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“the House Shall Chuse Their Speaker…”

July 2024
12min read

And in doing so, the fate of Congress—will it be weak? will it be strong?—is determined

In December, 1847, after Robert C. Winthrop of Massachusetts had won election as Speaker of the House of Representatives, three of the nation’s most remarkable political leaders stopped by to offer advice. Winthrop, a graduate of Harvard College and scion of one of the country’s most distinguished families, was already a veteran of several Congresses and hardly the kind of man who would seek advice. The office he now held, however, was of immense importance. On him, in part, rested the fate of representative government in the United States.

John Quincy Adams told him: “The Speaker of the House of Representatives is next to the President and the Vice President: call upon no one else.” Henry Clay advised: “Decide promptly and never give the reasons for your decisions; the House will sustain your decisions, but there will always be men to cavil and quarrel over your reasons.” Thomas Hart Benton, a great parliamentarian in his own right, took a third approach: “Be as modest as you please, but don’t compromise the House of Representatives.”

In these different ways, each laid home to Winthrop the need to protect the power and the dignity of his office, for as Speaker, Winthrop had far more to do than merely preside over the deliberations of the House and sign each engrossed bill passed by the Congress. He had charge of the House of Representatives. He directed its officers and many committees. Not only did he have to keep the boisterous place in order and rule on all procedural questions, but he had above all to see that the House did its work, that it enacted all the bills needed to keep the government functioning.

Winthrop had been chosen Speaker on the third ballot of a spirited contest, the first action taken by that new House of Representatives, then convening for the first time. For every new Congress, the election of a Speaker has always been the first order of business. This is no idle matter: the House cannot function until the Speaker is chosen, nor can the Congress, nor for that matter can the United States government. Once, in the winter of 1855-56, the federal government was all but paralyzed for two months while the House cast no fewer than i33 ballots before electing a Speaker.

Not surprisingly, the House conducts these elections with a litany of rituals almost as old as the republic. In party caucuses, the members-elect choose candidates for the post. When the House meets, with the Clerk of the previous House in the chair temporarily, these candidates are formally nominated, and then the members-elect solemnly vote for one or the other of them. After the results are announced, the loser escorts the winner to the rostrum and graciously introduces him to the cheering spectators. As graciously, the Speaker-elect thanks his colleagues for their show of confidence in him, and pledges to uphold the highest traditions of the House of Representatives to the best of his abilities, and to preside over the deliberations of the House with appropriate fairness. The “Father of the House,” its most senior member, then gives the oath of office to the Speaker-elect. That done, the Speaker swears in the other members. Only then is the House ready to do business. Only then does the House formally notify the President that its members are in session and prepared to receive from him whatever communication he may deem fit to send.

The House arrays the election of its Speaker with such solemnities because the members know that the one chosen determines in a real sense the fate of the convening Congress. A weak Speaker forecasts a weak Congress; a strong, dynamic Speaker predicts an energetic, creative Congress. He is “the elect of the elect,” the chosen of the people’s representatives, and on him more than any other depends the success of the legislative branch.

The post itself is a “constitutional” office, one of the few specified by the Founding Fathers, the “assembly of demigods”—as Thomas Jefferson described them—who drafted the Constitution. The members of Congress have always revered the office. In the very first Congress, they voted to pay the Speaker $1 a a day, twice the amount they voted for themselves. In the early years, rooms in boarding houses at the capital city were scarce and representatives and senators had to double up, but the Speaker had a room of his own.

Surprisingly, the Founders forgot to set any qualifications for the job. They merely wrote into the Constitution that “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers…” and let it go at that. Thus, by constitutional proviso, the Speaker need not be a member of Congress, nor even an American citizen. The members of the House are free to elect anyone, of any age or birth or residence. The President and the Vice President must be natural-born citizens, at least thirty-five years old, but the Speaker, technically and legally, could be a Basque shepherd boy or anyone else. This is one of the few oversights by the Founding Fathers, but despite the options open to them, the members of the House have always elected one of their own.

