Joseph Gurney Cannon

Joseph Gurney Cannon (1836-1926) was the American politician whose arbitrary, often dictatorial, methods as Speaker of the House gave rise to the term "Cannonism."

Joseph Cannon was born in Guilford, N.C., on May 7, 1836, of old English and Huguenot stock. He grew up in Annapolis, Ind., studied 6 months at the Cincinnati Law School, and entered practice in Shelbyville, Ill., in 1858. He married Mary P. Reed in 1862.

A brilliant stump speaker in a racy, colloquial way, Cannon liked to pose as an untutored countryman. "I am," he said," one of the great army of mediocrity which constitutes the majority." More a standpatter than a reactionary, he was also a spoilsman, a protectionist, and an unqualified nationalist. "This country," he sometimes expostulated, is one "hell of a success."

After a long stint as an Illinois attorney general, Cannon was elected to Congress in 1872 and remained until 1923, except for the congresses of 1891-1893 and 1913-1915. He was known as "the hayseed member from Illinois," "foulmouthed Joe," and, in later life, "Uncle Joe," He served 8 years as chairman of the Committee on Appropriations and 8 more as Speaker of the House, distinguishing himself in both posts for his high-handed geniality. In 1898, in a supreme moment of arrogance, he put through a $50,000,000 defense bill without consulting the other members of the Appropriations Committee.

Cannon had clashed with Theodore Roosevelt when the latter was civil service commissioner, and he was personally unsympathetic to much of the program of Roosevelt as president. Yet Cannon supported Roosevelt loyally until midway through the President's second administration. Cannon let some measures pass without opposing them, modified others, and worked to secure the enactment of still others. In 1906 he aided the passage of a number of reforms, including the Pure Food and Drug Bill. Conversely, his unwillingness to compromise on tariffs was largely responsible for the President's decision to abandon plans to reduce them. Holding that the government should spend "not one cent for scenery," Cannon fought Roosevelt's conservation program.

As Roosevelt became more progressive, Cannon parted with him completely. He fought bitterly and openly during Roosevelt's last 2 years in office, and in 1912 he was one of four Republicans to support consideration of an anti-third-term resolution aimed at Roosevelt. Cannon's relations with President William Howard Taft, whom he charged with being too nonpartisan, were bad from the beginning. Cannon's criticism of the tariff reciprocity treaty with Canada, the President complained, was "the lowest politics I have ever seen in Congress."

Cannon's power derived from the strength of his personality and from his control of the House Committee on Rules, which had authority to appoint all other House committees. He became increasingly arbitrary as he aged, and in 1910 George W. Norris of Nebraska pushed through a resolution which stripped him of his seat on the Rules Committee and provided for election of the committee by the House. An effort to declare the speakership vacant failed, however, and Cannon continued in that position until 1911.

Defeated for reelection to Congress in 1912, Cannon was returned to office in 1914. Though the former bitterness gradually passed, he was never again a powerful factor in the House. He reluctantly voted for entrance into World War I in 1917 and scornfully attacked the League of Nations in 1919. He retired from Congress in 1923 and died on Nov. 12, 1926.

Further Reading on Joseph Gurney Cannon

A political biography of Cannon is William R. Gwinn, Uncle Joe Cannon, Archfoe of Insurgency: A History of the Rise and Fall of Cannonism (1957). Blair Bolles, Tyrant from Illinois: Uncle Joe Cannon's Experiment with Personal Power (1951), concentrates on Cannon as Speaker of the House. Richard Lowitt, George W. Norris: The Making of a Progressive, 1861-1912 (1963), offers the most authoritative account of the stripping of Cannon's power. L. White Busbey, Uncle Joe Cannon: The Story of a Pioneer American… (1927), is a discursive reminiscence by Cannon's private secretary.

Additional Biography Sources

Bolles, Blair, Tyrant from Illinois; Uncle Joe Cannon's experiment with personal power, Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press 1974, 1951.