Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Rise of Sam Rayburn

In 2010, the University of Texas Press published "The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became A Power in State and National Politics," a book I co-wrote with Dr. Patrick L. Cox. In this passage, we discuss the rise of Sam Rayburn, the only man to serve as both speaker of the Texas and the U.S. House of Representatives, and one of the dominating figures in 20th century American politics.

One of the brightest members of the Progressive coalition in the Texas House, Thomas B. Love, won the speakership in 1906. Love dispensed his duties holding a grim “bulldog expression,” historian Norman Brown writes. The new speaker struck his peers as an “[a]ggressive and tenacious and a ruthless, unforgiving political infighter. When he had a campaign under way, all of the details were at his fingertips; seldom did any escape him.” Love preferred to operate behind the scenes. As one opponent noted, Love could walk upon “a string of pianos and never strike a note.” More than Neff, he used his speakership to advance the Progressive agenda.

The 30th Legislature, in session from January to May 1907, represented a Progressive apotheosis. The Legislature passed bills setting a maximum 14-hour workday for railroad workers and an eight-hour workday for telephone operators and railroad telegraphers. It established new rules for the insurance and banking industries, instituted pure food regulations, created an office to aid farmers, banned railroads from issuing free passes to reporters or public officials in order to curry favor, and strengthened anti-trust laws.

Progressivism had reached its peak, but remained dominant through the new century’s first decade. Austin Milton Kennedy, elected speaker in 1908, proved one of the most prolific bill writers in the House. The founder and editor of the Mexia Democrat first won election to the Texas House in 1898, representing Mexia until 1901. Moving to the town of Mart near Waco, he again won election to the House, serving from 1905 to 1909. He subsequently represented Waco and Kerrville in the lower chamber. Kennedy authored laws taxing gross business receipts, creating a corporate franchise tax, and authorizing “home rule” in cities with a population of more than 5,000.

Kennedy’s reform agenda stalled, however, when he rose to the top House leadership. Serving as speaker during the regular session in early 1909, Kennedy faced a challenge to his leadership during a special session that began on March 13 of that year. A controversy arose after his election as the House’s presiding officer over whether state money was spent to buy personal items for the speaker’s apartment. Kennedy’s wife stirred the opposition after using the state's money to purchase $1,070 in items for the speaker's apartment including rugs, drapes, and a $70 brass bedstead.

Kennedy was also charged with putting a stenographer on the House payroll for $120 a month ($2,400 a month in 2005 currency) even though she was still living in Kansas City and would not arrive in Austin until the sixth week of the Legislative session. Although the speaker was exonerated of wrongdoing concerning the purchase of furniture, Kennedy was pressed to resign by a House resolution because of the stenographer’s disputed salary. Kennedy surrendered the speakership the next day, on March 15, 1909, although he remained a House member until he died in office July 19, 1914. One of Kennedy’s fiercest supporters was an East Texas state representative who became one of the most powerful Texans in the twentieth century: Sam Rayburn.

Sam Rayburn began life near the Clinch River in Tennessee, on January 6, 1882. The Rayburn family moved to Texas five years later. The future speaker’s father eventually selected the Fannin County seat of Bonham as the family’s permanent home. After a brief stint as a teacher, Sam Rayburn first won election to the House in 1906.

He embodied the Terrell Election Law. The Terrell rules banned the selection of Democratic candidates at state conventions ”long dominated by powerful, often corrupt party bosses” as Rayburn biographers D.B. Hardeman and Donald C. Bacon put it. Instead, candidates had to run in direct primaries. “Rayburn saw this as a lucky break for him,” Hardeman and Bacon continue. “In a convention he would have little chance of getting a nomination, for he knew none of the influential political leaders in the county. But in a primary ⎯ that was another story.”

Perhaps partly because of the contacts Rayburn made as a teacher, he was well known and well liked in his district.
His typical campaign outfit, a black suit and a black wool hat, made him look older than his 24 years. Biographers Hardeman and Bacon describe Rayburn as looking like an apprentice undertaker. He nevertheless made a strong impression in the Texas heat, and conveyed a premature air of gravitas. Rayburn had no specific platform, but won largely on his congeniality.

Rayburn’s House tenure resembles Neff’s to a remarkable degree. In a frank mood, he told other House members he sought responsibility because he wanted the power that came with it. In this pursuit, Rayburn, like Neff, lived a “good life, not afflicted by drink or chasing women.” While other rambunctious peers climbed out of back windows of the House chamber during late sessions to enjoy Austin’s nightlife, Rayburn stayed anchored to his desk.

His temper became famous, and he was known for the unfortunate habit of spitting when he flew into a rage. “In dark moods,” one acquaintance said, “the profanity was shattering . . . Mr. Rayburn’s face blackened in a terrible scowl and his bald head turned deep red . . . That was the way he looked in a rage, and few cared to see such a mien turned upon themselves.” Nevertheless, he assiduously built a network of future supporters. ”He had a reputation for honesty and fair dealing,” one legislator said. “You could always swear by anything Sam told you.” He expected the same of others. “Once you lied to Rayburn, why you’d worn out your credentials,” an aide recalled. “You didn’t get a second chance.”

