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  • Writer's pictureDante Mazza

The Thomas B. Reed House

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

The Thomas B. Reed House in Fall 2015

Thomas Brackett Reed served as Speaker of the House from 1889 to 1891 and again from 1895-1899 while representing Maine's 1st Congressional District. During that tenure, he lived in this house at 32 Deering Street in Portland, Maine. Reed became one of the most influential Speakers in the history of the House of Representatives by seizing tight control of the often hapless, petty, and infighting-plagued assembly and implementing a new way of doing business.

Reed made such an impact on the House of Representatives, one which is felt even today, that his home has been declared a National Historic Landmark for its association with one of the most influential and important American political leaders of the 19th century.


The Early Life of Thomas B. Reed

A 1915 postcard featuring the birth home of Thomas Reed in Portland. The house has since been demolished.

(Public Domain Image)


Thomas Brackett Reed was born in Portland, Maine, on October 18, 1839. He came from a storied family of English immigrants to Maine who had been in the state for over 200 years. One of his ancestors was the founder and first Mayor of Portland.

Even so, Reed grew up in the modest household of a father who worked as a sailor and night watchman. He spent his youth roaming the streets of Portland with his friends, playing games in groups, spending literal pennies on indulgences from time to time, and setting off fireworks on the Fourth of July. After graduating from the local high school, Reed's father mortgaged their home to send young Thomas off to college at Bowdoin.

Reed made a name for himself in college as a skillful debater. Such distinction was not bestowed lightly, as he faced off against the likes of Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and future President Franklin Pierce. During his time in college, Reed also taught school part-time in a nearby village, walking six miles each way.

Even in those days, college was expensive. Reed had to borrow money from the father of a close friend to pay for his final year of school. Upon graduation, Reed set out to repay the loan by first teaching at his high school in Portland, then moving to Northern California to teach and study law before finally returning to Portland to complete his legal training.

In April 1864, Reed enlisted in the United States Navy. Commissioned as an Assistant Paymaster, he was placed on a naval vessel, the steamer USS Sibyl, which traveled up and down the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers, gathering intelligence on Confederate activities during the Civil War.

After a year and a half of service, Reed was discharged from the Navy and returned to Portland, where he was admitted to the Cumberland County Bar and opened a law practice.

Reed stood out immediately as a strong and successful lawyer and soon drew the attention of the local Republican Party. He received its nomination for a seat in the Maine State Assembly and won the ensuing election. By 1870, he was serving in the State Senate. That same year, he was elected by the Senate to serve as the state's Attorney General. Only 30 at the time, he was the youngest to be elected to that office.

1870 also proved to be an important year for Reed personally. On February 5, he was married to Susan Merrill, also of Portland, the daughter of a local minister. Theirs would be a long and happy marriage that produced a single daughter named Katherine.

His term as Attorney General was complete, and Reed returned to his successful Portland law practice. He was so sought after as an attorney that the city itself hired him as its counsel, and he served as City Solicitor for three years.

While Reed had a successful life and career in his city and state, he was destined for the national stage. He was soon presented with an opportunity that would pave the way for him to become one of the 19th century's most important political figures.


Election To Congress

In 1876, Reed decided to seek the Republican nomination for Congress in Maine's First Congressional District, which then consisted of York and Cumberland Counties.

Reed lived in Cumberland County, but the incumbent Congressman was from York. Residents of York County wanted one of their neighbors to have the seat, thinking that the Representative had been from Cumberland County too often over the years. Despite that desire, it was clear that Reed was the more qualified man for the job, and he won the nomination after a close vote and much debate at the convention.

1876 was a Presidential Election Year. Maine Senator James G. Blaine had been favored to win the Republican nomination for President but had fallen short in the vote count at the convention. Maine's Republicans were thus upset with their party, and there were concerns that they would stay home on Election Day to protest.

In those days, Maine elected its state officials and members of Congress in September. Thus, Maine was thrown into the spotlight as both parties hoped to score early victories ahead of the rest of the races in November. (The 1876 Presidential Election would end as the closest such race ever.)

Reed traveled his District thoroughly, making speeches and encouraging Republicans to turn out. While many did end up staying home or voting Democrat, enough showed up to the polls to elect Reed to Congress with a 1,000-vote ended margin of victory.

Mr. Reed was heading to Washington.


In Congress

The 1876 Election ended with Republican Rutherford B. Hayes becoming President of the United States, defeating Democrat Samuel Tilden by one single electoral vote.

However, Tilden had won a majority of the popular vote, and the Democrats had won a majority of the seats in the House, so Reed entered Congress as a member of a minority party.

