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Congressional Lions: Thomas B. Reed


Republican Congressman Thomas B. Reed of Maine became one of the most powerful speakers of the United States House of Representatives, serving from 1889 until 1891, and again from 1895 until 1899. I discuss his tenure in office in my book-in-progress, Congressional Lions.

Infuriated by the slow pace of legislation and the ability of a small minority of members to obstruct House business, Speaker Reed instituted changes in the rules that solidified his power. In one memorable instance, he fought against the well-known quorum rule. When a party feared losing a vote, its members would refuse to speak or cast a vote. Their silence ensured that a quorum was lacking. A masterful parliamentarian, Reed changed the quorum rule to read, “The Chair directs the Clerk to record the following names of members present and refusing to vote.” In short, a member who refused to speak was still counted as present for purposes of a quorum call. Owing to this and other tactics, his political enemies labeled him a “czar.” Reed relished the appellation.

The czar was born in a two-story wood-frame home in Portland, Maine, on October 18, 1839. Thomas, Jr., enjoyed a decidedly middle class childhood. He was by all accounts a healthy, robust boy. By the time he was in high school, the future speaker was already tall and amply-proportioned, well on his way to becoming the six-foot, three-inch, 250-pound giant he would one day become. More than his physical attributes, he was becoming an independent-thinking iconoclast who refused to follow the crowd or accept the status quo.

He set off for Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, after graduating high school. An elite private college founded in 1794, Bowdoin was the alma mater of many influential New Englanders, including the writers Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathanial Hawthorne as well as one president of the United States, Franklin Pierce. At 16, Reed was one of the youngest of the 58 students who matriculated to the college for the class of 1860.

After graduating with his college degree, Reed taught at the Boys High School in Portland. Later, he began studying law in the offices of a Maine attorney, S. C. Strout. The legal profession did not require practitioners to attend law school in those days. For a young man of relatively modest means with an interest in politics, the law was a promising avenue of advancement, and Reed intended to follow that avenue as far as it would take him.

During the time that Reed was preparing for his future career, southern rebels fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, President Abraham Lincoln issued his call for volunteer soldiers to put down the rebellion, and the Civil War commenced. He was not oblivious to these tumultuous events, but Reed also was not a war enthusiast, unlike many of his peers who eagerly donned a uniform and marched off to battle full of visions of military glory. Willing to sit back and continue the upward trajectory of his life, he was not among the first wave of young men who dropped everything to oppose the Confederates. Instead, he purchased a ticket and headed off to California to experience a part of the world foreign to him.

By 1864, Reed had recognized that a young man who did not wear a military uniform was suspect. He returned to the East Coast that year and accepted a commission in the United States Navy. Unlike many of his friends and colleagues, the young man was hardly a model seaman. He confessed to a group of Union veterans years later that the war “meant no roaring wind, no shriek of shot or shell, but level water and the most delightful time of my life.” He paused in telling his tale, and then scanned his audience of brave survivors. “For I was on a gunboat on the Mississippi River after the valor and courage of you gentlemen had driven the enemy off.”

In October 1865, after the war had ended and he had been released from service, Reed was admitted to the bar in Cumberland County, Maine. His real interest lay in politics, however, and he wasted no time in offering himself as a candidate. In 1867, he successfully campaigned for a seat in the state legislature, and he won. Reed served in the Maine House of Representatives until 1870, when he moved over to the Maine Senate. From there, he became state attorney general. Retiring after a single term, as was customary, Reed became a private attorney and served as the city solicitor for Portland, Maine.

He won his first race for the United States House of Representatives at the age of 37 in November 1876. As luck or fate would have it, 1876 was the same year of the contested Hayes-Tilden presidential contest. The Democrat, Samuel Tilden, appeared to have won the popular vote, but a dispute over votes in the electoral college ensured that the outcome would not be decided for weeks. An electoral commission finally chose the Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, as the winner, but charges of a corrupt bargain would plague the incoming president for the rest of his single term in office.

Amid the tumult, Reed arrived to take his seat in the 45th Congress early in 1877. He was one of 142 freshmen congressmen. He had been a standout in Maine politics, but it was unclear whether his success would translate to the national level. He need not have worried. Freshmen congressmen seldom make a name for themselves, but Reed won public notice and approval after he was appointed to the Potter Commission, a congressional committee charged with investigating Democrats’ complaints of electoral corruption in the presidential contest. His undeniable skill in cross examining witnesses and his verbal wit attracted attention from everyone who observed the proceedings. Here was a congressman expected to accomplish great things in his public career.

Reed became adept at playing the game. He ascended up through the committee structure, becoming a member of the important rules committee, which determined when and how bills would be shepherded to, and managed on, the floor of the House of Representatives. He also served as chairman of the judiciary committee. Along the way, he mastered the arcane, complex rules of the House, no easy matter. According to one admiring member of Congress, Reed “understood as few men do the theory and philosophy of the system.” Therein lay the source of his power: Reed relied on his first-rate intellect to sift through the byzantine rules and ferret out possibilities he could use to good advantage.

His superior intellect, apparently inexhaustible capacity for hard work, and willingness to take on entrenched interests soon propelled the Maine congressman to the forefront of the Republican Party. By the time that Republican Benjamin Harrison captured the White House in 1888 and his party won majorities in both chambers of Congress, Reed was the natural choice to serve as speaker of the House beginning with the 51st Congress at the end of 1889. Yet his election was by no means a foregone conclusion. Some members preferred William McKinley of Ohio or Joseph G. Cannon of Illinois. Julius C. Burrows of Michigan and David B. Henderson of Iowa were mentioned as possibilities as well. Reed’s acid tongue and unwillingness to suffer fools gladly (or silently) struck some members as off-putting.

