The constitution defined few roles for the Speaker of the House of Representatives other than that of elected leader of house and moderator of its meetings. Over time, however, through its control of procedure, the position assumed greater importance. By the end of the nineteenth century, the speaker controlled the appointment of committee chairs. Thomas Reed wielded so much power he was nicknamed “Czar” Reed. His ally and later speaker Joseph Cannon exercised so much control that members of his own Republican Party rebelled to curtail his power. Nonetheless, the speakers continued to influence most of the business of Congress and now assume party leadership roles as well. Over the course of American history, 52 men and one woman have served as Speaker. Their success in the role has varied. The first speaker, Frederick Muhlenberg presided over some of the most influential legislation in American history, but when he voted against his party to support funding of the Jay peace treaty with Britain, his brother-in-law stabbed him. Henry Clay was acknowledged as the leading statesman of his day. Schuyler Colfax served as both speaker and vice-president, but was embroiled in corruption scandals during the Grant administration. Theodore Pomeroy and Robert Livingston served one day as speaker. Sam Rayburn served more than sixteen years.
Mark Grossman’s biographical dictionary provides detailed portraits of the 53 individuals who have served as Speaker of the House. Each chronologically arranged entry examines the politician’s personal history, their early years in Congress and the manner by which they became speaker. Their tenure as speaker and later careers also are described. Each entry includes a portrait and suggestions for further research. The author also provides biographies of Thomas Stanley Bocock, who served as speaker of the Confederate House of Representatives, Samuel Sullivan Cox, who served as Speaker pro tempore during the lengthy illnesses of Speaker Michael Kerr and four other men who served for less than a day. The biographies are supplemented with a series of historical essays, including outlines of English and colonial precedents for the office and historical surveys of the development of the role of speaker. A selection of 27 primary source documents illuminates the workings of Congress and the process of choosing a speaker. Unfortunately, this useful historical survey of American politics and Congressional leadership is marred by occasionally careless copyediting. Nonetheless, this guide will ably serve high school, public and academic library users.