Reduction Redux

Although the subject of reduction arose occasionally in Congress, it showed up more as a talking point than an issue for serious legislative concern.143 Republican leaders seemed content to raise the topic 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 ambivalence and sensing the weakness of their northern opponents, southern Representatives became bolder and coordinated their efforts to repulse the reduction movement.144

George Holden Tinkham/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_2_tinkham_george_lc-usz62-115920.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress George Holden Tinkham of Massachusetts became known as “the conscience of the House” for his efforts to protect African-American voting rights. 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.145 At several junctures during this extended debate, Representative George Holden Tinkham of Massachusetts spoke on behalf of disenfranchised African Americans. 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.146 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 disenfranchisement of southern blacks in violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.147

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 disenfranchisement efforts by the states and to report back to the full House with information on how to reapportion and expand the chamber’s membership. As usual, he did not mince words, describing southern disenfranchisement 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.”148

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 little more than a “stump speech.” Mondell also echoed southern complaints that the reduction proposal was merely a way for Tinkham to win over more black voters in the North.149 When Speaker Gillett rejected Tinkham’s argument that his measure was constitutionally privileged, the full House overwhelmingly backed the ruling, 286 to 47.150

Later that fall during floor debate about a bill to expand Membership of the House from 435 to 483 sponsored by Census Committee Chairman Isaac Siegel of New York, Tinkham again issued a call to uphold the Fourteenth Amendment, noting that 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.”151

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.“152 Representative Wells Goodykoontz of West Virginia, former president of the West Virginia Bar Association, was the sole Member to join Tinkham in calling for the enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment. He provided statistical evidence based on November 1920 voting returns that showed that more votes were cast in his district (85,587 votes) than in the entire states of South Carolina (67,737) and Mississippi (70,657).153

John E. Rankin/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_2_rankin_john__drawing_clerk_collection.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives Sixteen-term Congressman John E. Rankin of Mississippi defended southern white supremacy. Later in Rankin’s congressional career, Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York regularly clashed with him.
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 eventually 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.”154

Had reduction been adopted, Mississippi’s delegation would have been halved, from 8 to 4. Rankin countered Tinkham by arguing that the Fifteenth Amendment—in prohibiting disenfranchisement because of race or color—had “by implication” superseded and voided the part of the Fourteenth Amendment that called for reduction.155 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.”156 The House brushed aside Tinkham’s amendment on an unrecorded voice vote.157

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 1927.158 Tinkham made at least two more unsuccessful attempts to add reduction amendments before passage of a comprehensive reapportionment bill in 1929.159 Congressional leaders were reluctant to vigorously protect black voting rights, as they were concerned about the prospect of losing votes and provoking a violent white backlash.160 Other Members of Congress—particularly Rankin and those from southern states—recognized that restricting black voting rights with impunity preserved their power in the House and protected the Democratic Party’s dominance in southern state governments.161

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143Perman, Struggle for Mastery: 240.

144With 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, U.S. House of Representatives, “Congressional Apportionment.”

145In 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 immigrants be counted in the population totals, 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.

146See Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “George Holden Tinkam:The Subtitles Write Themselves,” 24 March 2014; “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.

147Richard H. Gentile, “Tinkham, George Holden,” American National Biography 21 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 696.

148Congressional 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.

149Congressional Record, House, 67th Cong., 1st sess. (6 May 1921): 1127.

150Ibid., 1130–1131; Sherman, The Republican Party and Black America from McKinley to Hoover, 1896–1933: 171.

151Congressional 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.

152Congressional Record, House, 67th Cong., 1st sess. (14 October 1921): 6312.

153Ibid.; Eagles, Democracy Delayed: 47. For more information on Goodykoontz, see “Wells Goodykoontz,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774– Present. 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.

154For 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.

155Congressional Record, House, 67th Cong., 1st sess. (14 October 1921): 6315–6316; Eagles, Democracy Delayed: 47–48.

156Congressional Record, House, 67th Cong., 1st sess. (14 October 1921): 6316.

157In 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.

158Eagles, Democracy Delayed: 51–53.

159In early December 1927, Tinkham reintroduced an (ultimately unsuccessful) amendment to create a special House panel to investigate disenfranchisement 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.

160Sherman, The Republican Party and Black America from McKinley to Hoover, 1896–1933: 222–223.

161V. O. Key, Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949; repr., Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984): 665.