Cannon, Joseph Gurney

Joseph Gurney Cannon (1836-1926) was the influential Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives during most of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. “Uncle Joe” Cannon’s authoritarian reign as Speaker conflicted with Roosevelt’s desires to promote progressive legislation.

Cannon was born in Guilford, North Carolina, but his parents, Gulielma Hollingsworth and physician Horace F. Cannon, moved the family to Indiana when Joe was four. After his father’s death, Joe Cannon apprenticed himself to an attorney and then studied at the Cincinnati Law School. He gained admittance to the Illinois bar in 1858, the year that Theodore Roosevelt was born. As the Civil War began, Cannon became the Illinois State’s attorney, an office he held until 1868. He married Mary Reed in 1862, practiced law, and fathered two daughters until winning election in 1873 to the United States House of Representatives. Thus began one of the longest-serving careers in House history. Cannon, representing the “stand-pat” conservative Republicans who favored high protective tariffs and a minimum of meddling with business, rose to Speaker in 1903.

Although they were both Republicans, Cannon and Roosevelt disagreed substantially on the role of Congress. The President believed the federal government should curtail the excesses of American industries, especially when they valued profit more than the safety of American workers. Roosevelt was an enthusiastic conservationist, but Cannon famously dismissed environmental concerns saying he would spend “not one cent on scenery.” Cannon’s autocratic control of the House originated in his firm control of floor debates, committee assignments, and the flow of bills. In 1910, younger Republicans, including Roosevelt’s son-in-law Nicholas Longworth (R-OH), challenged but did not break Cannon’s power over the House. By 1912, when Roosevelt created the Progressive Party challenge to the Republicans, Cannon was defeated for reelection. He returned to the House in 1914 as World War I began. Like Roosevelt, Cannon was critical of President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations. Cannon retired in 1923 and died in Illinois, age 90, on November 12, 1926. The Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D. C. is named for him.