Speech on Party Leadership in Congress

On what grounds does Speaker Joseph Cannon defend his leadership and rule over the House of Representatives? Why does Cannon assert that there is no true majority in the House of Representatives, as evidenced by the decision to strip him of power? What does this indicate about Cannon’s theory of majority rule?
In what ways is Cannon’s argument for strong party leadership in Congress similar to the arguments made by Thomas Brackett Reed (Rules of the House of Representatives and Obstructions in the National House and A Deliberative Body)?  How is his view of the role of political parties similar to the views of Jacob Sloat Fassett during the Revolt of 1910 (The Revolt of 1910 Against Speaker Joseph Cannon)?    

On St. Patrick’s Day, 1910, George Norris, with the assistance of 42 Progressive Republicans and 149 Democrats, revolted against Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon (See The “Revolt of 1910” Against Speaker Joseph Cannon). The revolt came in the form of the Norris Resolution, which would essentially remove the Speaker of the House from the Rules Committee, revoke his or her privilege to assign members to committees, and expand the membership of the Rules Committee. Most of Cannon’s allies (many of whom were Irish) were celebrating the holiday when the Norris Resolution was introduced. To fend off the assault, Cannon and his present allies engaged with the “insurgents” in a point of order debate for 26 hours. Eventually, Cannon ruled that the resolution was out of order—which was overturned by Norris’s appeal to the full House. Although the Norris Resolution passed, Cannon had one last move: to challenge Norris’s supporters to oust him as Speaker and align with the Democrats to choose a new leader. In making this challenge, Cannon offered a constitutional argument for the existence of party leadership in Congress. Cannon’s Republican opponents sought to adjourn the House to avoid taking the difficult vote, but failed, and Cannon was vindicated when the vote to remove him as Speaker was rejected, 155–191—though nine Republicans voted to depose Cannon.

—Joseph Postell

Source: Congressional Record, 61st Congress, 2nd Session, March 19, 1910. Vol. 45, pp. 3436–7

The SPEAKER. Gentlemen of the House of Representatives: Actions, not words, determine the conduct and the sincerity of men in the affairs of life. This is a government by the people acting through the representatives of a majority of the people. Results cannot be had except by a majority, and in the House of Representatives a majority, being responsible, should have full power and should exercise that power: otherwise the majority is inefficient and does not perform its function.

The office of the minority is to put the majority on its good behavior, advocating, in good faith, the policies which it professes, ever ready to take advantage of the mistakes of the majority party, and appeal to the country for its vindication.

From time to time heretofore the majority has become the minority, as in the present case, and from time to time hereafter the majority will become the minority. The country believes that the Republican party has a majority of 44 in the House of Representatives at this time; yet such is not the case.

The present Speaker of the House has, to the best of his ability and judgment, cooperated with the Republican party, and so far in the history of this Congress the Republican party in the House has been enabled by a very small majority, when the test came, to legislate in conformity with the policies and the platform of the Republican party. Such action of course begot criticism—which the Speaker does not deprecate—on the part of the minority party.

The Speaker cannot be unmindful of the fact, as evidenced by three previous elections to the Speakership, that in the past he has enjoyed the confidence of the Republican party of the country and of the Republican members of the House; but the assault upon the Speaker of the House by the minority, supplemented by the efforts of the so-called insurgents, shows that the Democratic minority, aided by a number of so-called insurgents, constituting 15 percent of the majority party in the House, is now in the majority, and that the Speaker of the House is not in harmony with the actual majority of the House, as evidenced by the vote just taken.

There are two courses open for the Speaker to pursue—one is to resign and permit the new combination of Democrats and insurgents to choose a Speaker in harmony with its aims and purposes. The other is for that combination to declare a vacancy in the office of Speaker and proceed to the election of a new Speaker.

After consideration, at this stage of the session of the House, with much of important legislation pending involving the pledges of the Republican platform and their crystallization into law, believing that his resignation might consume weeks of time in the reorganization of the House, the Speaker, being in harmony with Republican policies and desirous of carrying them out, declines by his own motion to precipitate a contest upon the House in the election of a new Speaker, a contest that might greatly endanger the final passage of all legislation necessary to redeem Republican pledges and fulfill Republican promises.

This is one reason why the Speaker does not resign at once; and another reason is this: In the judgment of the present Speaker, a resignation is in and of itself a confession of weakness or mistake or an apology for past actions. The Speaker is not conscious of having done any political wrong. [Loud applause on the Republican side.] The same rules are in force in this House that have been in force for two decades. The Speaker has construed the rules as he found them, and as they have been construed by previous Speakers from Thomas B. Reed’s incumbency down to the present time.[1]

Heretofore the Speakers have been members of the Committee on Rules, covering a period of sixty years, and the present Speaker neither has sought new power nor has he unjustly used that already conferred upon him.

There has been much talk on the part of the minority and the insurgents of the “czarism” of the speaker, culminating in the action taken to-day. The real truth is that there is no coherent Republican majority in the House of Representatives. [Loud applause on the Republican side.] Therefore, the real majority ought to have the courage of its convictions [applause on the Republican side], and logically meet the situation that confronts it.

The Speaker does now believe, and always has believed, that this is a government through parties, and that parties can act only through majorities. The Speaker has always believed in and bowed to the will of the majority in convention, in caucus, and in the legislative halls, and today profoundly believes that to act otherwise is to disorganize parties, is to prevent coherent action in any legislative body, is to make impossible the reflection of the wishes of the people in statutes and in laws.

