At any point on entering the Capitol one gets the impression, that the building in one place or another contains pictures of every event in American history and portraits or sculptures of every American of prominence and a great many who are not thought of as having ever been prominent. When in the House of Representatives end of the building, one finds a Gilbert Stuart wasted on so forgotten a man as Gunning Bedford, one feels that the limit is there positively reached.
At the same time it must never be overlooked that on the whole the portraits and paintings are invaluable as a pictorial and realistic record of the country; and if one must needs have a certain proportion of such forgotten men as Gunning Bedford, it is by all means excellent to have them by a Gilbert Stuart.
One of the most interesting although not among the very best paintings in the Capitol is that of the Signing of the Proclamation of Emancipation, because it gives war-time portraits not only of President Lincoln but of Stanton, Chase, Seward, and the other members of his Cabinet. A portrait of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, who will always be known with this full designation because he thus signed the Declaration, remarking as he did so, that as there were so many Carrolls, King George could now tell precisely which one he was, is one of the portraits of the Capitol, and it is especially worth while, be-cause it so happened that this man of picturesque appellation was the last survivor of the Signers.
One of the most popular of Capitol paintings is the large one which won the title of “Westward Ho!” representing as it does all the figures of an early far West emigrant party, with every detail shown.
The meeting room of the House of Representatives, and the various other rooms given over to the use of that body, are in the opposite end of the Capitol from the rooms of the Senate, and the Hall of Representatives, as it is usually termed, is about twenty five feet longer than the Chamber of the Senate, although one would naturally expect it to be much larger on account of the much greater number of members. And although the members are so many, the accommodation for visitors is barely more than is allowed by the Senate, for only twelve hundred in all can be crowded in even at the most important sessions. One may fairly wonder if this was not intended by the planners, to make it impossible for any large number of the possibly disaffected to gather about either of the Houses in session. The same reason may have had much to do with the keeping of the chambers of both Houses in a state of windowless isolation, through having the lighting come from overhead skylights.
It used to be, as late as 1830, that it was the custom of the members of Congress to follow the old and extremely odd English Parliamentary custom of wearing their hats during the sessions.
There are no longer desks in the House, and the members are not given each his own individual seat, in this differing markedly from the Senate, but the Representatives shift about at their own will, individual seating not now being feasible with so large a membership.
The two important figures of authority are the Speaker of the House, who is a very important figure indeed: and the sergeant-at-arms who on occasion carries the Mace of the House. The Mace is of authority by representing the entire power of the House. When not in use it remains on its marble pedestal and there signifies that the House is in session. It is a bundle of ebony rods fastened with transverse bands of silver, having thus a marked Roman air. When the sergeant-at-arms is making his stately progress to carry out some order of the Speaker, as for example the quieting of a riot or a fight among the members, he holds the Mace aloft in his hands, advancing thus, in a sort of stately progress.
Even at the present time there are now and then fights or near-fights and a great deal of abusive language; as to the last point, however, the members might point to the vividly abusive authority of the great Roosevelt, who although never a member of the House, loved on occasion to give himself full verbal freedom: as, for example, when attacking Parker, his rival for the Presidency, he declared: “The statements made by Mr. Parker are unqualifiedly and atrociously false!”
As the Mace represents an old-time custom, for it has been used in precisely its present way since the very first Congress, so also is an old-time custom represented by the quaintness of turning back the hands of the clock to lengthen by this obvious and recognized fiction the close of a final session of Congress. Unfortunately, however, this is not altogether a matter of quaint and expected custom, but is made an opportunity at times by the unscrupulous to rush through without question in the last few minutes some more or less nefarious bills.
The Hall of Representatives is not impressive in design, although I remember recently reading that it is one of the most marvelous meeting chambers of any legislative body in the world! Such matters must necessarily always remain questions of individual taste.
A very great amount of space is given by the House to purposes of individual comfort, as for restaurants and many kinds of meeting and resting rooms; and the vast and beautiful new office buildings offer still greater space.
The Congressmen of both Houses, Senators and Representatives, alike lose their names when they enter the meeting chambers. They are always referred to as “the gentleman from Ohio,” “the gentleman from California,” and so on. The exceptions come when there are two men of the same surname from the same State, in which case they must needs be differentiated, or when the very rare occasions come when a member is called to the bar to be publicly censured by the presiding officer.
An amusing twist was given to this general custom by a Vice-President of some years ago who, whenever he recognized one of the two Senators from Arkansas, knowing that one of the two pronounced the name of the State with the final “s” sounded, and the other with the last syllable pronounced as if it ended with “w,” always recognized one of the members as “The gentleman from Arkansaw” and the other as “The gentleman from Arkansas.”
