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Thomas B. Reed: the wittiest Speaker of all

Speaker of the House John Boehner is learning the enduring truth of Lyndon Johnson’s famous distinction between a cactus and a caucus. In a caucus, said LBJ, all the pricks are on the inside. Presumably Speaker Boehner seldom thinks about his Republican predecessors as leaders of the House. Boehner might want to reflect about one former GOP Speaker who was both witty and effective. Thomas B. Reed, who was a Republican Speaker from 1889 to 1891, and again from 1895 to 1899, set a high standard for wit and repartee in debate. A long-time House member from Maine, Reed was a large man at 6-foot 3-inches tall and close to 300 pounds.  When a questioner asked him how much he weighed, he responded: “No gentleman ever weighed over two hundred pounds.”

His quick responses in debate became legend. He said the Senate was “a place where good Representatives went when they died.” Of the religious sentiments of his colleagues, he observed: “One, with God, is always a majority, but many a martyr has been burned at the stake while the votes were being counted.” And, of course, when a Democratic member proclaimed, following the Whig leader Henry Clay, that he would rather be right than be president, Reed replied that “the gentleman need not be disturbed — he will never be either.”

Thomas Brackett Reed. Public domain via the Library of Congress.
Thomas Brackett Reed. Public domain via the Library of Congress.

Assuming the speakership in late 1889, Reed confronted a House paralyzed by the tactics of the opposition Democrats who refused to answer to their names in the roll call, thereby denying Republicans the quorum they required to do business and then, in the absence of such a quorum, insisting upon adjournment. As the party of state rights, limited government, and racism in the South in that distant era, the Democrats sought to hamstring the Republicans by every means possible. With only a small working majority about six seats at best, the Republicans seemed destined for futility. In January 1890, when the Democrats shouted “no quorum,” Reed directed the clerks to record the names of those members who were present but refusing to vote.  When an angry Democrat protested, Reed said: “The Chair is making a statement of fact that the gentleman from Kentucky is present. Does he deny it?”

With control of the rules and House procedures from then onward, Reed pushed through a sweeping program of legislation on the tariff, antitrust, and the currency that reflected the economic nationalism that marked the GOP before 1900. “The danger in a free country is not that power will be exercised too freely, but that it will be exercised too sparingly,” Reed contended.  The House has never returned to the days of the disappearing quorum.

For Reed, the heady days of his first speakership represented the high point of his political career. He had hopes to be the Republican nominee for president in 1896, but his political base in Maine was too narrow to give him a real chance against the more popular William McKinley. Reed observed bitterly, as would many aspirants who followed him, that the party’s national convention “could do worse” than nominate himself “and probably will.” When the Republicans regained control of the House in 1894, Reed was once again Speaker, but he was out of step with the overseas expansionist policies of the McKinley administration. Contemptuous of the president, whom he thought his intellectual inferior, Reed resigned as Speaker in 1899, left the House, and practiced law until his death in 1902. He was already a forgotten figure who had outlived his fame.

Reed’s turbulent career looks back to an age when Republicans still believed in the precept that no single individual was bigger than the party itself. Strict party discipline enabled Reed to keep his members in line, do away with the vanishing quorum, and conduct the legislative business of the country in an orderly and constructive manner. If his skills now seem something out of a quaint period of the nation’s past, Reed also stand as a lesson about what a constructive political leader can do to advance the national interest with skill and determination. John Boehner is no Tom Reed and his caucus is certainly not composed of the kind of Republicans who followed Reed into power in 1889-1890. Whether the nation is better for the changes that have overtaken the House and made Speaker Boehner’s leadership task so difficult would be a topic worth a serious debate, and one which has enduring relevance.

Featured image: United States Capitol, Washington, D.C., east front elevation. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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