“I will say to the gentleman that if I ever ‘made light’ of his remarks, it is more than he ever made of them himself.”
This Edition for Educators highlights the always quotable Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine.
Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Portland, Maine, is one of the giants of America’s Gilded Age. Upon first assuming the Speakership in 1889, he instituted “Reed’s Rules” which overhauled House procedure to streamline the legislative process and empower the majority party. In effect, Reed endowed the Speakership with a level of power the office had rarely seen since the days of Henry Clay, and he set the stage for the rise of later powerful Speakers like “Czar” Joe Cannon of Illinois.
Reed thrived in debate and seemed to always have a snappy retort at the ready. Once, upon taking the House Floor to continue debate, he cut off a quarrelsome opponent, “The gentleman’s time has expired, and I have the floor; and I want to say it is an improvement to the floor.” Indeed, Reed seemed to revel in his droll sarcasm, pausing after one barb in the middle of debate to note, “Having embedded that fly in the liquid amber of my remarks, I will proceed.”
After losing the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1896, Reed became increasingly bitter with the expansionist policies of the William McKinley administration. When Congress moved to formally annex Hawaii and the Philippines, Reed reached his limit. He wrote a friend in early 1899, “I have tried, perhaps not always successfully, to make the acts of my public life accord with my conscience and I cannot now do this thing.” Reed resigned from Congress on September 4, 1899. He died only three years later.
Speaker of the House Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine
On September 4, 1899, Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine resigned after serving 11 terms in the House. First elected to the 45th Congress (1877–1879), Reed became chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the 47th Congress (1881–1883) and a member of the Rules Committee. Like many Republicans of the period, he supported protective tariffs, “business subsidies,” and a stable currency based on the gold standard.
Speaker Reed Proceeded Against the “Disappearing Quorum”
Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine forever expunged the “disappearing quorum” from House Rules during a roll-call vote by recording as present those Members gathered on the floor but not voting. This seemingly innocuous act represented the beginning of a revolution in House Rules and the Speakership. At the time, a quorum (i.e., the minimum number of Members required to conduct House business—half plus one) was established only by counting the number of Members who cast votes. This was the case even if the House Chamber was full. After Republicans took the majority, Reed insisted the Clerk count present all Members on the floor. This action prompted vigorous protest from Democrats, some of whom even hid under their desks to escape being counted—unsuccessfully.
Thomas Brackett Reed Lapel Pin
This button, with its mild slogan “I am for Reed. Are you?” is from Reed’s 1896 run for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. When asked if he expected that his party would choose him, the notoriously acid-tongued Reed replied, “They might do worse, and they probably will.”
Thomas B. Reed Birthplace Postcard
In the early 20th century, this postcard immortalized Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed’s birthplace at 15 Hancock Street in Portland, Maine. Members’ homes were a popular curiosity of the time.
Thomas B. Reed Stereoview
Though portraits were generally unusual among stereoviews, in 1898 the publisher Strohmeyer and Wyman produced images of significant Members of Congress. Reed was among those photographed, shown here in the Speaker’s rooms.
Speaker Reed’s Movember Catfish
Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine celebrated Movember before it was cool. Reed’s droopy facial hair attracted attention, though not particularly the sort the Speaker would have preferred. It came as no surprise when publications seemed to cheer Reed’s return to the following Congress sans ‘stache.
The Many Depictions of Thomas Brackett Reed
In the late 19th century, technological innovations in printing images, such as half-tone printing and photoengraving, made mass production easier and cheaper, helping publications take advantage of the high demand for illustrated newspapers and magazines. As one of the era’s most prominent political figures, Thomas Brackett Reed became a favorite subject for cartoonists.
Speaker of the House Bibliography
This bibliography is a compilation of scholarly analyses of the House Speakership, both its development and the individuals who have held the office. While not exhaustive, it is meant to help researchers and students gain a more sophisticated understanding of the institutional developments and personalities that have shaped the Office of the Speaker.
This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. The series appears monthly. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.
Sources: James Grant, Mr. Speaker!: The Life and Times of Thomas B. Reed, The Man Who Broke the Filibuster (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).Follow @USHouseHistory