–by Joanna Hallac and Lauren Borchard
Every year, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society presents its Freedom Award, “To recognize and honor individuals and organizations who have advanced greater public understanding and appreciation for freedom as represented by the U.S. Capitol and Congress…This award, named for the statue that graces the Capitol’s Dome, is presented annually in recognition of the dedication of recipients to freedom, democracy and representative government.”
This year’s recipients are Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and Representative John Dingell (D-MI), both of whom are currently the longest-serving members of their respective chambers in Congress. In reflecting on this ceremony, which takes place tonight, November 17, we decided to take a closer look at a few other memorable long-serving members of Congress. Enjoy!
(Nov. 18 addendum: C-SPAN covered the award presentation live. Click here to watch the broadcast.)
Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC)
James Strom Thurmond was born in Edgefield, South Carolina on December 5, 1902, and prior to serving in the United States Senate, he had a varied and interesting succession of careers, including: public high school teacher; Superintendent of Education in Edgefield, SC; became a lawyer and served as a city and county attorney; member of the SC State Senate; circuit court judge; Major General in the US Army Reserve during WWII, serving in both Europe and the Pacific; Governor of South Carolina; and unsuccessful presidential candidate for the States Rights party.
Thurmond’s life before becoming one of the longest-serving Senators in American history was clearly very rich and filled with many experiences that would serve to shape his political and personal views on a number of key issues. For instance, his service in the Army during WWII in both the European and Pacific theaters, for which he won the Bronze Star and the Croix de Guerre, helped solidify his life-long commitment to supporting the Army during his tenure in the Senate.
Strom Thurmond (Congressinal Bioguide)
Thurmond attained national prominence when he ran for the presidency in 1948, well before he began in the Senate. This candidacy came after Hubert Humphrey (the mayor of Minneapolis at the time) called on the Democratic Party to embrace a civil rights platform at the Democratic convention, leading several southern states to walk out. With Thurmond at the helm, they began a separate effort to capture the presidency by winning enough southern electoral votes to force a vote in the House of Representatives to decide the winner of the election. Despite Thurmond getting 1.1 million popular votes and 38 electoral votes, Truman still emerged the victor; however, his candidacy that year began the shift of white southerners away from the Democratic Party, a process that was continued in 1964 when most Southern Democrats switched to the Republican Party, including Thurmond.
While Strom Thurmond was already a nationally recognized figure, he had yet to land in the chamber where he would spend over 47 years of his life. So how did Thurmond get to the Senate? Not the way you would expect. After an unsuccessful run at a seat in 1950, he was able to win as a write-in candidate—still as a Democrat, at this point—after the sitting senator, Burnet R. Maybank, died two days before the deadline for certifying the Democratic Party’s nominee. The South Carolina Democratic Committee decided not to hold another primary and instead chose a candidate to back, one of Thurmond’s political rivals. Thurmond used their choice to his advantage and was able to win the write-in vote and thus the election. As he promised the voters, Thurmond resigned in 1956 to open the primary for any person to oppose him. Nobody did, and he returned to the Senate in the fall of 1956 and stayed there until 2003, the year he passed away at the age of 100, having been the oldest person to ever serve in Congress.
Strom Thurmond was probably best known for his opposition to integration and civil rights—not to mention the fact that he fathered an out-of-wedlock daughter with a biracial woman, much to the surprise of all who knew his views on race and race relations—which was most notably highlighted by his record-breaking one-man filibuster of a bill that would create a civil rights commission and a civil rights division in the Justice Department, outlaw efforts to prevent people from voting in federal elections, and allow the attorney general to file lawsuits as a means to stop discrimination in education, voting, and other areas. Thurmond began speaking at 8:54pm on August 28, 1957 and kept going until 9:12pm the next day—it is said that he took steam baths prior to undertaking this effort to avoid having to take bathroom breaks. Despite all of this, the bill would pass two hours after Thurmond ended his filibuster, the first civil rights legislation the Senate had passed since 1875.
In the 1970s, Thurmond began to see the writing on the wall, especially with significant black population in his own state, and started to change his views and his ways. He was actually the first Southerner senator to hire a black aide in 1971, demonstrating how much of a political pragmatist he was and how willing he was to make big adjustments when necessary. Finally, on November 19, 2002, Senator Thurmond presided over the Senate one last time, speaking his last words in the Senate: “The Senate stands adjourned…that’s all.”
Representative Joseph “Uncle Joe” Cannon, Speaker of the House (R-IL)
Perhaps no person in American history has been more controversial in the role of Speaker than that of “Uncle Joe” Cannon, who was born in Guilford County, North Carolina in 1836 but represented Illinois. A lawyer who would become a prosecutor, a post he was asked to maintain during the Civil War by the governor of Illinois, Cannon’s first run for the House came in a failed bid in 1870, though he ran successfully in 1872. Cannon was definitely not known as a brilliant legislator but was a fiercely loyal party member. Despite a failed run at the Speakership in 1888 against Thomas “Czar” Reed of Maine, as a member of the Rules Committee and the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee he was still a key lieutenant of Reed’s and a very powerful member in his own right. With Reed’s resignation and the Republicans retaking the House in 1902, Cannon ascended to the Speakership in 1903 beginning a very controversial and memorable tenure that would transform both the role of the Speaker and the House Rules Committee forever.
