–by Don Kennon
Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine, Speaker of the House of Representatives 1889-1891 and 1895-1899, stood more than six feet three inches tall and weighed nearly 300 pounds. He had a soft, bland, almost cherubic face. He was cultured, droll, and affable; yet as Speaker he was sarcastic, inflexible, even autocratic, which earned him the nickname “Czar” Reed. He forced the House to adopt the so-called Reed Rules of 1890. He handed down two historic decisions. One was that a vote is valid if a quorum of the House is physically present, even though some members making up the quorum refused to vote. The minority had used this as a stalling tactic by refusing to answer “present” during a quorum call to prevent a quorum from being counted. Reed counted as present everyone he saw in the chamber. His second decision was that obviously dilatory motions offered for the sole purpose of obstructing legislation did not have to be entertained by the Speaker.
Under Reed, the Speaker was in truth the boss of the House. He appointed all standing committees and designated their chairmen. He himself was chairman of the Rules Committee and thus could determine what legislative business the House would consider. His unlimited power of recognition gave him additional means to discipline the members.
Author Joseph T. Wilkins has written an entertaining and informative historical novel centered around the speakership of Thomas Brackett Reed, The Speaker Who Locked Up the House in a Fight Against White Supremacy: A Novel of 1890. On March 22, Mr. Wilkins appeared at a booksigning lecture of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society to discuss his book. A video of that discussion can now be seen at the Society’s YouTube channel. Take a look and learn more about Reed and his times.