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Granting House Floor Privileges to a 108-year-old Revolutionary War Veteran | US House of Representatives: History, Art & ArchivesOn this date, the House of Representatives accorded a rare honor to Revolutionary War veteran John Kitts, granting him House Floor privileges for the day. Born in 1762, Kitts was then the oldest known living person in the United States and the last surviving veteran of the Revolutionary War. He had witnessed General Lord Cornwallis surrender at Yorktown and later fought in the War of 1812. A resident of Baltimore, Maryland, Mr. Kitts traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet President Ulysses S. Grant. He claimed to have met every President since George Washington. After his White House visit, Kitts came to the Capitol, where Representative Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts (a Union general during the Civil War) guided him onto the House Floor. General Banks then interrupted business in the chamber to “ask the general consent of the House that the privileges of the floor for this day may be accorded to Mr. John Kitts, the gentleman who stands by my side.” With no objection, Kitts took a seat on the floor. He instantly drew a crowd of Members around him. One Member who met the 108-year-old veteran told the Chicago Tribune, “Well when I look at the old man and see how long it is possible to live, the fear of h__l becomes an indefinite postponement.” In the modern era, floor privileges are restricted to a select group of officials, staff, and family of the Members. House Rules restrict access, in part, to prevent outside interests from lobbying Members during votes.
“Some of Our Boys Died Last Night” | US House of Representatives: History, Art & ArchivesOn June 6, 1944, Allied forces commenced the invasion of Western Europe known today as D-Day. Chaplain Reverend James Shera Montgomery opened the June 7 meeting of the House with a prayer that reflected both the nation’s concerns and hopes:“Just a word before we pray. Some of our boys died last night in the crusade for freedom and humanity; some of our boys died last night who had looked through the glimpse of the future and claimed it as their own; some of our boys died last night who dreamed of a happy home and a circle of loved ones; some of our boys died last night in the front row of battle for the country they adored; some of our boys died last night beneath the skies of embattled France; some of our boys died last night for you and me that liberty may not die out of the human breast.” Montgomery also quoted from a traditional hymn: ‘Break every weapon forged in fires of hate, Turn back the foes that would assail Thy gate. Where fields of strife lie desolate and bare Take Thy sweet flowers of peace and plant them there. Come, blessed peace, as when in hush of eve God’s benediction falls on souls that grieve. As shines the star when weary day departs, Come, peace of God, and shine in every heart.’ Though more than 10,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded, including roughly 2,500 U.S. fatalities, during the first 24 hours of Operation Overlord, the D-Day invasion marked the beginning of the closing phase of World War II in Europe.Follow @USHouseHistory
The Unlucky Seventh | US House of Representatives: History, Art & ArchivesIf you studied Latin in school you may recall the phrase, “Omne trium perfectum” (every set of three is complete). From history to pop culture, trios make for interesting stories. Ancient Rome had Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and Mark Antony. The antebellum Senate boasted its Great Triumvirate—Webster, Calhoun, and Clay. The Bee Gees laid down the beat for 1970s disco goers. Harry Potter and his friends, Ron and Hermione, spellbound a later generation.The Illinois Seventh Congressional District of the 1840s spawned its own memorable political trio: John J. Hardin, Edward D. Baker, and Abraham Lincoln.Illinois’ population had trebled in the 1830s, increasing its representation in Congress from three to seven seats after the 1840 Census. Reapportionment carved out the new Seventh District from 11 central-Illinois counties, taking in Springfield, the state capital. The Seventh was the only district in the Democrat-dominated state that tilted to the opposing Whig Party.For up-and-coming Whig politicians looking to make their mark and advance past the state legislature, the Seventh had a funneling effect: multiple aspirants scrambled for the one viable seat in Congress. In 1843, the competitors—Hardin, Baker, and Lincoln—shared similar traits. They were thirty-somethings, with legislative experience in Springfield, tireless campaigners, solid stump speakers, and rising stars in the party.When the Whig nominating convention gathered that spring in Pekin, Illinois, Hardin had the votes to win. But immediately after that count had been tallied, Lincoln—who had been pledged to back Baker—did something amazing for its guile and political prowess. He moved that the convention approve Baker as a suitable candidate in 1844, thus setting in place a system of rotation in office. Each would serve a single term and yield to the next in line. This was common in many states, but Lincoln’s ability to apply it in the new district was masterful.Hardin served in the 28th Congress (1843–1845) dutifully but with little fanfare, holding seats on the Military Affairs and the Post Office and Post Roads committees. From Hardin, however, we have one of the great descriptions of the House Chamber in that period. Of “all the places to speak or to try & do any business,” he wrote, “the Hall of the House is the worst I ever saw. I would prefer