Tuesday, January 1, 2013

"Czar" Reed

I recently finished Mr. Speaker! a biography of "Czar" Thomas Brackett Reed by James Grant. Reed represented Maine in Congress through most of the Gilded Age and served as Speaker of the House for  the 51st, 54th, and 55th Congresses in the 1890s. He was a large and imposing presence both physically and intellectually. Reed was a conventional Northeast Republican in economic matters, supporting both the protective tariff and the gold standard. More unorthodox positions included support for women's suffrage (despite his wife's opposition to it) and his anti-imperialism stance during the McKinley administration. His greatest contribution was to re-write the House rules during his first tenure as Speaker. Motivated by a strong belief in majority rule, Reed "broke" the filibuster in the House, which quickened the speed at which the lower chamber addressed legislation. Grant clearly hopes the current crop of politicians in Washington will draw from Reed's experience. Reed used his new rules effectively to pass an impressive number of bills during the (in)famous "billion dollar" 51st Congress, including the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the Elections (a.k.a. "Force Bill"), and the McKinley Tariff. Grant hardly mentions the significant extension to the pension system, which attracts the attention of historians.

This is a work of popular history and Grant delves deep into the background of issues, such as the tariff, sometimes going to the early 18th century. The author is at his best when discussing economic and currency issues. These can be tricky topics and he handles them deftly. As a specialist in this era, I found these forays to be a diversion. In their place, I would have liked to have seen some deeper analysis of the issues and politics of the era. I realize I was not in Grant's intended audience, but I feel an awful lot of good scholarship has been done on the period and could have enhanced our understanding of Reed's era. Most of the books cited in the notes are older sources. Noticeably absent are the works of Sven Beckert, Richard Bensel, Charles Calhoun, Edward Crapol, Lewis Gould, Ari Hoogenboom, Jackson Lears, Allan Peskin, Joanne Reitano, Gretchen Ritter, Theda Skopol, Stephen Skowroneck, Mark Wahlren Summers, and Richard Welch, to cite some specific examples.

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