Texas Legends #3: Sam Rayburn

In 1912, Congressman Choice B. Randell chose to run for the Democratic nomination for the Senate rather than for reelection. 30-year old Sam Rayburn (1882-1961), Speaker of the Texas House, ran for the seat instead. His platform was that of a Jeffersonian Democrat and in his speeches supported “free trade, representative government, special privilege for none, an income tax, state rights, a federal inheritance tax, the direct election of senators, the right of labor to organized, and the abolition of the electoral college” (Shanks, 64). Rayburn’s career was already promising given that he had chosen to use the vast powers of the position of speaker rather than abdicate his authority to party bosses, and used said powers to pass progressive legislation, including restrictions on working hours for women and child labor laws. Upon his victory, Majority Whip John Nance Garner saw Rayburn’s potential and used his influence to get him placed on the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, where he was involved in the passage of anti-trust legislation.

Rayburn’s Rise to Leadership

Congressman Rayburn strongly supported the Underwood Tariff, which both lowered the average tariff rate and imposed an income tax and in 1914 he sponsored the Railway Stock and Bond Bill, a key part of President Wilson’s anti-trust agenda. His measure got a strong vote for in the House, being passed 325-12 on June 5, 1914. Rayburn asserted that the Democratic Party was not opposed to business or capital, stating, “We know that there must be large aggregations of capital to carry on the great and growing business of the country; hence we would be more foolish to do anything that would hinder or retard the growth of the country. We intend to do simple justice, and on the other hand, we are determined that business shall deal justly with the people” (Shanks, 67). However, Rayburn didn’t always agree with the Wilson Administration. Despite being a supporter of child labor laws on the state level, he voted against the Keating-Owen child labor bill on state’s rights grounds. He also went against the progressives in his support for ending emergency government control of the railroads after the end of World War I, stating, “I want to see all of these war powers repealed and the Government get out of these expensive and socialistic businesses. I want to get back to normal” (Shanks, 72). He was also a firm backer of Wilson’s internationalist outlook and this would inform his stances on foreign affairs during the Roosevelt and Truman years. Interestingly enough, Rayburn overtime would grow more progressive. Unlike his mentor Garner, he voted for the Prohibition Amendment, but eventually came to support its repeal. In 1927, Rayburn was briefly married to Metze Jones but it fell apart after less than three months over disagreements on his whiskey drinking and poker playing as well as the Washington lifestyle he lived. After the 1930 election, Rayburn became chair of the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee and in 1932 he managed the campaign of John Nance Garner for president and negotiated FDR’s pick of Garner as vice president. He was a key actor in the passage of the New Deal and supported most of FDR’s proposals. In 1935, Rayburn sponsored the Public Utilities Holding Company Act, which ultimately served to abolish holding companies. His efforts were recognized by fellow Democrats and in 1937 he was elected majority leader. Rayburn stuck with the New Deal by and large despite many of his Southern colleagues beginning to turn away from it, including his mentor and Vice President John Nance Garner.

The Speakership

On September 15, 1940, Speaker of the House William B. Bankhead of Alabama died of a stomach hemorrhage after years of declining health, and the Democrats elected Rayburn to succeed him the next day. Rayburn would serve, with only two interruptions, as House speaker until his death, a record length of time. He had as his deputy John W. McCormack of Massachusetts and they worked in tandem to appeal to both the increasingly different Southern and Northern wings of the Democratic Party. Both men were committed to preserving the New Deal while keeping the advance of civil rights slow. Although Rayburn’s and McCormack’s records were opposite on the question, neither spoke out on such issues. As speaker and before he was the epitome of legislative ethics. As historian Robert A. Caro wrote of him, “Lobbyists could not buy him so much as a meal. Not even the taxpayer could buy him a meal. Spurning the conventional congressional junket, Rayburn would during his 48 years in Congress take exactly one overseas trip . . . and on that trip he insisted on paying his own way. He refused not only fees but travel expenses for out-of-town speeches; hosts who . . . attempted to press checks upon him quickly realized they had made a mistake. . . . Rayburn would say, ‘I’m not for sale’ – and then he would walk away without a backward glance” (Eddington). His honesty was such that once he was asked “How do you remember all the things you promised people?”, he responded, “If you always tell the truth, you don’t need memos to remember what you said” (Caro). Rayburn adeptly handled the committee chairmen system as indeed many of the chairmen were fellow Southern Democrats who held only the highest respect for “Mr. Sam”, as he was known by colleagues. He used humor and persuasion as his tools but was not afraid to use power to keep order if need be. Rayburn was also a mentor for future President Lyndon B. Johnson, who would act as the son he never had and treat the lonely bachelor as family. In 1947, Rayburn became Minority Leader as the Republicans had won back control of Congress, but he still played a critical role in the passage of the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine, which won bipartisan support. Unlike many of his Southern colleagues, he resisted efforts to roll back the power of organized labor and voted against the Taft-Hartley Act, which ultimately became law over President Truman’s veto. Upon becoming speaker again after the 1948 election, Rayburn committed himself to backing most aspects of Truman’s Fair Deal, but the Conservative Coalition was too powerful for most of them to pass. However, he stopped on a few junctures, including when Texas interests were directly involved: like all other Texas politicians, he supported the Tidelands Bill, eventually signed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, that granted title of continental shelf resources to the states.

