March 11, 2006

Thomas B. Reed, an American Hero -- and a Hero for Our Time

[I'm republishing here a post from December 6, 2005. While World War I was the irrevocable turning point for the United States in many ways, the U.S.'s decision to engage in international expansionism through military force dated from an earlier conflict: the Spanish-American War, followed by the U.S. policy in the Philippines. I'll be writing more about the Philippines episode in the very near future, hopefully in the next few days. The motives that impelled our policies over a century ago are identical in many respects to those that continue to drive us toward ever-wider disasters overseas today. Because those motives were largely abhorrent, most Americans entirely ignore the central events of this period, and their wider meaning. This entry provides some useful background for my upcoming commentary on this subject. In addition, Reed's story is an unusually compelling and admirable one.]

Last week, I offered a poem by Siegfried Sassoon, "To the Warmongers." In my comments, I observed that World War I is the seminal event in the modern world. Understanding its causes, and appreciating all of the consequences that flowed from that devastating conflict, are crucial to grasping how we arrived at our present situation -- and in trying to determine how we can proceed without repeating the grievous errors of the past yet again. The consequences of The Great War affected every aspect of our lives: philosophy, art, commerce, technology -- and, of course, international relations. I traced some of the political results of World War I in the second part of my Iran series.

I indicated that I would be writing much more about World War I, and the world that existed before and after it. I've already begun reading and rereading several important books on that subject. I've referred before to the wonderful and endlessly rewarding work of Barbara Tuchman. In several essays over the last few years, I've offered some especially revealing and relevant excerpts from The March of Folly. The lessons Tuchman identifies about the U.S.'s enormously costly errors in Vietnam are ones that we still don't understand or appreciate. (See Part I of the Iran discussion, for example, and this part, too.)

Another book of Tuchman's is indispensable to understanding the impact of World War I and the world in which that conflict arose. The subtitle of The Proud Tower is: "A Portrait of the World Before the War: 1890-1914." Her chapters focus on several key countries (England, the United States, France, the Netherlands, Germany and England), and on two key groups, the Anarchists and the Socialists.

Tuchman provides a number of great joys to the reader. Her historical research is meticulously detailed and far-reaching. But unlike many writers of history, who too frequently offer a wealth of details in the manner of a random list, so that we are never entirely certain what is important or why -- with the result that we easily become bored and often simply stop reading or skip ahead -- Tuchman brings the great abilities of an accomplished author of fiction to her factual histories. The result is that we often feel as if we are reading a suspense thriller: we can't wait to find out what happens next, or how it ends. Since we know, at least in general terms, how it ends, the accomplishment is even more notable. Tuchman consistently utilizes another device found in the best fiction: she unerringly focuses on the one revealing detail, the single incident or statement that unravels the mystery. This provides the reader with that wonderful moment when comprehension settles over us, when we say to ourselves: "Ah, now I see!" Tuchman gives us many such moments.

I experienced all this again last evening, as I was rereading the chapter in The Proud Tower about America. I'll return to her treatment again, because Tuchman sets forth how and why the United States made the fateful decision to turn its focus from within its own shores -- to expansion overseas. The actual reasons for that decision are often not the ones commonly accepted today, and the identities of those who were most enthusiastic about military exploits abroad may surprise you. This particular decision, and the reasons that informed it, violated fundamental principles upon which our nation relied at its founding and which had guided it for its first hundred years -- and it explains much of why we face the crisis of the present moment.

For the moment, though, I want to discuss a narrower aspect of Tuchman's history of America in these crucial years: the story of Thomas B. Reed, a Republican member of the House of Representatives from Maine. Reed "was not nurtured for a political career by inherited wealth, social position or landed estate." In terms of "character, intellect and a kind of brutal independence," he "represented the best that America could put into politics in his time." One measure of that independence is that, while he once intended to go into the ministry, his extensive reading and his own reflections finally led him to form "religious convictions that were too individual to submit to a formal creed."

Reed was first elected to Congress in 1876. He became known, in the words of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, as "the finest, most effective debater" of his time. His arguments were greatly admired for their "lucidity and logic." Reed once remarked, with regard to the "five-minute" rule: "Russell, you do not understand the theory of five-minute debate. The object is to convey to the House either information or misinformation. You have consumed several periods of five minutes this afternoon without doing either." That provides some indication of the scathing wit for which he was also admired -- and feared. When one especially verbose Representative vehemently declared that he would always prefer to be right rather than to be President, Reed responded: "The gentleman need not be disturbed; he will never be either." You may be familiar with some of Reed's epigrams: "A statesman is a politician who is dead," for example.

In 1889, Reed became Speaker of the House of Representatives. At that time, the Speakership "was a post of tremendous influence, still possessed of all the powers which 1910 ... were to be transferred to the committees." It is the momentous battle that Reed undertook shortly after becoming Speaker that concerns me here.

Upon taking the post, Reed embarked on "a plan on which he had long deliberated." He talked to no one else at all about it, not even the members of his own party. He risked everything on it: "he would either break 'the tyranny of the minority' by which the House was paralyzed into a state of 'helpless inanity,' or he would resign." The problem was the "silent--or disappearing--quorum." The custom of the time was that the minority party could bring all legislative action to a complete standstill by demanding a roll call, and then failing to respond when their names were called. They could be physically present -- but if they did not say they were, it was as if they were invisible. Without a quorum, business could not be conducted. In this way, the minority could prevent any and all business from being done.

