The Maine politician who infuriated rivals, hurled insults and fixed Congress

Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.

It’s hard to imagine, but in the late 19th century, Congress did even less than it does now. Gridlock was pervasive until U.S. Rep. Thomas Brackett Reed of Portland, then Speaker of the House, changed the rules of the game. Reed’s regulations gutted the minority party’s power to gum up the works. Those rules are still in effect today.

Because of his ruthless legislative tactics, his political opponents called him “Czar Reed.” They meant it as an insult, but Reed liked the nickname just fine.

Reed started his second go-round as speaker 122 years ago this week on Dec. 2, 1895.

Reed was born in Portland in 1839. He attended Portland High School and Bowdoin College. After brief service during the Civil War, he became a lawyer.

He won a seat in the Maine Legislature in 1868. Before long, he switched to the Senate, then became Maine Attorney General. Two years after that, in 1877, he won election to Maine’s First Congressional District.

Thomas Brackett Reed circa 1895. (This image is item no. 22173 at the Maine Memory Network)

Thomas Brackett Reed circa 1895. (This image is item no. 22173 at the Maine Memory Network)

Reed was a big guy, standing well over 6 feet and weighing in somewhere above 300 pounds. He was a also a progressive Republican. He favored women’s suffrage and fought for African-American voting rights. He was against capital punishment. His friends included Mark Twain and Henry Cabot Lodge.

In 1889, with support from Theodore Roosevelt, he squeaked by William McKinley in the race for Speaker of the House. He held the position until 1891, when Democrats won a majority. Republicans re-took the house in 1895 and Reed became speaker again. He held the position for four more years.

Reed is best remembered, if he’s remembered at all, for his parliamentary rule changes.

At the time of his first term as speaker, the minority party had a lot of power. The Constitution dictated that the House needed a quorum to do business. But what was a quorum?

Before Reed, congressmen were only counted toward a quorum if they voted. Minority party members could be present, sitting at their desks, without answering when called to vote. Thus, the House would fall short of a quorum and nothing would get done.

But in 1890 Reed changed that. He ordered the clerk to count heads instead of votes. Some startled Democrats hid under their desks. When others tried to flee the room, Reed ordered the sergeant at arms to lock the doors. One Democrat from Kentucky screamed in protest.

Reed replied, “The chair is making a statement of fact that the gentleman from Kentucky is present. Does he deny it?”

Later, Reed formalized his new rules and they still stand today.

A Thomas Brackett Reed lapel pin advertising his namesake brand of cigars. (This image is item no. 16933 at the Maine Memory Network.)

A Thomas Brackett Reed lapel pin advertising his namesake brand of cigars. (This image is item no. 16933 at the Maine Memory Network.)

Reed was a man known for his acerbic wit. When one House member said he’d rather be right than president, Reed told him not to worry because he’d never be either.

When his party was thinking of nominating him for president he said, “They could do worse and probably will.”

On the subject of progress, he observed, “To say that a thing has never yet been done among men is to erect a barrier stronger than reason, stronger than discussion.”

Other gems that sprang from his mouth include:

  • “One of the greatest delusions in the world is the hope that the evils in this world are to be cured by legislation.”
  • “They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.”
  • “It is a very lonely life that a man leads, who becomes aware of truths before their times.”
  • “A statesman is a successful politician who is dead.”
  • “The best system is to have one party govern and the other party watch.”
  • “The only justification for rebellion is success.”
  • “The reason why the race of man moves slowly is because it must move all together.”
  • “Politics is mostly pill-taking.”

If Twitter had only existed a century or so earlier.

It’s safe to say Reed loved politics and loved serving as Speaker of the House. But his love had limits.

His own rule changes made the House much quicker to act. In 1898, he saw Congress and his old rival, President McKinley hurtling toward war with Spain. He was personally against what he believed was American imperialism. In protest, he resigned his seat in Congress and went home.

The United States didn’t much care, going on to annex Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines and Hawaii. Reed died Dec. 7, 1902 at the age of 66 and faded into obscurity.

However, his House rules remain in effect today and politicians can no longer hide under their desks or flee the room. We have Thomas Brackett Reed to thank for that.

Note: If you want to know more, pick up a copy of “Mr. Speaker!: The Life and Times of  Thomas B. Reed, the Man Who Broke the Filibuster” by James Grant.

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.


Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.