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An Unusual House Chamber Reception for the Last Member of Lincoln's Historic Special Session

December 14, 1911
An Unusual House Chamber Reception for the Last Member of Lincoln's Historic Special Session Image courtesy of the Library of Congress A three-term Member from Pennsylvania, Sydenham Ancona received a warm welcome in the House Chamber when he visited 44 years after his congressional service ended.
On this date, the House accorded an unusual, impromptu chamber reception for former Pennsylvania Representative Sydenham E. Ancona, the last surviving Member of the historic special session of the 37th Congress (1861–1863) called by President Abraham Lincoln at the start of the Civil War. John H. Rothermel, who held the Berks County seat that Ancona once represented, introduced his predecessor amid a chorus of bipartisan cheers. The 87-year-old Ancona shook hands and greeted Members as the House took a 10-minute recess. Ancona was born in 1824 near Lititz in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and as a child moved with his family just north of Reading. He later worked for the Reading Railroad, served on the board of education, and in 1860 won election as a Democrat to the first of three terms in the U.S. House. Ancona took the oath of office in one of America’s most consequential Congresses, a monthlong special session which convened on July 4, 1861. “Those were stirring times,” Ancona told reporters shortly after his triumphant 1911 return to the House. “To my mind there never has been since the war a more critical time in the history of the United States. When I was in Congress it was a matter of saving the Union.” The special session helped fund and provision the U.S. war effort, levied the first federal income tax, expanded America’s diplomatic corps, and empowered federal forces to confiscate Confederate property. When the House met in regular session late that year, it passed landmark domestic legislation including the Homestead Act, the Morrill Land Grant College Act, and the Pacific Railway Act. The next Congress adopted the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. The 39th Congress (1865–1867), Ancona’s last, shaped the early stages of Reconstruction, including the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. After unsuccessfully seeking renomination to the 40th Congress (1867–1869), Ancona worked for decades in the banking and insurance industries. He died in Reading on June 20, 1913. Two years before his death Ancona told reporters that if he and his colleagues had saved the country during the Civil War, the Congress of the early twentieth century needed to protect democracy from the monopolies and trusts. “Today it is a question whether the great interests shall prevail or whether the people shall control,” he declared. “I believe the people will rule.”

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