“We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.”
– Abraham Lincoln, congressman, 1847–1849
In Pioneer’s ongoing series of blogs here on curricular resources for parents, families, and teachers during COVID-19, this one focuses on:
Celebrating the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I know no North – no South – no East – no West,” reads the gravestone of Kentucky’s Henry Clay, the greatest Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in our history. Blending elements of the ancient Athenian Assembly, Britain’s House of Commons, and America’s colonial legislatures, the Founding Fathers intended that the U.S. House of Representatives would fully represent the more democratic, localized interests of citizens in states’ congressional districts.
Article. I. Section. 2. of the Constitution prescribes that the House be led by its speaker, who represents the majority party and controls its flow of legislation. Given that the Constitution enumerates legislative powers first, the House is the epicenter of American lawmaking. Spending appropriations, war declarations, presidential impeachments, and most proposed bills start there. With congressional districts apportioned by population, U.S. representatives serve two-year terms; and since 1789, more than 10,000 have done so.
Lutheran minister Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania was the first of the 54 people to serve as speaker, but the most celebrated is the early 19th-century “Great Compromiser,” Henry Clay. Speaker Clay, a heavy-drinking gambler and stellar orator, is one of the most important lawmakers in our history; his “American System” of banks, canals, and roads defined the country.
Jacksonian Democrat James Polk is the only speaker to have also served as U.S. president, while Speaker John “Cactus Jack” Garner was later Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president. In our era, Speaker Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” which recaptured Congress for the Republicans, and Democrat Nancy Pelosi becoming the first female speaker, were historic milestones.
With eight, Massachusetts has had more speakers of the U.S. House than any other state. Boston’s John McCormack was the power broker speaker when Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were in office. In the latter-20th century, Speaker Tip O’Neill lived by his famous dictum, “all politics is local,” encapsulating the outlook of the U.S. House of Representatives.
American schoolchildren need to know more about the basic civics and history of our key democratic institutions. To remedy this, we’re offering a variety of resources to help parents, teachers, and high schoolers: