Unraveling the Reinvention of Speaker John W. McCormack
Garrison Nelson, University of Vermont; Senior Fellow, McCormack Institute, University of Massachusetts - Boston
Congressional biographies represent a unique subset of political biography and institutional analysis. Most conventional political biographies focus upon presidents and candidates for the White House with their concomitant heroic stances. The executive biographer usually asserts that the leaders represented in these books are superbly qualified to lead the nation and to engage its energies in positive purpose. The flaws within them which we may encounter along the way are more than offset by the great talents for leadership which they possess. Thus, once again, we as Americans have been blessed to have people such as these to lead us through national crisis.

Executive-oriented biographies and their heroic impulses tend to be either unmindful or dismissive of the constitutional context within which these executives must function. The highly constrained legal and political environments are seen as presenting needless burdens to be overcome by the triumphant executive rather than legitimate boundaries which defend the nation from many of the overly ambitious types who seek to gain the presidency.

Here is where congressional biographies differ. Congressional leadership by definition is collective leadership. Leadership in the Congress is not necessarily positional, although most of the best-known congressional biographies focus upon those who attain elective leadership like Speakers and floor leaders or those who exercise policy leadership like committee chairs. There are some wonderful congressional biographies of those who came to the national fore through issue leadership by taking public stances in the Congress to further the progress of the great issues of the land such as westward expansion, anti-slavery, the coinage of free silver, women's suffrage, Social Security, internationalism, or civil rights.

The collective nature of congressional leadership makes any biography context-heavy. The congressional biographer must describe a multitude of characters, not all of whom are secondary to the focus of the biography: fellow party members who may have mentored the leader along the way; allies on key legislative issues; rivals for inside power; and the entire panoply of the hundreds of Senators with whom the subject may have served in the Senate or the thousands of Representatives with whom the subject may have served in the House. The task is to keep the focus on the subject of the biography without losing sight of the fact that no congressional leader, not Henry Clay or Thomas Brackett Reed in the nineteenth century nor Sam Rayburn or Lyndon Johnson in the twentieth century, could decree legislation by themselves from their respective chamber's floor. There are no congressional equivalents of the fabled tales of President Abraham Lincoln "outvoting" his cabinet.

Another contextual piece which limits the congressional biographer is the absence of true hierarchy within the Congress. No member can fire another member. No member's vote counts more than any other member's vote. The constitutionally-designed egalitarianism among members obliges floor leaders and committee chairs to engage in protracted negotiation with their members to accomplish even the most mundane piece of legislation. Conciliation and compromise are the currency of legislative success. The heroic loner stance so beloved by political biographers is woefully absent for most of us who write congressional biography. Dramatic moments are in short supply and loners don't last long.

Then-Senator John F. Kennedy's book, Profiles in Courage, provided a set of biographical vignettes focussing on heroic instances which found senators risking electoral disaster by challenging the beliefs of their constituents.1 But for most of us who have delved into congressional biography, such moments are very rare. What we have instead are decades of a congressional life punctuated by a few important bills and a few memorable speeches.

As a result, congressional biographers must immerse themselves in context: the personal and constituency environment of the congressional subject; and the legislative and political atmospherics of Washington during their time. Forays into constituency characteristics often lose readers who have a limited grasp of worthy political science variables such as the party competitiveness of the state or district; its rural-urban-suburban composition; its degree of racial, religious, and ethnic diversity; and its economic-industrial configuration. And forays into personal characteristics only hold reader interest if they are sufficiently at variance with expected norms of conventional families and behaviors.

Fortunately, in my biographical work on U.S. House Speaker John W. McCormack (D-Mass.), who held the Speaker's chair from 1962 to 1971, I have been blessed with a lively constituency context - the politics of Boston - which has been explored numerous times and a personal life which has elements of the tragic within it.

The abundance of published material on Massachusetts has been attested to by House Speaker Champ Clark (D-Mo.). In his autobiography, My Quarter-Century in American Politics, Clark wryly observed that "Massachusetts books, a great multitude which no man can number" have created the "erroneous" belief that "Massachusetts, singlehandedly and alone, originated and achieved the Revolution, created the Republic, and has sustained it and governed it from the first."2 There is no shortage of constituency material in Boston.