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.

Clay was a skillful leader who beguiled his audiences and his colleagues with charm, wit, and eloquence. It was said of him that he could take snuff more elegantly than any man of his time. When the British were marching on Washington, a proposal was offered that Congress go out to fight the enemy, but Clay stated that he would be sorry to lead such a disorderly body into battle. Once, on leaving a convivial party at dawn, he was asked how he could expect to preside over the House that day. “Come up,” he said, “and you will see how I throw the reins over their necks!” More than anyone else, he showed what effect a forceful, dynamic Speaker could have on the House of Representatives: he made it, in his time, the dominant branch of the federal government.

Bold and self-confident, Clay understood the office as essentially political, and as Speaker he took command of the House. He was the first great Speaker, the model for Speakers who came later. Never after his tenure would the office revert to the bland impartiality of Speaker Muhlenberg. Lesser men, many of them, succeeded to the Speakership in the decades after Clay, but it was he who permanently settled the nature of the job. Clay failed in only one ambition. “I would rather be right than be President,” he said, but his friends knew he would rather have been President. Curiously, only one Speaker of the House, James K. Polk, ever went on to become President.

Now, a century and a half after Clay left the office, the House can count few Speakers who could match his marvelous command of the place, who could rank with him as one of the greats of the House. There have been some: James G. Blaine of Maine, who restored clear-cut majority rule after decades of splinter-party chaos; John G. Carlisle of Kentucky, who devised a question—“For what purpose does the gentleman rise?”—that gave the Speaker control of the recognizing of members and with it control of the House’s agenda; Thomas B. Reed of Maine, who broke forever the ability of the minority to filibuster and thereby frustrate action by the majority.

A huge man physically, Reed had a caustic, cynical view of life and politics. He was careless in his manner and non-chalant in his parliamentary talents, and he concealed his ambitions behind a masklike face. He was a political original, the first Speaker called “Czar.”

Sardonic in his wit, glacial in his bearing, it was Reed who gave the House its definition of a statesman: “a successful politician who is dead.” (Henry Cabot Lodge asked Reed, “Why don’t you die and become a statesman?” Reed replied, “No, fame is the last infirmity of a noble mind.”) He scorned the opposition: “The right of the minority is to draw its salaries and its function is to make a quorum.” When he decided a question, he would inform the minority leaders: “Gentlemen, we have decided to perpetrate the following outrage.” Reed brought to fulfillment the power within the Speakership that Clay had first attempted. He controlled the place so thoroughly that he refused to discuss legislation at the White House: he settled such questions without the guidance or advice of the President.

As powerful as Reed was Joseph G. Cannon of Illinois- “Uncle Joe” to his colleagues. Reed ran the House alone; Cannon worked with a handful of trusted lieutenants, and, like Reed, he too was called “Czar.” Cannon, a peppery, partisan scrapper, a wizened sixty-seven years old when he was first elected Speaker, took great pride in his own commonness. “I am,” he boasted, “one of the great army of mediocrity which constitutes the majority.” He ruled the House with an iron grip, and he could laugh at his own notoriety. “Behold Mr. Cannon, the Beelzebub of Congress!” he once shouted at a crowd. “Gaze on this noble, manly form—me, Beelzebub—me, the Czar!”

Cannon was a genial fellow, personally popular with his colleagues, despite his tyrannical methods, but at last he brought on by those methods a great revolt within the House. It came in 1910, and the Speakership was stripped of the powers accumulated over the decades: the minority’s rights were carefully written into the House’s new rules.

