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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 900

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This is the grave of James Reed.

Born in 1861 in Richland County, Ohio, Reed didn’t stay there long. His family moved around and ended up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He had gone to a place called Parson’s Seminary for college, which later became the well-known Coe College. He only stayed a couple of years though and left to study the bar, which he passed in 1885. Initially practicing in Cedar Rapids, he moved to Kansas City in 1887. He became deeply involved in Kansas City politics as a Democrat. In 1897, he was elected to the City Council in 1897 and then Jackson County prosecutor in 1898. In 1900, he became mayor of Kansas City. All of this happened because Reed became a protege of the KC political boss Jim Pendergast. Reed was, for his many, many faults, not a religious fanatic and so supported the rights of Catholics and Jews to practice their faiths in the U.S. Given that the Pendergast machine, like so many urban machines, had its base among immigrants, this, plus Reed’s excellent speaking skills, led to his rapid rise under Pendegrast’s wing. Reed had campaigned under a reform platform, but this was a ridiculous ruse. Reed did what any machine controlled politician did–he gave patronage over to the machine. Pendergast and his lieutenants got to pick most of the cops the city hired. Reed also placed Jim’s brother Tom Pendergast in a sweet office as street superintendent, giving him 250 patronage jobs.

Reed stayed as mayor until 1904. He thought about running for governor of Missouri but dropped out when it was clear he would not win. So for the next six years, he primarily dedicated himself to his successful law practice, as he was considered a top notch courtroom orator. In 1910, Missouri sent Reed to the Senate. There, he embraced the inconsistent and ridiculous contrary personality as politics that we see today in Joe Manchin and which leads to utterly inconsistent politics that had nothing to do with the priorities of party or nation. Some of this was sheer pork barrel. When the Federal Reserve was created in 1913, Reed did everything he could to get two branches of the bank in Missouri and succeeded, as both Kansas City and St. Louis hosted Federal Reserve Banks. He bucked Wilson’s League of Nations, one of the few Democrats to do so. Wilson despised him. Actually, lots of people in the Senate despised Reed as a total blowhard.

Reed was also the kind of racist one would expect at the time. One of the reasons Reed opposed the League of Nations is that it could give rights to non-white nations. He stated on the floor of the Senate, the “majority of the nations composing the League do not belong to the white race. On the contrary they are a conglomerate of the black, yellow, brown and red races frequently so intermingled as to constitute an unclassifiable mongrel breed.” When the Immigration Act of 1917 was debated in the Senate, Reed stated, “no man not of the white race ought to be permitted to settle permanently in the United States of America.” As such he sought permanent exclusion for all Asians and Africans. But then in 1921, he was the only senator to vote against the Emergency Quota Act that laid the groundwork for the 1924 Immigration Act that basically ended the classic era of immigration to America. Reed’s personal inconsistencies, regardless of policy or party, were the kind of thing that drove his fellow senators crazy but that which the American chattering class of the day loved, as they do today. H.L. Mencken for example was a huge fan, saying that he called out hypocrites in both parties, even if most of what he was doing was just being a blowhard.

Reed took real heat for his opposition to the League as it became a partisan issue. During a speech in Ardmore, Oklahoma opposing it, people started throwing rotten eggs at him. I hope they hit him right in the nose. When he gave a speech in the Missouri legislature, 16 Democrats walked out on him. Wilson was old and sick but wanted revenge. When Reed ran for reelection in 1922, he leaked damning letters about Reed to newspapers and urged Missouri voters to choose a different Democrat. It didn’t work, but Reed did barely win his reelection campaign and the main reason he did win was that he opposed Prohibition and the immigrant communities in Kansas City and St. Louis were furious at a policy they rightfully blamed on Republicans.

There was probably no one in the Senate who spent more time attacking any federal laws that would help workers or the poor. If there’s one thing these blowhard types usually have in common, Manchin very much included, it’s a reflexive defense of their rich friends, the truest principle in politics. So Reed took the lead in the successful opposition to re-upping the Sheppard-Towner Act, which was created by a Republican legislature and signed by noted commie Warren Harding to create a public health program geared toward women and infants. Can’t have that now. He also attacked the Children’s Bureau from the floor of the Senate as an example of massive government overreach and tyranny, saying of the female reformers who led it, “We would better reverse the proposition and provide for a committee of mothers to take charge of the old maids and teach them how to acquire a husband and have babies of their own.” Now I see why Mencken would like him.

Reed really, really wanted to be president. There was lots of newspaper stories in 1926 and 1927 about how he might take a run at it, probably with his approval. He was even on the cover of Time in 1927 as speculation grew about his intentions. But Al Smith beat him in the convention. People didn’t hate Smith like they hated Reed. He retired from the Senate after decided not to run for reelection in 1928. Reed would throw his name into the ring in 1932 as well, but FDR easily shoved him aside.

He became a quite famous defense lawyer in the aftermath of his Senate career, including being Henry Ford’s lead attorney when the Jewish-American leader Aaron Shapiro sued the old anti-Semite for defamation after Ford had attacked him in his rag The Dearborn Independent. Ford ended up paying up without being found guilty in an out-of-course settlement. Reed took on many high-profile criminal cases as well. He had an affair with his Irish neighbor, the fashion designer for poorer women Nell Donnelly, and got her pregnant. Given that her husband was impotent and had stated he would kill himself if she got pregnant and that his wife was still alive, this did cause a problem. So he sent her to Europe where she “found” a child to adopt. Then they waited for Reed’s wife to die so they could marry. In the meantime, she was kidnapped and held for ransom. Reed knew the KC crime bosses and got them involved to have her freed. Then his wife died and they married. He died in 1944, at the age of 82. Oh, Nell’s husband did in fact kill himself in 1934.

James Reed is buried in Mount Washington Cemetery, Independence, Missouri.

I thought about making this semi-monumental post in the series someone famously evil (as opposed to the regular evil profiled here) or even someone really good. But then I thought that deviating from order is anarchy and we can’t have that now, can we. If you would like this series to visit other senators who won in 1910, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Henry Lippitt is in Providence, Rhode Island and George Oliver is in Pittsburgh. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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