An Old-Time Speaker

Photograph of House Speaker James Beauchamp Clark in 1911 (Courtesy Library of Congress)

I spend a lot of time looking at old photographs, often when I’m having trouble writing, when I’m tired or don’t know what else to do.

Historians struggle with the relative invisibility of the topics they write about; that’s why it’s so nice when there are visual vestiges.  They feed and correct the imagination, and if you’re clever you can take what you see and use it to write more vividly.

Photographs also prompt discovery.  I love this picture of James Beauchamp Clark, a Speaker of the House I’d never heard of before.  Not just because it’s a well-composed photograph, with the vantage conveying its subject’s power; I love its realism, the way it’s slightly tattered, used-up, off-kilter.  Politics back then lacked the cosmetics of today.

Clark (1850-1921) was a Democrat, a contemporary and sometime rival of Woodrow Wilson, with whom he is pictured below.  According to a sketch by Lewis Gould in the American National Biography, Clark was born in Kentucky, the son of a traveling dentist and buggy-maker.  He received scant education but nonetheless became a schoolteacher at age 15.  Later matriculating to Transylvania University (in KY) he got expelled for shooting a gun at another student.  Back in school (law school, by this time), he shortened his name to Champ Clark because it would better fit in a newspaper headline.  These were just his beginnings.

He moved to Missouri and gradually became a power in the Democratic party as it struggled to regain supremacy after the glory years of Republican reign under McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Taft.  Clark was more peaceful and anti-imperial than Wilson.  I love this “casual” photograph of the two men together, don’t you?

Woodrow Wilson and Champ Clark at Sea Girt, New Jersey (Courtesy Library of Congress via Flickr Commons)

Top: House Speaker James Beauchamp Clark in 1911, from this source.
Bottom: Woodrow Wilson and Champ Clark, from this source.

12 responses

  1. There are a number of great films that could be made about figures in U.S. History……no one has ever really done George Washington, or even a great movie about the Revolution of 1776…….Lincoln is another, along with FDR…….There is a great DVD series about John Adams which I recommend to anyone…….On the other hand there were some good ones about George Patton, and Douglas MacArthur…….I saw “Lincoln: The Vampire Slayer” in which slave owners are depicted as vampires……not far from the truth IMO…….

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    • I too think the John Adams series with Laura Linney and Paul Giametti is terrific–great acting and very true to the historical record. There is a very old movie (with Henry Fonda?) as young Mr Lincoln but it’s not very authentic. The inventory of great historical movies about the US is very threadbare. Most of my favorites are based on novels: The Last of the Mohicans, The Age of Innocence. Most of the novels of Gore Vidal have never been dramatized, though they are good candidates for it. SB

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    • I saw Last of the Mohicans with Daniel Day Lewis……it was a great film by a great actor and cast…….”stay alive, I will find you…..” was a great line. Age of Innocence I think was DDL also? He was also in “There Will be Blood” as Daniel Plainview……a crazy genius based on Upton Sinclair’s “Oil”

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    • Yes DDL was in Age of Innocence….he is a great actor for sure. I loved “There Will be Blood” the character “Daniel Plainview” is clearly a mad genius. The end scene with that phony preacher Eli is one for the ages……DDL: “The Lord sometimes challeges us Eli……” Eli (sobbing): “Yes He does” DD:: “Yes He Doesn’t”
      Later: DDL: “Stop your sniveling you *** stop your nonsense……” “I AM the Third Revelation…….” It ended badly (in blood) for Eli……….DDL: “I’m finished……” Magnificent.

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    • A favorite political movie? Nothing comes to mind but I have probably a hundred DVDs and boxed sets……historical works like “Roots,” “War and Peace,” “The Tudors” (HBO series), and many others like “Glory” and “Amistad” are among my favorites…….

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