Reduction Redux

Although the subject of reduction arose occasionally in Congress, “increasingly it was becoming a posture rather than a policy.”144 Republican party leaders seemed content to raise the issue because it permitted them to lay claim to the moral high ground, but upon meeting stiff opposition, they readily let it die a quiet death in the interest of political expediency. Moreover, fortified by widespread social ambivalence and sensing the weakness of their opponents, southern Representatives became bolder and coordinated their efforts to repulse the reduction movement.145

George Holden Tinkham/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_2_tinkham_george_lc-usz62-115920.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress George Holden Tinkham of Massachusetts became known as “the conscience of the House” for his efforts to protect voting rights for blacks. He also was one of Congress’s most colorful characters. Newspapers reported that he was the first American to fire a shot against the Central Powers in World War I, when, on a congressional visit to the Allied front in 1917, an Italian army commander persuaded him to pull the firing lanyard on an artillery piece trained on Austrian forces. An avid big-game hunter, Tinkham also named his trophies for political opponents.
Reduction eventually became absorbed in the larger reapportionment struggle in the House after the 1920 Census, which pitted rural and urban factions against one another for much of the next decade.146 At several junctures during this nearly decade-long debate, Representative George Holden Tinkham of Massachusetts spoke on behalf of disfranchised blacks. A Republican who rose through the Boston common council, the board of aldermen, and the Massachusetts state senate, Tinkham was frank and fiercely independent. In 1914, he won election to a U.S. House seat—the first of his 14 terms in Congress—representing a wide multi-ethnic swath of Boston. He became one of the institution’s more colorful characters.147 A biographer described him as “the conscience of the House” in the 1920s, based on his repeated efforts to rally colleagues to the cause of investigating disfranchisement of southern blacks in violation of the 14th and 15th Amendments.148

On May 6, 1921, Tinkham interrupted consideration of an Army appropriations bill by introducing a resolution instructing the House Committee on the Census to investigate disfranchisement efforts by the states and report back to the full House to provide information for a debate about reapportioning to expand the chamber’s membership. As usual, he did not mince words, describing southern disfranchisement schemes as “the most colossal electoral fraud the world has ever known.” He added, “On this question moral cowardice and political expediency dominate the Republican leadership of the House.”149 Clearly annoyed that his planned appropriations debate had been hijacked, House Majority Leader Frank W. Mondell of Wyoming dismissed Tinkham’s address as an expression of “fancy” and a “stump speech,” echoing southern complaints that the reduction proposal was merely an electoral enticement for northern black voters.150 When Speaker Gillett rejected Tinkham’s argument that his measure was constitutionally privileged, the full House overwhelmingly backed the ruling, 286 to 47.151

Later that fall during floor debate about a bill sponsored by Census Committee Chairman Isaac Siegel of New York to expand Membership of the House from 435 to 483, Tinkham again injected into the dialogue the issue of upholding the 14th Amendment, noting that the word “shall” in Section 2 compelled Congress “unconditionally” to enforce reduction. “Franchise equality is fundamental and profound,” Tinkham declared, adding “national elections can no longer be half constitutional and half unconstitutional.”152 Tinkham registered unconcealed contempt for House leaders who declined to investigate southern voting fraud. “For this refusal by the leaders of the majority party I do not possess a command of language strong enough to use in denunciation and reprobation,” he said.“The real anarchists in the United States, the real leaders of lawlessness, are the Members of this House of Representatives who refuse obedience to the Constitution which they have sworn to obey.“153 Representative Wells Goodykoontz of West Virginia, former president of the West Virginia Bar Association, was the sole Member to join Tinkham in calling for enforcement of the 14th Amendment. He provided statistical evidence based on November 1920 voting returns in his district (85,587 votes were cast) versus the total votes recorded for the entire congressional delegations in South Carolina (67,737) and Mississippi (70,657).154

John E. Rankin/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_2_rankin_john__drawing_clerk_collection.xml Image courtesy of Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives Sixteen-term House Member John E. Rankin of Mississippi defended southern white supremacy. Later in Rankin’s congressional career, Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of New York, regularly needled Rankin by sitting as near to him as possible in the House Chamber.
The man who emerged as one of the white supremacist South’s most ardent congressional defenders, John Elliott Rankin of Mississippi, offered the rejoinder to Tinkham. In 1921, Rankin was a freshman Member of the House, embarking on a 32-year career representing the northeastern corner of Mississippi. A World War I veteran, he served 20 years as chairman of the Committee on World War Veterans Legislation (later Veterans’ Affairs). When he died in 1960, the press called him “one of the most turbulent political figures in modern congressional history.”155 Had reduction been adopted, Mississippi’s delegation would have been halved, from 8 to 4. Rankin countered Tinkham by arguing that the 15th Amendment—in prohibiting disfranchisement because of race or color—had “by implication” superseded and voided the part of the 14th Amendment that called for reduction.156 Conjuring up the specter of Reconstruction, Rankin continued, “the time has passed when a man or a party can successfully make political capital by holding out to the Negro the hope or promise of social and political equality.”157 The House brushed aside Tinkham’s amendment on an unrecorded voice vote.158

Roiled and divided by major issues like immigration, tax policy, a soldier’s bonus, and international questions such as U.S. participation in the League of Nations, Congress postponed work on the reapportionment issue from 1921 to 1927.159 Tinkham made at least two more attempts to add reduction amendments before passage of a comprehensive reapportionment bill in 1929, but he was unsuccessful.160 As one scholar notes, it is not surprising that congressional leaders failed to vigorously protect black voting rights, given pervasive notions among national political leaders and strategists that extending the franchise might be more harmful than the alternative.161

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144Perman, Struggle for Mastery: 240.

