December 1962 | Volume 14, Issue 1
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
Strangers to Washington, particularly Englishmen who are used to the House of Commons, are surprised and disappointed, in modern times, by an actual view of Congress in session—the usually deserted chambers, the inattention to the speeches, the rare appearances m their chairs of the so-called Presiding Officers, the abysmal level of the oratory, the manner and even the dress of the members. It has a drabness reflected in the dull pages of the Congressional Record , most of whose “speeches” were never spoken but merely printed as part of the endless popularity contest of modern American politics. Members base their votes on questionnaires; they bend with every wind; fence-building among any minority or pressure group is the order of this soft-minded day. It is a generation at least since intelligent people have seen a battle of true principle, heard a great speech or even a great witticism in our legislative halls.
If this sounds bilious or extreme, we invite our readers to study this fine account of the career of Thomas B. Reed, the great Speaker of the House m the closing years of the nineteenth century. He made no deals. He sent out no self-praising circulars or questionnaires to find in what direction the whims of the crowd should lead him. He did what he thought was right, whatever the voters or the party felt. Indeed, he paid no attention to the voter element at all, despite which his own Maine constituency had the good sense to return him regularly to Washington, just as Woodford returns Winston Churchill. His was a hard, bright intellect, as incorruptible as that of another noted New England representative, John Quincy Adams. The clue to his personality, Mrs. Tuchman observes, was “moral superiority” in every sense. It might be difficult to explain, in these times, what that meant, but the f ramers of the Constitution must have had some ideal of the republican representative in their minds, before parties were formed or herdthinking was conceived of, and we suspect that Speaker Reed was just such a man. —Oliver Jensen
On January 29, 1890, in the House of Representatives a newly elected Speaker was in the chair. A physical giant six feet three inches tall, weighing almost three hundred pounds and“dressed completely in black, out of whose collar rose an enormous clean-shaven baby face like a Casaba melon flowering from a fat black stalk, he was a subject for a Franz Hals with long white fingers that would have enraptured a Memling.” Speaking in a slow and exasperating downEast drawl, he enjoyed dropping cool pearls of sarcasm into the most heated rhetoric and watching the ensuing fizzle with the bland gravity of a New England Buddha. When a wordy perennial, Representative Springer of Illinois, was declaiming to the House his passionate preference to be right rather than President, the Speaker interjected, “The gentleman need not be disturbed; he will never be either.” When another member, notorious for ill-digested opinions and a halting manner, began some remarks with, “I was thinking, Mr. Speaker, I was thinking…,” the Chair expressed the hope that “no one will interrupt the gentleman’s commendable innovation.” Of two particularly inept speakers he remarked, “They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.” It was said that he would rather make an epigram than a friend. Yet among the select who were his chosen friends he was known as “one of the most genial souls that ever enlivened a company,” whose conversation, “sparkling with good nature, was better than the best champagne.” He was Thomas Brackett Reed, Republican of Maine, aged fifty. Already acknowledged after fourteen years in Congress as “the ablest running debater the American people ever saw,” he would, before the end of the session, be called “the greatest parliamentary leader of his time…far and away the most brilliant figure in American politics.”
On this day in the early weeks of the Fifty-first Congress the Speaker had determined to put into effect a plan on which he had long deliberated, had consulted no one, and had risked his political future. The stakes were high: he would either break “the tyranny of the minority” by which the House was paralyzed into a state of “helpless inanity,” or he would resign. Without a flicker of expression on the great white moon face, “the largest human face I ever saw,” as a colleague described it, without any quickening of the drawling voice, he announced a certain new ruling to the Clerk. Instantly, according to the reporter for the Associated Press, “pandemonium broke loose. The storm was furious…and it is to be doubted if ever there was such wild excitement, burning indignation, scathing denunciation and really dangerous conditions as existed in the House” during the next five days.
The system Reed had decided to challenge was known as the silent—or disappearing—quorum. It was a practice by which the minority party could prevent any legislation obnoxious to it by refusing a quorum. A quorum was presumed to be present unless questioned, but the rules permitted a roll call upon demand of a fifth of the membership. Minority members would demand the roll and then remain silent when their names were called. Since the rules prescribed that a member’s presence was established only by a viva-voce reply to the roll, and since it required a majority of the whole to constitute a quorum, the silent filibuster could effectively stop the House from doing business. For nonpartisan matters the quorum would reappear, only to vanish again as soon as a vote was asked on any pending bill opposed by the minority. The process could be repeated interminably until the majority dropped the bill.
So practiced had members become in what Reed called “this peculiar art of metaphysics which admits of corporeal presence and parliamentary absence” that the previous Congress had been held absolutely stationary for two weeks by such tactics. During the last session there had been four hundred roll calls, of which Reed calculated that three hundred were deliberately obstructionist and amounted to “spending a whole month of our time calling over our own names.” The result was a “demoralized” House and “legislative anarchy.”
