Recently, The Washington Post reported that Representative Eric Cantor (R–VA) seems to be taking steps that would position him to become the next Speaker of the House.
In any event, the next Speaker—whether it’s Cantor, John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, or someone else—will join a tradition that stretches back exactly 225 years. On this date—April 1, 1789—Members of the House of Representatives gathered for the first time and elected a Speaker.
Their selection was Frederick A. C. Muhlenberg, a Representative from Pennsylvania.
Muhlenberg had been a minister in New York when the war for independence broke out. When the British swiftly captured the city, he “felt obliged to leave,” probably because he’d been active in fomenting that revolution.
He continued ministering to Americans—and, presumably, rebelling against the British—in western Pennsylvania. After the Revolution, Muhlenberg served as a delegate to the state convention that had been called to ratify the new Constitution.
See also: The Heritage Guide to the Constitution
To show how quickly political views changed in the early republic, Muhlenberg ran for that first Congress as a pro-Administration candidate. That’s the party that would become the Federalist party. Yet he was re-elected (and selected again as Speaker) as an anti-Administration candidate. That’s the party, led in the House by James Madison, that would become Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party.
Muhlenberg tried, and failed, to get the national capital installed in his adopted home state of Pennsylvania.
“The Constitution does not state the duties of the Speaker, and the role of the Speaker has largely been shaped by traditions and customs that evolved over time,” as The Heritage Guide to the Constitution notes. In our system, the Speaker is often powerful, but just how powerful often depends on the political skills of the person in the chair.
The Speaker is also second in line to succeed the President after the Vice President. Is there a line to succeed Boehner, the 53rd Speaker? Only time will tell.