He began his time in Congress quietly, as freshman members of the minority party often do. He was appointed to obscure committees, cast votes with no fanfare, and gave speeches only when the occasion demanded, such as when Maine sent a new statue to the collection of Statuary Hall.

A big moment for Reed early in his congressional career came when he was appointed to the Potter Commission, which investigated claims that the Presidential Election had been thrown to the Republicans. He became well known nationwide for his aggressive cross-examination of Tilden's nephew, who had reportedly communicated with Electors in the Southern States about buying their votes for Tilden. Unfortunately, despite Reed's good work, the Commission's final report was split down partisan lines and had no practical effect.

Winning a second term in Congress, Reed was appointed to the House Judiciary Committee, where he served alongside future President William McKinley.

After the 1880 election, when House Minority Leader James Garfield was elected President, and the Republicans took the majority, Reed found himself able to seek positions of true power for the first time. He became Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, the third most prestigious chairmanship in Congress.

Regarding the era's social issues, Reed often took a progressive position. Under his tenure, the Judiciary Committee voted to create a Select Committee on Women's Suffrage some 40 years before women were finally guaranteed the right to vote. When the Chinese Exclusion Act first came before Congress, he voted against it. (He later voted for an amended version lasting fewer years). He also supported a Civil Service reform bill.

Reed always had an interest in the procedural workings of Congress, and he joined the House Rules Committee in 1882. This key appointment, combined with his chairmanship and reputation for engaging in searing, witty debates with his colleagues on the House Floor, propelled Reed to a leading role in his party.


The Road to the Speakership

Four years later, in 1888, the Republicans had learned their lesson and were prepared to fight. Running a classic "front porch" style campaign, Republican Nominee Benjamin Harrison invited voters to visit him at home in Indianapolis, Indiana, a strategy which proved immensely effective. Incumbent President Cleveland made the issue of tariff reduction the core of his campaign, costing him in the populous industrial states of the North and Midwest, including his home state of New York. Harrison was elected and brought along with him a Republican House and Senate.

Reed's party was back in charge.


"Czar Reed" and the Disappearing Quorum

A bust of Thomas B. Reed sits outside the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.


As the acknowledged leader of the House Republicans, Reed was the favorite to become Speaker when the new Congress gathered in 1889. That did not mean, however, that his candidacy was uncontested.

Among Reeds' principal opponents was his longtime colleague, future President William McKinley. On the first ballot within the Republican caucus, no candidate got a majority of the vote, though Reed came close. He was elected on the second ballot, and a later vote of the whole House affirmed his position.

While the Republicans had the majority in the House, it was a slim majority at best. The U.S. Constitution mandates that a quorum (in this case, a majority) of members of each house of Congress be present for business to be conducted. In Reed's Congress, that quorum was 166 members, falling to 165 after the death of a Republican.

Reed had received precisely 166 votes in the Speakership race, but that vote was held on the first day of the new Congress, and it was unlikely that every Republican member of the House would be present in Washington every time a vote was held.

Reed could not count a single Democrat toward the quorum thanks to a minority party procedural tactic known as the "disappearing quorum." By this method, members of the minority party would remain silent when called upon to vote on bills they disagreed with. Though they were physically present in the Chamber, without a verbal confirmation of their presence, they were not counted, denying Congress a quorum and forcing a halt in business.

Reed knew that he could not preside over a productive House if the Democrats were allowed to sink any legislation they opposed by simply refusing to be counted. He had been on the House Rules Committee for several years and knew it was time for a change.

Reed's moment came on January 29, 1890, when a House committee brought to the floor a resolution to award the House seat in a contested election to the Republican candidate. Naturally, the Democrats did not want to give up yet another seat in the House, so none answered when their names were called. As a result, only 163 Republican members were in Congress that day, two short of a quorum.

Reed made his move. With the following statement, he forever changed the rules of the American legislative process:

"The Chair directs the clerk to record the names of the following members present and refusing to vote."

The House exploded. In one swift motion, Reed was unilaterally sweeping aside decades of the tradition practiced by both parties.

The Democrats were furious. When one member rose, book in hand, to protest Reed's action on parliamentary grounds, he responded:

"The Chair is making a statement of fact that the present. Does he deny it?"

Despite the chaos, Reed took the time to calmly make the case why every member present in the House should be counted as such. Citing the Constitution, he explained, "Inasmuch as the Constitution only provides for [Members'] attendance, that attendance is enough. If more was needed, the Constitution would have provided for more."

For days the House was in chaos as the Members tried to make sense of Reed's new ruling. He was denounced in every way for every reason, and it was then that he first received his lasting nickname, "Czar Reed."