The silent quorum had had a progenitor as strongwilled as its now would-be executioner. John Quincy Adams, when he entered the House in 1832 after leaving the White House, became the first member ever to violate the House rule requiring members to vote when present. Though warned that he might be setting a dangerous precedent, Adams remained adamant for the rest of his term and thereafter the practice grew until it became more blighting than the Senate filibuster because it was so effortless in comparison. Whereas senators had to stand up and talk a bill to death, representatives had only to sit back in their seats and be silent. As a cure for the evil a proposal had twice been made in earlier Congresses to establish a quorum by actual count of those present instead of by yea and nay response to a roll call. Reed himself had denounced this plan when it was proposed in 1879 by John Randolph Tucker of Virginia, a distinguished constitutional lawyer but regrettably a Democrat. The awful consequences of declaring a quorum on any other basis than a viva-voce yea and nay were prophesied by that other remarkable man from Maine and then Speaker, James G. Blaine.
“Gentlemen,” he had warned, “the moment you clothe your Speaker with power to go behind your roll call and assume that there is a quorum in the Hall, why, gentlemen, you stand on the very brink of a volcano!”
But Republican circumstances were now so different that Reed was ready to dare the brink, indeed had to if his term as Speaker were not to be squandered in futility as a prisoner of the minority. The recent election of 1888 had been a Republican victory in which for the first time in sixteen years one party controlled both Executive and Congress. But by barely a hair. The dour Benjamin Harrison was a minority President who had lost to Cleveland in popular vote and sat on that unstable throne so oddly carpentered by the Electoral College system. The Re- publican majority in the House was a mere eight, 168160, only three more than a quorum, which was set at 165. To pass any party legislation, especially the Mills bill for a protective tariff, which was the cherished Republican goal and burning issue of the decade, the whips would have to round up and keep in their seats the whole Republican membership at every session, with no more than three absences allowed for sickness, traveling, lobbying, constituent-greeting, or any other activity. Outside of a prison such control of the inmates was impossible. Already by early January one Republican had died, several were ill in bed, and one had gone home to attend a dying wife.
The Democrats had already served notice that they intended to obstruct legislation when, on the opening day, they had demanded tellers for adoption of the Rules, normally a routine matter. Their policy was not simple negativism but a stern setting of ranks against enactment of the Mills bill as well as the Force bill for supervising elections (a measure directed against the poll tax and other southern devices). The Democratic minority was equally determined to prevent a vote on the seating of four Republicans, two of them Negroes, in contested elections from southern districts.
To Reed the issue was survival of representative government. If the Democrats could prevent that legislation which the Republicans by virtue of their electoral victory could rightfully expect to enact, they would in effect be setting aside the verdict of the election. The rights of the minority, he believed, were preserved by freedom to debate and to vote, but when the minority was able to frustrate action by the majority, “it becomes a tyranny.” He believed that legislation, not merely deliberation, was the business of Congress. The duty of the Speaker to his party and country was to see that that business was accomplished, not merely to umpire debate.
What use were elections if, as he later said to his constituents, nothing could be done that the beaten party would not have done itself? Why should statesmen battle for “power with responsibility” if their defeated opponents could have “the same power without responsibility?” He quoted the Koran: ’“Dost thou think, O Man, that we have created the heavens and earth in jest?’ Are elections a farce and is government by the people a juggle? Do we marshal our tens of millions at the polls for sport? If there be anything in popular government it means that whenever the people have elected one party to take control of the.House or the Senate, that party shall have both the power and the responsibility. If that is not the effect, what is the use of the election?”
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.
A body of rules had grown up “calculated better than anything else,” as a colleague said, “to obstruct legislation,” a body as full of “intricacies and secrets” as the armamentarium of a medieval cabalist. Reed mastered it. “In my opinion there never has been a more perfectly equipped leader in any parliamentary body at any period,” said a professional observer, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Reed not only knew parliamentary practice and law but “understood as few men do the theory and philosophy of the system.” Whether consciously or not, he was preparing for the time when as Speaker he would be able to impress upon the House a sense that no one on the floor could compete with the Chair in command of the rules.
