James Alexander Reed: A Most Unconventional Progressive



One day in the 1890s, a Kansas City meeting of the American Protective Association, an anti-Catholic secret society, was underway. One of the people who came forth to speak was a young man named Jim Reed (1861-1944), who proceeded to rip on the group for their intolerance and stood up for the freedom of religion of Catholics and Jews per the First Amendment. This caught the favorable attention of the Irish Catholic head of the Kansas City Democratic machine, Jim Pendergast, who would subsequently back him for public office. From 1898 to 1900 Reed served as the prosecutor of Jackson County, and of 242 cases he only lost two, one of which was against Jesse E. James, the son of the infamous outlaw Jesse James. In 1900, James A. Reed was elected Mayor of Kansas City. He presided over the emergency construction of Convention Hall after the original burned down, just in time for the Democratic National Convention that year. Reed, despite being a member of a party that opposed civil rights, recognized the need for black votes to win and doled out patronage jobs to black supporters. In 1902, he won reelection with such strong black support that a white Democrat stated, “The Democratic Party no longer claims to be a strictly white man’s party” (McKerley). Reed’s position contrasted with some other figures in the Democratic Party, including future Mayor Thomas T. Crittenden Jr., who, among other things, didn’t believe that blacks should serve on juries. In 1910, Reed ran for the Senate on a platform of lower tariffs, a federal income tax, and direct election of Senators. He stated his opposition to a central bank and imperialism and coupled this with a Jacksonian support for limited government. He also was a staunch advocate for campaign finance regulation, but strong legislation on this subject wouldn’t be passed for over 25 years after his death. However, his stances on these issues didn’t guarantee that Reed would be a rubber stamp for Democratic President Woodrow Wilson.

Although Reed supported many of Woodrow Wilson’s “New Freedom” policies, he had reservations about the influence of private banks for the Federal Reserve Act, so Missouri was given two federal reserve banks to win his vote. He also wanted to go further with corporate regulation than the Clayton Act mandated. Reed sided with Wilson in his initial resistance to building up the navy and military to prepare for American involvement in World War I. However, he would come to be known as a major opponent of numerous popular trends of his time and his stubborn independence proved a poor fit personally for Woodrow Wilson, who according to Senator Thomas P. Gore (D-Okla.), “had no friends, only slaves and enemies” (Glass). Reed consistently opposed women’s suffrage, even after Wilson embraced a constitutional amendment for it in 1916. He considered it a matter of state’s rights and not opposition to women participating in politics. Reed was also one of the leading foes of Prohibition and regularly ridiculed and scorned Wayne Wheeler and his Anti-Saloon League. On immigration, he regularly voted against immigration restriction bills despite being an advocate of “whites only” immigration policies as he thought the literacy test contained in these bills was unjust to poor white immigrants. During World War I, Reed opposed censorship, both voting for the France Amendment to protect communication of the truth with good motives and ends and voting against the Sedition Act. However, he gained his greatest notoriety in his most critical break with the Wilson Administration: the Versailles Treaty.

Of the members of the irreconcilables, a group of senators that would under no circumstances vote for the Versailles Treaty, Reed was one of only two Democrats. He staunchly opposed the compromise of American sovereignty and made no bones about ridiculing Wilson. Reed feared that the powers granted to the League of Nations would be nearly unlimited and would force the United States to deploy troops in places that were not in its interests. The reaction of his party at home was hostile, as the Democratic legislative caucus of Missouri censured him and called upon him to resign. Reed believed that his opposition would result in the end of his political career, but this proved not to be the case. In 1922, Woodrow Wilson, the Anti-Saloon League, and the Ku Klux Klan, all targets of Reed’s acerbic criticisms and mocking, tried their best to stop his renomination and reelection but failed due to strong support from the urban centers of St. Louis and Kansas City, which opposed Prohibition.

Despite his seemingly newfound support for Republican positions on foreign policy, Reed reverted to form after the Wilson Administration and similarly opposed the Four Power Treaty, embraced by conservative Republicans. He proved a regular opponent of the policies of Harding and Coolidge, opposing income tax reductions and tariff increases. However, he maintained his view on state’s rights with his opposition to the Child Labor Amendment in 1924 as well as to the Sheppard-Towner Maternity Act. Despite Prohibition being in full force, Reed never let up on his opposition. In 1922, Oswald Garrison Villard of The Nation compared him favorably to Andrew Jackson, writing “the latter also a bold, handsome, swashbuckling, hard-drinking roistering, dueling leader of men, of much the same political viewpoint” (Meriwether). In his heart, Reed was a Democrat of the Jefferson and Jackson schools of thought. He often embraced policies that combatted big business but was also weary of the federal government. Reed, like numerous colleagues in that time, could be thought of as a “state’s rights progressive”, a category that doesn’t exist anymore in American politics. Reed attempted to win the Democratic nomination for president thrice: in 1924, 1928, and 1932. However, he had made too many enemies for him to win the nomination through his acerbic wit and frequent embrace of unpopular stances. In April 1929, H.L. Mencken wrote a tribute to the recently retired senator, writing “To be a fraud is safer and happier in Washington today than it has been since March 4, 1911. For James A. Reed, after eighteen years in the Senate, has hung up his sword and gone home to Missouri” (Mencken). After his time in the Senate, Reed continued to oppose Prohibition and went back to representing clients as an attorney. Most famously, he won an acquittal for Myrtle Bennett in the Bridge Murder case, in which she shot her husband in the back after he slapped her around during a bridge game. Reed also wrote a book published in 1931 provocatively titled The Rape of Temperance, which was a devastating indictment of Prohibition filled with facts and anecdotes. The direction of the Democratic Party after his departure didn’t please him, as he came to oppose the New Deal for its break from the principles of Jefferson and Jackson. In truth, progressives had decided to embrace the means of Hamilton to obtain the ends of Jefferson and Jackson. Reed was still wedded to the philosophy of Jefferson and Jackson, both in means and ends.


Glass, A. (2018, May 20). Wilson wires Congress from Paris, May 20, 1919. Politico.

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McKerley, J. The Long Struggle Over Black Voting Rights And The Origins Of The Pendergast Machine. The Kansas City Public Library.

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Mencken, H.L. (1929, April). James A. Reed of Missouri. American Mercury.

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Meriwether, L. (2008, November 30). Show Me a Statesman. Kirk Center.

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