Speaker Joseph Gurney Cannon

1836-1926; Republican, Illinois

“Uncle Joe” Cannon didn’t look like a statesman. He favored cheap felt hats and wrinkled suits that hung awkwardly from his bony frame. He was constantly sucking cigars, chewing tobacco, swigging whiskey, and delivering profanity-laced homilies. Born and raised in a log cabin on the prairie, he took pride in his rural roots and played them for political advantage. In 1903, his adoring colleagues in the House of Representatives elected him Speaker.

The Speaker of the House was exceptionally powerful in those days, and Uncle Joe played his authority to the limit. He packed important House committees with loyal supporters and blocked bills he disliked from coming to a vote, using his power to enforce discipline among the Republican ranks and even among many Democrats.

Had he wished, Cannon might have been the most prolific Speaker in history, but moving legislation was not his ambition. He wasn’t concerned about political bosses or robber barons, monopolies or bank runs, child labor or tainted food. He didn’t like the idea of women voting, and he abhorred government regulation He liked the country just the way it was. “I am god-damned tired of listening to all this babble for reform,” he said, “America is a hell of a success.”

President Theodore Roosevelt, ever the pragmatist, tread lightly around Uncle Joe. When Cannon rebuffed his requests to revise controversial legislation, Roosevelt acquiesced. At the end of his term, Roosevelt advised his successor, William Taft, to avoid confronting Uncle Joe, and Taft heeded the advice. Even Senator Nelson Aldrich, the powerful “boss” of the Senate, deferred to Cannon.

But Cannon’s obstructionism infuriated Senator Bob La Follette and the progressive wing of the Republican Party. Unable to challenge the Speaker directly or even speak on the House floor without his permission, progressive congressmen bided their time until their ranks were large enough to force a vote. Finally, in 1910, they launched their attack. Their famous revolt against Uncle Joe is one of the most dramatic and momentous political insurgencies in American history.

 House Speaker Joseph G. Cannon, 1905

House Speaker Joseph G. Cannon, 1905

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