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Art & History

Weekly Historical Highlights (December 7 through 13)

December 6, 1874

Congress purchased the <i>The Discovery of the Hudson</i> in 1875 for display in the House Chamber.
On this date, Albert Bierstadt made a bold move, mounting an unauthorized exhibition of his paintings, The Discovery of the Hudson and A Scene in the Rocky Mountains, in the House Chamber. In 1866, Bierstadt had begun a campaign to have two paintings commissioned to hang in the Capitol. This idea met with favor, as landscape painting had become the preeminent American genre, and Bierstadt was among the most accomplished and well known landscape painters. In November of that year, it was reported that Bierstadt, “the great American landscape painter . . . will be commissioned this winter to paint pictures for two of the panels in the Representatives Hall in the Capitol.” Shortly thereafter, a resolution was successfully introduced to authorize the Library Committee to contract Bierstadt for two paintings representing a prominent feature of scenery or an important event if the discovery of America. The trouble came with securing an appropriation. Bierstadt was asking for $40,000 per painting, a sum far exceeding the most recent commission. The resolution languished until March 5, 1875, a few months after Bierstadt’s very public unauthorized exhibition, when The Discovery of the Hudson was finally purchased for $10,000.

December 7, 1931

John Nance Garner of Texas (featured above) served one term in the Speaker?s chair before being elected Vice President in 1932.
On this date, the 72nd Congress (1931–1933) convened as Clerk William Tyler Page called the House to order at noon on opening day. The proceedings were historic. Elections in the fall of 1930 had provided Republicans with a slim majority in the chamber—218 Republicans, 216 Democrats, and one Farmer–Laborer. But between Election Day 1930 and the opening of the new Congress 13 months later, 14 Representatives-elect died. In the subsequent special elections to fill those vacancies, Democrats gained a majority advantage as voters registered their displeasure with the deepening Great Depression and the response to it by the Herbert Hoover administration. On opening day, Democrats organized the chamber with a 219 to 212 advantage, with several Members from third parties. Among the late-Members mourned was popular Republican Speaker Nicholas Longworth, who had passed away on April 9, 1931. House Chaplain James Shera Montgomery eulogized Longworth in the opening prayer, motioning toward a portrait of the late Speaker at the foot of the rostrum. “Before us is an image of our most notable one. A sad and mournful yesterday dictates our sorrow. Through the years he camped with us in the embrace of a sweet and beautiful fraternity.” Moments later, Longworth’s longtime friend, Democrat John Nance Garner of Texas, was elected Speaker of the House and sworn in by the dean of the House, Edward Pou of North Carolina.

December 13, 1932

Representative Melvin Maas of Minnesota, who was stricken with total blindness in 1951, became an advocate for the physically handicapped until his death in 1964.
On this date, 25-year-old Marlin Kemmerer, a department store clerk from Allentown, Pennsylvania, brandished a gun in the visitors’ gallery on the west side of the House Chamber, demanding 20 minutes to speak on the nation’s economic depression. As Kemmerer leaned over the rail in the crowded gallery, aiming his .38 caliber pistol at the floor below, visitors and most Members of the 72nd Congress (1931–1933) fled the chamber, abandoning a teller vote on an amendment to a Treasury and Post Office appropriations bill. “I was in the Speaker’s Lobby and the Members kept running. . . . We had swinging doors there, they just flipped back and forth,” former House Page Glenn Rupp recalled. “And a couple of them fell down on the floor and I said, ‘What’s going on, what’s the matter? What’s going on inside?’” Minnesota Representative Melvin Maas, a World War I veteran who continued to serve in the Marine Corps Reserves, was one of a few Members who remained on the House Floor. Standing below the gunman, Maas calmly pleaded with Kemmerer to drop his weapon. After hesitating a moment, the gunman complied, dropping the loaded and cocked gun into Maas’s outstretched hands. Representative Fiorello La Guardia of New York, who had dashed up to the gallery, teamed with an off-duty Washington, D.C., police officer, to seize the young man and turn him over to the Capitol police. Representative Maas later received a Carnegie Hero Fund silver medal, an award acknowledging civilians who risk their lives for others.

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