Cannon became the first Speaker since 1861 to meet on a regular basis with the president, (Teddy Roosevelt at this point), which demonstrated the power that Cannon held within the House. Cannon was very opposed to many of the progressive inclinations of Roosevelt and proved to be a major challenge to much of President Roosevelt’s agenda, but the two men found ways to work out their differences and have a relatively manageable working relationship. It was within the House of Representatives, not the White House, where the real trouble was brewing for Cannon.
"Joseph Cannon on his 88th birthday," 1924 (Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives)
Cannon’s tenure as Speaker was notable for a number of reasons, but mostly for how it ended. The growing displeasure from members of both parties was clear for all to see, best illustrated in the split between those members who wanted change—known as Insurgents—and those who, like Cannon, resisted it—known as Stalwarts. Cannon’s strength came from his dual role as Speaker and chairman of the Rules Committee, which allowed him to control what bills came to the floor of the House for votes. Cannon would also appoint his followers to other important committee chairmanships and control the number of members on committees to better serve his interests. For all intents and purposes, Speaker Cannon practiced absolute rule over the House and its business, and a disgruntled group of congressmen, intent on seeing things change in the House, knew the only road to change came by getting rid of Cannon.
The coup within the House that eventually spelled the end of Cannon’s speakership began to take shape in early 1909, led by Congressman George Norris, a Republican from Nebraska. The Insurgents in the House introduced a number of resolutions designed to reduce the power of the speaker by ending his ability to appoint committee chairs and members, but none of them went anywhere. Cannon and the Stalwarts continued to counter the efforts of the Insurgents, so the Insurgents knew they had to go much further if they were to succeed. The opportunity finally presented itself on March 7, 1910, when George Norris rose to offer a resolution that he claimed was privileged by the Constitution. This move was in response to a ruling the Speaker himself had made the previous day that if a resolution was constitutionally privileged then it could bypass the Rules Committee and go immediately to the floor for a vote. Norris saw the opening that was presented to him and took it. He had in his pocket a resolution to change the rules of the House, and he took it out and waited for Cannon. After a brief pause, Cannon allowed Norris to read it. This moment was the beginning of the end for Cannonism. Norris’s resolution proposed to increase the Rules Committee membership to fifteen members that would reflect a geographic distribution, as well as proposing the committee choose its own chairman. Lastly, it proposed that the speaker would not be allowed to sit as a member of the Rules Committee at all, a major blow to Cannon. After a long debate over a point of order that the resolution was not privileged, the Speaker ruled to pass the point of order and that Norris’s resolution was not, in fact, privileged. The House Democrats then did something unusual and stunning: they appealed the speaker’s motion. This forced a vote of the whole House, which voted to overrule the speaker by a count of 182 to 162…Uncle Joe’s iron-fisted rule had finally come to an end.
Speaker Cannon, for whom the Cannon House Office Building is named, came to power during a period in the House in which leadership was incredibly strong. The power that had been concentrated in the speakership became too far-reaching and prevented the House from operating the way it was meant to, and changes had to be made. In large part due to Cannonism, the Republicans would lose control of the House in the 1910 midterm elections and handed over the Speaker’s gavel in March 1911. Uncle Joe continued to serve in the House until 1923, when he retired at the age of 87. He passed away three years after that, bringing an end to a life that would be forever synonymous with power in the House of Representatives.
Other long-serving members
We’ve gone on long enough about Thurmond and Cannon, so just a couple of brief notes about some other long-serving members of Congress:
Sam Rayburn (D-TX), for whom the newest House Office Building is named, served over 48 years in the House, including about 20 years as speaker. When he died in 1961, he held the record for the longest continuous service in the House. Rayburn supported both John Nance Garner and FDR’s New Deal early in his career; later, he repaid his political mentors by taking other young members of Congress under his wing, including LBJ. He was famous for his personal integrity, refusing lobbyists’ money with regularity.
Another New Deal Democrat, Robert Byrd (WV), had a more controversial tenure, but earned a similar respect from colleagues for his knowledge of the Senate and its rules. Like Thurmond, Byrd was dogged with criticism over his early involvement with the Ku Klux Klan, which he strongly repudiated later in life, and his inconsistent record on civil rights legislation. Byrd was willing to work across the aisle, able to change positions that became untenable over time or as his viewpoints changed, and famously shameless about bringing projects and money to West Virginia. When he died in 2010, Byrd was the longest-serving member of Congress, having been in the House for six years and the Senate for 51, and was beloved for his defense of the Senate and Congress as institutions.
Strom Thurmond: NY Times obituary
Joe Cannon: The House by Robert Remini and Masters of the House edited by Davidson, Hammond, and Smock
Sam Rayburn: Famous Texans website
Robert Byrd: NY Times obituary