Sunday, May 13, 2012

The "Ponderous Tilt-Hammer"

Mr. Speaker!: The Life and Times of Thomas B. Reed The Man Who Broke the Filibuster. James Grant: Simon and Schuster 2011.

Financial journalist James Grant has produced a fascinating biography of a remarkable and once well-known and justly admired speaker of the House, Republican Thomas B. Reed of Maine.

As speaker, Reed overhauled parliamentary rules to streamline proceedings and make it more difficult for members to disrupt legislative business. The term "filibuster," today associated solely with the Senate, applied in the 19th century to the House of Representatives as well before Reed made it impossible to bring debate to a halt with dilatory tactics.

Possessed of an acerbic wit and lacking much patience for fools, Reed championed hard money and earned little but scorn from his foes, many of whom were soft-money agrarian radicals and populists. In a vivid turn of phrase that captured Reed's ability to pulverize opponents, Iowa Populist James B. Weaver called the Maine Republican a "ponderous tilt-hammer who seldom strikes, but when he does ... requires a solid body to withstand the impact."

Grant supports the hard-money views embraced by Reed and goes to considerable length to denounce the Greenback-Labor Party, which enjoyed particular success in Reed's home state during its brief existence. That is not surprising.

But this is not a 21st-century screed about the heresies of populism. Reed was more than just a doctrinaire financial conservative. He was an early supporter of women's suffrage and later became an outspoken anti-imperialist. He studied French and delighted in the language -- although, as Grant points out, he was dismissive of the free-trade doctrines championed by French philosopher Frederic Bastiat, a thinker now much admired by conservatives.

Although marred by too many lengthy quotations from speeches by Reed and other figures, "Mr. Speaker" offers an accessible introduction personalities of the age. James G. Blaine, James A. Garfield, Teddy Roosevelt and William McKinley populate its pages, as do lesser known figures such as Charles Frederick Crisp, Reed's over-matched Democratic rival.

Published last year and available as an e-book through, "Mr. Speaker" remains a timely and useful introduction to the period.