My former colleague Alec Rogers has been kind enough to share this review of James Grant’s biography of Speaker Thomas Reed:
James Grant is best known for his financial analysis, shared with those willing to part with a pretty penny, via the eponymous Grant’s Interest Rate Observer (current subscription rate: US$910). For decades, Wall Streeters have prized his contrarian, quirky insights, and those that have been willing to act on his skepticism even during the most bullish of markets have seen their investments in his publication returned countless times over. The Observer has never wanted for historically based pieces, looking into America’s financial past for insight into contemporary markets.
Grant’s love of history, however, has led him to venture into writing full length biographies, the subjects of which have been themselves quirky, interesting characters (e.g. the financier Bernard Baruch, President John Adams). The subject of his latest book, Mr. Speaker! The Life and Times of Thomas B. Reed, the Man who Broke the Filibuster, however, really demonstrates Grant’s talents for uncovering undervalued assets. The result is an intriguing trip with a fascinating guide into a part of American history that’s all too quickly rushed through in a typical history class.
Thomas Brackett Reed is not exactly a household name, perhaps not even in the home of a political historian. A Mainer born and bred, Reed was a Member of Congress and eventually the Republican leader in the House during much of what has now become known, thanks to Mark Twain, as the “gilded age” for what Twain perceived as being only a superficially elegant surface covering a corrupt underbody. Reed rose to the Speakership when the Republicans held the majority in 1889 and 1895 for a combined six years. It was there Reed was to make his mark on the House if not the country.
To fully appreciate the story, it’s important to understand that Reed’s tenure in Congress and Speakership occurred mostly in the period before the Presidency had matured into the powerful office of today. Prior to William McKinley, the occupant of the Oval Office was still more of the “chief magistrate” that earlier generations of Americans had mostly known. Only during crisis such as the Civil War had they seen glimpses of what the office could and would become once America became a world power. As a consequence, Reed and his ilk were able to be far more influential than we might otherwise suppose, living as we do during a time when the President is seen as virtually synonymous with the federal government itself.