At the start of 1910, conservative Republicans dominated the U.S. House of Representatives. The Senate, also solidly Republican, was widely perceived as beholden to special interests working their will on state legislatures, to which the Constitution had entrusted the job of choosing U.S. senators. The president was William Howard Taft, the latest in a long line of post-Civil War Republicans in the White House, broken only by the Democrat Grover Cleveland.
Two years later, that seemingly impregnable citadel lay in ruins. Gone was the Republican majority in the House, along with its stand-pat speaker, Joseph Cannon. In the process of being swept away by constitutional amendment was the old way of electing senators. Denied a second term was Taft, partly because of his political ineptitude, but also courtesy of the juggernaut driven by the man he’d succeeded, Theodore Roosevelt, whose third-party candidacy split the 1912 Republican vote and gave the election to the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. Even the judicial branch seemed ripe for change; on the campaign trail, Roosevelt had mooted another possible constitutional amendment, one to recall judges who made unpopular decisions. As Michael Wolraich argues in his sharp, streamlined new book, “Unreasonable Men,” it was “the greatest period of political change in American history.”
Besides Roosevelt, the unreasonable men of Wolraich’s title include Sen. Robert La Follette (Wis.), a progressive Republican who regularly introduced bills that had no chance of being passed as written, and then held firm. He would speak out in favor of his position whenever and wherever he could, and wait for the country to catch up — as it sometimes did. When Roosevelt made his third-party run, he borrowed a host of ideas from La Follette and other progressive members of Congress: “tariff overhaul, workmen’s compensation, child labor laws, direct Senate elections, voter referendums and recalls, minimum wages, maximum workweeks, workplace safety regulations, physical valuation of all corporations, graduated income and inheritance taxes, environmental conservation, and public disclosure of campaign donations.”
On the other side stood Cannon, who was nowhere near as accommodating as his nickname, “Uncle Joe,” might suggest. (He is, by the way, the Cannon after whom a House office building is named.) Wolraich is at his lucid best in explaining the parliamentary maneuvers by which Cannon was outsmarted in 1910, and a close look at the fracas will help explain why frustrated voters resorted to such maneuvers as the initiative and the recall to circumvent their elected representatives.
Actually, Cannon outsmarted himself. A year earlier, he reluctantly agreed to a diminution of his influence over the Rules Committee and, hence, of his role as arbiter of which bills reached the House floor. Called “Calendar Wednesday,” the concession allowed lawmakers to bring up bills for consideration, in a specified order, without the Rules Committee’s approval. Calendar Wednesday, in other words, was a safety valve. Cannon didn’t like it one bit, and at the same time he underestimated the festering resentment of his autocratic ways, not to mention the growing nationwide hunger for change. One Wednesday, when a colleague from Cannon’s home state of Illinois sought to bring up an innocuous bill to amend the census law, the speaker swung into action.
Citing the fact that the census is mandated by the Constitution, Cannon ruled his colleague’s bill privileged; then, like a gatekeeper at an exclusive nightclub, Cannon waved the bill to the head of the line. (You didn’t have to be a visionary to foresee the speaker making a habit of this, putting constitutional halos on bills he favored, leaving them off bills he opposed.) The next day, Rep. George Norris (Neb.) rose to say that he, too, wanted to bring up a bill privileged under the Constitution. Norris’s bill struck at the heart of Cannon’s power: It would strip the speaker of his ability to appoint members to the Rules Committee and would transfer it to the House at large. Sorry, not privileged, ruled the Cannon ally presiding over the House, meaning that the bill would have to bide its time, perhaps forever. Nonsense, Norris replied: Article I, Section 5, Paragraph 2 of the Constitution empowers the House to set its own rules of procedure: “I submit, Mr. Speaker, if the action of the House just had makes a census bill privileged because of the Constitution, then any proposition to amend the rules must be privileged by virtue of that same instrument.”
As Wolraich sums up: “Cannon was caught in a trap of his own making. In trying to open a way for the Speaker to bypass the rules on Calendar Wednesday, he had inadvertently opened a way for any Congressman to bypass the Speaker on any other day. Norris simply walked through the door that Cannon had opened.” Cannon bobbed and weaved as best he could, but ultimately a majority of the House sided with Norris, and his rule change went into effect. Cannon remained speaker a little longer, but “the insurgents’ victory in the rules fight had revealed that he was coasting on the fumes of a dying order. The enormous power that he had wielded . . . would never return — not to him or to any of his successors.”
“Unreasonable Men” invites comparison with another book on the same era, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.” Wolraich pays relatively little attention to muckraking journalism, whereas Goodwin’s long, impassioned account of that phenomenon is the best thing in her book. Goodwin devotes ample space to the roles played in Roosevelt’s and Taft’s careers by their wives — a subject that concerns Wolraich hardly at all. But Goodwin neglects the process by which the progressive agenda became legislative reality; for example, she covers the emasculation of Cannon in a single paragraph. As for the two books’ treatment of the tumultuous 1912 presidential campaign, I would call it a tossup.
Unfortunately, neither Goodwin nor Wolraich has much to say about the most puzzling of all the changes wrought in those years: the 17th Amendment, the one that took election of senators away from state legislatures and gave it directly to the people. If, as almost everyone seemed to agree at the time, state legislatures were essentially on robber barons’ payrolls, where did those legislatures find the strength to ratify an amendment stripping themselves of the ability to do the barons’ bidding? Especially today, with some conservatives calling for a repeal of the 17th Amendment, both authors would have done well to explain just how this landmark reform was achieved.
One last point: At 900-plus pages, “The Bully Pulpit” is almost as fat a book as Taft was a president, while “Unreasonable Men” weighs in at a trim 310 pages and costs $12 less. If I had to choose between them, I would go with “Unreasonable Men.”
Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics
By Michael Wolraich
Palgrave Macmillan. 310 pp. $28