145With the exception of requiring a minimum of one Representative per state and no more than one Representative per 30,000 people, the Founders were vague as to how large future Congresses should be. This problem vexed Congress throughout history. For 120 years Congress used several methods to calculate the distribution of House seats. Sometimes in combination and sometimes by ignoring the inconvenient calculations of one system and embracing those of another, the House successfully reapportioned itself through the first 12 censuses—usually within a timely fashion and in a manner that expanded, or at least preserved, the representation of most states. Problems arose in the late 19th century when, according to one formula, which distributed some House seats based on fractions, smaller rural states began to lose representation to larger states as membership was increased. See Eagles, Democracy Delayed: 29; Office of the Historian, “Congressional Apportionment,” available at

146In the 1920s, for the first (and only) time in its history, the House failed to reapportion itself based on the most recent census figures. For nine years the House haltingly debated the method for reapportioning itself, and the membership remained at the level set after the 1910 Census: 435 seats. In addition to disputing the proper statistical procedure for determining apportionment, Members contended with a number of thorny issues: Would the House become less efficient as it grew larger? How could the chamber physically hold the continually expanded memberships (required to ensure that no states lost representation)? Should African Americans and aliens be counted in the population counts, even though most could not vote? For the single best study of the fight over congressional reapportionment and the decision to cap the House Membership at 435 Representatives, see Eagles, Democracy Delayed.

147“Former Rep. Tinkham Dies, 86; Fired First U.S. Shot at Austria,” 29 August 1956, Washington Post: 16; “George Tinkham, Legislator, Dead,” 29 August 1956, New York Times: 28.

148Richard H. Gentile, “Tinkham, George Holden,” ANB 21: 696.

149Congressional Record, House, 67th Cong., 1st sess. (6 May 1921): 1124–1126; the entire debate is on pages 1124–1131. For a brief account, see Sherman, The Republican Party and Black America from McKinley to Hoover, 1896–1933: 170–171.

150Congressional Record, House, 67th Cong., 1st sess. (6 May 1921): 1127.

151Congressional Record, House, 67th Cong., 1st sess. (6 May 1921): 1130–1131; Sherman, The Republican Party and Black America from McKinley to Hoover, 1896–1933: 171.

152Congressional Record, House, 67th Cong., 1st sess. (14 October 1921): 6311–6312. See Eagles, Democracy Delayed: 47; Sherman, The Republican Party and Black America from McKinley to Hoover, 1896–1933: 171.

153Congressional Record, House, 67th Cong., 1st sess. (14 October 1921): 6312.

154Ibid.; Eagles, Democracy Delayed: 47. For more information on Goodykoontz, see the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–Present, available at For a specific case study of election fraud and the call for reduction in Florida, see Paul Ortiz, Emancipation Betrayed (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005): especially, 224–228.

155For more on Rankin, see Walter Goodman, The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968). Also useful are his obituaries: “John Rankin Dies; Ex-Legislator, 78,” 27 November 1960, New York Times: 86; “Rep. John Rankin, 78; Lost House Seat in ’52,” 28 November 1960, Washington Post: B3.

156Congressional Record, House, 67th Cong., 1st sess. (14 October 1921): 6315–6316; Eagles, Democracy Delayed: 47–48.

157Congressional Record, House, 67th Cong., 1st sess. (14 October 1921): 6316.

158In late 1922, Representative Tinkham wrote President Warren G. Harding an open letter urging him to support such an investigation. He ventured as far as to warn President Harding that “the very tenure of the office you hold and the representation of the lower House of Congress is tainted with unconstitutionality.” See “Negro Right to Vote Is Urged on Harding,” 4 December 1922, New York Times: 2.

159Eagles, Democracy Delayed: 51–53.

160In early December 1927, Tinkham reintroduced an (ultimately unsuccessful) amendment to create a special House panel to investigate disfranchisement by linking it to the larger issue of equitable distribution of House seats between urban and rural constituencies. See “Will Urge Congress to Investigate South,” 5 December 1927, New York Times: 3. In 1929, amid the deal-cutting for a key combined census and apportionment measure that permanently set the House Membership at 435, Tinkham secured enough votes to pass two amendments to a comprehensive reapportionment bill that had passed the Senate; however, Speaker Nicholas Longworth of Ohio intervened in conjunction with Majority Leader John Q. Tilson of Connecticut to kill the Tinkham provisions. House leaders feared an open debate on the issue would undo the delicate coalition of support for the overall reapportionment package. See Congressional Record, House, 71st Cong., 1st sess. (3 June 1929): 2348. For more on his efforts during debate on the general bill, see pages 2238–2243, 2271–2275, 2361–2364, and 2448–2449. See also Sherman, The Republican Party and Black America from McKinley to Hoover, 1896–1933: 221–222; Eagles, Democracy Delayed: 79–80.

161Sherman, The Republican Party and Black America from McKinley to Hoover, 1896–1933: 222–223.