Guest Essayist: Patrick Cox


Sam Rayburn of Texas – The Longest Serving Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives

Samuel Taliaferro Rayburn was one of the most influential and respected leaders in American history.  Rayburn served with distinction as he achieved many important changes to American society, government and the nation’s economy.   Rayburn holds the record for serving longer than any other Speaker of the House in U.S. history. According to longtime friend and colleague Congressman Richard Bolling, Rayburn was cleverly described as the “baldest and levelest head in Washington.” He served fifty years from his northeast Texas 4th Congressional District in the House and seventeen as the House Speaker.

As the House Speaker, Rayburn served during the administrations of four different presidents – Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and John Kennedy. Rayburn was fond of saying that he served “with” four presidents, not “under” any chief executive.  During his years as Speaker, he was at the epicenter of monumental decisions during World War II, the Cold War, the modern Civil Rights movement, the early years of the Space Age, and the emergence of the United States as a leader in international affairs. Historians recognize Rayburn as among the most influential House Speakers and political leaders in American history.  He was born in the small community of Flag Springs near Bonham, Texas in 1882 and died of cancer in Bonham in 1961 after serving 48 consecutive years in Congress.

The way to get ahead in the House is to stand for something and to know what it is you stand for.

Rayburn first was elected to the Texas Legislature as a State Representative in 1906.  He became Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives at the age of 29.  Interestingly, Rayburn served in the Texas House and became friends with Sam Johnson from Central Texas – the father of Lyndon Johnson. He then decided to run for the U.S. Congress in 1913 when Woodrow Wilson was President of the United States.  Rayburn worked his way up the leadership ladder and came into his own as a legislator during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930’s.  The impact of the Great Depression during this decade led to the creation of the most significant legislative effort to reform and regulate economic life that America had yet experienced.  Rayburn was a protégé of fellow Texas Congressman John Nance Garner of Uvalde, Texas.  Garner served as House Speaker and then became Vice President for the first two terms of the Roosevelt Administration in the 1930’s.  Rayburn and Garner remained friends and political allies even after Garner retired to his Uvalde home in 1942.

Working closely with President Roosevelt and Vice President Garner, Rayburn played a pivotal role in the passage of major legislation that composed the essence of the New Deal.  In his capacity as chair of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Rayburn’s legislation led to the regulation of the sales of stocks and bonds through creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).  Thomas Corcoran, legal counsel for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, later recalled: “The first people to stand up against Wall Street were the Texans—Garner and Rayburn.”

Among other New Deal regulatory measures, Rayburn co-authored the Emergency Railroad Transportation Act, the Truth-in-Securities Act, the Stock Exchange Act, the Federal Communications Act and the Public Utility Holding Company Act.  Although all these acts were important in creating a framework of public safeguards and economic regulations, most important to Rayburn was his involvement in establishing the Rural Electrification Agency (REA).  The REA changed the way rural Americans lived more than any other New Deal agency.  In 1935, when the REA, was created, less than ten percent of American farms had electricity.  By 1950, ninety percent of American farms and rural America had electricity supplied by electric cooperatives.  To this day, electric cooperatives remain popular and are widespread throughout the entire nation.

There is no degree in honesty. You are either honest or dishonest.

As a politician and citizen, Sam Rayburn was a plain talker and widely known for his honesty and integrity. Although he lived an almost monastic life as a politician and lawmaker, he loved interacting with people and enjoyed the simple pleasures of farm and ranch work.  He was frank and known for his extensive knowledge of the Constitution and the governing process.  “I have found that people respect you if you tell them where you stand,” he often stated.  He was often referred to as “Mr. Sam” by his friends and colleagues.  Beyond his Texas home and his congressional district, he was widely recognized and respected by members of both political parties, by the media, and by foreign leaders.  His foremost protégé was Congressman Lyndon Johnson, who would rise to become U.S. Senator, Vice-President and President in 1963 following the Kennedy assassination.  Johnson publicly referred to Rayburn and praised him for his fatherly image and guidance.  When the two leaders met in the hallways of the Capitol, the taller Johnson would often “bend over and kiss him on his bald head.”

