Alec Rogers on “Mr. Speaker! The Life and Times of Thomas B. Reed, the Man who Broke the Filibuster”

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.

Reed himself is a fascinating subject.  A very talented lawyer who used his skills in the thrust and parry of congressional debate, he could be at times the most cynical of party hacks, rising to the very top of the greasy pole during an era when corruption and graft were vital parts of American politics.  Yet, Reed himself was fiercely honest, living off his congressional salary and living a modest lifestyle when others, such as his Maine rival James Blaine were somehow living the life of a corporate plutocrat on a public salary.  In addition, Reed could be deeply principled.  He was devoted to women’s suffrage and strongly opposed to the growing bellicosity of US foreign policy.  He would resign his seat rather than carry his party’s water during the Spanish-American War.  Readers will revel in Reed’s caustic wit and his penchant for one liners and put downs.

Chapters are devoted not only to Reed’s personal life and career (indeed his personal life is given particularly short shrift) but to the important issues of the day.  To read Mr. Speaker is to take a course on the political economy of America in the latter half of the 19th century from a writer who has earned a small fortune explaining the most technical, mundane aspects of finance in clear, colorful prose.  Grant covers topics such as the commission examining the election of President Rutherford Hayes in which both parties had dirty hands, but where the allegation of a “stolen election” was likely true.  Another chapter serves as a masterful introduction to the challenging but vital issue of currency.  Much of the politics of the late 19th century revolved around the debate between those who wanted to maintain gold as the only acceptable US currency and those looking to temper the tight monetary effect of the gold standard with silver coins or, horrors, paper money.  Paper money that was not convertible to gold had been introduced to pay for the Civil War.  After a decade and a half of wrangling, the US returned to the gold standard in 1879.  Paper would stay in circulation, but exchangeable for gold at $20.67 an ounce.  This of course had the effect of limiting the amount of paper that could be circulated, which both led to tight money and served to guard against inflation.  The amount of paper exceeded the amount the US had in gold at this time.  The US only had enough gold to redeem $141.9m but there existed $346.7m in paper money.  There was the very real threat the U.S. would be asked to redeem more than it could pay out in gold.  Yet, when the time came, the American people decided that paper was more convenient after all, and that merely knowing the money was convertible was enough.

Interestingly, the partisan aspects of politics of the late 19th century were almost completely opposite of today’s.  Republicans loudly proclaimed their support of the system of “American Protection,” or high tariffs designed to fund the Treasury without the need of the Civil War income tax and bulking up the wages of those employed by protected industries (not to mention the profits of their owners and party supporters).  Democrats decried the tariff as just another form of taxation, noting that the inflated wages and profits of those in politically favored industries came at the expense of all Americans in the form of higher costs.  The rich government surpluses from high tariffs, in turn, led to “extravagant appropriations,” Democrats charged, which meant an expansion of government far beyond what their still revered Thomas Jefferson would have ever countenanced.

The climax of the book, however, lies in its subtitle “The Man Who Broke the Filibuster.”  In Reed’s day, a majority of the House needed to record themselves as “present” during a quorum call in order for the House to vote to pass legislation.  Members standing in the Chamber opposed to a measure needed only not answer the roll call, and if the House lacked a quorum (as it often did in the days before the age of modern transportation) it could not proceed, allowing a non-vocal minority to obstruct the People’s business on a frequent basis.  Both parties invoked this version of the filibuster often, not least of which was House minority leader Thomas Reed.  Yet, eventually Reed’s belief in majority rule led him to dramatically alter the rule while he was in the Chair, directing the clerk to record the presence of those silent members whom he spied.  This resulted in an outraged minority who reversed Reed’s ruling when they retook the majority.  Yet, after a few years of suffering from Reed’s masterful obstruction tactics, Democrats tacitly acknowledged the wisdom of his views and adopted the Reed rule and similar changes Reed had made to the chamber’s rules making it the relatively more efficient legislative body it is today.

Readers of Point of Order will likely find Mr. Speaker! a fascinating account of the House in the latter half of the 19th century and of the key political issues of the time.  Those less versed or interested in political history find may find Grant’s recounting of the minutiae of House debates and his treatment of the gold standard and tariff more tedious.  At the end of the day, however, Grant deserves much credit for his lively portrayal of this pivotal 19th century congressional giant and his great impact on the shape of the institution.

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