We Could Use a Man Like Uncle Joe Again: Speaker Cannon Would Have Been Popular This Year

Inauguration Day, March 4, 1921. President Woodrow Wilson leaves the White House for the last time with Senator Warren Harding (R-OH), Rep. Joe Cannon (R-IL) and Senator Philander Knox (R-PA). Cannon was 84, but would outlive both Presidents Wilson and Harding.


Rep. Joseph Cannon (R-IL) was a vigorous foe of government spending, taxes, deficits and liberal legislation. He certainly would have approved of today’s Tea Party movement. Both his critics and admirers referred to him as Uncle Joe, which was the title of his autobiography. He was the most powerful Speaker in the history of the House of Representatives, and held that office from 1903 until 1911.
At the same time he served as Chairman of the Rules Committee. Legislation approved in committees would never make to the House floor if Cannon was opposed. If a bill included new spending measures, Uncle Joe’s opposition was often automatic.
The seniority system was not used in those days, and the Speaker was also able to control legislation by appointing all committee chairmen and members. Leaders of the so-called progressive era said they were consistently thwarted by “Cannonism,” which meant Congressional intransigence.
Uncle Joe was first elected in 1872 and served on Capitol Hill for 48 years. It was a record which remained unbroken until 1958. Despite his years of service, he only introduced one bill and it was a minor matter concerning post offices in 1874. He told one opponent, “The country does not need any legislation.”
Cannon was Chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee for eight years. He explained his job by saying: “You may think my work is to make appropriations, but it is not. It is to prevent them from being made.”

  • For six years the Speaker was successful in stopping passage of personal, corporate and inheritance taxes. He said income taxes were unnecessary because the government had sufficient revenues from tariffs. Democrats and liberal Republicans were in favor of a 2% income tax, but Cannon questioned how long that rate would stay in effect.
    The Senate enacted the income tax several times, but the Speaker was always able to defeat it until his last term. His effort to amend the income tax so it would expire after two years was not successful. Despite his opposition, the House passed the 16th Amendment to the Constitution establishing an income tax on July 12, 1909, and it bears Cannon’s signature.
  • Cannon always battled liberal Republicans, and referred to himself as a staunch conservative. He said President Theodore Roosevelt, a fellow Republican but a progressive, had “no more use for the Constitution than a tomcat has for a marriage license.”
  • On April 6, 1917, the House of Representatives debated a resolution to declare war on Germany. The Constitution had not yet been amended to grant women the right to vote, but several states had already done so. Freshman Rep. Jeannette Rankin (R-MT) remained silent throughout the roll call on America’s entry into World War I, and was planning not to vote.
    The clerk was calling the roll for the final time when former Speaker Cannon appeared at her side and said, “You represent the women of the country in the American Congress. I shall not advise you how to vote, but you should vote one way or another.”
    Rankin made up her mind and was one of 50 lawmakers to vote no. She was defeated in the next election and did not return to the House for 22 years. On December 8, 1941, she became the only lawmaker to vote against World War II, and was promptly defeated once again.
  • In 1923, the year Cannon left the House, Time magazine put him on the cover of its first issue. Cannon had been chairman of the committee whose work resulted in construction of the first office building for lawmakers. It opened in 1908, and in 1962 it was renamed the Cannon House Office Building.

The former Speaker died at the age of 90 in 1926, and if you want to learn more see Tyrant From Illinois: Uncle Joe Cannon’s Experiment With Personal Power by Blair Bolles (1951), or his autobiography, Uncle Joe Cannon, (1927).

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