Thomas Brackett Reed


MAY an old neighbor of Thomas B. Reed talk about him a moment, in the presence of the Club ? Perhaps it is needless to do so, for every man is, in one sense, his own biographer, using deeds for words. Mr. Reed’s deeds were of the difficult kind. The way to a college training was steep and beset with difficulties. He began the practice of law without the aids that bring business, among numerous and able competitors, and he gained eminence. He kept himself in Congress in spite of serious and sharp opposition. His widest fame was won by mastering the House of Representatives and forcing it to do its work. He belonged to the class of men of whom Montaigne wrote: “Who doth ever so greedily search after restful ease and quietness as Alexander and Cæsar have done after difficulties and unquietness ? ” His place was by the Hill Difficulty. He could say, did say in fact, —

“ The Hill though high I covet to ascend,
The difficulty will not me offend.”

But how did Mr. Reed get to the top of the hill, as he generally did ? Arts of the demagogue and small politician he did not use. He did not make himself familiar with men, was not where the multitude was. There are many in the city of his birth and long residence who did not know him by sight. Public favor did not come to him through advocacy of personal or local schemes. He did not purchase devotion by patronage. His congressional career was not distinguished by great speeches, nor by the initiation and defense of great measures. None of his deeds was of the kind that ordinarily brings popularity. He did not win men, he mastered them. Like the primitive man, the modern man is a worshiper of power, and power Mr. Reed had, — not the power to flatter and please, nor the power to invent, but the power to do. He coveted to ascend the Hill Difficulty.

The first time I heard Mr. Reed was during a presidential campaign. He was preceded by an eminent senator who failed to get a hold upon the audience. It was tumultuous, disorderly, frequently interrupting the speaker, putting various disturbing questions. Mr. Reed sat upon the edge of his chair, hands on his knees, evidently in leash, waiting his opportunity. The senator was forced to close before completing his address. Mr. Reed moved forward, put one foot on the footlight screen, confronted the noisy crowd, stood still for seconds, then uttered a few mild words, — went on quickly and wittily, meeting questions, moving steadily toward his main thoughts, compelling attention which continued till he was done. It was a victory of power. Something was due to his unique appearance, something to his inimitable but natural drawl, something to his wit, something to his ample and ready knowledge, but more to his ability and eagerness to do a difficult thing. He coveted to ascend “the Hill.”

“Faith has an eye to power,” is an old saying. It has an eye, possibly a sharper eye, to something else. Power is not all that faith, confidence, devotion require. Underneath or behind it must be a righteous purpose. This Mr. Reed had. Fidelity to convictions clarified and reinforced his will. He saw broadly as well as straight. He surveyed a large field through connection with national affairs, through much and varied reading, and his own thinking; and he chose a path. The choice was not however determined by knowledge alone. He had a discerning mind ; he saw the permanent, not the transient; the right, not the expedient. His was the prophet’s vision, and his devotion was the devotion of a righteous prophet. It was natural for men to follow him.

Mr. Reed was not a vain man. He did not make the mistakes vain men make, did not attempt what he could not do. He once said of a preacher, “ He has less to take back than any preacher I know.” The comment is a self-revelation. He had few words or deeds to take back. There will always be different explanations of his withdrawal from public life : political disappointment, desire to provide for his own, — one or the other of these reasons will be given. Whatever the reason, unless he forgot himself and contradicted all previous conduct, his course had for himself justification.

He was a lover of good books. When at his home in Portland he was certain to be seen almost at any hour of the day seated at his library window, book in hand, — not the same book, nor books of the same kind. He read and delighted in poetry, — had the sensibilities it moved and gratified. He had what so many truly great men have had, — love for children. It was a sight to be remembered when, on the beach by his seaside home, the large man walked leading a child by the hand, enjoying the intercourse quite as much as intercourse with his equals in age and knowledge. He bound the members of his own household most closely and tenderly to himself.

What the world has conceded to Mr. Reed, power, fidelity to convictions, wit, sarcasm, is not a complete catalogue of his personal possessions. Having gifts, he was not destitute of graces which make men lovable, which attract children, secure the devotion of intimates, make life for others richer and sweeter. In these graces the best in men has revelation. They are of a shy nature; their habitat is not the public arena, but the fireside. They bear their fruit in secret places. When all the deeds of this man are told, it will be found that he did not expend his entire self in wit, in sarcasms, in ruling assemblies, in public acts, but put much of what was richest and finest in him into lowly, kindly deeds.

What place Mr. Reed will have among the great men of the Republic time will determine. That he has a secure place in the esteem of contemporaries is certain; and so long as men honor power controlled by a right purpose, so long will he be held in remembrance. Herein may be his greatest service. He may not have coveted posthumous fame, but this is certain: no young man can live imaginatively in his presence and not be better. Therefore he deserves well of his country.