I am starting a series called “Texas Legends”…these are profiles of politicians from Texas who served in federally elected office 30 years or longer and served during the 20th century. In the days of Democratic domination of the South, voters in the region often chose to elect members of Congress with full cognizance that with seniority came great power, and no state fared better with this system than Texas. They got a president, two speakers of the House including the longest serving one in history, and numerous powerful committee chairmen. This growth of power was a benefit of Democratic national dominance starting in 1933, Texas’ Democratic dominance, and the tendency of voters to keep reelecting their members to retain leadership positions, such as committee chairmanships. These will be interspersed throughout other postings, so not everything else pauses for Texas Legends. Something to bear in mind about these men is that many, although not all, were racists who supported Jim Crow laws, very much products of their time and place. The first Texas Legend I will discuss is John Morris Sheppard (1875-1941), who started in Texas politics in a far different time, a time in which Texas politicians could be expected to be progressive.
Morris Sheppard grew up in a political family: his father, John Levi Sheppard, was himself a member of Congress, and it was upon his death in 1902 that 27-year old Morris stepped up to the plate to represent Texarkana. He was a staunch progressive, wanting to go further than Theodore Roosevelt in trust busting and in being an enthusiastic backer of the policies of Woodrow Wilson after his election to the Senate in 1913. Sheppard became particularly known as one of the leading Congressional pushers of Prohibition. In 1913, Sheppard participated in the drafting of the Webb-Kenyon Act, a law designed to help dry states enforce their Prohibition laws and in 1917 he succeeded in getting his legislation passed to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages in Washington D.C. Sheppard also authored the Eighteenth Amendment, instituting Prohibition nationwide, making him “the father of national Prohibition”. He was also a major Southern proponent of women’s suffrage. On foreign policy, Sheppard was a firm supporter of the Versailles Treaty with no reservations. Despite his reformist outlook, Sheppard, like most other Texas politicians of his day, was a staunch racist and segregationist: in 1929 he condemned First Lady Lou Hoover’s invitation of black Congressman Oscar De Priest’s (R-Ill.) wife to tea with other Congressional wives, stating, “I regret the incident beyond measure. It is recognition of social equality between the white and black races and is fraught with infinite danger to our white civilization” (New York World).
In 1921, Sheppard sponsored with Representative Horace Towner (R-Iowa) the Sheppard-Towner Act, providing for federal maternity aid, one of the few progressive measures to become law during the Republican 1920s, but it lapsed in 1929. He also stood as a strong advocate for federal aid to agriculture, banking regulation, and supported public ownership of power generating facilities. In 1929, he rose in the Democratic leadership, becoming Minority Whip, a post he served in until 1933. In 1932, he tried in vain to stop the adoption of the Constitutional amendment to repeal Prohibition, but his amendment had grown too unpopular to remain. Indeed, Roosevelt’s stated support for repealing Prohibition in his 1932 campaign for president got him more support than his New Deal proposals (Lewis).
Sheppard proved a strong supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and enthusiastically backed the New Deal, so strongly in fact that some in the state criticized him as a “rubber stamp”. He even spoke out for Roosevelt’s “court-packing plan” but ultimately joined in voting with the majority to kill it after House Judiciary chair Hatton Sumners stated that he would bottle it in committee and the death of Majority leader Joseph Robinson. He naturally refused to get on board with Roosevelt’s support of the Cullen-Harrison Act, which formally re-legalized the sale of alcoholic beverages. Having been a supporter of Wilsonian internationalism, Sheppard carried such enthusiasm to Roosevelt’s policies as chair of the Military Affairs Committee and backed his legislation to weaken Neutrality laws as well as Lend-Lease. On April 9, 1941, Sheppard died suddenly and unexpectedly of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 65. His lifetime MC-Index score was a 7%. Sheppard was in most ways a man of the left in his day, backing most progressive initiatives as well as the New Deal, but his views on race would be anathema to modern liberals and his leading role in Prohibition is not likely something they would be down for either.
Bailey, R. Sheppard, John Morris (1875-1941). Texas State Historical Association.
Lewis, K. (2018, August 3). How did FDR really win in 1932? Boston Globe.
Recognition of Representative DePriest By Hoovers Is Causing Stir In Washington. (1929, June 17). Special Dispatch to The New York World and The Sun.
Thormaehlen, S. Senator John Morris Sheppard. East Texas History.