Sunday, January 2, 2011

The 65th War Congress, 1917-1919

Hanging on the wall above my office computer is a large framed photograph with hundreds of images of congressmen (and one woman) from 1917 to 1919. Entitled “House of Representatives—65th War Congress USA,” this artifact features members encircling Speaker Champ Clark in a large oval shape.

The photograph, complete with water stained edges, was purchased at a local antique show, and it has proven to be a smart purchase as such things go. There is a daily two-way “interaction” between these politicos and me; while they stare down, I look back and speculate on their careers, motivations and even their fears making key decisions during the Great War.

One of the first duties of the 65th Congress was declaring war against Germany in April 1917. It also monitored and supported the war effort; passed legislation on sabotage, espionage and sedition; and nervously restricted immigration. All this for a Congress elected with Woodrow Wilson whose 1916 re-election slogan was: “He kept us out of war.”

The organization of this House was peculiar. The Republicans had a 215-214 edge over the Democrats but there were four other party affiliations, including one Socialist, which were enough to allow the minority Democrats to control the chamber and re-elect Missouri’s Clark as Speaker. See:

Interesting, too, was that Congress had two non-voting resident commissioners from the Philippines; this congressional presence lasted for 39 years up until the Philippines achieved independence in 1946.

Clark was perhaps the most prominent member of that body. In fact, he was the early leader for the presidential nomination at the 1912 convention, eventually losing to Wilson. Given the eventual split among the Republicans, the Democratic nominee was likely to be elected President.

Among other notable figures in the House were seven future Speakers, most notably Nicholas Longworth, Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s husband and Theodore Roosevelt’s son-in-law; FDR’s first vice president, John Nance Garner; and Sam Rayburn, who ruled during World War II and was the longest-serving Speaker by a wide margin. The former autocratic Speaker Joseph Cannon also was there.

Future New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was part of the huge 43-member Empire State delegation (New York will be down to 27 members in 2013). Harry Truman’s vice president, Alben Barkley, was a third-term Kentucky congressman.

Perhaps the most intriguing member was Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first female to sit in either chamber. Elected to one other congressional term, the 77th Congress, Rankin was the sole representative to oppose the war resolutions for both world wars; she was, in fact, the only negative vote against the 1941 declaration.

These and the hundreds of others are part of a bygone political era, long before congressional ethics, enormous campaign spending and bitter personal invective in Washington. But it is only reasonable to assume that they reflected the range of character that we see today. How many were statesmen, straddlers and, alas, scoundrels?

Stray artifacts such as this photo show that history is all around us; that seemingly odd or everyday objects might encourage further research; and that history can be an interesting daily companion.

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