Setting Tenor of Authority in House

Article excerpt


James Grant, author of five books on finance and financial history and a television commentator, has produced this interesting biography of Republican Speaker of the House Thomas B. (Czar) Reed. Aimed at enthusiasts of American political history, it may seem to others a cramped focus on partisan politics and arcane congressional debate of long ago. But there are rewards.

Reed, born in Portland, Maine, in 1839, bridged the eras of Henry Clay and Theodore Roosevelt. He was an able student at Bowdoin College, served in the Maine legislature's lower house, then Senate, going on to become the youngest state attorney general in Maine history, making a reputation as an able trial lawyer. He won election to Congress in 1876 and to the speaker's chair in 1889, at the height of the Gilded Age.

If the present-day House of Representatives seems characterized by the revolutionary zeal of young Turks, the House in Reed's day had a rather predictable agenda and men of reputation and distinction. The shadow of the Civil War still hung over the House, producing partisan distrust and frequent reference to the bloody shirt. The chronic Republican interests were protective tariff, low taxation, postponing female suffrage, limiting labor unions and the right to strike, and defeating cheap currency and bimetallism in favor of convertible gold.

Republicans were beset by Democrats and farmers on all these issues, and the debates were vigorous, often angry, with many gems of comic and sardonic humor of which Reed was a master. He was always quick to perceive the direction of his party's interest and to guide the debate and procedure toward the desired result. His astute mastery of debate and his ingenuity in finding novel powers in the speaker's authority lent him the appellation of Czar. …