The Impeachment Trial of the President of the United States this week felt so historic at times that it seemed unprecedented. It felt that the country was facing a challenge to its democratic traditions unlike anything we’ve ever faced. However, our family history reminded us that the country has faced this political tyranny before, when one man wielded control over the White House and both houses of Congress due to Republicans not having the will to stand up to an American despot. It also reminded us that we can celebrate an ancestor who defeated that threat with a courage and sacrifice that seemed completely absent from today’s Republican Party.
Michael’s 2xGreat Grandfather Elmer Addison Morse was born and raised in the farming community of Franksville, WI but he was elected to Congress in 1906 as a Representative from Antigo, WI. E.A. (as he was known) was aligned with the Progressive wing of the Republican Party and was one of the founding members of the National Progressive Republican League along with Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette in 1911.
During Morse’s time in Congress, the main block to many Progressive reforms was the Republican Speaker of the House Joseph Gurney Cannon. “Uncle Joe” Cannon was a conservative Republican and led the “Old Guard/Stand Pat” wing of the Republican Party.
Gurney served as Speaker starting in 1903 and he amassed an unprecedented amount of power. He was not only Speaker, but he was also the chair of the House Rules Committee which determined how bills could be debated, amended, and voted upon. Bills couldn’t reach the floor unless Cannon approved of them, and he alone could determine what form they would take if they reached the floor for a vote. Additionally, he solely appointed all committee members, of both parties, which ensured that the blossoming group of Progressive Republicans were kept off of important committees and could leverage very little influence.
[E.A. Morse] was a part of a small group of Republicans that stood up for what was right and for what was best for the democratic institutions of this country. They did so at the risk of their political careers, and each House Progressive paid for their courage by losing their seats soon after their insurgency.
While Cannon was a key foe to Teddy Roosevelt, the election of William Howard Taft in 1908 led to Uncle Joe taking complete control of the Republican Party and thus dictating the actions of the Senate as well as the President.
In the 1908 Presidential election, the majority of Republicans (and all of the Progressives) ran on a platform of lowering tariffs. Protectionist tariffs had been passed years earlier, but since they were designed more to protect business interests than consumer interests, prices on key consumer items had skyrocketed. Cannon understood his power, and sensing that Taft was not as formidable as Roosevelt, he decided to break Taft of any Progressive leanings while crippling the Progressives. Against the wishes of almost the entire party, Cannon ensured that the 1909 Payne-Aldrich Tariff was signed into law.
The tariff bill was a thinly veiled punishment to those that challenged Cannon, and a threat to those that supported him, in a bid to ensure they continued that support.
Instead of the promised reduction of tariffs, Payne-Aldrich raised them on many of the 2000+ items listed. The few reductions were largely given out at political favors. The Republicans ultimately felt that failing to pass any tariff bill would be seen as a fiasco for the party, and they chose party above the relief they promised their constituents. Cannon recognized that and used it to bend the party to his will, and even many of the reformers (likely even our E.A.) fell in line and supported the bill.
Taft spun the bill that had been forced upon him by Cannon as “the best tariff bill that the Republican Party ever passed.” Taft also admitted that he put the interests of the party over the interests of the country: “I believe…the interests of the party required me to sacrifice the accomplishment of certain things in the revision of the tariff which I had hoped for, in order to maintain party solidarity.” Cannon had become the single man in charge of the American political system, and he effectively controlled both the Executive and Congressional branches of government. From this time on he was widely referred to as “The Tyrant from Illinois”.
In 1910, the Progressives found the courage to stand up to Cannon and politically neuter him in spectacular fashion. On March 17, 1910, the House was in session but lightly attended. There was a quorum, but many Republicans were celebrating St. Patrick’s Day and had either left for the week, or a long weekend, and were likely not in shape to return to the Capital. It was during an otherwise routine management of House business that a Progressive insurgent struck out at Cannon’s power.
George Norris, a Republican from Nebraska, had been laying it the weeds waiting for this moment. For two years he’d carried the text of a resolution in his pocket to amend the House rules to remove Cannon from the chair of the Rules committee and to strip him of his ability to appoint committee members and leaders. There had been a seemingly innocent debate the day before on if bills could be introduced directly to the House floor if they dealt directly with a Constitutional question. Cannon and Stand Patters ruled that it was permissible, even if the bill was not pre-printed and that the House as a whole would have to vote directly on those bills. Cannon couldn’t control those bills from being debated and voted upon.
St. Patrick’s Day morning, Norris, sensing his opening, copied the text of his resolution on the back of an envelope and rose to introduce a “resolution privileged by the Constitution.” Cannon, not knowing the danger of what was unfolding, allowed Norris to proceed. Very quickly it became apparent that Cannon had accidentally allowed a direct challenge to his power and he didn’t have the votes to stop it. One of Cannon’s allies made a Point of Order that Norris’ resolution wasn’t privileged, and that set off 26 hours of political gamesmanship. Ultimately Cannon couldn’t muster the votes and allowed the Point of Order to be voted on by the House. 42 Progressive Republicans joined 149 Democrats to ensure that Norris’ motion passed, breaking the greatest concentration of power in American political history. Cannon’s hubris and display of punitive power in the tariff bill hadn’t broken the Progressives, it laid the groundwork for them to rise up and seize control back from Cannon.
The Progressives voted for Country over party, but it cost them dearly. In the 1910 election Democrats took over the House, while many of the Progressives survived re-election. However, the 1912 election was a disaster for the Republicans and the death of the Progressives in the party.
The Progressives planned to seize control over the Republican Party during the 1912 Presidential election, but they didn’t anticipate Teddy Roosevelt’s return to American politics and his usurping of the Progressive Party, re-naming it The Bull Moose Party. Additionally, a dethroned Cannon had enough power to ensure that each of the Progressives that voted to remove him faced well-funded challengers in their House elections. He also pulled strings to make sure that promised Post Offices that were key to legislators in Progressive districts were delayed until after the election.
In E.A. Morse’s case, in addition to facing a Democratic “wave” election in 1912, the Old Guard Republican governor of Wisconsin helped ensure that this district was merged with another and that he faced a challenge from a popular Republican Secretary of State. In the end, Morse was handily defeated and returned to private life, in no small part due to his challenge to Uncle Joe Cannon.
It’s easy to ascribe only the noblest of intentions to our ancestors, and obviously Elmer A. Morse is a heroic legend in our family. And while we’re well aware of many troubling aspects of his life, in this case he was a part of a small group of Republicans that stood up for what was right and for what was best for the democratic institutions of this country. They did so at the risk of their political careers, and each House Progressive paid for their courage by losing their seats soon after their insurgency.
This week, 110 years later, the Republican Party couldn’t muster 3 people courageous enough to put a tyrant in check. The risk of losing their seats was greater than their sense of duty to what was right and best for the country.
We’ve seen this before, where one man stood above the Constitution and the country, but that time he was brought to back in-check. Knowing that, however, just makes this week’s failure more disappointing.