Chess games of the rich and famous: House Speaker Joe Cannon vs. Congress

Cartoon - Cannon, Joe, The Poltiical Chessboard, Harpers 2-05-1910 - 3b23316r

The Poltiical Chessboard, Harper's Magazine, February 5, 1910, by E. W. Kemble - Library of Congress image

Description from the Library of Congress:

Joseph Cannon playing chess with straw man labelled “Congress,” using toy men on chessboard with squares labelled “important committee” and “freak committee.”

Legendary House Speaker Joe Cannon — after whom the Cannon House Office Building is named — is remembered for the almost absolute power he held over the House of Representatives.  Here’s the generic description at Wikipedia:

House Speaker Joseph G. Cannon - Wikimedia image, photo from October 1915

House Speaker Joseph G. Cannon - Wikimedia image, photo from October 1915

Cannon wielded the office of Speaker with unprecedented power. At the time of Cannon’s election the Speaker of the House concurrently held the chair of the Rules Committee, which determined under what rules and restrictions bills could be debated, amended, and voted on, and in some cases whether they would be allowed on the floor at all. As such, Cannon effectively controlled every aspect of the House’s agenda: Bills reached the floor of the house only if Cannon approved of it, and then in whatever form he determined—with he himself deciding whether and to what extent the measures could be debated and amended.

Cannon also reserved to himself the right to appoint not only the chairs of the various House committees, but also all of committees’ members, and (despite the seniority system that had begun to develop) used that power to appoint his allies and proteges to leadership positions while punishing those who opposed his legislation. Crucially, Cannon exercised these powers to maintain discipline within the ranks of his own party: the Republicans were divided into the conservative “Old Guard,” led by Cannon, and the progressives, led by President Theodore Roosevelt. His committee assignment privileges ensured that the party’s Progressive element was essentially powerless in the House, and his control over the legislative process obstructed progressive legislation.

Progressives wished to break Cannon’s ability to control so completely the flow of legislation.  By early 1910, progressives in the Republican Party especially chafed under Cannon’s rule.  Anxious for revolt, they struck on March 17, just a few weeks after this cartoon appeared.

On March 17, 1910, after two failed attempts to curb Cannon’s absolute power in the House, Nebraska Representative George Norris [of Nebraska] led a coalition of 42 progressive Republicans and the entire delegation of 149 Democrats in a revolt. With many of Cannon’s most powerful allies absent from the Chamber, but enough Members on hand for a quorum, Norris introduced a resolution that would remove the Speaker from the Rules Committee and strip him of his power to assign committees.

While his lieutenants and the House sergeant-at-arms left the chamber to collect absent members in attempt to rally enough votes for Cannon, the Speaker’s allies initiated a filibuster in the form of a point of order debate. When Cannon supporters proved difficult to find (many of the staunchest were Irish and spent the day at various St. Patrick’s Day celebrations), the filibuster continued for 26 hours, with Cannon’s present friends making repeated motions for recess and adjournment. When Cannon finally ruled the resolution out of order at noon on March 19, Norris appealed the resolution to the full House, which voted to overrule Cannon, and then to adopt the Norris resolution.

Cannon managed to save some face by promptly requesting a vote to remove him as Speaker, which he won handily since the Republican majority would not risk a Democratic speaker replacing him. However, his iron rule of the House was broken, and Cannon lost the Speakership when the Democrats won a majority later that same year.

Instead of the Speaker’s wishes, committee assignments and chairs were selected by a seniority system.

Cannon lost his seat representing Illinois in the progressive tide of 1912, but regained it in 1914, and served another four terms in the House, to 1922.

I have found no information on whether Cannon actually played chess.

Norris’s star was on the rise at the same time.  Though he supported Theodore Roosevelt in the election of 1912, when Roosevelt bolted the Republican Party and ran as a Progressive or “Bullmoose Party” nominee for president, Norris stayed with the Republican Party and won election to the U.S. Senate in 1912.

Norris became an isolationist, and was one of six senators to vote against the declaration of war in 1917 that pushed the U.S. into World War I.  Norris also opposed the Versailles Treaty, and played an important role in keeping the treaty from U.S. ratification.  He supported Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Reforms a decade-and-a-half later, and one of the early dams of the Tennessee Valley Authority is named for him.  Norris’s role in the New Deal, and in pushing progressive reforms well into the 20th century, is not fully appreciated, for example:

In 1932, along with Rep. Fiorello H. La Guardia, Norris secured passage of the Norris-La Guardia Act, which outlawed the practice of requiring prospective employees not to join a labor union as a condition of employment (the so-called yellow-dog contract) and greatly limited the use of court injunctions against strikes.

A staunch supporter of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, Norris sponsored the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933. In appreciation, the TVA Norris Dam and a new planned city in Tennessee were named after him.[3][4] Norris was also the prime Senate mover behind the Rural Electrification Act that brought electrical service to under-served and unserved rural areas across the United States.

Switching to the Democratic Party in 1936 when the Republicans fell into the minority, Norris generally supported New Deal efforts but did not fear to oppose ideas he found unworthy, regardless their source or party connection.  His opposition to President Franklin Roosevelt’s “court packing” plan helped smother the idea.  Norris finally lost election in 1942.  Norris is one of eight U.S. senators profiled in John F. Kennedy’s book, Profiles in Courage.

2 Responses to Chess games of the rich and famous: House Speaker Joe Cannon vs. Congress

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Link where appropriate; just give credit where due.

    I have some divergent views on some of the issues you highlight. Good discussion is good discussion, though.

    (Readers: Chris Cannon is a former Utah Congressman; I doubt we agree on much, but it will be interesting to watch his website and see where it goes.)


  2. Chris Cannon says:

    I just bumped into this blog. Thanks!
    Take a look at my very rough website It’s a rough, preliminary site we will improve very soon, but I’d like to link to this blog. Please let me know if you are ok with that.
    Chris Cannon



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