Success is a hard thing to measure. Do we count how many times a name ended up in history books, or do we cheer for the stranger who by letting his wife drive their Model T Ford in 1910 helped create a new normal in society? Clarence Cannon, a congressman from Elsberry, is a historical figure many in the county attribute success to. While he reached esteemed positions in Washington D.C., his legacy touched people in many parts of his life and not always because of big accomplishments.
The city of Elsberry did not officially exist when Clarence Cannon was born April 11, 1879, on a farm outside of the small settlement.
“He was born in April, and in August the railroad came to town which is when the town began building up,” said Steve Lilley, a retired history teacher for the Elsberry High School who wrote his master’s thesis on Cannon, “His dad, John Randolf Cannon, commonly called Randolf, ran a dry goods store at the corner of 4th and broadway.”
In an article Lilley wrote for the Missouri Historical Review back in 1980, he expounded that Randolf Cannon quickly became an integral part of the town as he served as its second mayor and helped establish the Elsberry Banking Company. Clarence Cannon grew up as part of the social elite of the small town, fiercely loyal to the community and fully committed to social activism.
“He was bookish for the most part, loved reading, learned to play the piano. Back in those days it was considered a social skill to play the Piano- Harry Truman did it, he did it,” Lilley said in a more recent interview. “He went to school at the Elsberry school house, where he complained that the education he got there was quite indifferent. But he did a lot of reading on his own. And back in those days typically even the smallest schools would teach Greek and Latin, so he had a grounding in the classics too.”
Lilley shared that at Cannon’s high school graduation ceremony, where Cannon was the only student which he claimed made him both valedictorian and salutatorian, the young man gave a speech on “the need to destroy the Ottoman Turkish Empire and a historical review of its pernicious effects on society and history.”
Clarence Cannon’s biography from the State Historical Society of Missouri states that he attended and graduated from LaGrange College and William Jewell College, earning a masters from the latter in 1904.
“During his college years he would sell textbooks in the off season and he would travel the short line railroads to do that,” Lilley said, “On one occasion the train didn’t stop at his station so he grabbed his luggage and jumped. He rolled in the gravel siding, and of course at that distance wound up with bandages all over him. So he could be a very impulsive man.”
He started teaching history at Stephens College in Columbia, MO that same year while also starting law school at the University of Missouri. In 1906 Cannon married Ida Dawson Wigginton when he was 27 and she was 21. The young couple went on a steamboat honeymoon down the Mississippi and would go on to have two little girls, Ida and Ruby. In 1908 he passed the bar and set up a law practice in Troy.
Almost two years later, after a failed run for the Missouri General Assembly, Cannon was offered a job as the clerk of the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, Champ Clark.
“When Champ contacted him he basically said “look, I think I’m gonna be Speaker of the House. I’m gonna need another clerk. If you want the job it’s yours if you can take shorthand.” and Cannon, he supposedly dropped everything and hopped a train for Washington and learned short-hand, enough to get by, on the train.” Lilley said.
Clarence Cannon spent 10 years in Washington as Clark’s clerk, writing and researching bills, until he decided to run for office in 1922.
“By this time he had been so involved behind the scenes, he had a substantial political base at home and he knew important people and he was really good at the game. He was tireless in his canvassing the district racking up votes,” Lilley recounted, “And again this is not a particularly charismatic guy. This guys 5 ‘7 ``, got a broken nose playing football, so he wasn’t an imposing man or great rhetorician necessarily. But, he knew the importance of making sure that everybody knew that you were gonna work for them.”
Cannon won the election, launching what would become a lifelong career representing the 9th congressional district of Missouri. When it came to political standards, he identified as a Democrat because he supported big government approaches to things like farm subsidies, and he approved of Franklin’s New Deal when it was enacted. However, he was also a committed Southern Baptist, and was an advocate in favor of prohibition. And to really turn things on its head, Lilley described Cannon as a “Fiscal Hawk”, something rare to see in either political party Lilley commented.
In Washington, Cannon brought his sense of “small town honor” to the halls of Congress, as the short statured man got into an assortment of brawls through the years.
