The news last week that U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan will not seek re-election captured headlines across the country.
It reminded one historian, Stacy Cordery, a political historian at Iowa State University, the only House speaker who hailed from Iowa also resigned somewhat unexpectedly, although the reasons remain mysterious.
David Bremner Henderson had a long career in Congress —he served for two decades — but his tenure as speaker was remarkably short. And the reason for his exit remains something of a puzzle, Cordery said.
Henderson was born in Scotland in 1840 and was the first person from west of the Mississippi to be elected speaker, according to the U.S. House archives.
Henderson immigrated with his family to Illinois in 1846, and three years later they settled in Fayette County, Iowa. Henderson attended Upper Iowa University, where he met his wife, Augusta, and left school to serve in the Civil War. He was twice wounded in battle, resulting in multiple amputations of his left foot and lower leg.
After the war, he enjoyed a law career and in 1882 was elected to the U.S. House.
Henderson was elected speaker of the House in 1899. But just three years later, despite having unanimous support from his fellow Republicans, Henderson announced his intention to retire from the House.
The announcement came as a surprise, according to multiple media reports at the time, said Cordery.
At the time, Henderson cited his disagreement with his party and President Theodore Roosevelt over tariffs. The explanation was met with skepticism.
“Nobody believed him then, and nobody believes him now,” Cordery said.
Henderson’s war injuries were continuing to worsen, and some speculated that may have driven his decision to retire.
But Cordery suspects another factor may have played a role in Henderson’s exodus: an extramarital affair.
In 2000, a pair of political science professors at George Washington University in Washington published findings from then-recently unearthed records belonging to Joseph Cannon, who succeeded Henderson atop the House. Among the contents of Cannon’s records was a letter to Cannon from the House clerk.
The clerk wrote to Cannon “there can be but one explanation of the reason” for Henderson’s retirement, “his alleged intimacy with a certain ‘lobbyess’ who is reported to have some written evidence that would greatly embarrass the Speaker.” The clerk wrote his information was not guesswork, but “private and reliable information.”
After his surprise retirement from Congress, Henderson returned to Dubuque, where he died in 1906. He was buried in Dubuque’s Linwood Cemetery.
“We wish, as Iowans, that it was a better story,” Cordery said. “But absolute power corrupts absolutely, right?”
Cordery lamented little is known about Henderson, Iowa’s only U.S. House speaker. There is no biography written about Henderson, and no collection of his papers from his time in Congress survived, according to a one-page biography on the University of Iowa Press’ Biographical Dictionary of Iowa online. His life, especially his rise to power and time as House speaker, is written about in some detail in the “Iowa Journal of History.”
Cordery said while Henderson’s time as speaker was short, during his two decades in Congress he was an advocate for veterans, especially their pensions.
“He’s not very well known,” Cordery said. “He’s just, sort of, not been studied at all. ... We don’t know that much about him.”