James Alexander Reed

Author: 
University of Kansas
James Alexander Reed
James Alexander Reed, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
  • Date of birth: November 6, 1861
  • Place of birth: Richland County, Ohio
  • Home: 518 Spruce Street, then 5236 Cherry Street
  • Claim to fame: Kansas City mayor, Missouri senator, high profile attorney
  • Also known as: “Fighting Jim,” “Marplot in the Senate”
  • Political affiliation: Democrat
  • Spouse: Lura (Mansfield) Olmsted, then Ellen “Nell” (Quinlan) Donnelly
  • Date of death: September 8, 1944
  • Final resting place: Mount Washington Cemetery, Independence, MO

James Reed was once an outsized figure in Missouri life and politics. An attorney by trade, Reed brought his skills as a shrewd prosecutor to each position he held in state and local government. A loyal ally to those he supported and a bitter enemy to those he disagreed with, Reed was sure to provoke strong responses in all who knew him. And though he was a polarizing figure in his day, often facing severe criticism and opposition, Reed never stopped fighting for what he believed in: a limited federal government, the sovereignty of the states, and individual liberty.

James Alexander Reed hailed originally from Richland County, Ohio, but spent far too little time there to ever call it home. Born on November 6, 1861, to John and Nancy (Crawford) Reed, James was only 3 years old when his parents decided to move their young family to a farm near Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Tragically, John Reed died only five years after relocating there. James, one of six children, was just 8 years old when he began working on the family farm to support his mother and siblings.

At a young age, Reed already showed signs of the strong-willed stubbornness and oratorical force he would later become famous for (or notorious for, depending on who you ask). And though he would go on to become a successful attorney and politician, it is surprising to learn that Reed was never formally granted a high school diploma.

Intelligent as he was, Reed was set to graduate at the top of his high school class. When asked to give the valedictorian’s address to his fellow graduates in 1880, Reed wrote a powerful essay on the subject of “Free Thought.” Unfortunately for Reed, his high school principal felt his thought was a bit too free and told Reed that he believed the speech advocated atheism. Asked by the principal to rewrite it, Reed flatly refused. In consequence, Reed did not deliver any speech at his graduation, and the principal withheld his diploma.

Not one to be deterred by something like the lack of a diploma, Reed forged ahead with his education by attending classes at Parson’s Seminary, a forerunner to what would later become Coe College in Iowa. How he was able to do this without a high school diploma is not known. After two years of study there, Reed began reading law at the offices of Hubbard, Clark, & Dawley. He was admitted to the Iowa State Bar Association in 1885, and subsequently practiced law in Cedar Rapids for the next two years.

In the story of James Reed’s life, 1887 is an especially significant year. More specifically, August 1, 1887, is a significant day for two reasons. First, it was on this day that Reed married his first wife, Lura (Mansfield) Olmsted. Lura and James had known and liked one another as children, but class differences—Lura was the debutant daughter of a wealthy surgeon in Cedar Rapids—initially kept them apart. Though Lura was later married to another man, Frederick C. Olmsted, she eventually engaged in an affair with Reed. After news of her infidelity became known, Olmsted divorced Lura, leaving her free to remarry Reed. Lura had two children with Olmsted, but Reed would play no role in their life. Lura and Reed had no children together.

The second reason that August 1, 1887 is meaningful is because it was on this day that Reed and his new bride left Cedar Rapids for the rapidly growing town of Kansas City, Missouri. Kansas City was still a rather rough place in these years. Reed biographer J. Michael Cronan sketches the following picture of the place in 1887: “The municipal water system was described as that which made whisky-drinking a virtue. . . . Kansas City represented both a western frontier town and a rapidly developing industrial center. . . . The mixture of commerce by cowboys, steamboats, and railroads presented an environment where there were more than twice as many gaming houses and saloons as there were churches.” Even still, Reed believed the city held great promise; Kansas City would not disappoint. Reed quickly went to work as a lawyer in town, eventually establishing his own practice at the firm Ellis, Reed, Cook, & Ellis.

In addition to finding success as a lawyer in Kansas City, Reed would also embark on a long and influential political career there as well. By 1887, the Pendergast political machine was already an active and growing influence in city politics. Reed caught the attention of the elder James “Jim” Pendergast one day at a meeting of the American Protective Association, an anti-Catholic secret society established by Protestants in the region. According to Cronan, Reed defended the right of Catholic and Jewish Americans to practice their faiths, and he chastised others present for their intolerance. Pendergast, an Irish Catholic, took a liking to Reed from that moment forward.