speaking in a pig pen with 500 hogs squealing . . . or talk to a mob when a fight is going on . . . no one but JQ Adams is even listened to by the House, unless there is a quarrel going on or the prospect of a row is brewing. Last week the scenes in the House would have disgraced the meanest western grocery. Bullying & Billingsgate are the only order of the day.”Baker distinguished himself in 1844 with flamboyant, soaring oratory that drew crowds. Among his more outlandish campaign props, writes Carl Sandburg, was a pet eagle trained to turn its head downward pensively and droop its shoulders when Baker referenced Democrats’ failures. When Baker shifted to discuss Whig principles, the raptor spread its wings wide and screeched. Baker, too, had a seat on the Military Affairs Committee and, it was perhaps no coincidence, that shortly after Congress declared war on Mexico in 1846, the martial spirit moved him to resign his seat and join the fight.Though Hardin toyed with the idea of running against Lincoln for the nomination in 1846, Lincoln outmaneuvered him by quietly rounding up support from local Whig leaders. Safely elected to the 30th Congress (1847–1849) by a wide margin, Lincoln held seats on the Post Office and Post Roads and the Expenditures in the Military Department committees. His term was more energetic—if tumultuous—than those of his predecessors. He introduced the “Spot Resolutions” questioning (like many other Whigs) President James K. Polk’s justifications for initiating the war with Mexico, promoted Zachary Taylor as his party’s successful presidential candidate, and authored a still-born proposal to end slavery in the District of Columbia.But the tragic career trajectories of this political trio also bear out that old superstition that bad luck often comes in threes.Shortly after the outbreak of the war with Mexico, Hardin raised and led a volunteer regiment of Illinoisans. At the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847, a fatal bullet to the chest felled Colonel Hardin.Baker, who won re-election to the House from another Illinois district in 1848, followed his political aspirations westward to California and eventually Oregon. In the fall of 1860 he was appointed as a Republican to Oregon’s vacant U.S. Senate seat. On October 21, 1861, at the Civil War battle of Balls’ Bluff in Loudon County, Virginia, commanding a group of volunteers, Baker was shot and killed—the only sitting U.S. Senator to die in battle. His death stung Lincoln, a close friend who had named his second son for Baker.Lincoln, as we well know, fit this tragic pattern, too. In 1848, he had declined to seek re-nomination to a second term in the House and returned home to Springfield. Later, after two failed Senate bids, he was elected President in 1860 as the country plunged into a fratricidal war. His skill as a wartime President drew upon cajoling, compromise, and patient determination—traits which he also displayed during his House service. This week, 150 years ago, an assassin’s bullet cut his life short just days after Confederate forces surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia.All things being equal, some sets of three seem more complete—and consequential—than others.Sources: Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life Vol. 1 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008): 213–308; David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995): 111–141; Donald W. Riddle, Lincoln Runs for Congress (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1948) and Congressman Abraham Lincoln (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1957); Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln, the Prairie Years and the War Years (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966); Paul Findley, A. Lincoln: The Crucible of Congress (New York: Crown Publishers, 1979); Albert J. Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln, 1809–1858 (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1928).Follow @USHouseHistory
South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks’s Attack on Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts | US House of Representatives: History, Art & ArchivesOn this date, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina, accompanied by Representative Laurence Keitt of South Carolina, severely beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a cane in the Senate Chamber. Brooks’s violent act was in response to a speech in which Sumner attacked the institution of slavery and pro-slavery Senators such as Andrew Butler of South Carolina (Brooks’s relative). Sumner’s injuries were so serious that he had to take leave of his Senate duties for three years in order to recuperate. In the aftermath of the violent confrontation, Brooks was fined for assault by a Baltimore district court. Moreover, Senators called for an investigation of the incident and angry House Members demanded the expulsion of Brooks and Keitt. The House failed to garner the necessary two-thirds vote to expel Brooks, but it successfully censured Keitt. Both Congressmen resigned to protest their treatment by the House. In his resignation speech, Brooks said, “I should have forfeited my own self-respect, and perhaps the good opinion of my countrymen, if I had failed to resent such an injury by calling the offender in question to a personal account.” South Carolina voters held Brooks and Keitt up as heroes, returning both men to Congress by special election to fill their own vacancies, while anti-slavery propagandists portrayed Sumner as a martyr for the cause of abolition. The event inflamed sectional tensions between northern and southern Members of Congress.
