Czar Reed and the Rise of the American Empire He Didn't Want
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James Grant of Grant's Interest Rate Observer delivered the second of the 2007-2008 Bradley Lectures on October 9. Edited excerpts follow.

Thomas B. Reed's antagonists called him "Czar" Reed, but he was perhaps the greatest Speaker of the House. He controlled the House not only through his physical presence, but also through his wit and mastery of parliamentary procedure.

He was a career politician. He believed that he should be president, but he did not really believe it with all of his 300-pound bulk. If he would have run for president, the election of 1896 would have been his time. The 1896 national election turned on the nature of the dollar and the not-quite-full American dinner pail, rather than on any question of national expansion or territorial annexation. William McKinley's first acts as president had no concern with subject peoples or with the snagging of strategic trophies in the Pacific Ocean; rather, he summoned Congress to a special session to push American tariffs back to their proper and customary Republican heights.

The destruction of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in February 1898, however, reshuffled the administration's priorities. Now began the projection of U.S. power in the world, and now began the recession of Czar Reed's reign as the autocrat of the House.

The Speaker's views on foreign policy posed an immediate danger to McKinley's administration. Reed opposed his party's views on national expansion with even more vehemence than most Republicans asserted them. The 1896 Republican platform had urged an aggressive application of the Monroe Doctrine. And the Republican manifesto proposed the construction of an American-operated and owned canal through Nicaragua and American control of the then-independent Hawaiian Islands.

Reed believed that if a nation could achieve great things within its own boundaries, it was not entitled to attempt to transplant them to foreign soil or to force them down the throats of unwilling peoples. Pretty plainly, Reed and the GOP were approaching the parting of the ways. Reed wanted no part of the worldwide grab for imperial possessions, nor the choosing up of sides among and between the colony-grabbing European powers.

Early in 1897, a clear majority of the House supported a bill to construct a Nicaraguan canal. Reed opposed it and the accompanying appropriation of tens of millions of dollars. He refused to let the bill come to the floor for a vote. The sponsors begged him to reconsider and produced a petition signed by sixty Democrats and all but twenty Republicans. The editors of The Nation commented, "We have the spectacle of a great majority of representatives . . . forbidden by one man even to speak on a bill which they are extremely desirous of passing." That was Reed.

A majority of Congress inflamed with war spirit is not so easily managed. The cause of the explosion aboard the Maine was presently determined, and on October 25, 1898, Congress voted to make war on the kingdom of Spain. In keeping with the tradition that the Speaker did not vote except to break a tie, Reed withheld his nay.

Now that war was on, Republican agitation for the annexation of Hawaii became more persistent. Reed did nothing to impede the war, but he refused to bend on Hawaii. Snatching it, he believed, would deliver the United States no tangible benefit, but would certainly mean the loss of a great political principle--that of self-determination of peoples.

Not even a czar could resist the expansionist wave, however, and in May 1898, Reed allowed a resolution on Hawaiian annexation to reach the floor. The Speaker absented himself on the day of the vote. The motion carried 209-91. Reed was no longer the czar that he once had been. There was worse to come. At the end of April 1898, the United States took possession of the Philippines under the terms of the treaty with Spain.

Congress without Reed was, to many, unthinkable. Yet he realized that the Philippine Islands were bolted onto the national balance sheet, and he could not go on as before. He resigned from the House and from the Speakership on March 3, 1899. To the public, he said nothing about his reason for leaving, but he freely disclosed it to his friends. To one 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."

"Empire can wait" summed up Reed's foreign policy, but that foreign policy was no longer his party's.

The writer of an unsigned newspaper clipping dated September 1899 got the message about Reed's resignation. The clipping said, "We are bound to say that of all the methods of attacking the great and good McKinley which have been devised, that pursued by ex-Speaker Reed is the most dastardly."

It turned out, as Reed must have expected, that empire could not wait after all.

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