With this alone he could not have imposed his authority if he had not also been “the finest, most effective debater,” in Lodge’s opinion, “that I have ever seen or heard.” He never used an extra word, never stumbled in his syntax, never spoke, even extemporaneously, in other than perfectly formed sentences. To listeners these seemed to fall from his lips “of their own accord”; in fact they were the product of a lifetime’s reading and a feeling for the rhythm of English prose that was natural in an admirer of Macaulay. Reed was instant in rejoinder, never at a loss, never forced to retreat or modify a position. He was terse, forcible, lucid. He could state a case unanswerably, illuminate an issue, destroy an argument, or expose a fallacy in fewer words than anyone else. His language was vivid and picturesque. “Hardly time to ripen a strawberry,” he said to describe a lapse of two months. His epigrams were famous. “All the wisdom in the world consists in shouting with the majority,” was one. Another was his reply when asked to define a statesman: “A statesman is a politician who is dead.” He rarely made a gesture when speaking. “When he stood up,” said Lodge, “waiting for an opponent to conclude, filling the narrow aisle, with his hands resting upon the desk, with every trace of expression banished from his face and looking as if he had not an idea and hardly heard what was being said, then he was most dangerous.” After one retort which left its victim limply speechless, Reed, looking about him sweetly, remarked, “Having embedded that fly in the liquid amber of my remarks, I will proceed.”
His lucidity and logic were particularly effective under the five-minute rule. “Russell,” he said to a representative from Massachusetts, “you do not understand the theory of five-minute debate. The object is to convey to the House either information or misinformation. You have consumed several periods of five minutes this afternoon without doing either.”
Reed made his point by narrating, not orating. Once when engaged in his favorite sport of baiting the adjoining chamber, for which he felt a profound disrespect, he described a presidential election fifty years in the future when by constitutional amendment the President would be selected from among and by the senators. “When the ballots had been collected and spread out, the Chief Justice who presided was observed to hesitate and those nearest could see by his pallor that something unexpected had happened. But with a strong effort he rose to his feet and through a megaphone, then recently invented by Edison, shouted to the vast multitude the astonishing result: 76 Senators had each received one vote.”
Discussing economic privilege during a tariff debate, he told how, when walking through the streets of New York and contrasting “the brownstone fronts of the rich merchants with the unrewarded virtue of the people on the sidewalk, my gorge rises…I do not feel kindly to the people inside. But when I feel that way I know what the feeling is. It is good honest highminded envy. When the gentlemen across the aisle have the same feeling they think it is political economy.”
When word ran down the corridors that Reed was on his feet, about to speak, gossiping groups dissolved, members hurried to their seats, boredom and inattention vanished as the House listened expectantly for the sculptured prose, the prick of sarcasm, and the flash of wit. Every member coveted the notoriety of debating with Reed, but he refused to be drawn by the “little fellows,” reserving himself only for those he considered worthy opponents.
After his first term, his nomination as representative L of Maine’s First District was never afterward contested. Elections were another matter, and he almost lost the one of 1880 when he refused to compromise or equivocate on free silver despite strong Greenback sentiment in Maine. He kept his seat on that occasion by only 109 votes. But as his fame grew he generally ran ahead of his ticket in the biennial elections. Even Democrats confessed to “voting for him on the sly.” “He suited the taste of New England,” said Senator Hoar of Massachusetts. “The people liked to hear him on public questions better than any other man not excepting Blaine or McKinley.” The reason was perhaps the same as that given by an Englishman to explain the secret of Palmerston’s popularity: “What the nation likes in Palmerston is his you-be-damnedness!”
Though Reed scorned fence-building and never encouraged familiarity with the public, among intellectual equals “no more agreeable companion ever lived.” In the small world that was then Washington’s elite he was a jovial and radiant personality, a poker player, storyteller, and sought-after dinner guest. At one dinner party when the conversation turned on gambling, another famous raconteur, Senator Choate of New York, remarked somewhat unctuously that he had never made a bet on a horse or card or anything else in his life. “I wish I could say that,” a fellow guest said earnestly. “Why caaan’t you?” asked Reed with his peculiar twang, “Choate did.”
His table talk was enriched by the resources of a cultivated mind. His favorite poets were Burns, Byron, and Tennyson; his favorite novel, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair . He habitually read Punch , and Balzac in the original, of whom he said, “There is hardly a book of his which is not sad beyond words.” He had learned French after he was forty and kept a diary in that language “for practice.” The existence of a national library is owed to Reed, whose persistent and eloquent insistence finally wore out the natural parsimony of the House to secure adequate funds for the Library of Congress.
“No one was ever better to listen to or a better listener,” said Lodge, “for his sympathies were wide, his interests unlimited and nothing human was alien to him.” “We asked the Tom Reeds to dinner,” wrote a young friend of Lodge’s from New York, “and he was delightful.” Shortly afterward Reed, an advocate of civil service reform, obtained for the young man a post in Washington on the Civil Service Commission, and thereafter, whenever the new commissioner needed help on the Hill, Reed was ready to give it. Later when the young man from New York bestrode the national scene, Reed composed probably the most memorable tribute ever made to him: “What I admire about you, Theodore, is your original discovery of the Ten Commandments.” With a little less prescience he had also said, “Theodore will never be President; he has no political background.”