The rise of Hitler to power in Germany and his invasion of Poland in 1939 turned American attention away from domestic matters and towards the global threat of right-wing totalitarian regimes.  While Americans looked on in distress as country after country in Europe and Asia fell to the Nazis, Rayburn provided Roosevelt with crucial support for the Lend Lease Act, which granted the president wide powers to aid the Allies, and for the extension of the draft for the U.S. military.  Rayburn obtained his lifelong goal when he became Speaker of the House in 1939.  In 1941 the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor propelled the United States to a declaration of war.  Speaker Rayburn mobilized the Congress to address the pressing needs of America’s global commitments in the war.  “Without vision, nations perish,” Rayburn said.  He recognized that the United States had a pivotal role to play in international affairs during war and in peace.

Rayburn became the first member of Congress to be told about the Manhattan Project during World War II, the secret government plan to develop an atomic bomb in advance of Germany.  He used his considerable political expertise to keep the enormously expensive project secret, concealing it even from the House Committee on Appropriations, until after the atomic bombs fell on Japan in August 1945 and World War II finally ended.

We are not going to play politics – the country comes first

After World War II the attention of the nation turned back to domestic issues, but in an era of prosperity, tensions focused less on economic regulation and more on social justice.  In a time of racial segregation, the emerging civil rights movement proved a tangled problem for southern Democrats such as Sam Rayburn.  His friend Cecil Dickson once observed, “Rayburn is always watching out for what he calls ‘the real people’—those who come into life without many advantages and try to make a living and raise their families.  The other people, well-born and with advantages, can get just about everything they want without government help, but ‘the real people’ need the protection of the government.”

Yet Rayburn, along with the vast majority of Southern Democrats in this era, had supported segregation and resisted real civil rights for African Americans throughout most of his career.   During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s Rayburn’s position on this matter changed; as his Congressional career entered its final stage, Sam Rayburn came to extend his support for government protection for ordinary Americans to include those Americans who were people of color. Rayburn lent his support to the Civil Rights Act of 1957 that created the United States Commission on Civil Rights to investigate systematic discrimination, such as voting discrimination.  The 1957 legislation set the stage for the pivotal civil rights acts of the 1960’s when his friend and protégé Lyndon Johnson became President.

In October 1957, President Harry S. Truman traveled to Bonham to dedicate the Sam Rayburn Library, a white marble structure that continues to house Mr. Sam’s books, papers and memorabilia. Rayburn continued to serve in Washington until his failing health forced him to return to Bonham, the place “where people know it when you’re sick and where they care when you die,” Rayburn said. Speaker Rayburn died from pancreatic cancer on Nov. 16, 1961 and was buried in Bonham. More than 30,000 people crowded into Bonham for Mr. Sam’s funeral at the First Baptist Church. In attendance were three U.S. presidents—then-President John F. Kennedy, former President Harry Truman, former President Dwight Eisenhower—and then Vice President and future president Lyndon Johnson.

I have always been a disciple of the doctrine that people are good folks, and I have great faith in them.

The Sam Rayburn Library and Museum in Bonham, Texas, was completed in 1957 to house the books, papers, and political artifacts of Speaker Rayburn. The building served as Speaker Rayburn’s district office from 1957 until 1961. The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History of the University of Texas at Austin owns and operates the museum, which is a national and state historic landmark. The historic museum houses his office, an exact replica of the Speaker’s office at the U.S. Capitol. The Rayburn Museum’s mission is to preserve and exhibit photographs, cartoons, documents, paintings, sculptures, and artifacts documenting Rayburn’s life and to educate the public about one of the most significant political figures in Texas and American history.

Dr. Patrick Cox of Wimberley, Texas in an award-winning and acclaimed historian, author and conservationist. A sixth generation Texan, he resides in Wimberley, Texas and is President of Patrick Cox Consultants, LLC. His firm specializes in historical research, writing projects and oral histories for individuals, corporations, public agencies and nonprofit organizations.


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1 reply
  1. Publius Senex Dassault
    Publius Senex Dassault says:

    Very interesting essay and persona. I am very impressed with him even if some of his work in the 30s lead to an increasing administrative state. Honesty deserves respect. Thus he deserves and received respect.

    I particularly appreciate the quotes.


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