Published Thursday, January 31, 2013
Since the Constitution took effect in 1789, 60 men and one woman have served in the office of Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives, second in the line of succession to the presidency after the vice president. Three of those 61 individuals were from Georgia. Everyone knows the most recent one — Newt Gingrich — but can you name the other two?
Howell Cobb was the first Georgian to gain the speakership, a post he held for one Congress, the 31st, from 1849 to 1851. The other Georgian was Charles Crisp, who was elected speaker twice and served from 1891 to 1895 under two presidents —Republican Benjamin Harrison and fellow Democrat Grover Cleveland. Crisp County in south Georgia is named for him. He’s the one I want to tell you more about.
At the age of 16, Charles Frederick Crisp enlisted in the Confederate Army but spent the last year of the conflict as a prisoner of war. With peace in 1865, Crisp was released. He returned to the Peach State and settled in Ellaville but moved to Americus in 1873. He served as a lawyer and judge until he took his seat in Congress in 1883. He was a congressman until his sudden death in 1896 at the age of 51.
In the 1890s, money issues dominated political debate. The “sound money” men favored a gold standard. The "cheap money” men wanted to inflate the money supply by printing paper notes or minting silver dollars, or both. Crisp at first was in the latter camp, which put him at odds with the leader of his party, President Cleveland.
When Cleveland took office as president for the second time in 1893, Crisp was beginning his second term as speaker. Cleveland vetoed a bill to pump up the money supply with a new issuance of silver coinage. As a vote to override the veto neared, the President called Speaker Crisp to the White House and demanded his backing.
“Do you know what this means to me?” Crisp asked. My people in Georgia are for silver. My political career will be ruined!” According to Cleveland biographer Alyn Brodsky, the President roared back: “Mr. Speaker, what is your political future weighed in the balance against the fortunes of the country? Who are you and I compared with the welfare of the whole American people?
Crisp’s reply? “Well, if you put it that way, I’ll consent.”
Thanks to Cleveland’s wisdom and Crisp’s support, the veto was sustained. America’s dollar remained “as good as gold” for the next 20 years until the Federal Reserve System was established — much to our nation’s long-term detriment, I might add.
Crisp may be forgotten even in Crisp County these days but on this one very important matter, his change of mind helped protect the integrity of the nation’s currency.
(Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, N.Y., and Atlanta.)