South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks’s Attack on Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts | US House of Representatives: History, Art & ArchivesOn this date, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina, accompanied by Representative Laurence Keitt of South Carolina, severely beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a cane in the Senate Chamber. Brooks’s violent act was in response to a speech in which Sumner attacked the institution of slavery and pro-slavery Senators such as Andrew Butler of South Carolina (Brooks’s relative). Sumner’s injuries were so serious that he had to take leave of his Senate duties for three years in order to recuperate. In the aftermath of the violent confrontation, Brooks was fined for assault by a Baltimore district court. Moreover, Senators called for an investigation of the incident and angry House Members demanded the expulsion of Brooks and Keitt. The House failed to garner the necessary two-thirds vote to expel Brooks, but it successfully censured Keitt. Both Congressmen resigned to protest their treatment by the House. In his resignation speech, Brooks said, “I should have forfeited my own self-respect, and perhaps the good opinion of my countrymen, if I had failed to resent such an injury by calling the offender in question to a personal account.” South Carolina voters held Brooks and Keitt up as heroes, returning both men to Congress by special election to fill their own vacancies, while anti-slavery propagandists portrayed Sumner as a martyr for the cause of abolition. The event inflamed sectional tensions between northern and southern Members of Congress.
Thomas Edison’s Congressional Gold Medal | US House of Representatives: History, Art & ArchivesOn this date, the House of Representatives voted to approve H.J. Res. 243, awarding inventor Thomas A. Edison a Congressional Gold Medal. In early April, Randolph Perkins of New Jersey, chairman of the Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures, reported the bill favorably to the House. The committee report contained a letter from Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon. Mellon noted the lack of domestic recognition for Edison given the outpouring of international acclaim for his work in the field of electricity and its applications. “Wearing in the lapel of his coat the ribbon of the Legion of Honor of France, symbolized and honored by eight other foreign nations, the recipient of degrees from 22 colleges,” Mellon said, “Mr. Edison has yet to receive a medal at the hands of the United States.” The bill came to the House Floor with little controversy. The reading clerk read the title of the bill and the Speaker asked if there were any objections. Representative Fiorello La Guardia of New York proposed to remove the standardized section two of the Congressional Gold Medal legislation authorizing the Treasury Department to mint replica coins for general sales to the public to defray the cost of Edison’s medal. The House agreed to the proposal and passed the resolution. President Calvin Coolidge signed the legislation on May 29, 1928. Secretary Mellon awarded Edison the medal on October 20, 1928, in his laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. President Coolidge spoke via a radio link from the White House. Nearly 50 radio stations broadcasted the ceremony. Modern Congressional Gold Medal ceremonies are typically held in the Capitol Rotunda where the President often personally bestows the medal on behalf of the Congress.