The Republicans held a caucus, and it appeared that Reed’s candidacy was in trouble, despite his obvious qualifications and desire to serve. He was pushing 50, which made him older than many of the noteworthy speakers of the past, including Henry Clay and James G. Blaine. Unlike Clay and Blaine, both of whom won the position early in their tenures, Reed had waited his turn for a dozen years. To lose his place at this time in his life and career would be embarrassing, to say nothing of possibly rendering him politically impotent.

When the final votes were counted, however, he won with 85 votes out of 166 cast. McKinley, with 38 votes, was in second place while Cannon was a distant third, with 19 votes. Henderson garnered 14 votes and Burrows, 10. Because Republicans controlled the House and generally voted the party line, Reed also beat the Democrat John Carlisle to capture the prize.

He was not a proponent of big government, but when Reed reformed the House to make the legislative process less cumbersome, he emboldened members to enact legislation that otherwise might never have passed. Congressmen soon pushed through measures increasing the scope (and cost) of the federal government. During this time, Reed continued to be the master of the acerbic quip. When a Democratic opponent quoted Henry Clay’s famous line that he would rather be right than president, Reed dryly observed, “The gentleman needn’t worry. He will never be either.” A critic commented that Reed would rather make an epigram than a friend. Often he made an epigram and an enemy.

One key to Reed’s extraordinary success as speaker, despite his sarcastic comments, was his willingness to immerse himself in the nitty gritty details of numerous bills. Many previous speakers of the House had left it to their lieutenants to master the minutiae of legislation. The sheer volume of bills pending before the House ensured that no one person could read and reflect on everything the chamber took up. Despite the burden of staying current on the salient issues, Reed attempted to read and master committee reports with an almost reckless abandon. He was indefatigable in his work, often reading reports and posing questions to his assistants into the wee hours of the night. Nothing escaped his notice. He displayed a relentless curiosity about the issues as well as the personalities of the members. With a keen desire to know what motivated members to vote, Reed sought information on the habits and idiosyncrasies of his colleagues.

Reed could not continue his reign as Speaker after Republicans lost control of the House in the 1890 elections. The defeat could be attributed, at least in part, to the unpopularity of the McKinley Tariff. Named for Congressman William McKinley of Ohio, the protectionist Republican measure drove up the cost of many household products, which ensured that Americans would feel economic pain when they purchased goods subject to the tariff. Angry voters expressed their displeasure at the ballot box by overwhelmingly supporting Democrats running for Congress.

During his wilderness years, Reed watched as turmoil beset the nation. The panic of 1893 caused financial pain across the country. A year later, Coxey’s Army of unemployed men marched on Washington to call attention to the plight of the working man. A violent Pullman car strike that same year publicized the rift between capital and labor. In November 1894, a fearful electorate turned on the Democratic majority and returned control of the House to the Republicans.

Reed returned to the speaker’s chair when the 54th Congress convened in December 1895. He had learned much during his time in the congressional leadership, and he was a seasoned legislative warrior. His brethren stood in awe of this larger-than-life character who stood at the apex of his career. “He commands everything by the brutality of his intellect,” one congressman concluded. Said another, “He had more perfect control over the House than any other Speaker.”

Worn down from his years fighting in the political trenches and disappointed at the McKinley administration’s decision to fight the Spanish-American War, Reed mulled over the idea of leaving Congress when the 55th Congress adjourned in March 1899. A month later, he informed the governor of Maine that he would vacate the office in September, although the decision was not yet made public. It was already an open secret that he probably would resign as he set sail for Europe during the summer of 1899. On August 23 of that year, he made it official. Reed thanked his constituents in a letter formally announcing his resignation from both the office of the speaker as well as his seat in the United States House of Representatives. “Other men have had to look after their districts,” he wrote in parting, “but my district has always looked out for me.”

He retired to a private law practice for the remainder of his life, joining the New York City firm of Reed, Simpson, Thatcher & Barnum located at 25 Broad Street. Away from the partisan furor that had consumed much of his time and energy, he felt rejuvenated. Reed always struggled with his weight, but he managed to drop a few pounds in retirement. He also enjoyed renewing friendships with public men, including the celebrated writer Mark Twain. He became an elder statesman of sorts, always ready to provide a speech or a quote suitable for any auspicious occasion.

“A statesman,” Reed himself once mused, “is a politician who is dead.” His death and his elevation to permanent statesmanship came only a few years after his retirement. On December 2, 1902, after visiting his old stomping grounds in the ways and means committee, Reed collapsed. He was in the Marble Room of the Senate at the time. Carried to his room at the nearby Arlington Hotel, Reed waited for a doctor to arrive. Eventually, a physician examined the ailing man and determined that Reed was suffering from Bright’s Disease, a kidney affliction, made worse by appendicitis. He was in the late stages of the disease.

With his kidneys failing, the end was near. After five days of pain and delirium, the former speaker died. It was 12:10 a.m. on December 7, 1902. He was 63 years old.

Today Speaker Reed is mostly forgotten—a National Public Radio segment labeled him “the most important politician you’ve never heard of”—but in his day, he was a congressional giant.


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© 2020 J . Michael Martinez