Congressman Thomas B. Reed, the Last Founder
by Steven LaTulippe
Review by Dr. Steven LaTulippe
Proud Tower, A Portrait of the World Before the War
era before and after WW I has always been of keen interest to me.
As a student of historical trends and cycles, I believe that this
period represents a profound turning point in human history.
put, WW I was the Götterdämmerung of Western Civilization.
Almost all of the horrors of the 20th Century can be
laid at the doorstep of that bloody, hideous, and pointless war.
The Western World was riding high in 1900. Europe and the
overseas Western nations were the undisputed centers of learning,
science, industry, and culture. But after four years of the terror
of trench warfare, which consumed the best men of an entire generation,
the West began a downward spiral which continues to this day.
fascination with this period drew me to Ms. Tuchman’s book The
Proud Tower, A Portrait of the World Before the War. It is broken
down by chapters describing each of the major nations of the Western
World in the decades before the Great War.
chapter seemed to be more profound than the next. But the one concerning
the United States, aptly titled "End of a Dream," left
a nutshell, it relates the story of a man who has since largely
been lost to history, but who should be prominent in the hero gallery
of every true American: Maine Congressman Thomas B. Reed.
1889, Congressman Reed had risen from humble beginnings to become
the Speaker of the House of Representatives. At his zenith, his
contemporaries called him "the greatest parliamentary leader
of his time…far and away the most brilliant figure in American politics."
Although he was the descendant of a Mayflower family, he was solidly
middle class and had all of the level-headed attributes of that
stoic breed. A prominent Senate contemporary said of him, "In
my opinion there never has been a more perfectly equipped leader
in any parliamentary body at any period."
his keen intelligence, folksy wisdom, and encyclopedic knowledge
of procedure, he steadily rose during his congressional career to
become a Speaker of legendary power.
he was at the top of his career, he became embroiled in an issue
that was to be his defining moment as a leader and a man: The imbroglio
of the Spanish-American War.
the decade before that war, America was undergoing several profound
changes. First, the frontier was no more. The tide of pioneers had
ended what was, up to that point, the central reality of the American
experience. The seemingly limitless lands to the West had
finally been conquered.
commercial and jingoist factions in America were desperate to continue
"Manifest Destiny" elsewhere. The sugar trust wanted to
annex Hawaii. The shipping industry wanted to annex part of Central
America and build a canal. The militarists and many industrialists
wanted to conquer overseas territories for new bases and markets.
Jingoists wanted a blue-water navy to flex America’s muscles abroad.
Cabot Lodge, a typical expansionist of that era, is quoted in one
famous Senate presentation, "We are a great people; we control
this continent; we are dominant in this hemisphere; we have too
great an inheritance to be trifled with or parted with. It is ours
to guard and extend." Lodge then wrote an article in
Forum in which he stated that "once the canal was built,
the island of Cuba will become a necessity."
Senator Morgan of Alabama stated flatly, "Cuba should become
an American colony."
Cullom of Illinois stated, "It is time someone woke up and
realized the necessity of annexing some property we want
all this northern hemisphere."
the USS Maine was destroyed in Havana’s harbor, the bugle went up
and the jingoists went wild.
was while standing athwart this maelstrom that Speaker Reed experienced
his finest hour.
this period of war fever, there were still scattered individuals
who clung to the doctrines of the Founders. They were a hodgepodge
of sometimes eccentric citizens from different regions, classes,
and backgrounds. From steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to labor leader
Samuel Gompers, these brave men rose to fight for America's soul.
surge of militancy evoked by the Venezuela Message [a call to
war against the UK over a S. American border dispute] shocked
people who still thought of the US in the terms of its founders,
as a nation opposed to militarism, conquest, standing armies,
and all the other bad habits associated with the monarchies of
the old world…. They were closer to Jefferson, who had said, ‘If
there is one principle more deeply rooted in the mind of every
American, it is that we should have nothing to do with conquest.’"
observations continued with passages that are haunting to the modern
took seriously the Declaration of Independence and its principle
of just power deriving from the consent of the governed. They
regarded the extension of American rule over foreign soil and
peoples as a violation of this principle and a desecration of
the American purpose."
William Eliot, the president of Harvard University, denounced jingoism
as "offensive…absolutely foreign to American society…yet many
of my friends endeavor to pass it off as patriotic Americanism."
He denounced Lodge and T. Roosevelt as "degenerated sons of
Reed took up the standard of these valiant souls and fought ceaselessly
to stop America’s descent into a war of imperialism.
proponents of war burst into hysteria [after the sinking of the
Maine]; the peace-minded were out shouted. McKinley hung back…Speaker
Reed did not…. When Senator Proctor, who owned marble quarries
in Vermont, made a strong speech for war, Reed commented, 'Proctor’s
position might have been expected. A war will make a large
market for gravestones.'"
the war progressed, the brave dissidents formed The Anti-Imperialist
League in an attempt to dissuade the government from annexing the
Philippines. Tuchman describes their general argument thus:
war…must not be turned into one for empire. The quest for power,
money, and glory abroad, the League maintained, would distract
from reform at home and bring in its train a strong central government
destructive of traditional states’ rights and local liberties."
and sundry individuals, from ex-President Cleveland to Stanford
President Starr Jordan and from unionist Samuel Gompers to author
Mark Twain rallied to the cause and joined the League.
every turn, Reed led the charge in congress. He prevented a bill
to annex Hawaii from coming to the floor of the House for as long
as possible. Lodge wrote to T. Roosevelt, "Opposition now comes
exclusively from Reed, who is straining every nerve to beat Hawaii."
