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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
To be sure, the issue had been less clear to Reed when the Republicans had been in the minority, but he had been moving toward this moment of resolution since his first nomination for the Speakership in 1885. Defeated at that time by the Democratic majority, he had since then been leader of his party in the House and now was leader of the House. In those days it was a post of tremendous influence. Since the Speaker was ex-officio chairman of the Committee on Rules, whose two Republican and two Democratic members cancelled each other out, and since he had the right to appoint all committees, the careers of members and the course of legislation depended on his will. In Reed’s hands was now the “power with responsibility,” and, notwithstanding a famous dictum, power has other effects than only to corrupt: it can also enlarge the understanding. It sometimes begets greatness. The Speaker’s office, which the Washington Post called “no less consequential than the Presidency,” could be a steppingstone to that ultimate peak. Reed was not the man either to miss his opportunity or to meet it feebly.
He had sprung from the rib of that hard northern corner of New England with the uncompromising monosyllabic name. When he was born in 1839 his ancestors had been living in Maine for two hundred years. Through his mother he was descended from a Mayflower passenger and through his father’s mother, from George Cleve, who came from England in 1632, built the first white man’s house in Maine, and was founder of the Portland colony and its first governor. The Reed who married Cleve’s great-great-granddaughter came of a fishing and seafaring family. Never landed in a large sense nor wealthy, these forebears and their neighbors had striven over the generations to maintain a settlement on the rock-ribbed soil, to survive Indian attack and isolation and snowbound winters. The habit of struggle against odds was bred into Thomas Reed’s blood. His father, captain of a small coastal vessel, had mortgaged his home to send his son to Bowdoin. To maintain himself at college Reed taught school, walking six miles to and from his lodgings each day. The sons of Portland families went to Bowdoin not to satisfy social custom but to gain a serious education. As most of them were situated in circumstances like Reed’s, the semesters were arranged to allow for teaching school in winter. Reed intended himself for the ministry but, sitting up nights on the bed in his attic room reading aloud with a college friend Carlyle’s French Revolution , Goethe’s Faust and Werther , Macaulay’s Essays , and the novels of Thackeray and Charles Reade, he formed religious convictions that were too individual to submit to a formal creed. After graduating in 1861 he studied law while continuing to teach for twenty dollars a month and “boarding round” in local families.
The Civil War did not engulf him until 1864, when he joined the Navy and saw service of a none-too-bellicose nature on a Mississippi gunboat. He was commissary officer and would freely admit in later life that he had never been under fire. The usual aura of glory and glitter of gallantry that gradually encrust most wartime memories were no part of Reed’s. “What a charming life that was, that dear old life in the Navy,” he would say when others took to recalling the war, “when I kept grocery on a gunboat. I knew all the regulations and the rest of them didn’t. I had all my rights and most of theirs.” He was to repeat the method in Congress with similar result.
When admitted to the bar in Maine in 1865 Reed was a tall, strong young man of twenty-five with a square, handsome, hard-boned face and thick blond hair. During the next ten years he served as city counsel for Portland, was elected to the state legislature and then to the state senate, was appointed attorney general for Maine, married, became a father, and grew fat. His hair thinned until he was almost bald, his figure bellied out until, as he walked down the streets of Portland, he resembled “a human frigate among shallops.” Silent, impassive, with an inward-turned eye, noticing no one, he moved along with the ponderous, gently swaying gait of an elephant. “How narrow he makes the street look!” a passer-by once exclaimed.
In 1876, the year of the contested Hayes-Tilden election, when partisan animosity was at its bitterest since the war, Reed at thirty-six was elected to Congress in place of Blaine, who moved up to the Senate. Appointed to the committee formed to investigate the Democrats’ charges of electoral fraud, he cross-examined witnesses with such suavity slashed by sudden rapier cuts that the performance drew spectators for its forensic artistry and made him nationally prominent. In subsequent Congresses he became a member of the all-important Rules Committee and chairman of the Judiciary Committee while, session by session, perfecting his knowledge of House procedure and parliamentary device.