The personal element of John McCormack's life history was truly tragic. Before he reached the age of maturity, he had buried his mother, Mary Ellen, and stood beside the graves of five of his seven siblings. His father, Joseph, twice abandoned the family to a grim life of poverty and disease in the harsh Irish tenements of South Boston, far from the comfort and security of Beacon Hill and Back Bay. John McCormack's early hardships were genuine and very much in keeping with the Horatio Alger model of social advancement so prevalent among the ambitious climbers at the turn of this century.

John McCormack had often told people of his early life, of a poor Irish-born immigrant father who died young, leaving John the oldest son (at age thirteen) to care for his Irish-born mother and two younger siblings.3

In a May 18, 1971 interview shortly after leaving the speakership, John McCormack recounted his early life:

Well, at the time of the death of my father I was a young man, a boy - thirteen years old. He was a stonemason. The family was left in very bad financial circumstances. I had graduated from the grammar school and I had to leave the grammar school to go to work in order to try to keep the family together. Our family consisted of my mother and two younger brothers.4

It was a powerful story and has been recounted often. The greatest of this century's Boston Irish politicians - four-time Boston Mayor James Michael Curley, the presumed hero of the classic novel, The Last Hurrah, and President John F. Kennedy's grandfathers, John F. "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald and Patrick "P. J." Kennedy - had stories identical to this. The power of this tale of Irish fathers, widowed mothers, and younger siblings had elevated them to positions of high station within Irish Boston. But like many great stories, truth was strained within it.

To gain public office in Boston, a city hopelessly fractured by ethnic and religious conflicts, John McCormack dramatically altered the contours of his life history.

Through an examination of U.S. Census records; Boston City Directory listings; birth, marriage, and death certificates; newspaper obituaries; and church baptismal and burial records in Massachusetts, Maine and in Prince Edward Island, Canada, a different McCormack family history emerged.5

The story unraveled when death certificates were compared with tombstones. Tombstones tell tales. Not only do they indicate the final whereabouts of those lying beneath them, they are intended to leave the living with a memorial to those lives which passed before them and remind them of their own mortality. Tombstones also reveal the character and history of the deceased's survivors who pay to have the stones erected and inscribed.

The 1906 death certificate of James J. McCormack, the first of John McCormack's adolescent siblings to die, indicates that James was a victim of "phthisis" - a cover-up name for tuberculosis, that lung-destroying contagious horror which haunted poor immigrant families, laid waste to their vulnerable young and forever scarred the family survivors with a mark of shame - the shame of poverty and disease.

A visit to a nearby diocesan cemetery indicated that James was buried in Sandbanks, a small Catholic cemetery in Watertown, built in the shadow of Cambridge's majestic Mt. Auburn Cemetery. James has no tombstone but his grave is located beside an unusually shaped oblong block that Julia O'Brien had erected with two of its sides inscribed. On the facing side, it read:

Erected by Julia O'Brien
in memory of her son
Patrick J. O'Brien
b. Boston May 18, 1853
d. Rochester, N.Y.
October 17, 1882
On the left side of the stone, it read:
Michael J. O'Brien
b. Boston June 5, 1819
d. Boston October 13, 1881

Most tombstones in Sandbanks are inscribed with the Irish birthplaces of those beneath them. Only a small handful of tombstones in Sandbanks identify American birthplaces and one of these few was the curious oblong one erected and inscribed by Julia O'Brien to memorialize her husband and son. But the tombstone contained an inaccuracy for Michael J. O'Brien was not born in Boston. According to his naturalization papers, Michael O'Brien was born in County Cork, but Julia O'Brien had made her husband a Bostonian by inscribing Boston as both his place of birth and place of death on his tombstone.

Julia and Michael O'Brien were the parents of Mary Ellen O'Brien McCormack, John McCormack's mother. It is their names who are on Mary Ellen's 1885 marriage license, both in the Boston civil records and in the register at St. James the Greater Roman Catholic Church. Yet on Mary Ellen McCormack's 1913 death certificate are listed the names of another set of parents, Patrick O'Brien and Bridget Daley, both of Ireland. As Mary Ellen's oldest surviving son, it was John who would have given this information to the funeral home.

John was fourteen when James was buried in Sandbanks and he stood beside the oblong tombstone of Michael and Patrick O'Brien which had been erected by grandmother Julia. John was well aware of how his grandmother had reinvented his grandfather as a Bostonian. John also knew that this inscription was literally chiseled in stone.