The issue for Reed could not have been more fundamental. I suggest you set aside the particular party designations in what follows: what concerns me is the principle involved, and the means by which Reed conducted this struggle. The lesson goes beyond party affiliation -- and is one almost every politician today desperately needs to appreciate:
To Reed the issue was survival of representative government. If the Democrats could prevent that legislation which the Republicans by virtue of their electoral victory could rightfully expect to enact, they would in effect be setting aside the verdict of the election. The rights of the minority, he believed, were preserved by freedom to debate and to vote but when the minority was able to frustrate action by the majority, "it becomes a tyranny." He believed that legislation, not merely deliberation, was the business of Congress. The duty of the Speaker to his party and country was to see that that business was accomplished, not merely to umpire debate.
And even if we set aside completely the particulars of this general question and whether you agree with Reed's position (and I can easily imagine many situations, if not most today, in which I would fully approve any method of forestalling dangerous legislation, beginning but hardly ending with the Patriot Act), the determination and unflinching courage Reed brought to the battle were a wonder. He was savagely attacked on all sides, and it is not that he did not suffer. He did, as we shall see.

On one particular item in contention, Reed was unquestionably correct in every respect. Among other legislation the Democrats intended to obstruct was a bill against the poll tax and "other Southern devices to keep the Negroes from voting." The Democrats also sought to prevent a vote "on the seating of four Republicans, two of them Negroes, in contested elections from Southern districts." When the first contested election appeared on the House's schedule, the Democrats called for a quorum and demanded a roll call. Enough of them were silent so that no quorum was present. Reed, convinced he would ultimately be upheld on the constitutional point, directed the Clerk "to record the names of the following members present and refusing to vote" -- and the entire list of those who failed to acknowledge their presence was then read. Chaos ensued, amidst literal screams of protest. It appeared Reed might be physically assaulted more than once. One Representative shouted that he denied Reed's right as Speaker to count him as present:
For the first time the Speaker stopped, held the hall in silence for a pause as an actor holds an audience, then blandly spoke: "The Chair is making a statement of fact that the gentleman is present. Does he deny it?"
And here is the most important point of all:
As implacably at each juncture Reed counted heads and repeated his formula, "A Constitutional quorum is present to do business," the fury and frustration of the Democrats mounted. A group breathing maledictions advanced down the aisle threatening to pull him from the Chair and for a moment it looked to a spectator "as if they intended to mob the Speaker." Reed remained unmoved. Infected by the passion on the floor, visitors and correspondents in the galleries leaned over the railings to shake their fists at the Speaker and join in the abuse and profanity. "Decorum," lamented a reporter, "was altogether forgotten, Members rushed madly about the floor, the scowl of battle upon their brows, ... shouting in a mad torrent of eloquent invective." They called Reed tyrant, despot and dictator, hurling epithets like stones. Among all the variants on the word "tyrant," "czar" emerged as the favorite, embodying for its time the image of unrestrained autocracy, and as "Czar" Reed, the Speaker was known thereafter. The angrier the Democrats became, the cooler Reed remained, bulking hugely in the chair, "serene as a summer morning." Although his secretary saw him in his private room, during an interval, gripping the desk and shaking with suppressed rage, he never gave a sign in the hall to show that the vicious abuse touched him. He maintained an iron control, "cool and determined as a highwayman," said the New York Times.

The secret of his self-possession as he told a friend long afterward, was that he had his mind absolutely made up as to what he would do if the House did not sustain him. "I would simply have left the Chair and resigned the Speakership and my seat in Congress." He had a place waiting for him for the private practice of law in Elihu Root's New York firm, and "I had made up my mind that if political life consisted in sitting helplessly in the Speaker's Chair and seeing the majority helpless to pass legislation, I had had enough of it and was ready to step down and out." Coming to such a decision, he said, "you have made yourself equal to the worst" and are ready for it. This has a very "soothing" effect on the spirit.

It did more than soothe: it gave him an embedded strength which men who fear the worst, or will yield principles to avoid the worst, can never possess. It endowed him with a moral superiority over the House which members without knowing why could sense in the atmosphere.
Just a few days later, the battle was over. Reed had won.

I have additional reasons for my deep admiration of Reed, and they are equally important. As the war fever over Cuba mounted in the late 1890s, "Reed regarded the Hearst-fabricated furor over Spain's oppression with contempt and Republican espousal of Cuba's cause as hypocrisy. He saw his party losing its moral integrity and becoming a party of political expediency in response to the ignorant clamor of the mob." Reed even wrote a magazine piece, "to argue against expansion--in an article whose title, 'Empire Can Wait,' became a rallying cry for the opponents of Hawaii's annexation. It spoke the awful name; as yet the outright words 'empire' and 'imperialism' which connoted the scramble for Africa then at its peak among the European powers, had not been used in the United States."

Tragically for the United States, and for all of us still today, Reed ultimately lost this battle:
Reed's whole life was in Congress, in politics, in the exercise of representative government, with the qualification that for him it had to be exercised toward an end that he believed in. His party and his country were now bent on a course for which he felt deep distrust and disgust. To mention expansion to him, said a journalist, was like "touching a match" and brought forth "sulphurous language." The tide had turned against him; he could not turn it back and would not go with it.

Like his country, he had come to a time of choice.


To retain office as Speaker would be to carry through a policy in the Philippines abominable to him. It would be to continue as spokesman of the party of Lincoln, which had been his home for so long and which had now chosen, in another way than Lincoln meant, to "meanly lose the last best hope of earth." To his longtime friend and secretary, Asher Hinds, he said, "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." For him the purpose and savor of life in the political arena had departed. He had discovered mankind's tragedy: that it can draw the blueprints of goodness but it cannot live up to them.
In 1899, he let it be announced that he would retire from the House. He gave no public explanation, except to say in a letter to his constituents, "Office as a ribbon to stick in your coat is worth no-one's consideration." When reporters cornered him one day and insisted that the public wanted to hear from him, he said: "The public! I have no interest in the public."

America no longer wanted what Thomas B. Reed had to offer. Consider what we lost over a hundred years ago -- and grieve for your country.