Whispering Pines: The Levers of Government

 

In this month’s column, John Cross ’76 recounts the brief period from 1896 to 1899 when Bowdoin alumni had their hands on the controls of two branches of the U.S. government.

All the ingredients were present for a crisis: extreme political partisanship; legislative gridlock; growing income inequality; de facto race relations that fell far short of the nation’s stated ideals; monopoly control of industries; labor unrest; widely divergent views on tariffs and monetary policies within Congress; and charges and counter-charges of voter fraud and voter suppression in a presidential election. Welcome to “The Gilded Age” in America in the late nineteenth century. For a brief period from 1896 to 1899, Bowdoin alumni had their hands on the controls of two branches of the U.S. government. William Pierce Frye (Class of 1850) served as President pro tempore of the U. S. Senate, Thomas Brackett Reed (Class of 1860) was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court was Melville Weston Fuller (Class of 1853).

Frye had served as mayor of Lewiston, in the Maine legislature, and as attorney general for Governor Joshua Chamberlain before being elected to the U.S. Congress in 1871. A strongly partisan Republican on the issues, Frye earned respect from colleagues on both sides of the aisle for his ability to present a persuasive and strong case without resorting to inflammatory language or personal attacks. It is likely that he would have been elected Speaker of the House in 1881, but instead he filled a vacant Senate seat after President Garfield chose James G. Blaine as his Secretary of State. Frye was elected President pro tem of the Senate in 1896 and, following the death of Vice President Garret Hobart in 1897, he became the highest ranking official in the Senate. President William McKinley appointed Frye to a commission charged with finalizing the agreement to end the Spanish-American War. McKinley urged Frye to be his running mate in the 1900 election, but Frye declined on the grounds that he could do more good in the Senate than he could as vice president. If he had accepted, then Chief Justice Fuller would have sworn in a President Frye following McKinley’s assassination in 1901. Instead, Frye served as President pro tem of the Senate until his retirement in 1911, bringing to a close a distinguished 40-year political career on the national stage.

If he had accepted, then Chief Justice Fuller would have sworn in a President Frye following McKinley’s assassination in 1901.

Thomas Brackett Reed entered the practice of law in Portland after serving as a paymaster in the U.S. Navy towards the end of the Civil War. His career followed the same general path as Frye’s: election to the Maine Legislature and Senate, two years as Chamberlain’s attorney general, and election to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican in 1877. Whereas Frye’s brand of partisanship ruffled few feathers in the Senate, Reed’s was suited to the rough-and-tumble adversarial character of the House. Reed stirred the pot by introducing rules to counter the delaying tactics of the Democratic minority, and seasoned the mix liberally with his quick wit and sharp-edged humor. “Czar Reed” ruled as Speaker of the House from 1889 to 1891 and again from 1895 to 1899.

When Reed took over as Speaker, members who were present could choose to remain silent when their name was called for a vote; under the rules then in effect, there then could be a challenge that a quorum was not present, and no business could be advanced. Over howls of protest, Reed read aloud for the clerk the names of those present, but not voting. Unperturbed, he then announced the “ayes” and “nays” within the context of the recorded quorum. According to biographer James Grant, Reed rewrote the rules that governed the House to favor majority rule, action over inaction, and legislation over obstruction. For his strong-arm parliamentary tactics Reed was denounced on the House floor as a tyrant. I had always assumed that the term “Reed’s Rules” was just an informal expression, but as it turns out, it was the title of a book that Reed published during the “interregnum” of Democratic control of the House between 1891 and 1895. After Speaker Charles Crisp of Georgia announced the return of pre-Reed parliamentary procedures in 1891, he found that a two-edged sword could cut both ways, especially when wielded by Thomas Brackett Reed. At the Republican Convention of 1896, William McKinley was chosen as the party’s presidential candidate, with Reed receiving the second-highest vote total. Reed returned to the Speaker’s chair in 1895.

Reed was in favor of women’s suffrage and protecting voting rights in the post-Reconstruction South, positions that set him against majority opinion in the Congress. Although he was a loyal Republican, Reed often clashed with members of his own party – with President Benjamin Harrison, with presidential candidate James G. Blaine and, on the issue of the Spanish-American War, with President McKinley. Reed resigned from the House in 1899, saying that “when a man finds out a thing for himself he is prouder of it than if it were told by Shakespeare. Had I stayed I must have been as Speaker always in a false position in aiding and organizing things in which I did not believe or using power against those who gave it to me.”