Reed knew that he would face stiff opposition to his changes, so much so that he had planned to resign the Speakership and leave the House should the other Members refuse to accept them. Luckily, Reed never had to execute that plan. When the whole House voted on whether to overrule Reed's changes to the quorum rules, every Republican member stood by their leader, and the measure failed.

The disappearing quorum had disappeared from Congress.

Reed's victory, however, was initially short-lived. In the next election, Democrats won control of the House while Grover Cleveland was re-elected to the Presidency after four years away from the White House.

The Democrats reinstated the disappearing quorum, but Reed, now the House Minority Leader, used the tactic to his full advantage. No Republican answered when their name was called to vote on any issue, and the House came to a standstill.

Eventually, a compromise was reached in which Members agreed to be counted for a quorum but did not have to vote on the legislation before the House. By allowing such a concession, the Democrats had essentially endorsed Reed's logic that all members present should count toward the quorum.

The Supreme Court later upheld Reed's new quorum rule in the 1892 United States v. Ballin decision. Writing the majority opinion, Justice David Josiah Brewer declared, "All that the Constitution requires is the presence of a majority, and when that majority are present the power of the house arises."

The disappearing quorum had permanently disappeared. Reed had forever changed the rules of the American legislative process.


Reed's Rules

Having asserted his dominance as Speaker, Reed was able to get the House to accept a more developed rules package less than a month later.

The Reed Rules, as they came to be known, granted the Speaker the power to refuse to entertain motions he felt would slow the pace of business in the Chamber and allowed for more flexibility in the scheduling of House business. Though some critics saw Reed's actions as a personal power grab, hence the "czar" title, the reforms proved to be timely for a nation that was rapidly expanding and changing and needed its legislature to keep pace.

Reed was so enamored with parliamentary procedure that he composed a book on the subject, titled "Reed's Rules," which is considered an authoritative text on the subject even today.


Return to the Speakership and Resignation

Standing 6 feet 3 inches and weighing nearly 300 pounds, Reed was an imposing physical figure

Though he had brought enormous change to the House in his first term as Speaker, Reed reached the height of his power during his second term, which lasted twice as long as his first term and was supported by a much stronger majority. During this period, Reed was without question one of the most powerful men in the nation.

The 1894 midterm elections, held during Grover Cleveland's second term, were a boon for the Republican Party. Now considered the beginning of the Fourth Party System and Progressive Era, 1894 marked the largest transfer of seats between parties in the history of the House, with the Republicans winning a full 110 out of 356 total seats away from the Democrats.

With Reed still considered the leader of the House Republicans, he was again elected Speaker. However, since a Democratic administration occupied the White House, he was the acknowledged leader of the national Republican Party as well.

Reed's tenure in that position was short-lived; however, as just two years later, the Republicans set about selecting their nominee for the 1896 Presidential Election. Though Reed sought the nomination and enjoyed strong support in certain quarters, including his home region of New England, the nomination went to Reed's longtime colleague and rival, William McKinley.

After McKinley won the election and was inaugurated, Washington was again under complete Republican control, with decisive majorities in both houses of Congress. Under Reed's leadership, the House quickly passed a new protective tariff. Public demand for such an action had been a key reason for the Republicans' success at the ballot box.

Further action on domestic policy was soon sidelined in February 1899, when the USS Maine mysteriously exploded in the harbor at Havana, Cuba and the nation became enamored with the possibility of war with Spain. Spain controlled Cuba as a colony at that time, but its citizens were fighting for their independence. Many American leaders felt the United States should intercede on Cuba's behalf. The destruction of the Maine seemed the perfect reason to get involved.

Whatever his personal feelings on the matter, President McKinley had little choice but to go to war with Spain. Reed dutifully shepherded the declaration of war through the House, though he had personal reservations against the conflict.

The United States had little trouble taking on the crumbling Spanish Empire and its aging military. At Manila harbor in the Philippines, the U.S. destroyed nearly the entire Spanish fleet while facing almost no resistance. Despite such overwhelming victories, the President and his Congressional allies sought further action to bolster the war effort, including annexing the Hawaiian Islands.

Reed knew that powerful interests, including the sugar industry, sought annexation for financial reasons, not geopolitical ones. Because he knew that the islands would essentially become a colony rather than one of the states, he opposed the annexation and made no special moves to get the bill to the House floor. When it finally did arrive on its own volition, after several failed attempts to move it out of committee, Reed was out sick, and the House advanced the measure while the Speaker Pro Tempore, filling in for Reed, announced that were the Speaker present he would have voted no. Since the Speaker usually does not vote on legislation, the statement carried major significance.

