Historical Highlights

Uncle Joe Cannon’s Colorful Words on the House Floor

August 27, 1890
Uncle Joe Cannon’s Colorful Words on the House Floor Image courtesy of Library of Congress Born in Ireland in 1853, New Jersey Congressman William McAdoo emigrated to the United States in 1865.
On this date, the House of Representatives fell into complete disarray after Representatives Joe Cannon of Illinois and William McAdoo of New Jersey exchanged verbal insults, followed by a brawl between John Wilson of Washington and Charles Beckwith of New Jersey during floor debate. The House was engaged in a battle over the Conger Compound Lard Bill of 1890. The bill’s opponents used a number of parliamentary filibustering techniques to prevent a vote. Insults between Cannon and other Members became more intense. At one point, Representative Benjamin Enloe of Tennessee called for the House Gallery to be cleared, arguing that Cannon’s colorful language offended female visitors. The Atlanta Constitution reported that, “The ladies in the gallery were horrified and beat a hasty retreat, while the gentlemen on the floor blushed with shame. Even Tom Reed [Speaker of the House Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine] turned crimson, and for a moment seemed unable to speak.” As a debate to strike Cannon’s words from the Congressional Record became more strident, another battle brewed between Beckwith and Wilson. In a private conversation, Wilson began to defend Cannon, which drew Beckwith’s criticism. Ready to fight, the New Jersey Representative insulted Wilson, “‘You are a blank, blankety blank, blank,’ using language too vile to print,” reported the Atlanta Constitution. The House instantly erupted as other Members joined the fray. Representative “Fighting Joe” Wheeler of Alabama became so excited that he leaped from desktop to desktop to obtain a better view of the brawl. The Boston Daily Globe reported that Representatives William Morrow of California and Bishop Perkins of Kansas, who were in the House Barber Shop, heard the words “fight, fight” and ran to the chamber. With shaving cream and towels still on their faces, the two Representatives jumped on a sofa to get a better view. Another Member referred to the men as “ghosts” which caused a roar of laughter in the chamber. After order was finally restored, Speaker Reed coaxed the combatants to approve the House Journal and adjourn for the day.

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