Vol. 41, No. 4, September 2000

Why Did Speaker Henderson Resign? The Page 799 Mystery is Solved

Forest Maltzman and Eric Lawrence,
George Washington University

Joseph Cannon
Congressional scholars almost uniformly claim that Speaker Joseph Cannon (R-Ill) was the most powerful speaker in U.S. history. Reams have been written about the exploits of Czar Cannon and his strong-armed ways of treating friends and foes in the House, a style that enraged Democrats and Republicans alike and earned the infamous label of Cannonism.

Despite political scientists' and historians' preoccupation with the Cannon regime, few realize that, except for an accident of history, Cannon might never have been elected speaker. On September 16, 1902, Cannon's predecessor as Speaker, David B. Henderson, made a surprise announcement, declining his party's unanimous nomination to be the Republican candidate for Iowa's third congressional district.

Had Henderson run successfully for re-election, Cannon might never have become Speaker and the revolt against Cannon that inaugurated the modern speakership might never have occurred. Henderson's abrupt decision to retire at the height of his political career made Cannon's rise to power possible.

So why did Henderson retire? The New York Times reported that his decision to step down was such "a surprise in Washington . . . that most of those who heard the news refused to credit it at first." Weeks of speculation ensued. Although Henderson claimed that disagreement with his constituents over tariff policy drove his resignation, few pundits at the time accepted his explanation.

The Times speculated that Henderson had discovered that "prohibitionists were going to fight him and wipe out his majority," that "Representatives Babcock and Hull were going to challenge him," and that "the Democrats were going to assail his personal character."

Like the Times, scholars have been reluctant to accept Henderson's explanation at face value. Willard Hoing speculated in 1957 that Henderson may have resigned because of electoral concerns, because "Mrs. Henderson . . . never enjoyed public life," or "he had been troubled with insomnia. . . ." Although he stopped short of attributing the resignation to a sleep disorder, Donald Kennon in 1986 asserted that "A painful series of leg operations had impaired his mental capacity." (Henderson, a Civil War hero, lost his left foot and part of his leg in the battle of Corinth.)

In Forge of Democracy, Neil MacNeil reported that Henderson resigned after serving only two terms and left town to avoid being killed by a member of the Senate who was upset that Henderson "had had an improper relationship with the senator's daughter." Without evidence, students of the Henderson speakership have been reluctant to credit any of these claims. Indeed, not a single scholarly article on the Henderson speakership has been published in a history or political science journal that cites any of these works on this point.

So the reason for his abrupt decision has remained a mystery. This is in part because House historians are diverted from the Henderson era (1899-1903) by the more salient reign of his predecessor Speaker Thomas Reed (R-Maine) and his successor Joseph Cannon. In the one hundred years since Henderson retired, no books and only one article have been written on his tenure. Hoing's 1957 piece, so far as we can tell, has never been cited in any scholarly article (until now).

In 1969, Nelson W. Polsby, along with Miriam Gallaher and Barry Rundquist, revived interest in Henderson's resignation. In a piece in the American Political Science Review, they noted that "Cannon became Speaker after Speaker Henderson, also a Republican, for somewhat mysterious reasons decided to retire from Congress" (1969, 799). Polsby and his co-authors knew that the mystery behind Henderson's resignation had never been resolved, but felt this was important enough to highlight in a piece that had to do with Cannon's speakership, not Henderson's.

Thanks to the Republican landslide in 1994 and the assistance of Kenneth Kato of the national archives, we are happy to report that the page 799 mystery has been solved. During a 1996 tour of the National Archives, Kato pointed out a wooden chest saying that we would find it interesting. The chest bore Speaker Cannon's home address in Illinois. When we asked about the contents, Kato replied that he could only tell us about the origins of the chest. Until it was clear that the archives had authority over the chest, he could neither discuss nor reveal its contents.

Kato explained that when a member of Congress retired, House carpenters built a chest to ship the members' personal papers home. Although most of Cannon's papers were donated to the Illinois State Historical Library, this chest never made it. Cannon had for some reason stored it with the House Committee on Appropriations.

When the Republicans won control of the House in 1994, they converted some of the storage cages in the attic of the Cannon House Office Building into offices for the Democratic leadership. In December 1994, a staffer for the Appropriations panel found the chest in the back of their cage. Recognizing its historical value, the staffer alerted the Office of House Historian Ray Smock, who retrieved the chest, and delivered it to the loading docks at the rear of the archives. Pressed on the contents, Kato told us that it could not be opened as it was unclear whether the chest and its contents belonged to the House, the Republican Conference, or the Cannon estate.

Believing there was a reasonable chance that Cannon had intentionally withheld the chest, we began a quiet but vigorous campaign to open the chest. Michael Gillette, director of the Center for Legislative Archives, suggested that we secure the permission of the Speaker's Office to gain access to the chest. Our letters to the Speaker's Office and the new House Historian were ignored; we contacted the Clerk of the House.

We explained the situation to Robin Carle, the House Clerk and pointed out that every member of Congress who had served during Cannon's Speakership was dead and argued that history required the opening of the chest. Carle agreed to take the matter up with the Speaker's Office, and on October 16, 1997, we were informed that we could examine the materials in the chest.

The chest was a gold mine. In it were the notebooks assembled by Cannon's staff to assist him in assigning members to committees, records from his campaign for Speaker at the start of the 58th Congress (1903-05), and lists of members who had supported or opposed him during his reign in the 61st (1909-11).

The contents were politically sensitive at the time, and thus understandably separated from the rest of Cannon's papers. The materials have been critical to our ongoing project on Cannon's exercise of institutional power. Most importantly, the chest contained a smoking gun: a letter from the former House clerk, Henry H. Smith, to Joseph Cannon that enabled us to solve the page 799 mystery.

On September 19, 1902, before the start of the 58th Congress, Smith had written to Cannon that "there can be but one explanation of the reason for his action [the resignation] . . . they relate not alone to poker playing, but to 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 which I am sure you will recognize when I tell you the name."

Almost a hundred years after Henderson's brilliant political career came crashing to an end, Speaker Newt Gingrich shocked the political world with his sudden resignation. A deposition in his divorce proceedings suggested that the resignation might have been influenced by his affair with a House staffer. Shortly after Gingrich resigned, Speaker-in-waiting Bob Livingston stunned his colleagues by announcing that he, too, had once had an affair and would not stand as a candidate for Speaker. Subsequently, Dennis Hastert joined Joseph Cannon as only the second Republican member of Congress to be elected Speaker from Illinois.

Forrest Maltzman is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University. He orignally alluded to the page 799 mystery in a Harris Seminar. Eric Lawrence is a visiting professor at George Washington . o

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