Henderson, David Bremner

David Bremner HendersonDavid Bremner Henderson (1840-1906) served as Speaker of the House of Representatives for the 56th and 57th Congresses—which included President Theodore Roosevelt’s first term—until Henderson’s surprise resignation in 1903.

The Henderson family emigrated from Scotland to the United States when Dave, as he was known, was six years old. From Illinois the Hendersons settled “Henderson’s Prairie” in Fayette County in eastern Iowa. Henderson attended Upper Iowa University but left school—as did his two older brothers—to fight for the Union during the Civil War. He enlisted in September of 1861. Henderson was twice wounded in battle. As a result, his foot, and possibly more of his leg was amputated, necessitating the use of a crutch. He was discharged from the army in 1863. Henderson married Augusta Fox, whom he had met at Upper Iowa University, in 1866. The couple settled in Dubuque, Iowa, where they raised three children. He worked as an attorney from 1868 until he began his political career as a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1882 when he won election to the 48th Congress.

In 1889, Henderson became the 39th Speaker of the House. When he picked up the gavel, Henderson was the first and only Iowan to be Speaker. He was also the first Speaker from west of the Mississippi River, the second Speaker born outside the United States, and the last to have fought in the Civil War. He was considered a fine orator whose top priority was veterans’ issues. He took over the position from the powerful Thomas B. Reed of Maine, and unlike Reed’s, Henderson’s speakership was relatively tranquil.

Even though Roosevelt wished for greater Progressive proclivities from Henderson, the two men worked well enough together. Thus, Henderson’s announcement, on September 16, 1902, shocked the country. He stated that he would not accept the Republican Party’s unanimous re-nomination to Speaker. Newspapers suggested that he might lose his majority in Congress or face a party divided on the tariff issue. Others believed that his health was the reason, as the amputations to his leg continued to trouble him. Later, scholars put forth motives that ranged from chronic insomnia to Mrs. Henderson’s dislike of public life.

More ominously, however, on September 20, 1902, the New York Times hinted that “Democrats were going to assail his personal character.” In 1963, historian Neil MacNeil wrote, in his Forge of Democracy: The House of Representatives, that Henderson was embroiled in an inappropriate relationship with a senator’s daughter—and that the senator had threatened to kill him because of it. Thirty years after MacNeil’s sensational suggestion, the discovery of papers belonging to Rep. Joseph Cannon provided more information. House clerk Henry H. Smith wrote to Cannon on September 19, 1902: "there can be but one explanation of the reason for [Henderson’s] action [of resigning]…his alleged intimacy with a certain ‘lobbyess’ who is reported to have some written evidence that would greatly embarrass the Speaker….He seemed to have lost all control of himself and become reckless….This is not mere guesswork at all but private and reliable information…."1

It is impossible to know whether Roosevelt had heard of the alleged illicit relationship or the threat of blackmail. The president, however, wrote the former speaker a congratulatory note on March 3, 1904, wishing him well, “wherever your future may lead you.” Henderson lived only until February 26, 1906. Joseph Cannon of Illinois succeeded him as Speaker of the House of Representatives. For Roosevelt, Cannon would prove to be both more powerful and less tractable than Speaker Henderson.

1 "A Mystery Solved: Why Did Speaker Henderson Resign?", Maltzman, Forest, and Eric Lawrence, accessed at http://faculty.georgetown.edu/wilcoxc/henderson.pdf, June 4, 2018