In 1889, however, Roosevelt proved politically useful to Reed in his intra-party contest against McKinley, Joe Cannon, and two others for the Speakership. Now that his party would control the new House, Republican nomination was no longer an empty honor but conferred the office itself. The struggle was intense. At the same time the two Dakotas, Washington, and Montana were to enter the Union, and Roosevelt, while ranching and hunting in the Northwest, campaigned vigorously—and with success—to ensure that their representatives in the next Congress would be Republicans. On his return to Washington he opened personal headquarters in a back room of the old Wormley Hotel, where he “rounded up” the new men’s votes for Reed. Although, to the despair of his supporters, Reed refused to fish for votes with the bait of promised committee appointments, he won nevertheless. In those days the lame-duck session still met from December to March and a new Congress did not convene until the following December, thirteen months after its election. Reed took up the gavel in December, 1889.
He now occupied the highest electoral office in the gift of his party, next to the Presidency. “Ambitious as Lucifer,” in the opinion of Representative Champ Clark, who knew him well, he did not intend to stop there. Although his decision to attack the silent quorum was made on principle, he well knew that the fight would focus upon him the nation’s attention and also that if he failed, his congressional career would be over. But, as another senatorial observer, Tom Platt of New York, said, he was “supremely fearless.” He reached his decision and planned his campaign alone, partly because no one else would have thought there was a chance of success and partly because he was not sure that even his own party would support him.
There were indications that they might not. Because of the Republicans’ wafer-thin majority and Reed’s known views on the silent filibuster, it was clear that quorum-counting would be an issue in the new Congress. Rumors of coming battle rumbled over the Hill and in the press. REED WILL COUNT THEM, predicted a Washington Post headline, and the story beneath it said that even Mr. Cannon, Reed’s closest lieutenant on the Rules Committee and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, was opposed to such a course. The Democrats were manning their defenses. Ex-Speaker Carlisle let it be known that any legislation enacted by a quorum which had not been established by “recorded vote” would be taken to court as unconstitutional.
Reed had carefully examined the constitutional and legal aspects in advance and satisfied himself that he would be upheld if it came to law. On the attitude of his own party he was prepared to gamble. He shrewdly judged that if the Democrats in their rage took, and he allowed them, sufficient liberty of invective, they would provoke the Republicans to rally to his support. When the first of the contested elections, Smith vs. Jackson of West Virginia, appeared on the schedule for January 29, he was ready. Shortly before noon he summoned the members of the Rules Committee, including McKinley and Cannon, to the Speaker’s room to inform them of the “outrage” he was about to perpetrate. A messenger came to say that it was twelve o’clock just as one of the committee asked Reed when he was going to launch his offensive. “Now,” said the Speaker, and went into the chamber.
As expected, when a vote was called on the case of Smith vs. Jackson, the Democrats raised a cry of “no quorum” and demanded a roll call. It produced 163 yeas, all Republican, two less than a quorum. Reed’s moment had come. Looking squarely at the faces in front of him, he drawled, “The Chair directs the Clerk to record the names of the following members present and refusing to vote,” and began reading off the names himself.
The House erupted in uproar, some Republicans wildly applauding, all the Democrats “yelling and shrieking and pounding their desks” while the voice of their future Speaker, Crisp of Georgia, boomed, “I appeal! I appeal from the decision of the Chair!” The explosion was “as violent as was ever witnessed in any parliament,” a member recalled later. Unruffled, expressionless, the Speaker continued his counting, “Mr. Blanchard, Mr. Bland, Mr. Blount, Mr. Breckinridge of Arkansas, Mr. Breckinridge of Kentucky…”
Up jumped the Kentuckian “famous for his silver hair and silver tongue.” “I deny the power of the Speaker and denounce it as revolutionary!” he called.
The resonant twang from the Chair continued unregarding, “Mr. Bullock, Mr. Bynum, Mr. Carlisle, Mr. Chipman, Mr. Clement, Mr. Covert, Mr. Crisp, Mr. Cummings,” through hisses and catcalls and cries of “Appeal!” irresistibly rolling down the alphabet. ”…Mr. Lawler, Mr. Lee, Mr. McAdoo, Mr. McCreary…”
“I deny your right, Mr. Speaker, to count me as present!” bellowed McCreary.
For the first time the Speaker stopped, held the hall in silence for a pause as an actor holds an audience, then blandly spoke: “The Chair is making a statement of fact that the gentleman is present. Does he deny it?”
He went on with his count, unmoved by the protests, denials, cries of “Order!” that rose to bedlam, through the S ’s and T ’s to the end. Then suddenly, seeming to gather all the power of his huge body, projecting all the force of his commanding personality, and raising the voice that could fill any hall when he wanted, he announced that he would now state his reasons and pronounce his ruling. The House fell quiet, as a cat quiets with twitching tail before its spring.
