On October 18th we wished Thomas Brackett Reed, accomplished and admired three-time Speaker of the House of Representatives, a happy 177th birthday!
Thomas Brackett Reed served in Congress through the Gilded Age, a period in which tariffs, immigration, and imperial expansion preoccupied political debates. Because of its decision-making role in these issues, Congress received a large portion of the press’s attention. The late 19th century also saw an expansion of the scope of the press, with a proliferation of popular publications, a result of technological innovations in printing images, such as half-tone printing and photoengraving. These techniques made the mass production of images easier and cheaper, helping publications take advantage of the high demand for illustrated newspapers and magazines.
Reed, as a strong Republican leader, appeared frequently in political cartoons during his Speakership. Democratic-leaning publications, such as Joseph Keppler’s Puck, delighted in unflattering depictions that routinely referenced Reed’s most famous act as Speaker, the formation of Reed’s Rules. The Democrats’ resentment over this change in the rules is illustrated by a political cartoon celebrating the end of Reed’s Speakership on March 4, 1891. In this image by Louis Dalrymple, a portly Reed is literally ejected from the Speaker’s seat by an allegorical female figure representing “Popular Verdict.” This woman holds a banner that declares, “Congress IS a deliberative body!!” In the background, Members stand astonished or cheering. The crown and kingly robe that fall off Reed’s body as he flies out of the Chamber reference Reed’s popular nickname: “Czar of the House.” Originating from the Democrats’ claim that Reed was a tyrannical, autocratic Speaker, the nickname also encompassed Reed’s powerful personality, with royal accoutrement providing visual shorthand.
After a Democratic majority in the 52nd and 53rd Congresses, Reed resumed his role as Speaker for the 54th Congress, serving two terms as Speaker, and reaching the height of his political power. There was no apparent end in sight of his reign over the House. Political cartoons depicted Reed as a bird, roosting in the Speaker’s chair year after year, such as in an 1898 cartoon from the magazine Judge captioned, “The Reed Bird will Build his Nest Undisturbed in the Same Old Place.” As a clothed bird with Reed’s head arranges his nest in the Speaker’s chair, Democrats with rifles peer from behind tapestries in the background. In the foreground, a leading Democrat, Joseph Weldon Bailey looks disappointedly at the signs above the Speaker’s chair that read: “The law for Reed birds is on. . . . No shooting this year in this House.” However, soon after this cartoon was made, Reed unexpectedly resigned from Congress.
Reed is remembered in the House of Representatives through his portrait in the Speaker’s Lobby, painted by renowned American painter John Singer Sargent. At the time of its completion in 1891, the painting garnered a lukewarm reception. With disappointment, the Art Notes section of the New York Times stated, “(Sargent) has made Mr. Reed out a decidedly commonplace large person, with a very thick neck.” Reed’s size, depicted both by Sargent and caricatured by cartoonists, hardly needed exaggeration, as the Congressman stood 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighed more than 300 pounds. The artist himself was dissatisfied with the portrait, stating, “His (Reed’s) exterior does not seem to correspond to his spirit. What is a painter to do? I could have made a better picture with a less remarkable man.”
Although he certainly generated conflict, Reed was admired by friends and opponents alike for his debating skills, as well as his acerbic wit. Before his last session in Congress, Reed was called the greatest parliamentary leader of his time—all qualities that weren’t quite captured, even by a talented artist such as Sargent.
Years later the New York Times still considered Sargent’s painting as a work unfortunately lacking “the savage look that is most admired by the men who call Reed the 'Czar' without intent to reproach.” Yet at the end of Reed’s career and life it was not only the Czar-like characteristics so common in political illustrations that became an admired and defining characteristic of his persona, but also his principles. As Reed’s friend Mark Twain said of him: “He was transparently honest and honorable, there were no furtivenesses about him, and whoever came to know him trusted him and was not disappointed.”
Sources: “Art Notes,” New York Times, October 26, 1891; Elbridge, Dunnel, “Thomas Brackett Reed,” New York Times, July 4, 1897; Tuchman, Barbara, “Czar of the House,” American Heritage 14 (1962): 33-35, 92-102; Twain, Mark, “Thomas Brackett Reed,” Harper’s Weekly, December 20, 1902.