With the backing of Jim Pendergast’s political machine, Reed became county counselor in 1897 and by 1899 was elected prosecuting attorney of Jackson County, Missouri. He was elected mayor of Kansas City in 1900, and Cronan writes that Reed’s success in this race was also “made possible by the Pendergast organization.” As his political career progressed, Reed surely understood that Jim’s support came with certain expectations. Consequently, Reed installed Jim’s younger brother and heir apparent to the Pendergast machine, Tom Pendergast, in the position of street superintendent. Though Reed had campaigned as a “reform” candidate in the 1900 mayoral race, his deference to the Pendergast family in this instance meant that Tom was responsible for the dispersal of 250 patronage jobs. He was also responsible for naming 123 of 173 policemen to Kansas City’s police force during Reed’s time in office.

Reed served two terms as Kansas City’s mayor, leaving office in 1904. He briefly entered the race for governor of Missouri that same year, but not liking his chances quickly withdrew his candidacy. After leaving the mayor’s office, Reed returned his full focus to the practice of law. By that time, he had gained a reputation as a masterful orator and formidable opponent in the courtroom, but the lure of elected office was too strong for him to stay away for very long. He would never fully leave his legal career behind, but Reed reemerged on the political scene in 1910 when he was elected to the United States Senate.

Reed served three terms as a US Senator, winning elections in 1910, 1916, and 1922. During his time in office, Reed gained a reputation for his strong will, sharp tongue, and oratorical prowess. This last is what Paul Y. Anderson would refer to in the pages of The North American Review as Reed’s “magnificent bellicosity” and “grand spectacle.” In a 1928 profile of Reed, the last year he would serve in public office, Anderson wrote:

The ardor of those who love ‘Jim’ Reed is equalled [sic] only by the fervor of those who hate him. His ability to evoke intense devotion and to provoke intense antagonism, is his most conspicuous trait, and the one most characteristic of him. There can be no middle ground where he is concerned. Even if you wanted to be impartial about him, he would not permit it. . . . No man in the state has so many idolatrous admirers, or so many implacable enemies.

Notable among the enemies Reed collected over the years is President Woodrow Wilson. One could scarcely find two politicians with more divergent views on the proper role and purpose of government in American life. While Reed was a staunch supporter of states’ rights and believed that the best kind of government is the one that governs least, Wilson believed in the responsibility of government to create a world where individual opportunity was available to all, uninhibited by “monopoly, private controls, the authority of privilege, [and] the concealed mastery of a few men.” Reed and Wilson clashed over the 1913 Federal Reserve Act, proposed changes to Panama Canal tolls, and, most notably, Wilson’s League of Nations.

In December 1918, after the end of World War I, President Wilson traveled to Europe and witnessed the devastation wrought there firsthand. Upon his return to the United States, Wilson proposed the League of Nations as a peaceful means for resolving conflicts all around the world. Reed was immediately opposed to the measure. Cronan writes,

Reed’s mantra in response to Wilson’s idealized plan for world harmony was to repeatedly quote from the farewell address of George Washington that we should avoid foreign entanglements. Reed saw the League of Nations as the mechanism for continued entanglements and the loss of young American fighting men in faraway conflicts.

In addition to this line of attack, Reed also spoke out against the measure in explicitly racist terms. In the US Senate chamber on May 26, 1919,  using charts representing the race and literacy rates of proposed League member nations, Reed argued that 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.” Reprehensible though it was, Reed’s virulent racism in opposition to the League was an effective means to block the President’s wishes. The League of Nations ultimately failed to pass through Congress by a margin of seven votes.

Though Reed was ultimately successful in stopping the United States from entering into the League of Nations, not all Americans were happy with him for it. At a speech he was to give in 1919 in Ardmore, Oklahoma, hecklers hurled rotten eggs and vegetables at him. Once they had dispensed with the produce, protesters cut the electric wires to the tent where he was speaking, sending the crowd gathered there into chaos.

Back home in Missouri, 16 Democratic members of the legislature got up and walked out during one of Reed’s speeches before that body to express their displeasure with his anti-League antics. The following day, the state Democratic legislative caucus drafted a formal censure resolution calling upon Reed to resign his seat in the Senate. Viewed as a traitor to his own party and president, Reed was ostracized by party leadership. In April 1920, the Missouri Democratic State Committee chose not to name Reed a delegate at large to the national convention in San Francisco. When Reed arrived in California for the convention anyway, he was denied entry by the credentials committee there.