Reed cited the constitutional power of the House to compel attendance of members by a sergeant at arms. This power was meaningless, he said, if members refused, though present, to be counted toward a quorum. Within the intention of the Constitution, “attendance is enough. If more were needed the Constitution would have provided for more.”
“The Chair thereupon rules that there is a quorum present within the meaning of the Constitution.”
Tumult even worse than before followed. Breckinridge of Kentucky demanded a point of order on the ground that the Chair had no right to make such a ruling. “The Chair overrules the point of order,” declared Reed coolly.
“I appeal the decision of the Chair!” shouted Breckinridge.
“I move to lay the appeal on the table,” quickly interposed an alert Republican, Payson of Illinois. As this motion, if carried, would have shut off debate, the Democrats foamed with rage. A hundred of them “were on their feet howling for recognition,” wrote Dunn of the AP. Little Joe Wheeler, a famous former Confederate cavalry general, unable to reach the front because of the crowded aisles, came down from the rear, “leaping from desk to desk as an ibex leaps from crag to crag.” As the excitement grew wilder, the only Democrat not on his feet was a huge representative from Texas who sat in his seat significantly whetting a bowie knife on his boot.
Upon Payson’s motion another Republican, Butterworth of Ohio, said he believed “we should have debate” on such an important matter. He was supported by McKinley. Although there was a real possibility that tradition-tied members of his own party might desert, Reed allowed it. The debate was to last four days, with the Democrats fighting every inch of the way, insisting on readings of every word of the Journal, on appeals and points of order and roll calls, each of which was met by Reed imperturbably counting off the silent members as present and evoking each time further infuriated defiance. Tension broke briefly when Representative Spinola of New York, pointing to a picture of the siege of Yorktown on the wall, accused the Speaker of counting the Hessians in the background to make up his quorum. Otherwise, “members rushed madly about the floor, the scowl of battle upon their brows…shouting in a mad torrent of eloquent invective.”
They called Reed tyrant, despot, and dictator, hurling epithets like stones, even threatening to pull him bodily from the chair. “Decorum,” lamented a reporter, “was altogether forgotten.” The clamor of the Democrats moved one Republican, Landis of Indiana, to suggest that if members across the aisle “shouted until the acoustics bled, it was prima facie evidence that they were in the vicinity and could be counted.” Infected by the passion on the floor, visitors and correspondents in the galleries leaned over the railings to “shake their fists at the Speaker” and join in the abuse and profanity. Whatever their initial doubts, Republicans, stung to partisan emotion, cheered and applauded and whistled as each tactic tried by the Democrats was ruled out of order by Reed. The angrier they became, the cooler he remained, bulking hugely in the chair, “serene as a summer morning.”
Although his secretary saw him in his private room during an interval, gripping the desk and shaking with suppressed rage, he never gave a sign in the Hall to show that the vicious abuse touched him. He maintained an iron control, “cool and determined as a highwayman,” said the New York Times .
The secret of his self-possession, as he told a friend long after, was that he had his mind absolutely made up as to what he would do if the House did not sustain him. “I would simply have left the Chair and resigned the Speakership and my seat in Congress.” He had a place waiting for him for the private practice of law in Elihu Root’s New York firm and “I had made up my mind that if political life consisted in sitting helplessly in the Speaker’s chair and seeing the majority helpless to pass legislation, I had had enough of it and was ready to step down and out.” Coming to such a decision, he said, “you have made yourself equal to the worst” and are ready for it. This has a very “soothing” effect on the spirit.
It did more than soothe: it gave him an imbedded strength that men who fear the worst, or will yield principles to avoid the worst, can never possess. It endowed him with a moral superiority over the House which members, without knowing why, could sense in the atmosphere.
Gaining the floor, Crisp of Georgia opened the debate with a massive attack on the proposal to establish a quorum by “ocular demonstration.” How would anyone know that the Speaker would not see forty more members than were actually present? “Who,” he thundered, “will control his seeing?”
