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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
The furor of the decade over free silver becomes more comprehensible to our time if it is seen less as a question of currency than of class struggle. The Republicans were naturally on the unpopular side. Although the issue was avoided for the moment, the Republicans were bent on becoming unpopular one way or another, and one result of Reed’s quorum victory was to enable them promptly to accomplish their goal by passage of the McKinley Tariff Act (renamed for the new chairman of the Ways and Means Committee). The effect of this weird concoction of high duties and free raw materials, whose proud sponsor soothingly dismissed foreign markets as a “delusion” of free trade, was to send prices soaring and lose the Republicans the election of 1890. The Democrats won control of the House by so large a majority that they could always assemble a quorum among themselves. When the Fifty-second Congress assembled, triumphantly they threw out Reed’s reform.
He waited for history, not without some faith, as he used to say, that “the House has more sense than anyone in it.” Meanwhile as minority leader he said of his party colleagues in the Fifty-second Congress, “They behaved with gentleness and modesty partly because they were very good men and partly because there were very few of them.”
History did not keep Reed waiting long. In the Fifty-third Congress, with the Democratic majority reduced by half and split over free coinage and other heated issues, Reed enjoyed a delicious revenge. Over and over he demanded roll calls, and when Balnd of Missouri stormed against this “downright filibuster,” he counteed instantly, “Downright? You mean upright.” His control over his party, as minority leader no less than as Speaker, remained total. “Gentlemen on that side blindly follow him,” Speaker Crip said wistfully. “You will hear them privately saying ‘Reed ought not to do that’ or ‘This is wrong,’ but when Reed says ‘Do it’ they all step up and do it.” When at last the Democrats had to give way and, for the sake of their own program, readopt his quorum-counting rule, Reed refrained from crowing. “This scene here today is a more effective address than any I could make,” he said. “I congratulate the Fifty-third Congress.”
Meanwhile President Harrison had been chosen as Republican standard-bearer in 1892 and had been defeated by former President Cleveland. A man of integrity—and shape—similar to Reed’s (once, when mistaken for Cleveland in an ill-lit room, Reed said, “Mercy! don’t tell Grover. He is too proud of his good looks alredy”), Cleveland for all his good will was beset by hard times. Industrial unrest pripped the nation. Coxey’s Army of the unemployed marched on Washington. There was a money panic in 1893 and the bloody Pullman strike in the summer of 1894. In the election that autumn the Republicans regained the House with a huge majority of 140 (244-104) and when in December, 1895, the new Fifty-fourth Congress assembled, the familiar great black figure with the great white face was again enthroned in the Chair. During the next four years and two terms as Speaker, Reed was at the zenith of his power. The dangerous battle of his first term was long past and the guerrilla warfare of two terms as minority leader over, leaving him with unlimited control. His well-drilled ranks, though occasionally and, as time went on, increasingly restive, cound not break the habit of obedience. When the Speaker waved his hands upward they would stand as one man, and if by chance members rose to claim the floor when he wished them silent, a downward wave made them subside into their seats. “He had more perfect control over the House than any other Speaker,” wrote Senator Cullom of Illinois, “and his authority remained unquestioned until he retired.”
Stern about dignity and decorum, he permitted no smoking or shirtsleeves and even challenged the cherished privilege of feet on desk. A member with particularly visible white socks who so far forgot himself as to resume that comfortable posture received a message from the Chair, “The Czar commands you to haul down those flags of truce.”
With no favorites and no near rivals, he ruled alone. Careful not to excite jealousy, he avoided even walking in public with a member. Solitary, the stupendous figure ambled each morning the mile and a half from the old Shoreham Hotel (then at 15th and H streets), where he lived, to the Hill, barely nodding to greetings and unconscious of strangers who turned to stare at him in the street.
He had a kind of “tranquil greatness,” said a colleague, which evolved from a philosophy of his own and left him “undisturbed by the ordinary worries and anxieties of life.” Reed gave a clue to it one night when a friend came to discuss politics and found him reading Sir Richard Burton’s Kasidah , from which he read aloud the lines: