Thomas B. Reed, a Republican congressman from Maine who served six years as speaker of the House of Representatives, mainly in the 1890s, is an obscure enough figure that James Grant's new biography, Mr. Speaker!, uses a subtitle to explain who Reed was: "The man who broke the filibuster."
I came away from the book admiring Reed's defense of voting rights for blacks and his support for women's suffrage, but less than entirely convinced that the rest of Reed's policy program — including a tariff to protect American industry from foreign competition and an isolationist bent in foreign affairs — deserves to be rescued from obscurity.
What does deserve to be rescued from obscurity, though, is this period in American history, and here Mr. Grant is an able guide and Reed a better-than-serviceable vehicle for the narrative. For many Americans, exposed to their country's history mainly in yearlong high school survey courses, Civil War Reconstruction jumps pretty quickly into Teddy Roosevelt's trustbusting. But pause to look around rather than rushing on through, and it turns out that the period between the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century was full of ferment, not least on the monetary policy matters to which Mr. Grant, as founder of Grant's Interest Rate Observer, brings particularly deep knowledge.
To anyone following the current headlines about Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke and the price of the dollar in gold or silver, Mr. Grant's account of the events of 1869 (when the Resumption Act was passed, providing that as of January 1, 1879, $20.67 would be exchangeable for an ounce of gold) through 1900 (when the Gold Standard Act was passed), is valuable context.
In between came the 1874 Currency Bill (vetoed by President Grant); the Bland-Allison Act of 1878, directing the Treasury to buy silver, and the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, directing Treasury to buy even more silver. As Grant puts it, "The monetary question — whether a dollar should be backed by gold or silver or nothing at all — would preoccupy much of the country, and seemingly obsess the rest of it, for the next 25 years."
Mr. Grant reports that in 1876, both the Reed Republican and the Democratic party platforms supported the return to the gold standard. He reminds us of the origin of the phrase "sound money" — "A sound dollar was one that, if dropped on the counter, would literally ring." And he demonstrates that this was "no dry and technical" debate, recounting a song of the Greenback Party of Maine, to the tune of "America": "Thou Greenback, 'tis of thee/Best money for the free/Of thee we sing. Throughout all coming time/Great souls in every clime/will chant with strains sublime — Gold is not king."
Mr. Grant quotes Justice Stephen Field, the sole dissenter from the Supreme Court's 1884 majority decision in Juilliard v. Greenman, which said the federal government had the power to print money in peacetime. "I see only evil likely to follow," the dissent said. "Why should there be any restraint upon unlimited appropriations by the government for all imaginary schemes of public improvement, if the printing press can furnish the money that is needed for them?"
Nor is the debate over money the only way in which Reed's period is relevant to today. Then, as now, technological advances, imports, and immigration were blamed in some quarters for contributing to unemployment. Then, as now, procedural rules in Congress are blamed for delaying legislation, though now, owing in part to Reed's rules, it is the Senate, rather than the House, where bills tend to bog down. Then, as now, railroad subsidies and capital punishment (Reed opposed both) were issues.
But it's the explanation and background of the monetary policy stuff that make it worth forking over the fiat currency for a copy of this book.
Disclosures: I was sent a review copy. Mr. Grant blurbed my biography of Samuel Adams. A researcher credited in the book's acknowledgements was a colleague of mine at the New York Sun. Mr. Grant's wife, a physician, has treated one of my relatives. As usual, if you buy the book from the link above this site gets a share of the revenue.