“The majority,” neatly put in La Follette of Wisconsin, “by sustaining or refusing to sustain his decision.” This interruption failed to stem a torrent of oratory in which Crisp invoked “our ancient usages and customs…opinions of the Fathers…sacredness of the Constitution and rights of the American people.” Next, Springer denounced the Chair’s ruling as “tyranny, simple and undiluted, an outrage upon the House and the American people.” Breckinridge denounced it as “clearly corrupt,” evoking howls of approval, and delighted with the effect of his accusation, embellished it. “Both usurpatory, revolutionary, and corrupt,” he charged. From then on Reed’s accusers invoked the alternate images of revolutionist and tyrant, preferring on the whole the latter. “I denounce you,” shrieked Bland of Missouri, “as the worst tyrant that ever presided over a deliberative body.” O’Ferrall of Virginia warned that the people’s representatives were not to be silenced “by the gavel of a tyrant and his cold and freezing eye.” Improving even on this he added, “It has been reserved for the year 1890 and the Fifty-first Congress to produce the first dictator since the head of British tyranny was bruised.” Among all the variations on the word “tyrant,” “czar” emerged as the favorite, embodying for its time the image of unrestrained autocracy, and as “Czar” Reed the Speaker was known thereafter.
Exhausted, the House adjourned, only to reopen next day in immediate uproar over conflicting motions to adjourn, to approve the Journal, to raise the “previous question” and as many other delaying points of procedure as the Democrats could devise. Still outwardly tranquil, Reed caught each parliamentary ball, batted each pitch, declared fouls, and umpired his own decisions, always maneuvering the proceedings from mere battle over procedure to debate on the issues. His own cohorts were rallying to the defense. It was an absurdity on the face of it, declared Butterworth in a brilliant speech, if a member “by merely closing his mouth becomes constructively absent.” The silent quorum, he said, hurling back upon the opposition their own word, “is the weapon of the revolutionist. It is the weapon of anarchy.”
“The Speaker sees you,” he went on, “we see you, nay the country sees you. Yet the country starves to death by your inaction.” The minority claimed it was “not participating” if silent. “Why, the distinguished Speaker might as well sit down upon my lean friend from Alabama and against his protest say, ‘I am not participating.’ ” Butterworth was sure that “the brother thus sat upon would have the liveliest sense of the fact that the Speaker was aggressively participating though he were silent as a millstone.”
Somewhat less effective was Representative McKinley, who, striving to please as usual, inadvertently yielded the floor, and had to be prompted by Reed, “The gentleman from Ohio declines to be interrupted.”
“I decline to be interrupted,” echoed McKinley, valiantly closing the breach.
As, at each juncture, Reed implacably counted heads and repeated his formula, “A constitutional quorum is present to do business,” the fury and frustration of the Democrats mounted. Maddened beyond discretion, Bynum of Indiana burst out against “the arbitrary, the outrageous, the damnable rulings of the Chair” and was ruled subject to censure for unparliamentary language. Ordered to stand before the bar of the House, he was followed down the aisle by the entire Democratic membership breathing maledictions and demanding to share Bynum’s censure in a body. To a spectator “it looked for a moment as if they intended to mob the Speaker.”
Gazing at them coldly, Reed waited in silence. When he judged he could be heard he said simply, without accusation or argument, “Mr. Bynum, I now pronounce the censure of the House upon you.” So unexpectedly unprovocative was it that the tumultuous mob of Democrats was suddenly deflated and dispersed to its seats.
At this point their strategy changed. It having become evident that Reed could and would establish a quorum on every count, the Democrats decided to absent themselves in actuality, counting on the inability of the Republicans to round up a quorum of themselves alone. As one by one they slipped out, Reed, divining their intention, ordered the doors locked. At once there followed a mad scramble to get out before the next vote. Losing “all sense of personal or official dignity,” Democrats hid under desks and behind screens. Representative Kilgore of Texas kicked open a locked door to make his escape and to make “KiIgore’s Kick” the delight of cartoonists.
On the fifth day, Monday, February 3, the Democrats absented themselves altogether, and when a vote was called on Smith vs. Jackson the Republicans were still short of a quorum. Two of their number were brought in on cots from their sickbeds. There was still one too few. One member was known to be on his way to Washington. Suddenly a door opened, as a reporter told it, and “there was a flash of red whiskers and a voice saying, ‘One more, Mr. Speaker.’ ” Sweney of Iowa was counted in, the quorum was filled, and Smith vs. Jackson settled by a vote of 166-0. The battle was over. Democrats sullenly filed back to their seats. The Rules Committee reported out a new set of rules, composed, needless to say, and imposed by Reed.
Known thereafter as Reed’s Rules and adopted on February 14, they provided among other things that: 1) All members must vote; 2) 100 shall constitute a quorum; 3) All present shall be counted; 4) No dilatory motion shall be entertained, the definition of what was dilatory to be left to the judgment of the Speaker.
When a subsequent act of the Fifty-first Congress was tested in the Supreme Court on the ground that it had been passed by a quorum unconstitutionally established, Reed’s ruling that all present may be counted was upheld by the Court’s decision of February 29, 1892 ( U.S. v. Ballin ).