GRIFFITHS, Martha Wright | US House of Representatives: History, Art & ArchivesKnown as the “Mother of the ERA,” Martha W. Griffiths, a peppery and quick–witted Detroit Representative, was a key figure in bringing women’s rights legislation to successful passage in Congress. During her 20 years in the U.S. House, Representative Griffiths compiled a distinguished record on tax reform and civil rights. She was the first woman to serve on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.Martha Edna Wright was born on January 29, 1912, in Pierce City, Missouri. She was one of two children reared by Charles Elbridge Wright, a mailman, and Nell Sullinger Wright. Martha Wright graduated from Pierce City High School in 1930. Realizing that without an education her daughter would eventually be dependent on her future husband, Nell Wright took on extra jobs to pay for Martha’s college tuition.1 Her mother’s foresight and her paternal grandmother’s struggle to raise three children after the death of her husband inspired Martha Wright to pursue equal rights for women. She attended the University of Missouri at Columbia, earning an A.B. in political science in 1934. In college she met and married Hicks G. Griffiths, a future Michigan Democratic Party chairman and her husband of 62 years until his death in 1996. The couple studied law at the University of Michigan, where Martha Griffiths worked on the staff of the Michigan Law Review. She graduated with an LL.B. in 1940 and was admitted to the bar the next year. Her first job was working in the legal department of the American Automobile Insurance Association in Detroit. During World War II she worked as a contract negotiator in the Detroit district for Army Ordnance. In 1946, Griffiths opened her own law practice; Hicks joined a few months afterward. A year later, G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, heir of the Mennen toiletries fortune and a former college classmate, became a partner in the firm. Martha Griffiths entered politics at her husband’s suggestion by making an unsuccessful bid for a seat in the Michigan house of representatives in 1946. She later won election to the state legislature in 1948 and 1950. During her first term she and her husband organized the Michigan Democratic Club, which engineered the election of G. Mennen Williams as governor. In the fall of 1952, Griffiths captured the Democratic nomination for a seat in the U.S. Congress from a Michigan district encompassing northwest Detroit and some outlying suburbs but lost the general election by a margin of 10,500 votes (or about six percent of the total) to Republican Charles G. Oakman. In April 1953, Governor Williams appointed her a recorder and judge of recorders court in Detroit. The following November she was elected as judge and served until 1954. At the time, she observed, “It is at least an unusual experience to assist for four years in making the laws of this state, and then sit as a judge of people charged with breaking those laws.”2 During her brief tenure she conducted more than 430 criminal examinations, including a highly publicized teamsters’ conspiracy case. The name recognition Griffiths garnered as a 1952 candidate and as a judge helped her mount another bid for the Detroit seat in the U.S. House in 1954. She revived from her initial campaign a district–wide tour by house–trailer—meeting tens of thousands of voters in their neighborhoods and serving them refreshments. Facing Oakman in the general election, Griffiths unseated the incumbent with about a 7,000–vote margin, 52 to 48 percent. Griffiths’s victory came without the support of organized labor and the state’s Democratic Party, as both backed other candidates.3 Despite this opposition, Griffiths never was seriously challenged again, winning nine more terms and gradually increasing her margins of victory: 53 percent in 1956, 69 percent in 1966, and 80 percent in 1970.4The second woman from Michigan elected to the U.S. House, Griffiths was appointed to the Banking and Currency and Government Operations committees. During the 91st Congress (1969–1971) she served on the Select Committee on Crime, and she also had a seat on the Joint Study Budget Control Committee during the 92nd (1971–1973) and 93rd (1973–1975) Congresses. In the 90th (1967–1969) through 93rd Congresses, Griffiths chaired the Select Committee on the House Beauty Shop, a largely ceremonial assignment which oversaw the institution’s operations.In a move that astonished many observers, Griffiths ran for her former position as judge of the Detroit recorders court but was defeated in the April 1959 election. She later explained that she was motivated by a desire to return to Detroit and by her frustration with the protocols and pace of the committees, particularly the Banking and Currency Committee.5 Griffiths retained her House seat, however, and a year later she was re–elected to Congress with 58 percent of the vote.Congresswomen had lobbied Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas in 1961 to assign a woman to the prominent Ways and Means Committee, extracting a pledge from him that an appointment would be made at the next vacancy. Rayburn died in November 1961, but his promise was fulfilled in 1962 when Griffiths became the first woman Representative to win appointment to Ways and Means. Eventually, she became the fourth–ranking Member on that powerful panel. She also was assigned to the Joint Economic Committee, where she served through the 93rd Congress and eventually chaired the Subcommittee on Fiscal Policy. From both of these prominent positions, Congresswoman Griffiths pursued tax reform and proposed legislation to repeal the excise tax on automobiles, to provide tax relief for single parents, to amend tax laws to aid married couples and widows, and to reduce social security taxes paid by low–income families. Her skills as a former judge, solid preparation, and ability to pick