When Larry Rueff told me about Joseph “Uncle Joe” Cannon and I began checking him out, I became fascinated with him and the years he was in power. He served in the House of Representatives and as Speaker for more than most men. Even today, some historians consider him to be the most dominant Speaker in United States history. He had so much control that it has been said and recorded that he could control any debate.
Of course, what really caught Larry’s and my attention was what was it that brought Speaker Joseph Cannon to Greensburg to speak at the Odd Fellows Hall that was at that time on the west side of the Courthouse Square in September 1906.
Cannon was born in North Carolina, but when he was about 4 years old his family moved to Indiana; within a few years, they moved to Illinois. So it was that Cannon came to be known as the “Tyrant from Illinois.” Imagine the current Speaker coming to Greensburg and it’s not hard to imagine Cannon here.
From what I can figure out, many people thought he was a great Speaker until he got either too old or been in power way too long. He then started to get way too controlling. Reading what others have written or said about him, I gather that he was respected until what has been referred to as a revolution took the power of Uncle Joe away for good.
It was members of his own party that forced the change. He had Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft avoiding any confrontation with him. In fact, before he left office Roosevelt suggested that Taft avoid confronting Uncle Joe. Some members of the House and Senate also tried to get along with him, but there were some in both parties that wanted him gone.
As Uncle Joe got older some of the elected people got more than just tired of him. Senator Bob LaFollette and the progressive members of his party couldn’t challenge Uncle Joe directly or even speak on the House floor without his permission, so they just waited until the right time came along when they thought they had enough to force a vote.
It happened in 1910, and the revolt against Uncle Joe is said to be “one of the most dramatic and momentous political insurgencies in American history.” It turned out that it was really started by Rep. George Norris from Nebraska, who had been dismissed by Cannon when he wanted to serve on the Judiciary Committee. Cannon dismissed Norris as a newcomer who first needed to get a reputation.
Norris waited to get his revenge and was determined to challenge Cannon. He figured that if he just waited he was convinced that an opportunity would one day present itself. Norris never missed a session of the House, and the opportunity came on St. Patrick’s Day when more than 100 members of the House were not there.
It has been called a true revolution. Writer George Galloway wrote that “Cannon’s leadership had grown too arbitrary and his conduct had become too pronounced to be ignored. The vote was 42 votes from Cannon’s own party and 149 from the opposing party.”
George R. Brown described the event like this: “As Mr. Cannon’s gavel fell, an epoch in the long and brilliant history of the American House of Representatives came to an end.” Cannon insisted that he had done nothing wrong and refused to resign saying, “A resignation is a confession of weakness or mistakes made.”
About half a century later, Senator John F. Kennedy chose Norris as one of his “Profiles in Courage.” Kennedy said the revolt was against a power that placed party above all other considerations, a power that fed on party loyalty, patronage and political organizations.
Uncle Joe Cannon’s picture was on the first Time magazine.
I was unable to find out why such a powerful man as Speaker Joseph Cannon came to Decatur County to speak. One day I will. If you find out what brought him here, please let me know.
My thanks to Larry Rueff.