“the House Shall Chuse Their Speaker…”


The very lack of definition of the Speaker’s office—the debates at the Philadelphia convention in 1787 suggest the Founders gave the matter little thought—seems to indicate that they really intended the Speaker of the House of Representatives to function much like the Speaker of the British House of Commons. Curiously, that office, which had existed more than five hundred years at the time of the American Constitutional Convention, had had a widely varied history. The first English Speaker seems to have been Peter de Montfort, who presided over what was called “the Mad Parliament” in 1258. (The English long have had a charming way of nicknaming their parliaments—“the Rump Parliament,” “the Addled Parliament,” “the Bad Parliament,” “the Barebones Parliament”—that Americans unhappily have not mimicked. With a singular lack of imagination, we tend merely to label a Congress either “rubber-stamp” or “do-nothing.”)


The English in the old days played a brand of politics far rougher than any imagined now, and for a century and a half, starting in 1399, a disquietingly large number of their Speakers were brought to trial and beheaded. In this same period, of course, the English Speaker normally was little more than the king’s spy in Parliament, and his subservience to the royal house did not endear him to the Commons. All this changed by the seventeenth century, when the Speaker became the spokesman for the House, and its foremost defender. In the most dramatic confrontation in the history of the English Parliament, King Charles i broke into the House of Commons in 1642 with five hundred heavily armed troops to seize five Members of Parliament he had charged with treason. The king demanded that the Speaker, William Lenthall, tell him where they were hiding. Lenthall fell to his knees and refused: “May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.” The king got none of the five, and a few years later this same Parliament voted to cut off his head. It was instructive to future kings, parliaments, and Speakers.

By the eighteenth century, the English Speaker had become the dispassionate, impartial officer that he is today. As early as 1604, the English House instructed its Speaker that although he could explain a pending question he was not to “sway the House with argument or dispute.” This was the style of Speaker the Founding Fathers knew, and this was the kind of presiding officer the first American Speakers proved to be: dignified, impartial, judicious fellows. Like the British Speakers, the American Speakers were not to harangue the House nor engage in factional politics, and the first American Speaker, Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania, met that mark: a portly, prosperous mediocrity who made an ideal moderator.

This was not to last. By the late 1790’s, partisan politics had engulfed Congress forever, and the House elected Theodore Sedgwick of Massachusetts, as partisan a politician as ever stuffed a ballot box, as its fourth Speaker. The fifth Speaker, Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina, elected in 1801, was the friend and ally of President Jefferson and frankly a party stalwart, as was his successor, Joseph Varnum of Massachusetts, elected Speaker in 1807. Clearly the American Speakers were following their own course, sharply different from their English model. Sedgwick offended the House by joining in debate from the chair, but he did debate; Macon insisted as well on his right to vote on legislation; and Varnum showed a marked independence from executive influence. Among them, they suggested the power potential within the office if it fell to an ambitious, talented man, as now it did: Henry Clay of Kentucky.


Clay was thirty-four years old when he first entered the House on November 4, 1811, and he was elected Speaker that very day. The office was never the same again. Over a dozen years, Clay was six times elected Speaker. Tall and graceful, he had an easy familiarity in private, but in public he could assume a grandeur almost unmatched in his time. Unfailingly courteous, he radiated self-assurance. His voice was his great strength, a melodious musical instrument that ranged from the playful to the majestic.

Clay knew that he had a majority of the House at his back and he used it. He was the first to control the substance of legislation by his committee appointments. Under him the House devised the so-called “Previous Question” rule as a means of limiting debate. He had bills to enact and enact them he did. He forced a declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812, and he forced the recognition by this country of the newly independent Latin American republics.