In a sense the members of Congress constitute an intellectual melting pot quite as importantly as do the people of the great cities; for men gather together not only from distant parts of the country, but from parts where there are widely different problems as to the needs and proper treatment of different classes of people. Here in Washington, by mingling with the Southern members, the members from the North may come to an understanding of the negro problems, and the Southerners for their part may come to an understanding of the problems connected with the enormous number of un-American foreigners in the North.
Even more than with the Senate, and this naturally is owing to the much larger number of members, there is almost always some one ready for a quip or jest. One day, annoyed by what he deemed foolish talk of two fellow Congressmen, Thomas B. Reed remarked: “They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.”
One day Congressman Springer, in an effort to be particularly impressive and convincing declared: “As for me, I would rather be right than be President.” At which Reed instantly drawled in his cool fashion: “Well, the gentleman will never be either.” That Springer’s phrase was originally used, one day, by Henry Clay used to be remembered by old-timers, and it was perhaps fortunate even for the great Clay, that Reed was not then a member.
It is naturally difficult if not impossible to refer to the general type of Representatives, for after all you may get an impression from one Congress which will be altered by the next, and yet, it does seem a fact that the usual Member of Congress is a trifle under average height, is a little more broad shouldered than the average man, this perhaps being typical of being able to push his way, and is inclined to have a somewhat rounder head and a shorter neck than men of other classes. It seems to be that there are more successful dark-haired politicians than those of other hirsute coloring. John Quincy Adams, one of the most striking examples of lengthy continuity of office, could scarcely be referred to as an example of either class, his head being bare through his hair being so scant and sacrosanct. It was a very sensitive point with the irascible Adams, and when a constituent one day called at his Washington home and said that his wife, when a little girl, used to call at the Adams home and often curled John Quincy’s hair, Adams forgot any caution as to offending a constituent and snarled: “I suppose she combs yours now.”
Franklin Pierce, when he was a Congressman a dozen years before he was made President, one evening gave a striking illustration of the kind of helpfulness that makes friends. For being out with a convivial companion, this companion fell into one of the old-time open sewers. Pierce tried in vain to pull him out. Then he said : “I can’t get you out, so I’ll come in myself!” On which, fully dressed as he was, he leaped in.
The House of Representatives has been quite a goal for odd or even freakish members. One Southerner was so large and heavy that a special chair had to be made for him. One of the unusual old-time members of Congress, or to be precise, a delegate from the Territory of Michigan, was a Roman Catholic Priest, named Gabriel Richard, who received orders in Paris and went as a missionary into the Northwest Territory. And this is remindful of another ecclesiastic, John Witherspoon, president of Princeton, whose statue stands at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Eighteenth Street, who was the only clergyman who signed the Declaration of Independence. One of the city’s most interesting characters, Eleazer Williams, was not a Congress-man, but a lobbyist sent by Indians to sway Congressional action in regard to them. He has generally been supposed to be a half-breed Senecabut he aroused immense interest by formally claiming to be the lost dauphin of France, brought up in the American backwoods.
It was Congressman Jim Campbell who, when confronted by President Cleveland with Constitutional reasons why a bill in which Campbell was interested could not be signed, replied coaxingly : “Oh, just sign it! What’s the Constitution between friends!” Which immensely amused the usually placid Cleveland, but, naturallly, did not secure his signature.
As with the Senate, so with the House, it is often the case that only a small proportion of members are present, and as also with the Senate, so with the House, it is often the case that there is a general effect of inattention, as if the members are heedless as to the passing or not passing of bills of immensely important character. But also as with the Senate, the explanation is to quite an extent to be found in the fact that much of the most important work is done in committees.
The Representatives in general are of not nearly so much importance in Washington, either politically or socially, as are the Senators or heads of Departments. It is hard to awe the average Washingtonian with a Representative unless the Representative is of special importance through the possession of marked qualities or great wealth.
Many Congressmen’s wives are always to be found at the meetings of what are known as “Current Events” lecturers, for they develop an immense eagerness to keep in touch with the affairs of the nation and the world. Many follow the Congressional debates closely from the galleries, day after day.
A great retort in the House was evoked when a New York Congressman of some years ago was on the point of being expelled by his fellow members for dishonesty regarding an important bill. He made a lengthy defense, ending with an appeal against a harsh decision, and began to quote pathetically, ” ‘Tis hard to part, when friends are dear,” at which a voice demanded coldly: “Will the gentlgman please name the price?” This is still looked upon as one of the star retorts of the House, and another was made in regard to Representative Holman, who for many years bore the title of the “Watch-dog of the Treasury,” on account of his custom of objecting to every money bill that came up. One day, however, a bill was introduced for the expenditure of a large sum in Holman’s own district. A fellow member introduced it and a dead silence fell as the House listened for the expected Holman objection. But it did not come. The silenee continued, and then from the far side of the house there came the taunting :
“Tis sweet to hear the watch dog’s honest bark Bay deep-mouthed welcome as we draw near home.”