“Our American Czar and His Do-Nothing Policy”

December 21, 1895

William A. Rogers

“Our American Czar and His Do-Nothing Policy”

Congress; U.S. Economic Policy, Money Question;

Reed, Thomas B.;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

No caption.

During an economic depression (1893-1897), Thomas B. Reed, the powerful Republican speaker of the house, refused to cooperate with the attempts by Grover Cleveland, the Democratic president, to shore up the nation’s gold reserves.  Here, Reed is depicted as a lazy dictator (“Czar”) who wears spurred jackboots, royal robe, and toy crown topped by the imperial double-eagle, as he sits on the “Financial Question” powder keg.  A highly effectively legislative leader, loyal partisan, scholarly intellect, and acerbic wit, Reed was one of the most important speakers of the house in American history.

Thomas Brackett Reed was born on October 18, 1839, in Portland, Maine, into a family of fishermen.  He attended public schools, and then graduated in 1860 from Bowdoin College (Brunswick, Maine), where he edited the college newspaper and participated in student debates and crew (rowing).  He began working as a schoolteacher during his college years, and continued doing so for a year in Maine, and then a year in California, where he also studied law.  He returned to Maine in 1863, and joined the U.S. Navy the next year, serving as an assistant paymaster until November 1865.  Soon after his discharge, he passed the Maine state bar and opened a law practice in Portland.

Reed was elected as a Republican to the first of two terms in the lower house of the Maine legislature in 1867, and to the upper house in 1869.  The next year, he was elected as the state’s attorney general.  In 1873, he lost reelection, but began serving as city attorney for Portland.  In 1876, he was elected to the first of twelve terms (1877-1899) in the U.S. House of Representatives.  He initially gained recognition from his Congressional peers and the press for his astute contributions as a member of the Potter Committee, which investigated the Electoral College controversy of 1876-1877.  In his years in Congress, Reed made an impression not only with his size (6' 3", and up to 300 lbs.), but also with his parliamentary skill and his fierce, articulate defense of Republican policies, especially high tariffs.

The intelligent and talented Reed quickly rose in the Republican House leadership, serving as chairman of the Judiciary Committee and as a member of two of the most powerful congressional committees:  Ways and Means (the House finance committee) and Rules (for organizing and running the House).  In 1885, he was the Republican nominee for speaker of the house, but lost to text John Carlisle, the candidate of the Democratic majority.  Reed opposed Democratic efforts to cut federal expenditures and curtail black voting rights in the South, but voted in favor of immigration restriction.  He supported civil service reform, the gold standard, and President Grover Cleveland’s successful effort to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893.

Under House rules at the time, a minority of congressmen could block legislatio by various means.  One method was the “disappearing quorum,” whereby members on the floor would not respond to a roll call and, thus, “disappear” so that the quorum (percentage of members needed to conduct House business) could not be reached.  Another easy way to obstruct legislation was to motion continually for adjournment.  In 1889, with the Republicans back in the majority, Reed was elected speaker of the house, and forcefully rejected Democratic efforts to delay legislative proceedings.  When congressmen were present on the floor but remained silent during roll call, Speaker Reed instructed the clerk to count them.  When a Democratic congressman rose to object, Reed retorted, “The chair is making a statement of the fact that the gentleman from Kentucky is present.  Does he deny it?”  Outraged opponents of the speaker’s bold move called him a “Czar” (after the dictatorial Russian ruler), but the House voted on a strictly partisan vote to uphold “Reed’s Rules,” which allowed the speaker to count all members on the floor for quorums and to disregard other delaying tactics.

Reed then placed prominent supporters on key House committees (William McKinley chairing Ways and Means, and Joseph Cannon chairing Appropriations), and led the charge to pass an ambitious legislative agenda.  Laws enacted by the 51st Congress (December 1889-March 1891) included more generous military pensions, money for agricultural colleges, the McKinley Tariff (with the highest rates ever), the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, a system of federal appeals courts, authority for the president to set aside forest preserves, a ban on interstate lotteries, and statehood for six Western territories (North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming).  Reed failed to gain federal protection for black voting rights and to stop the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890.  Critics of the unusually activist 51st Congress labeled it the “Billion Dollar Congress” (it did not actually spend that much).  After the Democrats regained control of the House in 1890, they returned to the previous rules until Reed spearheaded an effort to use the old delaying tactics against them, and the new majority was forced to accept the Reed Rules.

In 1894, the Republicans returned to power in the House during an economic depression, and Reed was again chosen speaker.  Although he was a supporter of the gold standard, Reed and other Republicans seized the political opportunity by refusing to cooperate with the “hard-money” economic policies of the Democratic president, Grover Cleveland.  The two men had worked together to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893, but the federal government’s gold reserves had continued to decline during the economic depression.  In December 1895, as the new Congress convened, Harper’s Weekly complained that Republicans, “acting largely under the advice of Mr. Reed,” had resisted Cleveland’s call for legislation to relieve the gold situation.  The newspaper also blamed Reed’s leadership for “the extravagant appropriations that have brought about the deficiency” in gold reserves.  In January 1896, the journal asserted that Reed, who was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, “was no longer praised, as he once was, as the champion of sound money [i.e., the gold standard] … but as a man who has so skillfully conducted himself that even the silver men may vote for him as one who may become of service to their cause.”

Reed lost the Republican presidential nomination in 1896 to William McKinley, but continued as house speaker.  In 1898, Reed personally opposed U.S. involvement in the Spanish-American War and the subsequent acquisition of foreign territories, but did not interfere with wartime legislation supported by the McKinley administration.  When Congress approved the text annexation of Hawaii, Reed purposefully was absent during the vote.  He was reelected later in 1898, but resigned his seat in September 1899.  He died in Washington, D.C., on December 8, 1902. 

Robert C. Kennedy

“Our American Czar and His Do-Nothing Policy”
December 3, 2023

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