Five years later Theodore Roosevelt wrote that in destroying the silent filibuster, Reed’s reform was of “far greater permanent importance” than any piece of legislation it brought to enactment at the time. Reed knew this as soon as he had won. In his speech closing the Fifty-first Congress he said “the verdict of history” was the only one worth recording and he was confident of its outcome “because we have taken here so long a stride in the direction of responsible government.”
More immediate than a verdict by history—and then widely considered its equivalent—was a portrait by Sargent. Commissioned as a tribute to the Speaker by his Republican colleagues, it was a memorable failure—although the painter and his subject, recognizing in each other two superior personages, felt mutually attracted. “His exterior does not seem to correspond to his spirit,” complained Sargent, voicing a difficulty frequently felt by others. “What is a painter to do? I could have made a better picture with a less remarkable man. He has been delightful.” Confessing himself under the “dreadful thrall” which overcame all Mr. Sargent’s subjects, Reed refused to be in the least disturbed by unkindly comment on the portrait. When it was hung in the Speaker’s Lobby one critic observed, “He is supposed to be in the act of counting a quorum but in fact has just been inveigled into biting a green persimmon.”
The death of the silent quorum was recognized by all, whether they considered it a victory or disaster, as due to Reed’s personal generalship and, in Roosevelt’s words, to his “extraordinary ability and iron courage.” It was discussed in parliamentary bodies all over the world and at home made him a leading political figure and obvious candidate for the presidential nomination in 1892. But his time had not yet come, as he correctly judged, for when asked if he thought his party would nominate him, he replied, “They might do worse and I think they will.”
They did. Reed’s “czardom” was still resented, his sarcasm and sneers had made enemies; nor did his disgust for deals, his refusal to woo the public with smiles and handshakes, or politicians with promises, enlarge his circle of supporters. The party regulars preferred to choose between the plumed, if flawed, knight and public idol, James G. Blaine, and the incumbent Harrison, incorruptible but sour, known as “the White House iceberg,” both of whom Reed despised with no concealment whatever. He considered Blaine’s elastic morals a disgrace to Maine and never forgave Harrison for appointing Blaine’s nominee, a personal enemy of his own, as Collector of Portland, Reed’s home town. Thereafter he refused to enter the White House or meet Harrison until the day he died. As Speaker, however, his political principles were stronger than personal dislike, and only his expert maneuvering to keep the free-silver bill from enactment saved President Harrison from the unpopular necessity of vetoing it.
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:
Do what thy manhood bids thee do, from none but self expect applause, He noblest lives and noblest dies who makes and keeps his self-made laws.
Secure in his self-made laws, Reed could not be flustered. Once a Democratic member, overruled by Reed on a point of order, remembered that the Speaker had taken a different position in his manual, Reed’s Rules . Hurriedly he sent for the book, leafed through its pages, pounced on the relevant passage and marched to the rostrum in anticipatory triumph to lay it before the Speaker. Reed read it attentively, cast a glance down at the man from his glowing hazel eyes and said with finality, “Oh, the book is wrong.”
In 1896, with Cleveland’s term a shambles, the Republican nomination for the Presidency was a prize worth having. Reed wanted it. In October, 1895, as reported by Theodore Roosevelt, he was in “excellent health and spirits and thinks the drift is his way.” Though not on speaking terms with Maine’s senators, Reed had the active support of Lodge and some other New Englanders in Congress besides the ardent devotion of Roosevelt outside it. “Oh Lord!” Roosevelt wrote after Reed had torn, trampled, and demolished free silver in a masterly speech, “what I would not give if you were our standard-bearer.” At times, however, he confessed to being “pretty impatient” with Reed, who would not satisfy Theodore’s insistence on support of a big navy. “Upon my word,” he complained to Lodge, “I do think that Reed ought to pay some heed to the wishes of you and myself.” It was a vain hope to express of a man who was not given to “heeding” anyone’s wishes. To Lodge’s annoyance he also refused “to promise offices from the Cabinet down or spend money to secure southern delegates.”
Another man was spending money liberally in that very effort. Mark Hanna had cast a President-maker’s eye on Reed in the previous campaign but had found him too sardonic, his oratory too eastern, and his personality hardly amenable. Since then Hanna had found his affinity in a man the antithesis of Reed, the amiable, smooth-speaking, solidly handsome McKinley, of whom it was said that his strongest conviction was a desire to be liked. He was an ideal candidate who had never made an enemy and whose views on the crucial currency question, as a biographer tactfully put it, “had never been so pronounced as to make him unpopular” either with the silver wing or the goldstandard group. Reed now had cause to regret that in naming McKinley Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee he had opened his path to prominence as sponsor of the tariff act. Since the Fifty-first Congress, when McKinley had ventured some objections to the Speaker’s methods in the matter of the quorum, Reed had had little use for him. He considered him spineless, an opinion to which Roosevelt gave immortal shape during the Spanish-American War when he said, “McKinley has no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.”