For a decade and a half afterward, in the hands of Champ Clark of Missouri and then Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts, the Speakership went into eclipse, with the real power in the House resting with the majority party’s floor leader. It was Nicholas Longworth of Ohio, floor leader under Speaker Gillett, who restored the real power to the chair when he was elected Speaker in 1925. A talented violinist, the son-in-law of President Theodore Roosevelt, Longworth could not become as powerful as Reed and Cannon had been; the rules now prevented that. He used other means, less harsh, to rebuild the Speaker’s flagging powers. One was the so-called “Board of Education,” a Capitol hideaway where he and his close friend, the leader of the opposition, John Nance Garner of Texas, poured drinks after hours in prohibition-ridden Washington. “Well, you get a couple of drinks in a young Congressman,” Garner explained, “and then you know what he knows and what he can do. We pay the tuition by supplying the liquor.” Garner succeeded Longworth as Speaker in 1931, and he continued the “Board of Education” in the old way.

In modern times, the man universally recognized as the great Speaker was Sam Rayburn of Texas—“Mr. Sam,” as he was called. He served in the House more than forty-eight years, seventeen of them as Speaker, longer by far than any other. (One Speaker, Theodore Pomeroy of New York, served only a single day, March 3, 1869.) Rayburn used the “Board of Education,” as had Longworth and Garner, to keep current with everything going on in Congress. It was there where the White House switchboard found Vice President Harry Truman on the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt died. Rayburn’s real power flowed from his personal integrity and his almost intuitive sense of the changing moods of the House. He could tell where the House stood on a question by quietly canvassing the members on the House floor. “You can’t really say how you lead,” he once said. “You feel your way, receptive to those rolling waves of sentiment, and if a man can’t see and hear and feel, why then, of course, he’s lost.”

Rayburn stood only five feet seven, and he was prematurely bald, but he was an imposing figure all the same. He had a politician’s love of good storytelling, although he drew the line on the off-color. He paid special attention to new members of the House, encouraging them to take full part in its proceedings. There was nothing arbitrary about Rayburn, although his anger came quickly if he discovered that a colleague had lied to him. “I don’t remember what I say,” he liked to remark; “I don’t have to.”


Rayburn had to negotiate with his committee chairmen; he could not order them as Reed and Cannon once had done. “If you want to get along,” Rayburn would say, “go along.” He had to depend on persuasion, on appeals to patriotism, on personal friendships, to get done in the House what he believed needed doing. “If you have common sense,” he declared, “you have all the sense there is.”

Rayburn’s friendships within the House extended to the opposition party, and that was not unique with him. He was once asked to go to Massachusetts to help defeat Joseph Martin, leader of the House opposition. “Speak against Martin!” Rayburn exploded. “Hell, if I lived up there, I’d vote for him!”

Rayburn long held power, and, in his own way, he had examined what was needed for its successful, effective use: “a man with brains in his head and iron in his backbone.” He had both, and so did the other great Speakers: Garner and Longworth and Cannon, all of whom he had known, and Reed, Carlisle, Blaine, and Clay.

Rayburn died in 1961, and he was not an easy Speaker to follow. By his long service, by his striking personality, he had come to personify what Reed once said the Speaker should be: “the embodiment of the House, its power and dignity.”

In the sixteen years since Rayburn, John McCormack of Massachusetts and Carl Albert have in turn served in his place, and in those years the House of Representatives has changed so much that Rayburn himself would be startled. The majority Democrats have especially reformed their ways. Rayburn was saddled with a rigid seniority system that made committee chairmen independent and uncontrollable; that system has been broken. He confronted a recalcitrant House Rules Committee; that committee now has been tamed and made again an arm of the leadership, as in the days of Reed and Cannon. The party’s caucus no longer shrinks from ordering action by House committees; the party’s steering committee has new authority to sustain the Speaker, and, in sum, the powers of the Speaker have been restored to a greater degree than at any time since the revolt in 1910 against “Czar” Cannon.

Speaker Albert, especially, played a central role in this long struggle to reform the House and its committees, to return to the Speaker many of the powers long lost. A gentle, somewhat diffident man who disliked disciplining his colleagues, Albert hesitated to use the very powers he helped regain. Indeed, he contented himself with that restoration and then announced his own retirement. Those powers are still there, however, waiting for “a man with brains in his head and iron in his backbone.”

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