After James's death in 1906, John McCormack left school at the age of fourteen and he was employed full-time as a messenger boy for the Boston Curb Exchange. Just before he left school, his only sister, Catherine, was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was gone eight months after James. John's first major outlay as a full-time worker was to cover the cost of a cemetery plot in Mt. Benedict Cemetery for his only sister. He was fourteen when Catherine died; nineteen when Patrick, his oldest brother, died; and twenty-one when his mother died. All were buried in the same plot in Mt. Benedict, which he and Patrick had purchased seven years earlier.

When John came to fill out his own mother's death certificate, he chose not to identify Michael and Julia O'Brien as his mother's parents but rather he took the names of two deceased Irish-born South Boston neighbors and placed them on his mother's death certificate. It was a dangerous move. But John and his two younger brothers, Edward and Donald, had already silently stood over the graves of five siblings, four of whom were grown - two in Canada - Henry, his eighteen-year-old half-brother and an unbaptized boy - and three in Boston. Now they had buried their mother. There was no generational barrier between them and their own mortality. The document was partially true. Mary Ellen's parents had been born in Ireland. That was true. It says so in the 1900 census. But it is the names of her parents on her death certificate which were not.

John was now only twenty-one years old and about to pass the bar examination. The burden of protecting his two surviving brothers from the deadly fate which had befallen so many others within the family was uppermost in his mind. Grandma Julia understood that to be Irish in nineteenth century Boston jeopardized the welfare of a family so she made her husband a native Bostonian. John understood that to be Irish in twentieth century Boston was essential for survival so he made his Canadian-born father and Boston-born mother native Irish.

John's father, Joseph H. McCormack, did not accompany his children to any of these funerals, not even to that of his wife Mary Ellen who had been pregnant twelve times, given birth eight times, lived to see six confirmed, and had buried three grown children. The surviving boys knew that he was alive somewhere. They never knew if Joe would return, so on her 1913 death certificate, Mary Ellen McCormack's marital status is listed as "M" for "Married", not "W" for "Widowed". Joe had been gone for eight years. He was dead to the boys, if not yet to God.

To make it in Yankee Boston required a Puritan ancestry and a Harvard degree for those who would ascend its economic and social ladders. John McCormack knew that genealogists had long lists of Puritan descendants and that the Harvard Alumni Association had long lists of its students. These lists were zealously guarded to prevent any interloper from making a false claim to advance himself inappropriately. Yankee Boston was inaccessible.

It would have to be Irish Boston through which John McCormack would have to advance. Irish Boston had its own requirements. They were less strict than those of Yankee Boston. Documentation was not necessary but it helped. Being Catholic was essential but also expected. The successful combination of life experiences for advancement within Irish Boston was to be the son of an Irish immigrant and a widowed mother with younger siblings to support.

Did John McCormack have "the right stuff" for the political gatekeepers of Irish Boston? The answer is simple: No. His father was not born in Ireland but was a Canadian from the Maritimes. To South Boston, this made him a "two-boater" or "herring choker." Furthermore, Joe McCormack may have even been a Scot. Heaven forbid.

Concealment was essential. This was a lesson he had learned from the O'Brien tombstone in Sandbanks. Family histories could be altered if survival is at issue. So John McCormack altered his history. Joe McCormack, born to Scots-descended Canadians in Prince Edward Island was trouble. Joe may have been dead to his surviving sons, but there was no certainty that he was truly dead and gone. Unbeknownst to the boys, Joe was living in Maine and working in the granite quarries of Waldoboro. For twenty-four years after leaving Boston, Joe worked as a stone cutter in the quarries. Joe died in 1929, while thirty-seven-year-old John McCormack was serving his first term in the U.S. House and not, as he told others, while John was a thirteen-year-old South Boston newsboy. Joe McCormack was reinvented by his son as a native Irishman who died in 1905.

John's mother would also be recast as a native of Ireland. It is doubtful if Mary Ellen, born an American, would have appreciated this posthumous relocation of her birthplace, but she would have understood why it was done. And contrary to the tale, John was not the oldest sibling. Patrick, Catherine and James were past adolescence and into adulthood at the time of Joe McCormack's departure from the household.