Augusta native Melville Weston Fuller set up a law practice in Illinois several years after graduating from Bowdoin. He strongly supported Democratic Party positions on limited government, and he campaigned for Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Illinois Senate race against Abraham Lincoln. Fuller was a vocal critic of the Emancipation Proclamation and of many of Lincoln’s actions as president, which he viewed as over-reaches of constitutional authority. Fuller had earned the respect of President Grover Cleveland for his party loyalty and for his legal and business acumen. He also was from a western state, which made him an attractive candidate for a number of federal positions. Cleveland offered him positions as chair of the Civil Service Commission, solicitor general, and as one of three U.S. Pacific Railway commissioners to investigate allegations of corruption and financial scandal; Fuller declined all three. When Chief Justice Morrison Waite died in 1888, Cleveland finally persuaded Fuller to accept the nomination as the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

These three Bowdoin alumni served the nation and the College during a period of turmoil, partisanship, and transformation in American social, economic, and political history. Each met the challenges that faced them squarely, and the choices that they made reflected their own sense of right and wrong and how the common good might best be advanced.

Nineteen justices served on the Supreme Court during Fuller’s tenure. He encouraged civility by having each justice shake the hand of the other justices before the start of each session. Legal scholar James Ely’s book on the Fuller court shows the chief justice to have been skilled at managing the case load and the egos of an institution that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once described as “nine scorpions in a bottle.”  The most widely known opinions of the Fuller court are usually viewed in a dim light today. The 7-1 Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 established the rights of states to offer “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites, a decision that reverberated through America in de jure and de facto form for nearly 70 years. In Lochner v. New York the justices ruled that the State of New York could not limit a work week for bakery employees to 60 hours or a work day to 10 hours. Many other decisions of the Fuller court have been interpreted by historians and legal scholars as favoring the interests of individuals and business interests that had been the primary beneficiaries of the Gilded Age economy. In his book, Ely puts some of these decisions into the historical context of an activist court trying to figure out the legal status of people in the territories acquired in the Spanish-American War, while facing rapidly changing social and economic conditions at home. As a result, the Fuller court was not always consistent in its interpretations of the law and its decisions.

Frye, Reed, and Fuller were involved in Bowdoin affairs throughout their careers. All three received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from Bowdoin (Fuller in 1888, Frye in 1889, and Reed in 1890). Frye was a member of the Governing Boards from 1872 until his death in 1911. Fuller was an Overseer from 1875-79 and a Trustee from 1894 until his death in 1910. Reed remained in the public eye after his retirement, welcoming his one-time protégé, President Theodore Roosevelt to Portland in August of 1902, displaying his quick wit in remarks at Mark Twain’s 67th birthday party in New York, and in late November stopping by the Supreme Court and the House of Representatives to dispense advice. He offered this to his former colleagues on Roosevelt’s vague – but nonetheless definite – anti-trust plans: “An indefinable something has to be done, in a way nobody knows how, at a time nobody knows when, that will accomplish nobody knows what. That, as I understand it, is the program against the trust. The opportunity is so broad and so long that I wonder that you will not take advantage of it.” Later that day he collapsed in the Senate building and died several days later of kidney disease, complicated by appendicitis.

These three Bowdoin alumni served the nation and the College during a period of turmoil, partisanship, and transformation in American social, economic, and political history. Each met the challenges that faced them squarely, and the choices that they made reflected their own sense of right and wrong and how the common good might best be advanced. Decisions made in the myopia of the moment – by people operating from their own biases and with an  imperfect understanding of consequences – will always lack the 20-20 clarity of historical hindsight. So it was then, and so it remains even today.

 

With best wishes,

John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations

5 comments to Whispering Pines: The Levers of Government

  • Don Goldsmith

    John- A very interesting article – three distinguished Bowdoin grads who rarely get their due. Thanks for bringing them to light.

  • Gene Waters '59

    John,
    I would have majored in history, if it had been presented in the interesting fashion that this report displays. Thanks—

  • R Whitmore

    Another well researched and thoroughly explained presentation. Great work!

  • Nancy Bellhouse May '78

    Fascinating. I knew so little about Frye that most of this was news to me.

  • Bill Shoemaker 50

    If we could trade Harry Reid for a George Mitchell and a Bill Cohen we might find more common ground.

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