apart arguments, along with her sometimes blunt style, made her a fearsome opponent. She was especially attentive to frequent requests from women on how to circumvent discrimination in the workplace. On one occasion, when it came to light that a major airline fired a flight attendant on the grounds that she was going to be married soon, Griffiths grilled the airline’s personnel manager: “You point out that you are asking a bona fide occupational exception that a stewardess be young, attractive, and single. What are you running, an airline or a whorehouse?”6In 1964, Griffiths made one of her two greatest contributions to the women’s rights movement. As the House Judiciary Committee began to deliberate a landmark civil rights bill pertaining to racial discrimination, Griffiths argued that sexual discrimination must be added to it. She did much to frame the sex discrimination amendment to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and later prompted the new Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce the act more vigorously. She relied on a deft legislative move to secure her amendment. The chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, Democrat Howard Smith of Virginia, was preparing to make his own sexual discrimination amendment to the bill, in hopes of making the bill so controversial as to derail the entire Civil Rights Act. Griffiths, realizing that Smith would easily bring 100 southern votes if he introduced the amendment on the floor, held back on introducing the amendment herself. When Smith made the argument in the well of the House, Members erupted in laughter and jeers.7 Griffiths immediately took to the floor to make her case. “I presume that if there had been any necessity to point out that women were a second–class sex, the laughter would have proved it,” she scolded colleagues. The chamber fell silent.8 With a southern bloc voting for the amendment and Griffiths’s own efforts to line up votes, the measure was passed and added to the act. Though many of the southern lawmakers who passed the amendment voted against the whole Civil Rights Act of 1964, the House and Senate eventually passed the bill, and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law that year.Griffiths also was pivotal in bringing the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to a vote, eventually steering it to successful passage in the House. Though she originally thought that the way to secure women’s rights was to bring case after case before the Supreme Court, Griffiths eventually came to believe that a constitutional amendment was the only way to overcome the high bench’s history of decisions which, in her view, denied that women were “‘persons’ within the meaning of the Constitution.”9 Every year since she entered the House in 1955, she had introduced ERA legislation, only to watch while the bill died in the Judiciary Committee. In 1970, Congresswoman Griffiths relied on the discharge petition, a little–used parliamentary procedure which required that she get a majority (218 of the House’s 435 Members) to support her effort to bring the bill out of committee and onto the floor for general debate and a vote. For nearly 40 days, Griffiths stalked reluctant Congressmen, cornering them on the House Floor after roll call votes, visiting their offices, and calling in favors in order to add names to the petition. At one point, she approached the Democratic Whip, Hale Boggs of Louisiana, for his signature. Boggs at first demurred. “But he promised to sign as Number 200, convinced that I would never make it,” Griffiths recalled. “You may be sure that when I had Number 199 signed up, I rushed to his office, and Hale Boggs became Number 200.”10 Griffiths got the 218 signatures in the required time, and on August 10, 1970, took to the House Floor to open debate. “Mr. Speaker, this is not a battle between the sexes–nor a battle between this body and women,” Griffiths said. “This is a battle with the Supreme Court of the United States.”11 With 62 Members not voting, the House passed the ERA by a vote of 352 to 15.12 Later that fall the Senate voted to amend the ERA with a clause exempting women from the draft. The House and Senate failed to work out their differences in conference committee before Congress adjourned for the year. Griffiths began the process again, and this time the amendment cleared the House in 1971 and was approved by the Senate in March 1972 without revision. The ERA, however, was ratified by only 35 of the requisite 38 states and never became part of the Constitution. Despite the amendment’s ultimate failure, Griffiths’s recognition soared after her work on ERA. In 1970, she was rumored to be in consideration for Majority Whip and, therefore, the first woman to hold a major leadership post; however, she never was selected for that position.13Griffiths declined to run for an 11th term in 1974, citing age and a wish to spend time with her family as her reasons for leaving. She did not disappear from politics, however, returning in 1976 as the chair of the Rules Committee for the Democratic National Convention, and in 1982, becoming Michigan’s first elected lieutenant governor on a ticket with Michigan Representative James J. Blanchard. In 1986, the pair was re–elected, but Blanchard decided to drop the 78–year–old Griffiths from the ticket for a third term because of her age. “Ridiculous!” she retorted. She then told a crowd of reporters: “The biggest problem in politics is that you help some s.o.b. get what he wants and then he throws you out of the train.”14 Blanchard lost in the general election to Republican John Engler, an outcome many observers attributed to disaffected women and senior votes that Griffiths had helped swing to Blanchard in the previous two elections. After her terms as lieutenant governor, Griffiths resumed practicing law. Martha Griffiths died of pneumonia at her home in Armada, Michigan, on April 22, 2003.