Reed reached out to anti-jingoist Democrats like Champ Clark to
stop the bill. But in the end, his fight was fruitless, as his own
party revolted and signed a discharge petition moving the bill to
it passed overwhelmingly, the Nation said of Reed: "Courage
to oppose a popular mania, above all to go against party, is not
so common a political virtue that we can afford not to pay our tribute
to a man who exhibits it."
days earlier, the Spanish-American War ended. The USA annexed Puerto
Rico and reduced Cuba to a protectorate (despite the fact that Cuba’s
liberty was allegedly the original reason for the war). Admiral
Alfred Mahan, a prominent militarist, stated, "The jocund youth
of our people now passes away never to return; the care and anxieties
of manhood’s years henceforth are ours."
so it was…and so it still is.
debate next moved on to the question of what to do with the Philippines.
The jingoists wanted a colony, the League wanted to grant the islands
their independence. The Treaty of Paris was on the table, which
would end the war and give the Philippines to America as a possession.
The expansionists needed 2/3 of the Senate to make it happen.
after the abuse that was heaped upon him in the run-up to the war
and over the Hawaii crisis, Reed became disheartened. Lodge wrote
to Roosevelt, "Reed is terribly bitter, saying all sorts of
ugly things about the Administration and its policy in private talks
so that I keep out of his way for I am fond of him and confess that
his attitude is painful and disappointing to me beyond words."
final blow came when William Jennings Bryan, the radical progressive
Democrat who had opposed the war, threw his support behind the annexation
of the Philippines. Hideously, his motive was pure Machiavelli:
he hoped that the annexation would cause a nasty war which would
cripple the Republican administration and open the way for his presidential
before the ratification vote, the Filipino people rose in revolt
against their erstwhile liberators. As the blood began to flow,
the Senate approved the treaty and entered the business of empire.
Bryan’s treachery had shifted a critical mass in the Senate and
led to a victory for the jingoists.
James wrote, "The way the country puked up its ancient principles
at the first touch of temptation was sickening."
Storey added, "We are false in all we have believed in. This
great free land which for more than a century has offered a refuge
to the oppressed of every land has now turned to oppression."
Anti-Imperialists attempted to rally Reed to fight on. But, as Tuchman
was too late. Reed’s sluggishness was that of a man for whom the
fight has turned sour...Reed’s whole life was in 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."
several quiet months of contemplation following the vicious treaty
fight, he allowed word to seep into the press that he was intending
to retire and leave Congress. He led a tranquil life from that point
onward, occasionally practicing law, until passing away quietly
in 1902 of chronic nephritis.
Tuchman notes, "Reed had stood his ground on the swampy
soil of politics, uncompromising to the end, a lonely specimen of
an uncommon kind, the Independent Man."
Reed’s passing from power and the victory of the jingoists, America
had crossed a crucial boundary from Republic to Empire. The major
difference between the debate today and then is that America of
the 1890s still had a number of powerful individuals who clung to
the ideals of the Founders. The Speaker of the House, powerful industrialists,
major trade unionists, and prominent academics still thought in
terms of Jefferson and Washington. The flame had not yet been extinguished.
as evidenced by the Iraq war debate, things have become profoundly
more squalid. The Republican congressional leadership is almost
exclusively jingoistic (mimicking Roosevelt and Lodge of their day).
The Democrats are either on-board with interventionism (Lieberman
et al.) or too cowardly to risk opposing the warmongering masses.
At their cynical worst, like William Jennings Bryan, they support
the war in the hopes that disaster will befall Bush and pave the
way for election victory (this describes, I believe, almost the
whole of the left wing of the Democratic Party).
defenders of the Republic had a powerful Speaker to carry their
torch in the 1890s. The only congressman speaking the language of
the Founders today is Rep.
Ron Paul of Texas. But his dedication to opinions that were
once almost taken for granted has earned him the status of a perennial
backbencher/outsider. Aside from the principled stand of Sen. Robert
Byrd, the Senate is totally bereft of the Founder’s perspectives.
passing of Thomas Reed from power marked a crucial crossroads in
the path to Empire. It was perhaps the last time that a man who
believed in our beloved Republic occupied one of the most powerful
positions in our government. Tragically, the current leadership
is populated almost exclusively by militarists, cowards, and cynical
of the contemporary antiwar movement have many shortcomings. Among
the most prominent of these is that we have allowed the memories
of our brave predecessors to fade into oblivion. In doing so, we
allow our jingoistic antagonists to rewrite our national myths and
to present a false picture of our Republic to future generations.
In struggling to revive the memory of their words and deeds, we
can rectify this shameful situation and reacquaint the American
people with a lost portion of their heritage. This book by Barbara
Tuchman is a good first step in that noble direction.
LaTulippe [send him mail]
is a physician currently practicing in Ohio. He was an officer in
the United States Air Force for 13 years.
© 2003 LewRockwell.com