Joseph Gurney Cannon championed the rights of the U.S. House

Joseph Gurney Cannon
Oil Painting on Canvas by William T. Smedley,
1912, Collection of U.S. House of Representatives
At the south end of the U.S. Capitol complex, next to the Library of Congress, sits a marble and limestone office building. Opened in 1908, this first House office building was constructed due to a critical need for space for the growing House of Representatives. When it came time to choose a name for this structure, the House voted to give the honor to an Illinoisan, and possibly the most powerful Speaker of the House in American history, U.S. Rep. Joseph Gurney Cannon (R-Danville).

Speaker Cannon was already a well-traveled man when he entered politics in 1861. Born in North Carolina, raised in Indiana and educated in Ohio, he moved to Tuscola, Illinois, and was named State’s Attorney for the 27th Judicial District. In 1868, he ran for Congress, beginning a 46 year Congressional career which featured two defeats and comebacks, an eight-year reign as Speaker, and such diverse emotions that he was known either as “Uncle Joe,” or “Czar Cannon.”

Cannon’s first leadership post was the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee. In 1898, the USS Maine exploded in Havana harbor and Americans began clamoring for war with Spain. Cannon, who opposed the war, recognized which direction the wind was blowing. He saw that war was inevitable and sought to prepare the armed forces. “Common sense demanded that preparation be furthered before the jingoes got completely out of control,” he told an incredulous Speaker Thomas Reed after the House approved a $50 million appropriation for defense.

In 1903, Cannon was elected Speaker. At first, he charted a conciliatory course with his colleagues. “I believe in consultin’ the boys, findin’ out what most of ‘em want, and then goin’ ahead and doin’ it,” he told an interviewer from Review of Reviews that year. “The Speaker is the servant, not the master of the House.”

But before long, as Congressional historian Robert Remini wrote, Cannon began to consider himself, “the absolute ruler of the House of Representatives.” Cannon demanded strict discipline, and punished those who strayed, taking away committee assignments, even those of committee chairmen. As both Speaker and chairman of the Rules Committee, he managed the floor schedule from his committee perch, while governing debate from the Speaker’s chair. This accumulation of power broke the House tradition of committee chairmen wielding power over legislation coming through their committees, and centralized it in the hands of the Speaker.

But Cannon won the admiration of colleagues with his efforts to make the House an equal to the Senate, an equivalency that he felt had been lost under some of his predecessors. When he was elected he pledged to “battle the domineering Senate,” and he fought a series of battles against the other chamber and against President Theodore Roosevelt, all seeking to reassert the House’s rights.

Roosevelt soon came to realize that Speaker Cannon was no rubber stamp, and he began to frequently solicit the Speaker’s advice. Cannon became the first Speaker in 50 years to hold regular meetings with the President. But Roosevelt and Cannon were far apart on the dominant issues of the day, and were rarely able to find middle ground. For the remaining years of Roosevelt’s Presidency, he and the stalwart Speaker from the Midwest continually found themselves in a stalemate. Refusing to relax his grip on Congress, Cannon defended his decision to concentrate power. “Sometimes in politics one must duel with skunks,” he said, “but no one should be fool enough to allow the skunks to choose the weapons.”

Determined as he was to assert the House’s independence at every opportunity, Cannon joined with Roosevelt in passing revolutionary public health legislation: the 1906 Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. To do so, Cannon had to run over one of his allies, the chairman of the Agriculture Committee, who was blocking the bill. For all the criticism of his stubbornness, Cannon had been instrumental in passing the first major legislation protecting the nation’s food supply.

Throughout his Speakership, Cannon remained a fierce defender of the rights of the House. Cannon spoke highly of the body and its members. “I venture to say that, taken as a whole, the House is sound at heart; nowhere else will you find such a ready appreciation of merit and character, in few gatherings of equal size is there so little jealousy and envy….The men who have led the House, whose names have become a splendid tradition to their successors, have gained prominence not through luck or mere accident. They had ability, at least in some degree; but more than that they have had character.”

But members still chafed under Cannon’s iron-fisted rule. Finally, in 1911, a coalition of reform-minded Republicans joined with the Democrats to depose Speaker Cannon. He was defeated for re-election the following year, but like a true political survivor, he ran and won again in 1914, serving another four terms in Congress before retiring for good in 1922.

Regardless of the opinions which individual members held of him, Cannon was one of the most effective Speakers of the House in American history, and so it was not a surprise when he was chosen as the namesake for the first House office building. Later buildings would be named for Speakers Sam Rayburn and Nicholas Longworth, as well former Congressman and President Gerald Ford.
Of Illinois’ 18 Members of Congress, today five have offices within the Cannon Building.