving dinners where nobody got along. On Thanksgiving Day, 1937, the House was no exception.
In the midst of a special session of Congress called by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to address the sputtering economy, the House prepared to wrap up its legislative business before briefly adjourning to celebrate Thanksgiving. On Wednesday, November 24, 1937, Democratic Leader Sam Rayburn of Texas made a standard unanimous consent motion to adjourn for the holiday and resume House proceedings on Friday, November 26th. Illinois Representative Ralph Church objected to the motion as part of an ongoing campaign to keep the House in session until it considered legislation providing tax relief to American businesses. Church had a change of heart later in the day and sought to withdraw his opposition, but by that time Rayburn had already cleared the way for the House to meet on Thanksgiving.
Although it lasted only 15 minutes, the “spirited session,” as the Chicago Tribune described it, was chaired by Speaker William Bankhead of Alabama, included several floor speeches, and featured some lively debate. After Reverend Clifford H. Jope led the House in prayer, House Committee on Agriculture Chairman John Marvin Jones made a routine procedural request concerning an upcoming farm bill—one of the priorities of the Roosevelt administration for the special session. The proceedings, however, quickly grew animated when Jennings Randolph of West Virginia took the floor to share his thoughts on war and peace. “As we meet here in this unusual session on Thanksgiving Day of 1937,” Randolph remarked, “I am sure we realize that even though there are perplexing problems which face this Republic we should be thankful for the fact that the America of which we are proud and in which we believe is not at war with the other nations of the earth.” To the applause of some of his House colleagues, Randolph went on to proclaim that the U.S. should strive to be more than “a war-avoiding people,” and instead should become a “peace-preserving and a peace-promoting country.”
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Representative Hamilton Fish of New York made a stark partisan speech in favor of isolationism on Thanksgiving Day in 1937.
of New York offered a rejoinder. While he also expressed gratitude in honor of Thanksgiving, he advocated the merits of isolationism. “There is no earthly reason for the United States to be at war,” Fish noted. “I am thankful for one reason, that so far we have maintained our own American traditional policies. We have not tried to interfere with other nations, we have not tried to police other nations, and we have not joined in these ancient foreign blood feuds and boundary disputes.” Fish, one of the House’s most outspoken critics of the New Deal and President Roosevelt’s foreign policy, also urged Congress to pass legislation to alleviate unemployment and to bring the U.S. out of its economic slump.
When Fish concluded his impassioned plea, Rayburn, who had been quiet up to this point, entered the fray. “I join with the gentleman from West Virginia in his high hopes,” the Democratic Leader asserted. “I was thinking, however, that probably on this Thanksgiving Day if the gentleman from New York had 2 or 3 minutes to address the House he would make a nonpartisan speech, but it seems that is not to be expected.” After admonishing Fish, Rayburn summarily turned his attention to Representative Church. “We would have adjourned over from yesterday until tomorrow if it had not been for the objection of the gentleman from Illinois,” Rayburn reminded his colleagues. Clearly eager to end the abbreviated holiday session, Rayburn made a motion for the House to recess until the following Monday (November 29th). Predictably, Church voiced his dissent when Speaker Bankhead asked if anyone objected. Anticipating Church’s protest, the Democrats drowned out his opposition. When the Speaker announced the approval of Rayburn’s motion, cheers erupted in the chamber.
And like many Thanksgiving dinners when the tense dinner conversation ceases, everyone rallied around football; many Members salvaged their holiday and attended the popular Army–Navy game in Philadelphia.
Sources: New York Times, November 12, 1937; Chicago Daily Tribune, November 26, 1937; Christian Science Monitor, November 26, 1937; New York Times, November 25, 1937; Congressional Record, 75th Cong., 2nd sess., November 24, 1937, and November 25, 1937.