I am looking forward to reading James Grant’s newest, “Mr. Speaker!: The Life and Times of Thomas B. Reed” (just as soon as I plow through the forty or so other books waiting patiently for me on my Nook’s home page).   Grant, a respected financial journalist, could not have hoped for a more timely release of his book, squarely in the middle of the debt ceiling debacle.

Reed was a Republican in the days when Republicans were all about big government.  (Yes, really.  And get this: he was from Maine!)  He served as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1889 to 1891, and again from 1895 to 1899.  Although he is not well-remembered today, he was one of the most influential Speakers in history. 

He came to Congress shortly after the controversial 1876 election, in which the electoral votes of several states were disputed (and yes, Florida was one of them).  Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was named the winner, and Democrats, led by Hayes’ opponent, Samuel B. Tilden, cried foul.  The Potter Commission was established to look into allegations of election fraud, and Reed, a lawyer, was named to the Commission.  No doubt the Democrats expected to roll over Reed, then a freshman; to their surprise, his cross-examination of Tilden was so devastating that, even though he was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, Tilden’s reputation was forever damaged.   

Reed’s tenure as Speaker was marked by simmering hatred between the North and South (Hayes effectively ended the Reconstruction by withdrawing federal troops from the Southern states), railroad strikes, and wars in South America.  His greatest contribution to politics was his insistence that reason and order govern Congressional proceedings.  Before he took the helm, it was common practice for Congressmen to remain silent during quorum call.  Even though they were physically present, if they did not announce themselves a quorum could not be declared and the House could not continue with its business. 

On January 28, 1890, the motion to seat the newly elected Republican Representative from West Virginia was passed by 161 to 1 votes.  165 votes were needed to form a quorum, and Reed undertook a roll call of the Congressmen present.  When the Democrats refused to answer, Reed directed the Clerk to indicate that they were present.  When the Democrats began making for the exits, Reed had the doors locked.  Some of them hid under their desks.  Reed rooted them out.  And the gentleman from West Virginia was eventually seated. 

His realpolitik approach to governance was memorialized in his book, “Reed’s Rules: A Manual of General Parliamentary Law.” 

One, with God, is always a majority, but many a martyr has been burned at the stake while the votes were being counted.

Thomas Brackett Reed (from Gordon Carruth and Eugene Ehrlich, The Harper Book of American Quotations (New York: Harper & Row, 1988)