Hanna saw in McKinley less an éclair than a kind of Lohengrin and felt sure he could put over his hero as long as McKinley’s opponents did not unite behind anyone else. Though fearing Reed as the only candidate of genuine stature, Hanna shrewdly judged him too prickly a proposition for the others to attach themselves to. He was right. Senator Platt, for example, acknowledged that McKinley “is not a great man as Mr. Reed is,” but held his delegation for Governor Levi Morton of New York. Other eastern leaders, finding the Reed camp dry of inducements, pledged their votes to Senator Allison of Iowa. For Reed was not making it easy for would-be supporters. When a political chieftain from California asked for a promise of a place on the Supreme Court for a man from his state, Reed refused, saying the nomination was not worth considering unless it were free of any deals whatsoever. The California chieftain was soon to be seen basking in Hanna’s entourage. Reed could see the trend but he could not have changed himself. “Some men like to stand erect,” he once said, “and some men even after they are rich and in high place, like to crawl.” To reach even the highest place Reed could not crawl.
He was not sanguine and already, in a letter to Roosevelt before the convention met, talked of retiring to the private practice of law. “In a word, my dear boy, I am tired of this thing and want to be sure that my debts won’t have to be paid by a syndicate [a reference to McKinley’s]…Moreover the receding grapes seem to ooze with acid and the whole thing is a farce.”
At St. Louis in June he received 84 votes, and the grapes receded beyond reach. The loss was the harder to bear when he had to see the party’s choice descend upon McKinley. Republican victory in November, however, ensured his own return to the Speakership for a third term. It was to mark a new era for the United States and present Reed with a final test.
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.
For Reed the savor of life in the political arena departed. The country was headed now toward fullscale adventure in the Philippines, for which he felt deep distrust and disgust. He refused to join in celebrating Admiral Dewey’s victory at Manila, and it was no secret in Washington’s inner circles that he came close to “despising” the administration. To mention expansionism to him, said a well-informed journalist, was like “touching a match” and brought forth “sulphurous language.” Reed could not stem but only snipe at the tide. One day when the newspapers were full of American exploits in the Philippines he chided a colleague for being at his desk. “I should think you would be celebrating. I see by the papers that the American Army has captured the infant son of Aguinaldo and at last accounts was in hot pursuit of the mother.”
“Reed is terribly bitter,” Lodge wrote to Roosevelt, “saying all sorts of ugly things about the administration and its policy in private talks, so that I keep out of his way for I am fond of him and confess that his attitude is painful and disappointing to me beyond words.”
Following the off-year election of 1898 Reed could have gone on to another term as Speaker, but already he could see signs of growing feeling in the House that he was too hostile to the administration to continue as its principal lieutenant. Joe Cannon and others of his old associates were antagonized by his attitude and his remarks about the President, but none dared attempt a contest to unseat him. The President lacked the nerve to come out openly in support of anyone else. Reed knew he could hold his command, but it would be a term at bay against a pack snarling at his feet. He became “moody and ugly” in these days and curt to old colleagues whom he saw deserting him.
Hawaii had not resolved his problem. If he retained office as Speaker his duty would be to carry the administration’s program through the House against his private convictions. To stand by his convictions meant opposing the will of the majority. This time there was only one way out. To his long-time friend and secretary, Asher Hinds, he said, “I have tried, perhaps not always successfully, to make the acts of my public life accord with my conscience and I cannot now do this thing.” In April, 1899, after the close of the Fifty-fifth Congress, he startled the political world with the announcement that he would not be a candidate for re-election as Speaker and shortly afterwards, to cap the sensation, announced he would not run again for Congress. It was revealed that after a vacation in Europe he would enter the private practice of law in New York as he had planned long ago. Political commentators spoke with awe of the gaping hole in the House that would be left by the retirement of “the most forceful personality who ever appeared in Congress.” It was a “calamity,” said the New York Times , which had always opposed him. Reed’s departure left a sudden sobering sense that the standard of statesmanship was being lowered. E. L. Godkin, the terribletempered editor of the New York Evening Post , mourned the passing from political life of that rare phenomenon, “a mature, rational man.” Joe Cannon, Reed’s successor as Speaker, said of him, not then but long afterward, “His was the strongest intellect crossed on the best courage of any man in public life that I have ever known.”
Reed himself offered no explanation of his going. Cornered by reporters who urged that the public would like to hear from him, he replied, “The public! I have no interest in the public,” and turned on his heel and walked away. To his constituents of Maine’s First District, however, he explained in a farewell letter, “Office as a ‘ribbon to stick in your coat’ is worth nobody’s consideration.”
He left the House of his own will, uncompromising to the end, a lonely specimen of an uncommon kind, the Independent Man.