- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 3, 2006


By Robert V. Remini

Collins/Smithsonian Books/Library of Congress $34.95, 624 pages


When John Larson was elected to the House of Representatives, he looked for a history of that body so he could better understand the institution. He found the magisterial history of the Senate done by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, but not an equivalent for the House. With support of the current Speaker, J. Dennis Hastert, the representatives passed legislation that authorized the writing of a narrative history of the House, and later restored the position Historian of the House.

To write this history, the great Librarian of Congress, James Billington, appointed Robert V. Remini as visiting scholar of the John W. Kluge Center. Mr. Remini, from the University of Illinois — Speaker Hastert’s state — had compiled an extraordinary career as a biographer of the Jacksonian period. Indeed, his multi-volume treatment of Andrew Jackson is a major landmark in American historiography: Volume three earned Mr. Remini the National Book Award.

Mr. Remini remarks that he is really a biographer, not a narrative historian. If that were so, he has made a flawless transition with this volume. For this is a history of the United States through the prism of the House of Representatives.

He ably sketches the conditions that have had an impact on national politics, and how national politics have influenced the House. And Mr. Remini at times deals with the major social issues of the day — the changing role of African Americans, the voting aspirations of women, the incredible corruption of the post-Civil War era, the stresses of international leadership. This is a fine book by a very fine historian. The House is very fortunate to get a figure of his stature as its resurrected House historian.

Mr. Remini reminds us that the Founding Fathers saw the balance of power in government as heavily tipped toward the legislature, and not the president or the federal courts. The early Founders were, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, good Whigs in their politics — they supported legislative supremacy in all things. It was the House, led by James Madison of Virginia, that took the leadership in championing the Bill of Rights. It was the House that debated and discussed in a very critical way Hamilton’s economic plan and was very concerned about funding the Jay Treaty.

The Senate was meant to be a deliberative body; the House was supposed to be the cauldron of public opinion. Mr. Remini shows how crisis, especially war, leads to executive aggrandizement at the expense of Congress. Leadership styles differed even in the early years: Washington was regal; Jefferson was a behind-the-scenes operator; Madison seemed to have lost his touch in dealing with the legislative branch during his terms in office. Jackson, Mr. Remini’s great hero, clearly confronted Congress and was even censured by the Senate.

Looking at the 19th century, Mr. Remini plots out two terrible troughs of Congressional leadership. First, he presents the long and distinguished career of Henry Clay (Mr. Remini is also his major biographer), and Clay’s fine leadership of the House and then his commanding presence in the Senate. Unfortunately, we have lost a real sense of Clay’s significance to those times and to two generations of Americans.

The 1850s witnessed the end of compromise on the issues of slavery and states rights. Mr. Remini represents, in a highly critical way, the Radical Republicans who faced Lincoln and caused him such grief. After the war, the industrial order corrupted an easily corrupted Congress. He reminds us of the use of lobbyists, even then, especially pleasant ladies.

The disjointed efforts of the House were finally overhauled with the strong centralization under Speaker Thomas “Czar” Reed and then Speaker “Uncle” Joe Cannon. The Speakers controlled the committee chairs, and thus the majority, in the House.

Mr. Remini goes on to explore the Congress-President partnership in the New Deal and charts the long career of Texas populist, Sam Rayburn. Later, the Great Society was instituted by another former House and Senate member, Lyndon Johnson, who tried to replicate the domestic legislation of his hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Ironically, the next really intense example of strong party leadership comes from Newt Gingrich and the New Conservatives, who take control of the House and begin a process of centralization and partisan government that reflects the older models which Mr. Remini has so focused on as reform efforts. Overall though since the 1930s, the executive branch of government has been clearly in command — in war and in setting the domestic agenda for the nation.

There are few surprises in this history of the House of Representatives and few departures from traditional historical judgments on the controversies facing the nation. Robert Remini is a recognized mainstream historian, and had done his work well since the 1940s. His approach is probably just what this task needed. The House of Representatives and the reader now have a landmark study of the “people’s chamber.”

Michael P. Riccards is the author of the two-volume history of the presidency, “The Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”

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