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Henderson, David Bremner
(March 14, 1840–February 25, 1906)

–first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from west of the Mississippi River—was born in Old Deer, Scotland. He emigrated to the United States with his parents at the age of six, settling first in Winnebago County, Illinois, and then three years later moving on westward to Iowa. There the Henderson family settled on a beautiful tract of land in northeastern Iowa that today is known as Henderson Prairie. Young Henderson attended a local school when not in the fields, and at age 18 continued his education at nearby Upper Iowa University, a newly founded school in Fayette.

    Henderson was brought into the whirlwind of the Civil War in 1861. As the nation split apart, he was instrumental in organizing a company of students. The faculty allowed the patriotic students to organize, and Henderson gave what must have been one of the best speeches of his career. An onlooker remembered Henderson "springing the muster roll on his fellow students in the chapel one evening after prayers; he made a rousing speech for the old flag and the Union.""We therefore drop our books to fight our country's battles," he thundered. The company soon mustered into service as Company C, 12th Iowa Infantry. First Lieutenant David Henderson called them "a sterling band of brothers"; they called themselves the "University Recruits."

    Henderson's service in the Federal army began a career dedicated to serving the United States and the people of Iowa. Lieutenant Henderson first saw action at Fort Donelson in February 1862, where he led the company in a charge on the enemy breastworks and received a scary but nonlethal "ball through his neck," which forced him to leave the army for a while. As a result, he missed the Battle of Shiloh in April, but he participated in the siege of Corinth and later the battle there, where on October 4, 1862, his left foot was terribly mangled. Surgeons tried in vain to save Henderson's foot, but eventually had to amputate, causing him discomfort for the rest of his life.

    Due to already forming political and social friendships, the convalescent Henderson wrangled an appointment as commissioner of the board of enrollment for Iowa's Third District, a position that ultimately garnered for him an appointment as a colonel. On June 10, 1864, Henderson mustered the 46th Iowa Infantry, a new 100-days regiment. The regiment served its time near Memphis, Tennessee, mostly on guard duty along the Memphis and Charleston Railroad.

    After the war, Henderson began his ascent to the highest office his foreign birth would allow him. He became a member of the Iowa bar in November 1865, studying under the state's attorney general and getting what he called his "sheepskin."Then he served as the Third District's Internal Revenue Service collector until 1869, when he joined the law firm of Shiras, Vanduzee, and Henderson in Dubuque. He also served as the assistant district attorney for the District of Iowa, Northern Division, until 1871, when he rejoined his law firm full time.

    Henderson also became involved in politics during that time. He attended the Republican National Convention on several occasions and chaired the Iowa delegation in 1880. Two years later the people of Iowa's Third District elected him as their representative to the U.S. Congress.

    Henderson steadily gained in status and seniority in the House of Representatives. By the 1890s he served as the powerful chairman of the Judiciary and Rules committees, and had his hand in many of the big issues of the day. Most important, he was seen as Speaker Thomas B. Reed's right-hand man. Henderson was anti-imperialist, supported a high protective tariff, and sought a solid gold standard– stances on the big issues of the day that put him at odds with many fellow Republicans.

    By 1899 Speaker Reed had become increasingly unpopular due not only to his domineering manner but also because of his anti-imperialist stance in an increasingly expansion-minded nation. That year Reed resigned his seat and his Speaker's position to enter law practice in New York. The resignation left a vacuum, which Henderson quickly set about to fill. Ultimately, political wrangling and cloakroom conferences secured enough votes for Henderson to win. He formally took the Speaker's stand on December 4, 1899, as the 56th Congress began. One onlooker described him as "an impressive figure at the speaker's desk."

    Henderson's two terms as Speaker were tiring for the aging soldier-statesman, but his decision not to run again for his seat in 1902 nonetheless took almost everyone in the nation by surprise. Many reasons have been offered, including his failing health, his differences with his party, and his increasing differences with the people he represented. Many supporters tried to convince him to change his mind, but he retired at the end of his 10th term and returned to private life. Henderson died four years later in Dubuque, where he was buried in Linwood Cemetery.
Sources No collection of Henderson's papers survives. For more information, see Willard L. Hoing, "David B. Henderson: Speaker of the House," Iowa Journal of History 55 (1957), 1–34.
Contributor: Timothy B. Smith