The Speaker has always said that, under the Constitution, it is a question of the highest privilege for an actual majority of the House at any time to choose a new Speaker, and again notifies the House that the Speaker will at this moment, or at any other time while he remains the Speaker, entertain, in conformity with the highest constitutional privilege, a motion by any member to vacate the office of the Speakership and choose a new Speaker [loud applause on the Republican side]; and, under existing conditions, would welcome such action upon the part of the actual majority of the House, so that power and responsibility may rest with the Democratic and insurgent members who, by the last vote, evidently constitute a majority of this House. The Chair is now ready to entertain such a motion. [Loud and long-continued applause on the Republican side; great confusion in the Hall.]

Mr. BURLESON.[2] Mr. Speaker, I offer the following resolution.

Mr. SHERLEY.[3] Mr. Speaker, I move that the House do now adjourn.

Mr. TAWNEY.[4] The gentleman from Texas [Mr. BURLESON] has been recognized.

Mr. SHERLEY. The motion is not debatable.

The SPEAKER. The gentleman from Texas.

Mr. SHERLEY. I make the point of order that the gentleman from Nebraska [Mr. NORRIS][5] offered a motion to adjourn—

Mr. BURLESON. I demand the reading of my resolution.

Mr. SHERLEY (continuing). And out of courtesy to the Speaker, withheld it pending the Speaker’s remarks to the House. That motion is now properly before the House.

Mr. LOUDENSLAGER.[6] We have no rules now.

Mr. SABATH.[7] A motion to adjourn is always in order. [Great confusion in the Hall.]

Mr. BURLESON. I ask for the reading of the resolution, and demand the previous question on its adoption.

Several MEMBERS. It has not been read.

The SPEAKER. No business can be transacted until the House is in order. For what purpose does the gentleman rise?

Mr. BURLESON. I ask for the reading of the resolution, and upon that resolution I demand the previous question.

Mr. SHERLEY. Mr. Speaker, I make the point of order that the motion—

The SPEAKER. The Chair is not advised, and is trying to find out what the motion of the gentleman from Texas is.

Mr. SHERLEY. I make the point of order that there is now pending before the House a motion to adjourn, which is not debatable. [Cries of “No!” “No!” and great confusion in the Hall.]

Mr. BURLESON. I demand the reading of the resolution.

The SPEAKER. The House will be in order. Gentlemen will be seated. No rights shall be lost and no unparliamentary action had in the premises. There are matters that take precedence of a motion to adjourn. [Loud applause on the Republican side.] Speaker Carlisle and many other Speakers have so ruled. Until the chair knows what it is that the gentleman from Texas proposes the chair does not know whether the motion to adjourn is of superior quality.

Mr. BURLESON. I demand the reading of the resolution.

Mr. SHERLEY. I make the point of order that there is a motion to adjourn pending.

The SPEAKER. The clerk will read.

The clerk reads as follows:

Resolved. That the office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives is hereby declared to be vacant and the House of Representatives shall at once proceed to the election of a Speaker.

Mr. BURLESON. On that I move the previous question.

  1. 1. Thomas Brackett Reed served as the 32nd Speaker of the House from 1895–1899. Under Reed, the power of the Speaker increased significantly. Many of Reed’s reforms of House procedure were intended to bypass minority party opposition. For more on Reed, see "Rules of the House of Representatives" and “Obstructions in the National House” and “A Deliberative Body”.
  2. 2. Albert Sidney Burleson, a Democrat from Texas, served in the House from 1899–1913 when he resigned to become President Woodrow Wilson’s postmaster general. Burleson is credited with being originator of the parcel post and air delivery services of the U.S. Post Office. However, he is largely considered one of the worst postmaster generals for his reactionary views that led to the re-segregation of federal offices and railway mail services.
  3. 3. Joseph Swagar Sherley, a Democrat from Kentucky, was a member of the House from 1903–1919. In 1933, Sherley was offered the director of the Bureau of the Budget position under President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he declined the offer due to poor health.
  4. 4. James Albertus Tawney, a Republican from Minnesota, was a representative in the House from 1893–1911 and served as the majority whip from 1899–1905. After his defeat by Sydney Anderson, a Progressive Republican who was supported by Theodore Roosevelt, Tawney was a member of the International Joint Commission to dispute boundary waters between the U.S. and Canada.
  5. 5. George William Norris, a Republican from Nebraska, served as a representative from 1903–1913 and as a senator from 1913–1943. Norris led the revolt against Speaker Cannon, dubbed “Czar Cannon” and is widely considered to be one of the top-five best senators in U.S. history.
  6. 6. Henry Clay Loudenslager, a Republican from New Jersey, served in the House from 1893–1911 when he died in office.
  7. 7. Adolph Joachim Sabath, a Democrat from Illinois, was a member of the House from 1907–1952, serving as the Dean of the House from 1934–1952. Sabath was an ardent opponent to Prohibition legislation, particularly the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act and secretly informed the president about Speakers Bankhead and Rayburn.
Teacher Programs

Conversation-based seminars for collegial PD, one-day and multi-day seminars, graduate credit seminars (MA degree), online and in-person.

Coming soon! World War I & the 1920s!