James Grant’s enthralling biography of Thomas B. Reed, Speaker of the House
during one of the most turbulent times in American history—the Gilded Age
, the decades before the ascension of reformer President Theodore Roosevelt—brings to life one of the brightest, wittiest, and most consequential political stars in our history. The last decades of the nineteenth century were a volatile era of rampantly corrupt politics. It was a time of both stupendous growth and financial panic, of land bubbles and passionate and sometimes violent populist protests. Votes were openly bought and sold in a Congress paralyzed by the abuse of the House filibuster
by members who refused to respond to roll call even when present, depriving the body of a quorum. Reed put an end to this stalemate, empowered the Republicans, and changed the House of Representatives for all time. The Speaker’s beliefs in majority rule were put to the test in 1898, when the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor
set up a popular clamor for war against Spain. Reed resigned from Congress in protest. A larger-than-life character, Reed checks every box of the ideal biographical subject. He is an important and significant figure. He changed forever the way the House of Representatives does its business. He was funny and irreverent. He is, in short, great company. “What I most admire about you, Theodore,” Reed once remarked to his earnest young protégé, Teddy Roosevelt, “is your original discovery of the Ten Commandments.” After he resigned his seat, Reed practiced law in New York. He was successful. He also found a soul mate in the legendary Mark Twain
. They admired one another’s mordant wit. Grant’s lively and erudite narrative of this tumultuous era—the raucous late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—is a gripping portrait of a United States poised to burst its bounds and of the men who were defining it.
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The Speaker of the House of Representatives is chosen from the majority party and does not ordinarily vote on bills. The Gilded Age was the term used by Mark Twain to describe America after the Civil War, which was not a golden age but one characterized by showy gilding. When the American warship USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbor in 1898, it provided the spark needed to launch America into war with Spain. Samuel Clemens, best known as Mark Twain, was America's foremost writer and lecturer during the late nineteenth century.