Sunday, January 25, 2015

Uncle Joe and Esperanto

Nia amiko, Onklo Joĉjo?
Joseph G. Cannon[1] entered Congress in 1873 and finally left it in 1923. While his congressional serve was not consecutive, he did mange to serve as Speaker of the House from 1903 to 1911, during his uninterrupted span in Congress from 1893 to 1913.[2] Nothing in his biography suggests that he was even the type to go for Esperanto when it was popular in Washington. A autobiography, Uncle Joe Cannon; the story of a pioneer American, compiled by his secretary (i.e.: chief aide) L. White Busbey, makes no reference to Esperanto or even any of the major figures of the Esperanto movement in their roles outside the movement, with one exception.

That one exception was George Harvey, who is mentioned in passing in a chapter on Mark Twain. Twain had written Cannon in 1906 seeking to lobby Congress on a copyright bill on the floor of Congress.[3] During all this, Twain invited Cannon to lunch along with George Harvey. This was before the North American Review took up the cause of Esperanto.

The years Cannon spent as Speaker span the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft. Taft comes into this story because he’s the one who brings Esperanto into it. Taft certainly had some awareness of Esperanto. In August 1910, the President sent a telegram to the Sixth Universala Kongreso (in Washington, D.C.), albeit in response to a telegram from the organizers of the Esperanto congress. But even before that, Taft made a connection between Esperanto and the Speaker of the House.

Several newspapers reported on this, and given the nearly identical wording it was likely a wire-service report. How else to explain the overlap between the January 25, 1910 reports in the New York Times, the New-York Tribune, the Topeka State Journal, and the Evening Statesman (Walla Walla, Washington)? The titles all differ, and go as follows:

New York Times

Follows Speaker’s Reference to His Own “Meanness” at Dartmouth Dinner.
New-York Tribune

President Pays Tribut to “My Friend, ‘Uncle Joe.’”
Topeka State Journal

President Taft Tosses One to His “Friend Uncle Joe.”
Evening Statesman

Taft Pays Tribute to “Voice Full of English and Sometimes Full of Esperanto.”
Esperanto? How did Esperanto get into this? I have found no evidence that Joseph Cannon’s voice was ever full of Esperanto. But that’s what the President said.
WASHINGTON, Jan 24. — President Taft, in an address tonight before the Dartmouth college alumni in the presence of their new president, Ernest Fox Nichols, praised the value of small colleges and paid a tribute to Speaker Joseph G. Cannon, who had preceded him in speaking.

“Mr. Cannon had said he bowed to the president, a son of Yale; Mr. Roosevelt, a son of Harvard, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln who had not the advantage of a college education that he himself might be a little jealous because he had not had such an advantage, for culture might have eradicated ‘some of the meanness in me which both my enemies and my friends say I have.’”

The President referred to the speaker as “my friend Uncle Joe,” and called attention to his tribute to Abraham Lincoln and said:

“When we hear that mellifluous voice, some times full of English and sometimes full of Esperanto, we are carried back to the days of Daniel Webster. Great must be the country that produce a man without a college education, who can deliver such a tribute as he paid here tonight to Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.”
The New York Times alone concluded with
The President declared the small college was one of the bulwarks of the Nation and pleaded for more of the spirit of fraternity throughout the lifetime of college men.

Among the other speakers were the French Ambassador,[4] the British Ambassador,[5] and Congressman McCall of Massachusetts.
It is entirely possible that Joseph Cannon was an Esperanto speaker. Certainly, during his time in Congress, many prominent Republicans were proponents of the language, although in 1910, George Harvey was still a Democrat. Perhaps Cannon was, but had seen the ribbing the press had given Theodore Roosevelt over simplified spelling only a few years before. In any case, if voice was ever full of Esperanto, his written words seem to void of it.

On January 25, 1910, the Washington Post ran the item from the New York Times.

  1. There are two political figures who were jocularly referred to as “Uncle Joe.” The other was Stalin.  ↩
  2. This information is largely derived from Wikipedia  ↩
  3. Lobbyists are supposed to be restricted to the lobbies of Congress. As it is, they get into to Congressional offices and write bills. They speak at hearings. It would be even worse if large firms (“the chair recognizes the gentleman from Monsanto”) could take part in congressional debate.  ↩
  4. In 1910, that would have been Jean Jules Jusserand.  ↩
  5. James Bryce.  ↩

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