During the Eisenhower Administration, both Rayburn and Lyndon B. Johnson played interesting roles in framing themselves as “saving” Eisenhower’s agenda from the conservative wing of the Republican Party. This included the passage of extensive foreign aid packages and support for expanded government in some areas. The two Texans also brokered compromises with the Eisenhower Administration and Republican leaders. In 1956 and 1960, Rayburn backed Johnson’s efforts to secure the Democratic nomination for president.

Mr. Sam and Civil Rights

Rayburn’s record on civil rights was a complicated one marked by a distinct change from backing crudely racist stances to active support for an incremental approach. He played a key role in the admitting of Alaska and Hawaii as states, which added four pro-civil rights senators and also softened from his previously segregationist record, helping shepherd the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 through the House. Earlier on his career, however, Rayburn had voted to criminalize interracial relations in Washington D.C., repeatedly against women’s suffrage, to prohibit blacks from immigrating to the U.S., and repeatedly against anti-lynching legislation. However, by 1954 he privately thought the Brown v. Board of Education decision was the right thing to do and in 1956 he didn’t sign the Southern Manifesto.

Rayburn’s Final Battle: The Rules Committee

On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated the 35th president of the United States, and although the Democrats had convincing majorities in the House and Senate, the Democratic Party was different sixty years ago than today, as a significant conservative wing existed among the Southern Democrats. Sam Rayburn had gotten his start all the way back in 1913, when Southern Democrats adhered to a Wilsonian progressivism, and this spirit had never left Rayburn, in truth he had gotten more progressive with age. The most troublesome figure for the liberal Democrats among the Southerners was Rules Committee chair Howard W. Smith of Virginia, who was one of the earliest Southern Democrats to oppose New Deal programs. He had used his perch as chair since 1955 to collaborate with Republicans to obstruct many of the planks of the Democratic Party. Rayburn was determined to give President Kennedy’s New Frontier programs a chance against the Conservative Coalition, so he proposed to expand the Rules Committee by three members, two Democrats and one Republican. Chairman Smith and Minority Leader Charles Halleck (R-Ind.) staunchly opposed this move, and Southern Democrats were divided on whether to side with Rayburn or Smith, both men for who they had tremendous respect. Rayburn got the public support of President Kennedy for this move and also got support from another Bay Stater he had a friendship with: former Speaker of the House Joe Martin. Despite having opposed previous measures to liberalize the Rules Committee to help Truman’s legislative proposals pass, Martin was of the belief that his fellow Bay Stater’s programs should be given a chance, and lent support to Rayburn’s move to expand, which won 22 Republican votes for the proposal, which passed narrowly 217-212 on January 31st. Most Texans had sided with Rayburn while all but one Virginia Democrat sided with Smith. This Rules Committee change helped some New Frontier legislation pass. Throughout the year, however, Rayburn seemed to slow down, with his friends observing that he was tired, ill, losing weight rapidly given a loss of appetite, and on two occasions in the summer he collapsed while presiding over the House (Martinez). He dismissed this as his lumbago acting up, but on September 27, 1961, Rayburn was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that by this point had spread all over his body. He was dead in less than two months at 79 years old. Rayburn had by the time of his death beat the record for length of service and that of continuous service among his other achievements. His penchant for integrity was again revealed by the state of his finances after his death – he didn’t profit from his service at all as he had only $35,000 in the bank and owed $18,000. Rayburn’s lifetime MC-Index score was a 20%, with his progressivism being stronger in New Deal years than during the Wilson years.


Caro, R. Books: LBJ Had a Bright Side and a Dark Side. History News Network.

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Champagne, A. & Ewing, F.F. Rayburn, Samuel Taliaferro (1882-1961). Texas State Historical Association.

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Eddington, M. (2006, February 25). Bennett backs off on ethics remarks. The Salt Lake Tribune.

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Hill, R. (2014, November 16). ‘Mr. Speaker:’ Sam Rayburn of Texas. Knoxville Focus.

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Rayburn Is Dead; Served 17 Years As House Speaker. (1961, November 17). The New York Times.

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Shanks, A.G. (1968, March). Sam Rayburn in the Wilson Administrations, 1913-1921. East Texas Historical Journal, 6(1).

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Simkin, J. (1997). Sam Rayburn. Spartacus Educational.

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Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn of Texas. U.S. House of Representatives.

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