Mr. Speaker! The Life and Times of Thomas B. Reed: The Man Who Broke the Filibuster by James Grant. Published by Simon and Schuster, New York. 2011, 410 pages.
Understanding America's history can be a joyous lifelong endeavor of reading, watching films, seminars, and documentaries, visiting national sites, and discussing aspects of the history of the United States with other Americans. There are occasions when a true understanding of an era of American history can be acquired through delving into the lives of political leaders who were famous in their times, but have become less so in current times. Thomas Brackett Reed (1839-1902) of Maine is such a figure, serving over two decades in twelve consecutive congresses in the House of Representatives and rising to House Speaker twice from 1889 to 1891 and again from 1895 to 1899. James Grant is the author of several books on finance and financial history, my introduction to him came in two books, the first on the American industrialist Bernard Baruch and the second was not on America's economic history but his biography of President John Adams. His latest book looks at Thomas Reed, his influence on the Republican Party, Congress, and the nation.
The book discusses Reed's education as a lawyer, and his service in the U.S. Navy during the last year of the Civil War as Acting Paymaster aboard the USS Sybil, a riverboat that plied southern waterways. Reed did not see action, and the section on his naval service reveals the monotony of life patrolling the Mississippi River, which by 1864 had been cleared of Confederate threats. Reed returned to Portland to practice law, and began to make his reputation of public service by getting elected as a state legislator and improving Maine's judicial mechanisms with the establishment of a superior court to address backlogs in court cases. The volume contains interesting court cases Reed served as a lawyer; one was an adultery case that by 1870 drew great interest. In an era before TV and radio, people gathered far and wide to listen to high profile cases, and listen to orations from local politicians.
In United States Congress readers will be introduced to some of the most contentious issues of the Gilded Age (1870 to 1893). Reed as Speaker would attempt to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment protecting the voting rights of African-Americans; the bill was defeated by filibuster (a legislative procedure to obstruct the passage of the bill by extending debate). In Reed's time, the filibuster included having legislators physically present, but refusing to acknowledge their presence when called, therefore a quorum could not even be formed, this disappearing quorum would be addressed by Reed by asking the member if they deny their presence, and then marking them present in the chamber to the objection of the member.
A chapter covers the constitutionality of replacing gold coinage with paper money and the legalism of gold's convertibility with market rates fluctuating. The debate hinged on the constitutional provision in Article 1, Section 8, “Congress shall have the power to coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures.” What does coin money mean? Is this literally coin or print? During the Civil War, greenbacks (today's color of our currency) was developed, printed, and taken off the gold standard as an emergency measure leading to a boom in the economy, can this be extended indefinitely? This was the era before the understanding of modern economics and what we would today call monetary policy.
You will gain insights into several Presidential Administrations from Ulysses S. Grant to Theodore Roosevelt, and experience the debate on the appropriate size of the federal government, the rollback of post-Civil War reconstruction policies, and Reed's final act of resigning in protest in 1899 over the America's maintenance of colonial possessions in the Philippines, and Puerto Rico acquired in the Spanish-American War. Reed agreed with Mark Twain that the United States should not be a colonial power, when Reed resigned the United States Army was involved in an insurgency war in the Philippines it would last on and off until 1913. Grant's book is an excellent read for those with a real passion for American political history in two decades after the American Civil War.
Editor's Note: CDR Aboul-Enein teaches part time at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. He maintains a regular non-fiction book column in NDW Waterline.