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Czar Of The House
When Speaker Reed set out to break “the tyranny of the minority,” he touched off an explosive battle. At stake was the effectiveness of the chamber itself
December 1962 | Volume 14, Issue 1
Not silver nor the tariff but overseas expansion and war with Spain dominated the life of the Fifty-fifth Congress after it assembled in December, 1897. Keed was strongly opposed to war, expansion, and foreign adventure because he believed that to extend American sway over foreign soil and foreign peoples was contrary to the fundamental principles upon which the United States was founded. He believed in self-determination of peoples and took the Declaration of Independence seriously. He was of the same mind as his fellow New Englander William James, who said that when the United States set out to acquire colonial dependencies, “the way the country puked up its ancient soul at the first touch of temptation was sickening.”
To Reed, the soul of the Republican party was equally violated. Expansion was “a policy no Republican ought to excuse much less adopt.” Nevertheless, his party, spurred by Alfred Thayer Mahan, expansion’s prophet, and by Mahan’s twin disciples, Lodge and Roosevelt (the latter now Assistant Secretary of the Navy), was adopting it with ardor, leaving the Democrats perforce to become the anti-imperialist party. In 1890, the same year in which the Census Bureau had declared there was no longer a land frontier, Mahan had prophesied, “Whether they will or no, Americans must now begin to look outward.” But Reed, along with other New Englanders including Charles Francis Adams and President Eliot of Harvard, as well as with most Democrats and assorted other persons like Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, and Samuel Gompers, abhorred the proffered fate. He believed American greatness was to be achieved by improving living conditions and raising political intelligence among Americans, not by a lust for conquest disguised as a philanthropic passion for “Cuba libre.” He regarded the Hearst-fabricated furor over Spain’s oppression of Cuba with contempt and Republican espousal of Cuba’s cause as hypocrisy. Since Senator Lodge openly talked of Cuba as a strategic “necessity,” and Senator Frye of Maine agreed that “we certainly ought to have the island in order to round out our possessions,” and a third Republican, Senator Cullom, thought it was high time to realize the need for “annexing some property,” Reed had reason for concern. He saw his party losing its moral integrity and becoming a party of political expediency in response to the ignorant clamor of the mob.
The first test was a proposed ultimatum to Spain which country and Congress were demanding. In 1895 Cleveland had refused to be pushed into belligerency and had bluntly told the Senate that if they passed a proposed resolution favoring recognition of Cuba’s independence, he would regard it “only as advice” and “inoperative” upon the Executive. Now the clamor was renewed. Reed as Speaker used all his influence with members and every parliamentary wile he knew to prevent the ultimatum, but sentiment was against him. President McKinley, though personally opposed to the war, was unpracticed in the art of living by his convictions and allowed himself to be bullied into it. The vote for the ultimatum in the House was 311 to 6. To one of the six Reed said, “I envy you the luxury of your vote. I was where I could not do it.”
He now focused all his efforts against the renewed moves for annexation of Hawaii. The beam of manifest destiny” playing upon those placid isles had lately revealed them to be a vital “outpost in the Pacific.” Arrangements for annexation, originally negotiated by Harrison, had been cancelled by Cleveland, so similarly minded in many ways to Reed. The excuse that control of Hawaii was necessary for the defeat of Spain in the Pacific was regarded by Reed as a pure pretext conceived by the sugar interests and imperialists. In this he was at odds with the President, with almost all his party in Congress, and with friends outside. “The opposition comes exclusively from Reed, who is straining every nerve to beat Hawaii,” wrote Lodge to Roosevelt, both of them ardent advocates of annexation. (Mahan, when asked by Roosevelt how to solve the political problem of acquiring Hawaii, advised, “Do nothing unrighteous but…take the islands first and solve afterward.”) Reed even went to the length of enlisting help from the Democrats. When a future Speaker, Champ Clark of Missouri, a good friend though a Democrat, asked Reed to put him on the Ways and Means Committee, Reed begged him to go on the Foreign Affairs Committee instead, where he needed Clark’s help as “a man who believes as I do and who is a fighter.”
“If you put it that way,” Clark replied, much affected, “I’ll stand by you,” and agreed to sacrifice the place he had long coveted to help his party’s most uncompromising opponent.
From his unassailable height above the floor and with his mastery of procedural techniques, Reed, with Clark’s help, could fend off a vote on the Hawaii resolution but he could not change sentiment. He knew that his own—the majority—party wanted annexation and that the House on the whole was in favor of it. He knew that by summoning all his authority he could defeat the resolution but that such a defeat would destroy the basic premise and purpose of Reed’s Rules: that the House really controlled itself, that no Speaker nor minority nor tricks of procedure could obstruct its expressed will, that the majority must prevail. He faced an agonizing choice: either let the Hawaii resolution pass, violating his own credo of American and Republican principles, or block the resolution and violate Reed’s Rules.
There was in fact no choice. He knew too well the value of what he had accomplished in the Fifty-first Congress. He bowed to the majority. On July 7, 1898, Hawaii was annexed by joint resolution of the Senate and House.