‘Nothing Could Exceed the Badness of His Character Even in This Bad Age’




Initially the model for the speakership of the US house of representatives could not but be drawn from Westminster, though the occupants of the chair in the Commons around the time of independence were not impressive. Not however till Henry Clay's election in 1812 was the American Speaker transformed into a partisan, politically-active leader of the House. The contemporary Commons Speaker, Manners Sutton, though he failed to be re-elected to the chair on political grounds, was not a party leader. Between Clay and the civil war the intensity of party conflict obscured the role of the Speaker, and minorities flourished. Speaker Reed in the 1880s believed in the rights of the majority and used the authority of the chair to promote them. He ended the practice of members delaying business by refusing to answer a roll-call though present, and he developed special rules to accelerate the progress of bills. About the same time, Speaker Brand in the Commons, in the face of Irish obstructionism, also reasserted the rights of the majority by introducing the closure, to which guillotines were later added. Reed's authoritarianism broke in the hands of Speaker Cannon in 1909–10 as progressive members of his party rebelled. By then the Commons speakership had entered a period of complete political neutrality. Speakers O'Neill and Gingrich in the last quarter of the 20th century regained much of the power and authority which Cannon's speakership had lost.