But desperation and ambition can work wonders, and John McCormack set about to recast himself in the prevailing model of Irish Boston's successful politicians. The Irish were now in the political ascendancy, and it would be in the best interest of John McCormack to highlight those features of his life which emphasized his Irishness and to conceal those which did not. This would be "the greening" of John McCormack.

The three older siblings - Patrick, Catherine, and James - would be recast as having died in infancy. That Patrick was twenty-four, Catherine nineteen, and James seventeen at the times of their deaths would have to be finessed. It was a painful decision, but one he had to make. So John told the story of the three McCormack brothers fending for themselves in these times of hardship. To those who would ask the Speaker about the other McCormack children, he would only say that all of the others had died in infancy and childhood.

In 1966, Donald died in Texas leaving John as the family's last surviving son. Brother Edward, a colorful South Boston figure known as "Knocko", had predeceased them both in 1963. So it was left up to John to deal with Donald's remains. John was now Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and he had the remains of Donald, his youngest brother, flown to Boston and driven to Mt. Benedict Cemetery. It was John who had the tombstone inscribed:

In Memory of My Mother

Donald J.


Mary Ellen's memory and that of Donald, the youngest son, were acknowledged on that tombstone but her two other children - Patrick, her oldest son, and Catherine, her only daughter - who lay beside them, are not mentioned at all. John knew that they were there. He had stood over both of their graves while his mother wept at their deaths. But John McCormack could not acknowledge their presence, for to do so would indicate that the altered life history which had made it possible for him to ascend the heights of Irish Boston was false. How could John McCormack have grown siblings when he had told people throughout his district and in Washington that his siblings had died in infancy? How indeed?

Leaving their names off his mother's tombstone may have been the most difficult decision of his life at this, the moment of his greatest success. During the previous twelve months of 1965, John McCormack had triumphantly presided over the U.S. House of Representatives during the First Session of the Eighty-ninth Congress. This was "the Great Society Congress" and its legislative achievements of Medicare and Medicaid came close to President Lyndon Johnson's goal of "out-Roosevelting Roosevelt." Even at the height of his political power and influence, the half-century of John McCormack's altered life history had to remain in place. If it was learned that John McCormack had lied about the ages of his deceased siblings, then was it possible that there were other misstatements? Was his mother really born in Ireland as stated on Edward's death certificate? And that of John's. Or was she born in Boston as it says on her own death certificate and those of James, Catherine and Patrick and on the census returns of 1900 and 1910 and on all six of the birth notices of her enumerated children?

What of Joe McCormack? According to family history, Joe McCormack died in 1905. However, there is no Massachusetts death certificate or Boston obituary, funeral mass or cemetery plot to mark his passing.

There was a further McCormack family shame to conceal: abandonment and desertion. Failing fortunes and an ailing family had finally taken their toll on Joe McCormack. Married to a practicing Catholic wife, divorce was not possible, so Joe opted for the "poor man's divorce" and abandoned his family to the hardships of urban life in America. One afternoon in 1905, Joe McCormack hopped the Boston & Maine and went north to gain employment as a stonecutter along the Atlantic's edge in coastal Maine, the major corridor between Prince Edward Island and the city of Boston.

In the 1920s, Joe McCormack returned to Boston in search of work. He stayed with his niece in the Dorchester section of the city. According to a letter from Joe McCormack's grandniece, he went to see John the following morning and never returned John McCormack put five dollars in his father's pocket and sent him back to Maine.

Joe McCormack died in 1929. Expectations of a Mass, a wake, and consecrated ground - the marks of a "decent burial"to Roman Catholics - appear to have been unfulfilled. None of the three Roman Catholic parishes in the area - St. Bernard's in Rockland, St. Denis's in North Whitfield, nor the venerable St. Patrick's in Newcastle - provided a priest for the burial of Joe McCormack, this family deserter. Joe was buried out of the Flanders Funeral Home by the Reverend Henry O. Megert from the Methodist Episcopal Church. Joe McCormack was not buried as a Catholic. He was buried in the town section of the Waldoboro Rural Cemetery - as a pauper.

John McCormack failed to give his father a "decent burial." Anger and bitterness prevented him from following the commandment "to honor thy father." He had failed to memorialize his own brother and sister on the tombstone of the grave which they shared with his mother. These were sins. He had knowingly and deliberately dealt improperly with his family's dead.