Upon receiving a law degree from the University of Texas at Austin, Rayburn moved from Windom to Bonham and secured re-election to the House in 1908. In another parallel with Neff, Rayburn found a mentor in the reigning House speaker, A.M. Kennedy, who appointed the East Texas representative to numerous powerful committees. Rayburn chaired the Constitutional Amendments Committee and the Committee on Banks and Banking as well as serving on the Education and the Private Corporations committees. Kennedy frequently allowed Rayburn to preside over the House.

Rayburn earned the respect of his colleagues for his dogged loyalty to a besieged friend, Speaker Kennedy. In March 1909 Kennedy denied the charge that he spent state funds, without Legislative approval, on his staff and to provide furniture for his official residence in the Capitol building. “There is not one scintilla of evidence that Kennedy is corrupt,” Rayburn declared. Regardless, the House passed by a 70 to 48 margin a motion requesting Kennedy’s resignation and his return of the $120 in question. Kennedy promptly resigned March 15, 1909.

Immediately, talk surfaced of electing Rayburn as Kennedy’s replacement for the rest of the 31st Legislature. A bare majority of 67 members signed a petition supporting Rayburn’s candidacy and the Galveston News predicted Rayburn would grab the post. Such a prospect, however, infuriated former Speaker Thomas Love, who still served in the Legislature. Although Love and Rayburn agreed on many issues, Love was outraged by Rayburn’s past association with anti-Prohibitionist United States Senator Joseph Bailey, who had been accused of accepting bribes from an illegally operating railroad company.

Love also didn’t care for Rayburn’s defense of Speaker Kennedy, whom Love saw as corrupt. Love warned colleagues that voting for Rayburn would be political suicide. Members relented, instead electing John Wesley Marshall of Whitesboro. The House continued its reform campaign, turning its attention to a prison system suffering from financial mismanagement, lack of sanitation, unpalatable food, and sometimes-murderous violence by guards. The Legislature appointed a prison auditor, limited physical punishment of inmates and put an end to the leasing of convicts to landowners and other employers, a system that had widely resulted in prisoner deaths.

Rayburn’s bid for the speakership may have been premature, but his actions during the 31st Legislature greatly increased his popularity at home and he shattered a local tradition by winning a third term to the Texas House. In the months leading up to the 1911 regular session, Rayburn emerged as one of the two serious candidates for the speakership along with fellow Prohibitionist Clarence Gilmore of Wills Point. Remembering Rayburn’s loyalty, former speaker Kennedy, still an influence in the Legislature, announced his support for the Bonham representative.

Months of campaigning left Rayburn and Gilmore in virtual deadlock. When the House convened, the clerk read out loud the votes, the tally reaching 65-65, but Rayburn received the next three votes and appeared to have won. Rayburn briefly lost control of himself and “gave a cotton patch yell” as his supporters cheered, but the pandemonium quickly turned to confused silence. The final count was 71 to 65. Though 136 ballots had been cast, there were only 133 members of the House. Some members had voted more than once or non-members had voted, but whatever the reason for the mishap, the election had to be held again. Tension thickened as each member walked to the front of the chamber to drop a vote in the ballot box. This time, Rayburn won 70-63.

Rayburn indicated the improvisational nature of the Texas speakership in that era with his later comment, “I muddled through that first session as Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, ‘By God, by desperation, and by ignorance.’” Under Rayburn’s speakership, some important pieces of the Progressive legislative agenda, such as shorter work hours for women, child labor laws, and appropriations for a Confederate Widows Home and a tuberculosis sanitarium won passage.

Rayburn’s personality thrived on orderliness and precision, so upon election as speaker he requested the appointment of a special committee to determine “the duties and rights of the Speaker.” This became the first codification of the speaker’s power. According to biographer Alfred Steinberg, he became the most effective speaker in several Legislative sessions. ”Rayburn came to the Speakership after close observation of three previous speakers (Love, Kennedy and Marshall), who had more or less wallowed in indecision regarding the power and duties of their office,” Steinberg wrote.

In contrast, Rayburn “had the gavel, the right to name committee members and chairmen, and control over the House’s activities, yet he never flaunted his power.” Rayburn used his office to ensure bills he favored succeeded and to doom measures he opposed, as well as to reward friends and punish enemies. “I saw that all my friends got the good appointments and that those that voted against me for Speaker got none,” he said. “The man in politics who is not faithful to his friends isn’t worthy to be the scavenger of the smallest town in Texas.”

In 1912, Rayburn won election to United State House, where he served until his death in 1961. He became House majority leader in 1937 and first became United States speaker of the House in 1941 (the first, and so far the only, politician from Texas to be both state and U.S. House speaker.) Despite his many accomplishments, Rayburn rated his service as Texas House speaker as the most enjoyable period in his long political career.

“That job had real power ⎯ that’s what a man wants ⎯ but power’s no good unless you have the guts to use it,” he said. Whether or not Rayburn overvalued his years as Texas House speaker, he certainly used the experience as training to become one of history’s most influential members of Congress. Rayburn still owns the record for the longest tenure as the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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