“He struck Milton Romjue after Romjue slapped him in 1933. Cannon responded with a hard left which closed his eye and Romjue hit out to conceal the injury,” Lilley said, accenting that Cannon, while normally a He also had a dust up with John Taperfield in about 1945, that was back in the bathroom. Taber was 6’1”, Cannon was 5’ 7”. Cannon tagged him really hard, split his lip, and no one witnessed that one. He almost got in a fight with an 81 year old guy when he was 71, but they wrestled him back. Almost all these instances followed somebody accusing him of being a liar, and small town people particularly then did not brook that sort of insult.”
While Cannon could certainly be impulsive and provoked to real anger when his honor was attacked, his more constant traits of being a bookish lover of history and an active advocate for his chosen social issues led him to a lasting legacy in Congress.
“You’re not going to find a lot of legislation with his name on it. The most important thing he did was he was chairman of the house appropriations committee for almost all of 1941 to 1964. Presidents and congressmen and senators had to come to him first to get his support for anything they wanted to spend money on. And he was generally ranked as the third most powerful man in the government for that reason,” Lilley said, adding that Cannon initially refused to approve the Manhattan project for fear it would be a waste of money, until the war department showed him their work and he agreed to give them the funds.
When it comes to names in the history books, Cannon authored a House procedural reference that can still be found on the Office of the Clerk’s website today. He became the House parliamentarian in 1918, and also served as the parlimentarian for the Democratic Convention for most of his adult life. Lilley said that oftentimes different representatives would come to him to support their bill because he could find obscure procedures or loopholes around them that could make or break legislation.
He found what many would call success in Congress., but that success came because his character as a man did not change as he went between Washington D.C. and Elsberry.
In his hometown, Cannon invested in life as a farmer, he was quite proud of his apple harvests, although he had a manager to run the day to day things when he was away. He stayed very active in his local church, and he wrote several family genealogies and even a 53 page History of Elsberry.
Lilley remembers asking Cannon’s daughter, Ida, what it was like having a father whose time was split between home and the capitol.
“She said he was always busy, always at a desk always working it seemed or he was out at the farm making contact with the guys managing it and supervising things there. But she said he would always take time, he was always approachable. Wasn’t a case where you slammed the door and you couldn’t get to him. He was very accessible.”
Cannon’s approachableness helped him during campaign season, which started in September back in those days, and Lilley said he was very good at “retail politics”, handing out silver dollars to kids and attending midnight mass occasionally even as a devoted Baptist. Ida, his wife, also helped him tremendously in his political career as he would often ask for her advice on certain political issues and he counted on her to keep him from doing anything that would be too rash. She also was a tremendous help in his campaigning in more ways than one.
“[Cannon] and his wife would drive from Washington in a Model T in the early years back to Elsberry, and she drove generally. That was a tricky play politically. Women’s vote came about in 1920, and he became a congressman in 1923 so he campaigned in ‘22. And he would arrive wherever he was going with his wife driving the car, and that served him very well because the fresh young women and new women voters could see that was a position of respect that he accorded to his wife. The other thing was that Ida had a tremendous gift for remembering names and she would stand close by when he forgot somebody’s name she would prompt him and in a way they were so inconspicuous they didn’t realize it was happening. So she was very important to him.”
As far as political moves go, Clarence Cannon never sought endorsement from the revitalized Ku Klux Klan, which in his early rep years was considered an upstanding group. The group had over 4 million members, and oftentimes freshmen reps would seek the approval of the powerful national organization that took a stance against blacks, Jews, Roman Catholics, immigrants and organized labor. However, after a thorough search of Cannon’s correspondence and campaign material, Lilley said he never saw any indication of the congressman aligning himself with the group.
Clarence Cannon went on to serve as Missouri’s ninth district house rep for 41 years, until his death in Washington D.C. on May 12, 1964. From his power in Congress to his work ethic and dedication to his family and the people of Elsberry, Cannon succeeded. The following quote comes from the last paragraph of his book “History of Elsberry.”
“We live in a rapidly changing world. Miracles are just ahead. And in that expanding future Elsberry and Elsberry people have their special part in place. In closing, some who have read this narrative have thought that perhaps I have told too much. Ah, my friends, you should hear what I have not told!”