In his time in Washington, John McCormack became a surprising favorite of the Democratic congressmen from the Scots-Irish stronghold of the southern Appalachian Mountains. Both those born in and those representing that part of the nation, like Fred Vinson of Kentucky, Jere Cooper of Tennessee, Gene Cox of Georgia, Will Bankhead of north Alabama and Alfred Bulwinkle of western North Carolina liked McCormack. Tennessee-born Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, John McCormack's greatest partner in shaping the legislative destiny of the House, unknowingly shared his ethnic origins.

There was something about John McCormack which Rayburn and his fellow Scots-Irishmen liked, but John McCormack could not tell them what it was they liked for if it had been learned in South Boston that John McCormack was more Scotch-Irish and Canadian than immigrant Irish then his career in the House would have come to an abrupt and painful end.

So John McCormack concealed his true ethnic identity. His reinvented Irish identity helped him hold his South Boston seat and his genuine Scotch-Irish behavioral style gained him friends and legislative allies in a chamber dominated by these men of the mountains of the Southeast. Both of his identities paid political dividends.

In his fifth term, U.S. Representative John McCormack served as a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee when it passed the Social Security Act of 1935 to the House floor. This extraordinary act instituted a national system of social insurance, including old age pensions; provided unemployment compensation; and authorized grants to the states to assist in relief of the destitute, blind, homeless, dependent and delinquent children, and in services such as public health, vocational rehabilitation, and maternity and infant care.

Three decades later, as the Speaker of the Eighty-ninth Congress (1965-67), John McCormack presided over the House when Social Security legislation was greatly augmented by President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society acts creating Medicare and Medicaid which changed dramatically the relationship between the economic needs of Americans and the willingness of their government to address those needs. Once again, Boston's John McCormack would play a key role in this transforming legislative era.

Never again would the full weight of poverty grind American citizens down while the federal government in Washington remained indifferent to their needs. Had this legislation existed a generation earlier, the McCormack children would not have suffered their horrors nor been sped to their graves.

Never again would an adult child ever have to deal agonizingly with the economic plight of an indigent parent as John McCormack had to do with his father on one very painful Boston morning.

The legislation which John McCormack expedited through the Congress altered American social policy forever, and if it took a reinvented personal history to place him in a post where he could make it happen, then a far greater good had been done. Mary Ellen McCormack's "good boy" had given her and those heroic mothers like her a living monument for them all. John McCormack had atoned.

Garrison Nelson is professor of political science at the University of Vermont and a Senior Fellow at the McCormack Institute, University of Massachusetts-Boston. He has written extensively on various aspects of the U.S. Congress and is currently working on a biography of former Speaker John McCormack.


1.  John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (New York: Harper & Bros., 1955).

2.  Champ Clark, My Quarter-Century of American Politics (New York: Harper & Bros., 1920), 120. The biographical accounts of John McCormack's early life all contain this version.

3.  See: Donald R. Kennon, ed., "John William McCormack," in The Speakers of the U.S. House of Representatives: A Bibliography (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 266; Charles Moritz, ed., "John W. McCormack," Current Biography, 1962 (New York: H. W. Wilson, 1963), 275-277; Richard H. Gentile, "John William McCormack," Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement Ten, 1975-1980 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1995), 483-487. Mea culpa. Even I accepted the story in my profile of John McCormack in Donald C. Bacon, Roger H. Davidson, and Morton H. Keller, eds., The Encyclopedia of the United States Congress, vol. 3 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 1328-1330.

4.  Transcribed interview with John W. McCormack conducted by former U.S. House legislative counsel, Edward Kraft, 18 May 18 1971. The family history quote appears on pp. 2-3. A more public recounting of the tale appears in a reminiscing article by John McCormack in "I Remember When I Was Thirteen," in Leo P. Danwer, ed., I Remember Southie (Boston: Christopher Publishing House, 1976), 119-121.

5.  Fuller explorations of this research may be found in Garrison Nelson, "In the Shadows of John McCormack's Past Lie New Truths about His Life," Boston Sunday Globe, Focus (25 July 1999), E1-E3; and "Irish Identity Politics: The Reinvention of Speaker John W. McCormack," New England Journal of Public Policy, XV (Fall/Winter, 1999/2000), 7-34.

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