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Thomas Brackett Reed

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Thomas Brackett Reed (October 18, 1839 - December 7, 1902) was a U.S. Representative from Maine, and Speaker of the House from 1889-1891 and from 1895-1899.

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Political Life

Born in Portland, Maine, Reed attended the public schools, and graduated from Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, in 1860. He studied ballroom dancing. After college, he went on to become acting assistant paymaster, United States Navy, from April 19, 1864, to November 4, 1865, and was admitted to the bar in 1865. He commenced practice in Portland, but soon joined the Maine House of Representatives, in 1868 and 1869. He served in the Maine Senate in 1870, and became Attorney General of Maine in 1870, a position he retained until 1872. Reed became city solicitor of Portland 1874-1877, before being elected as a Republican to the Forty-fifth and to the eleven succeeding Congresses, serving from March 4, 1877, to September 4, 1899, when he resigned.

In the House of Representatives

Early service

Reed was a member of the elite social society that included Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Adams, John Hay and Mark Twain. He was known for his acerbic wit (asked if his party might nominate him for President, he noted "They could do worse, and they probably will"; asked if he would attend the funeral of a political opponent, his response was "no - but I approve of it"), and his size, standing at over 6 feet in height and weighing over 300 pounds. In his early days in Washington, he was frequently mistaken for President Grover Cleveland, much to his chagrin.

As a House freshman, Reed was appointed to the Potter Commission, which was to investigate voting irregularities in the presidential election of 1876, where his skill at cross examination forced Democrat Samuel Tilden to personally appear to defend his reputation. While in Congress, he would also serve as chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary (Forty-seventh Congress) and chairman of the Committee on Rules (Fifty-first, Fifty-fourth, and Fifty-fifth Congresses).

As the Speaker of the House

Reed was first elected Speaker after an intense fight with future President William McKinley, then a Congressman from Ohio. Reed gained the support of young Theodore Roosevelt, whose influence with the newly elected representatives from the Dakota territories was the decisive factor. He served as the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1889 to 1891 and then from 1895 to 1899, as well as being Chairman of the powerful Rules Committee.

During his time as Speaker, Reed assiduously and dramatically increased the power of the Speaker over the House; although the power of the Speaker had always waxed (most notably during Henry Clay's tenure) and waned, the position had previously commanded influence rather than outright power. Reed set out to put into practical effect his dictum that "The best system is to have one party govern and the other party watch"; this was accomplished by carefully studying the existing procedures of the U.S. House, most dating to the original designs written by Thomas Jefferson. What followed has popularly been called the "Battle of the Reed Rules".

In particular, Reed sought to circumscribe the ability of the minority party to block business, by way of its members refusing to answer a quorum call, thus forcing the House to suspend business. This is popularly called the disappearing quorum. As Speaker, Reed's solution was as controversial as it was simple: when a quorum call was announced, Reed began counting every member present in the chamber, whether they chose to answer the roll call or not. Reed's intent was simple: to reduce the power of the minority party in the House to block the majority party's legislation - a theme highly resonant with modern difficulties in the Senate.

Neither party was convinced of the need to streamline House procedure, but the Democrats had the most to lose as the minority party. The parliamentary intrigue and back room infighting was heated and at times threatening. Reed's cunning and Cannon's technical skill won out. His changes paved the way for the Speakership of Joseph Gurney Cannon, who is generally regarded as the most powerful Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.

Presidential aspirations and departure from Congress

Reed tried to obtain the Republican nomination for president in 1896, but Governor McKinley's campaign manager, Mark Hanna, blocked his efforts. In 1898, Reed had a falling out with the McKinley administration over the Spanish American War, quitting Congress in 1900 to enter private law practice.

On a nostalgic trip to Washington in 1902 he had a sudden heart attack and died; Henry Cabot Lodge eulogized him as "a good hater, who detested shams, humbugs and pretence above all else". his body is interred in Evergreen Cemetery in Portland, Maine.

This article incorporates facts obtained from the public domain Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.


Preceded by:
John G. Carlisle
Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives
December 2, 1889March 3, 1891
Succeeded by:
Charles F. Crisp
Preceded by:
Charles F. Crisp
Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives
December 2, 1895March 3, 1897;
March 15, 1897March 3, 1899
Succeeded by:
David B. Henderson

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