The treaty which ended the Spanish-American War and was ratified by the U.S. Senate included a provision selling the Philippines to the United States for $20 million. Though the treaty did not need the approval of the House, Reed was against the annexation, just as he had been with Hawaii.

Despite his reputation as a "czar," Reed deeply cherished the principles of independence and self-determination. Once he realized that the U.S. government denied those rights to citizens of faraway lands, engaging in the same sort of colonialism the nation had once taken up arms to free itself from, he knew he could not be part of that government any longer.

Though he had just been re-elected to Congress with a large majority and could have easily continued his term as Speaker, Reed chose to resign rather than vocally oppose the policies of a Republican administration and voluntarily ceded one of the most powerful positions in government. His years in Washington had come to a close.


The House

Reed's Townhouse, pictured in the fall of 2015

Reed purchased and moved to this stately house on Deering Street in Portland around the time he first became Speaker in 1889. He would call it home for the rest of his life.

According to his biographer Samuel McCall, Reed kept a library on the third floor, believed to be the most extensive private library in the state. He filled his collection with works ranging from Byron's poetry to Dickinson's prose, reference books needed to interpret Scripture passages, and issues of the British magazine Punch, which is thought to have helped develop and popularize the modern concept of the cartoon. Reed also owned several works written in French, which he was fluent in and practiced often. His legal books rounded out the library.

The home itself dates to 1867. Designed by F. H. Fassett & Son and built by Simon H. Libby, the building is done in the High Victorian style with Eastlake-style decorations. The most prominent exterior features are detailed below:

The three floors of the home are each delineated by an elaborate stringcourse.

A stringcourse of colored tiles between two bands of blue brick divides the first floor from the second. The titles' color and design match those set in sandstone capitals above the windows.

A stringcourse of diagonally set red bricks between another two bands of blue painted brick divides the second story from the first (Bottom of photo)

At the roofline, the cornice brackets are also painted blue, with panels of red brick set between each pair.

A double flight of granite steps leads up to the front doors, which are situated under an elaborately carved wooden porch with a built-in bench on either side. Reed lived in the 32 Deering Street half of the building.

The rooftop dormers are not original and were added after Reed's death.

When the home was designated a National Historic Landmark in the 1970s, it was used as a doctor's office. The official nomination report says a portrait of Reed hung in the main entryway during this period. Today, the building is once again used as a private residence.

Postcard of the home as it appeared during Reed's residency


Later Life

Having left Congress, Reed headed not back home to Maine but instead to New York City, where he joined a private law firm to provide for his wife and daughter. Though he had made a comfortable living in public service, enough to purchase the home on Deering Street, Reed built real wealth in private practice, enough to pass along to his family.

Reed returned to Portland for a final time in August of 1900, where he delivered a brief but rousing speech, surrounded by friends and neighbors, praising the state of Maine at the "Old Home" celebration at City Hall. Reed also returned to Bowdoin College to deliver an address for the institution's 100th anniversary in 1902.

As he had been in Maine, Reed proved very successful as a private attorney, even once returning to Washington to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Reed's stature as a former House Speaker drew him into association with several prominent New Yorkers of the era, including the great author and humorist Mark Twain and Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, who would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize and become President of Columbia University.

On occasion, Reed would return to the Capitol in Washington, where he would gather and reminisce with old friends in the Ways and Means Committee room. It was on one of these occasions that Reed fell ill. He was rushed back to his hotel and examined by doctors, who determined that Reed had advanced-stage kidney disease. His wife and daughter were called down to Washington. After a few days of sickness, Reed died peacefully in his sleep on December 7, 1902. He was 63.

His body was escorted back to his hometown of Portland, where he is buried in the Evergreen Cemetery.



Though his name has not been particularly well remembered, Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed was a transformative figure in 19th Century American Politics. He changed how the House of Representatives does business, brought dignity and strength to the office of the Speaker, and never strayed from the values that define or at least should define, the character of American public servants. A talented orator, author, and debater, he added much to the intellectual standing of every group he joined.

In the political history of his home state, Reed is a member of a small group of Mainers who achieved national prominence alongside the likes of Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, House Speaker and Secretary of State James G. Blaine, and in the 20th Century, Governor and Secretary of State Edmund Muskie.

In the political history of the United States, Thomas Reed is considered the second most influential Speaker of the 19th Century, after Henry Clay, and one of the most influential Speakers of all time. The designation of his longtime home as a National Historic Landmark is a testament to his success in transforming the American government, at the national level, for the better.


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