Reed’s unbending opposition to the League of Nations was just one contributing factor to the challenges he faced when running for reelection in 1922. Cronan writes:

James A. Reed faced the fight of his political life in his re-election campaign of 1922. His stance against the League of Nations caused the state and national organizations of the Democratic Party to renounce him two years earlier. He angered women voters by his opposition to the Nineteenth Amendment which gave them the right to vote, as well as by his opposition to the Sheppard-Towner Maternity Act of 1921 and amendments to the child labor act. He angered many people of faith by his opposition to Prohibition, and his wife, Lura, told him that if he was going back to Washington, she would not be going with him.

It was also during this election campaign that former President Wilson penned several damning letters about Reed that were published in local and national newspapers. On May 9, 1922, Wilson wrote that “certainly Missouri cannot afford to be represented by such a marplot,” and urged Missouri Democrats to redeem the reputation of their state by electing someone else. In spite of all of these challenges, Reed still managed to win reelection to his Senate seat in 1922, though only by a narrow margin. Reed carried just 24 of Missouri’s 114 counties, but he was able to secure victory by appealing to voters in the state’s urban centers who also sought the repeal of Prohibition. 

As a next step in his political career, James Reed began contemplating runs for the presidency as early as 1924. The senator came close to securing the nomination of the Democratic Party on three separate occasions: in 1924, 1928, and 1932. His proposed candidacy was short-lived in 1924, as Ku Klux Klan forces in the state organized quickly and vigorously against him. Reed had a history of opposing the Klan in Missouri, primarily because they threatened the free exercise of religion. Although Reed was not an especially religious man himself, he was a faithful supporter of all freedoms enshrined in the United States Constitution. Since this liberty is guaranteed by the First Amendment, Reed took seriously his responsibility to defend it. Though Reed would continue to clash with the Klan over the years, his chances for the Democratic nomination appeared to improve by 1928.

After announcing in 1926 his intention not to seek reelection to the Senate, Reed’s presence on the national stage only grew as journalists speculated that he might make a run for the presidency. National profiles of Reed ran in the Washington Post and Time, whose cover he even graced on March 7, 1927. Negative press abounded in equal measure to the positive, however, and Reed would ultimately lose the nomination to New York Governor Al Smith that year. Finally, Reed tried one last time to secure the Democratic nomination in 1932 but lost to then-governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Unsuccessful in his bids for the United States presidency and having served out the last of his senate terms in 1928, James Reed continued to try to influence American politics from the outside. For years after retiring from politics, Reed carried on touring the country and giving speeches in defense of states’ rights and against what he viewed as federal overreach into private life.

Nell Donnelly Reed
Nell Donnelly Reed, courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

In the later years of his life, Reed would also marry for a second time. After his first wife Lura died in 1932, Reed married Kansas City dress manufacturer Ellen “Nell” (Quinlan) Donnelly. Donnelly was the incredibly wealthy owner of Donnelly Garment Company and became a rather public figure in 1931 after she was kidnapped by men seeking a hefty ransom. Reed was even involved in securing her safe return just two days after she was abducted. Donnelly and Reed had carried on an affair for some time prior to this. The two even had a son together that Donnelly hid from her husband at the time. She divorced her first husband, Paul Donnelly, one month after learning of Lura’s death, and she and Reed were married a year later in 1933.

The following year, Reed and Donnelly purchased approximately 6,000 acres of land in Fairview, Michigan. Reed had long been an avid hunter and fisher, and he enjoyed spending as much time as he could outdoors at the Michigan ranch in the final years of his life. Though the couple maintained their primary residence in Kansas City, Reed, Donnelly, and their son David would spend many weeks together at the ranch. Whether they were hunting and fishing or simply relaxing and entertaining family and friends, the ranch became an important part of Reed family life during the 1930s and 1940s. James Reed died at home on the ranch in the fall of 1944, just months shy of his 83rd birthday.

The legacy of James A. Reed is not an uncomplicated one. Throughout a long and rather public life, Reed held strong, if sometimes controversial, views. For example, while he may have argued for religious tolerance on the one hand, he was completely opposed to notions of racial or gender justice on the other. He was not one to be persuaded to act against his conscience, but his conscience often left something to be desired if you were a woman or a person of color in the United States during his lifetime. Paul Y. Anderson perhaps said it best when he wrote,

There is no mystery in this state of affairs. To know Reed is to understand how utterly impossible any other condition would be. For Reed himself is never neutral on anything—or anybody—that interests him. . . . Subtle distinctions and philosophical detachment are not for the man whom an adversary once called ‘the Saw-Voiced Raven of the Kaw.’

Acknowledgement: 

This essay was developed as part of an Applied Humanities Summer Fellowship, cosponsored by the Hall Center for the Humanities at the University of Kansas.

KANSAS CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY | DIGITAL HISTORY
Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict,1855-1865.
The Pendergast Years, Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression.
KC History, Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library.