But that’s OK because Reed lived in interesting times. He came to national power at the end of Reconstruction, sat on the committee that investigated the corrupt 1876 presidential election and often took policy positions that were wildly out of step with his contemporaries. He opposed capital punishment and federal subsidies for railroads, supported women’s suffrage and had a dim view of organized religion.
Despite all that, through the power of his intellect and his mastery of parliamentary maneuvering, Reed rose to the speakership and was considered a serious contender for president in 1896.
In measuring his own chances at the Republican convention that year, Reed quipped that “they could do worse — and probably will.” The nomination went to William McKinley.
McKinley’s election set the stage for Reed’s ultimate political demise. The turn toward American empire the country took near the end of the century was opposed by Reed, but even as Speaker, he had few tools to impose his will. The charge toward war with Spain and the annexation of foreign lands that resulted cost Reed two of his closest political friendships — with Theodore Roosevelt and Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge.
Grant’s telling of the demise of the Reed-Roosevelt-Lodge alliance is not nearly as lachrymose as the version in Evan Thomas’ “The War Lovers,” but it still conveys the sense of loss felt on all sides. Lodge wrote in his diary that Reed had “set himself against the evolution of the country & the forces of the time.” It was an assessment Reed could hardly argue with.
“It was time to leave,” Grant writes, “and he left.”
As a freshman lawmaker in 1878, Reed delivered a speech on the occasion of Maine’s selection of Gen. William King to represent the state in Statuary Hall. King had been dead for about a quarter-century at the time.
“We all know too sadly well that oblivion begins to devour the mightiest when dead,” Reed said, “and has in all ages been so greedy as to overtake some men yet living.”
After his death, oblivion overtook Reed quite quickly. Grant has helped restore him to his rightful place among the giants of the House.