Great Leaders and National Issues of 1896/Chapter 8/Reed

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VIII. Political Giants of the Present Day—

Thomas Brackett Reed

Thomas Brackett Reed[edit]

The Great “Speaker” and Debater, Favorite Son of the State of Maine

“How do you mix your paints?” timidly asked an amateur of a distinguished artist.

“With brains, sir!” thundered the master of the brush.

And, as we stated in our sketch of Senator John Sherman, this is pre-eminently the truth in American affairs. Social advantages, wealth and the aid of friends are not without their effect, but if the element of ability is lacking, the highest success is unattainable. Water finds its level, and the man who is thrown into the bustling arena of the House of Representatives can never attain the place of leader unless nature has furnished him with ability, or in other words, with brains.

No stronger proof can be given of this statement than is found in the career of Thomas Brackett Reed, who was born in Portland, Maine, October 18, 1839. He attended the common schools of the city, and was graduated at Bowdoin College in 1860, being among the first in his class and taking the highest honor possible—the prize for excellence in English composition. He possesses rare gifts in this respect, his writings showing a clear, vigorous, but limpid style, which have brought him a national reputation, while his speeches are eloquent, sparkling, logical, and corruscating with humor, sarcasm, and wit. No man surpasses him in readiness of repartee. No more enjoyable treat can be imagined than that of a debate in the House, where he is beset with all sorts of questions from political opponents. His instant replies are inimitable, and the man that can unhorse him in debate has not yet made his appearance, and is not likely to do so for an indefinite time to come.

It was only the other day that a newspaper reporter, while looking for President Cleveland, stepped to the door of the House restaurant, and believing he saw that distinguished personage, requested an attendant to bring him to him at the President's convenience. When the gentleman came forward, it proved to be Speaker Reed.

“I beg your pardon,” said the correspondent; “I am looking for the President and mistook you for him.”

“For heaven's sake, don't let the President learn of this,” said the Speaker, with owl-like gravity; “he is already vain enough of his personal appearance.”

Reed as a Teacher[edit]

After his graduation, Mr. Reed taught in a Portland high school, studying law at the same time. He went to California in 1863, expecting to make his home in that State. He taught school there and began the practice of law, but at the end of the year, for family reasons, returned to Maine. In April, 1864, he was appointed acting assistant paymaster in the United States Navy, and assigned to duty on the gunboat “Sibyl,” which patrolled the Tennessee, Cumberland and Mississippi rivers until the close of the war. He was discharged from the service in August, 1865, and returned to Portland, where he was admitted to the bar.

A Brilliant Lawyer[edit]

His advance was rapid. He was interested from the first in politics, and his power and popularity were so marked that, without his knowledge, he was nominated by his party, in 1868, for the State House of Representatives. His election followed as a matter of course, and his reputation as a brilliant lawyer going with him, he was placed on the Judiciary Committee. Maine was quick to see that she had secured the right man and re-elected him in 1869, promoting him to the Senate in 1870, but he resigned the senatorship to assume the duties of Attorney-General, to which office he had been elected. Mr. Reed was the youngest Attorney-General that Maine ever had. He held the office for three years, and added to his fame, during which he displayed courage, conscientiousness and ability of a high order.

Nominated for Congress[edit]

He retired from office in 1873, and was appointed City Solicitor of Portland, where his course was marked by the same devotion to duty that had distinguished him when Attorney-General. His name was well known throughout the State, and it was in the natural order of events, that, in 1876, he was nominated for Congress in the district composed of Cumberland and York counties. There was the bitterest fight conceivable against him, but by his indomitable energy and ability he swept everything before him. It is a remarkable fact that, during this whole stirring campaign, the sum total of his traveling expenses, hotel parlors for delegates and cost for everything, was exactly $42.00. It may be doubted whether his subsequent nominations involved as much as that insignificant sum, for every year since, without a single vote against him in any convention, he has been enthusiastically renominated by his constituents. The leading Republican paper in Maine said: “Mr. Reed can represent his district in Congress for the rest of his natural life if he wants to; there's no question about that.” His popularity made Mr. Reed the candidate before all others of New England for the Presidency to 1896, beside which, as has been shown, he had myriads of supporters in all parts of the Union.

Mr. Reed took his seat in Congress, October 15, 1877, the House having been summoned in extra session to pass the army appropriations, which had failed at the closing session of the Forty-fourth Congress. It was a Democratic House and remained in session until the following June. Mr. Reed made his first speech April 12, 1878, and drew the attention of the House by his keen, convincing logic.

At the beginning of his second term Mr. Reed's abilities were recognized by his appointment as a member of the Judiciary Committee. His strength as a debater caused a number to vote for him as Speaker in the caucus of December, 1881, and he was made chairman of the Judiciary Committee of the House. By that time he was the recognized leader on the Republican side. He prepared and introduced a bill for the proper distribution of the Geneva award against Great Britain for the “Alabama” claims, and his accompanying report convinced the House that the bill was right, and led to its passage.

Reed in the Speaker's Chair[edit]

His great ability was recognized by political opponents as well as friends. Without soliciting a single vote, he was unanimously chosen in caucus, in 1887, as the Republican candidate for Speaker. The House being Democratic, however, John G. Carlisle received the honor in the Forty-eighth and Fiftieth Congresses. Reed's turn came in 1889, when the Republicans had a bare majority, and on second ballot placed him in the Speaker's chair, he receiving 166 votes to 154 cast for John G. Carlisle.

There are few who are not acquainted with Speaker Reed's career as presiding officer of the House of Representatives. For a time indeed he was the central figure in the eyes of the country. There were many contested election cases and the Democrats used every means to obstruct legislation. It was impossible to have every Republican in his seat at all times, to meet the constitutional requirement that there should be a majority present to do business. The Democrats refused to answer to their names at roll-call, and the custom had always been for the Speaker, under such circumstances, to declare no quorum present. On January 29, 1890, when the Democrats had sat mute while their names were being called by the clerk, Speaker Reed coolly counted a sufficient number “present, but not voting,” to constitute a quorum.

“Present, But Not Voting”[edit]

It was like a thunder-clap from the clear sky. Pandemonium was let loose, and the Democrats, in a white heat of rage, protested and declared the proceeding unconstitutional and revolutionary. The Speaker, however, resolutely held to his decision and the business of the session which had been blocked so long moved forward, though it cannot be said without friction. The rule was finally adopted February 14, 1890. It was sustained by the Supreme Court, and four years later, when a Democratic House was caught in precisely the same dilemma, it adopted precisely the same rule. Mr Reed was chosen Speaker again of the Fifty-fourth Congress, in December, 1895.

Home Life[edit]

Mr. Reed lives in a comfortable home at Portland, with his wife, the daughter of the Rev. Mr. Merrill, formerly pastor of a Congregational Church of that city. He has one daughter who, at this writing, is not yet out of her teens. He is popular with his neighbors, for he is genial, pleasant and charitable, manly and courageous, and, whenever he runs for office, certain to receive a great many Democratic votes, for what American can help feeling proud of him? In the words of Henry Hall, he is “in many respects the greatest all-around man in the United States to-day, of stainless record and unimpeachable integrity, bold but safe, brilliant but wise, masterful but heeding counsel, and a fighter without fear.”