As I discuss in my book-in-progress, Congressional Lions, Sam Rayburn served as a United States congressman representing the Fourth District of Texas from 1913 until his death in 1961. During his time in office, Rayburn served as speaker of the House for 17 years, the longest tenure of anyone in American history. Along with Henry Clay, he is the only person to serve three different terms as speaker. “Mr. Sam,” as he was sometimes affectionately known, prided himself on his integrity, refusing to serve on corporate boards and paying his own travel expenses. He was not a flamboyant or charismatic public figure. Instead, Rayburn preferred to work behind the scenes, quietly shepherding legislation through the House. In his later years, he served as a mentor to many powerful members of Congress, notably Lyndon Johnson, who rose to prominence as the Senate majority leader before becoming vice president and eventually president of the United States. Although he represented a southern state, Rayburn rejected the politics of race. He famously refused to sign the 1956 Southern Manifesto objecting to the U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Brown vs. Board of Education, which desegregated public schools in the United States. Many schools, highways, and public buildings were named for Sam Rayburn after his death, including the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C.
He was born Samuel Taliaferro Rayburn, the eighth of eleven children, in Roane County, a rural area of eastern Tennessee near Kingston, on January 6, 1882, 24 days before another man who would become a celebrated American politician, Franklin D. Roosevelt. His father, William Marion Rayburn, was a farmer and former Confederate cavalryman. His mother was Martha Waller Rayburn, a Virginia native. The Rayburns were not poor, but neither were they affluent. "Lower middle class" probably would be an apt description.
When Sam was five years old, his father bought a forty-acre cotton farm in Fannin County, Texas, and the family relocated. The boy learned the value of hard work laboring on the farm. He eventually attended a one-room school in nearby Flag Springs.
His family’s finances were modest, but Rayburn was confident that he would succeed if he applied himself diligently. At the age of 18, he traveled to Commerce, Texas, to attend E. L. Mayo’s Normal School, later renamed East Texas State Normal College. While he studied, Rayburn earned his keep by working a series of odds jobs, such as ringing the college bell, sweeping classrooms, and making fires. He took a year off to teach school before returning to earn a bachelor of science degree.
Following graduation, he taught school for two years before he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives. It was the beginning of a remarkable political career without a single loss. Rayburn won 28 election victories—three in the Texas state legislature, and 25 in the United States House of Representatives.
Rayburn ascended to the speakership by slowly, patiently, quietly acquiring seniority. No shortcuts existed in the Congress of the early twentieth century. In his formative years as one of President Woodrow Wilson’s “bright young men” in Congress, Rayburn obeyed the advice he later repeated to freshmen legislators: “If you want to get along—go along.” Put another way, successful members of Congress should follow the rules and traditions of their institutions, always waiting their turn to become committee chairmen or floor leaders. Rayburn’s own career demonstrated fidelity to the rule, and he was famously impatient with cocky legislators who sought to advance out of turn.
By 1937, Rayburn’s Democratic colleagues elected him to serve as majority leader under Speaker William B. Bankhead of Alabama. Bankhead’s health was deteriorating, and so he was absent from the House floor frequently, allowing Rayburn to exercise primary authority over the institution. The day after Bankhead died suddenly on September 15, 1940, the House elected Rayburn by acclamation to serve as speaker.
At the outset, Rayburn asked that Congressman John McCormack of Massachusetts be elected the House majority leader, which he was. The two leaders worked well together. Often they would retire to what Rayburn called the “Board of Education,” a hideaway office on the first floor of the Capitol building that former Speaker Nicholas Longworth had used. There, Rayburn and McCormack plotted strategy and devised plans for how to handle upcoming legislation. They sometimes invited other members of Congress to join them for substantive discussions as well as free-flowing bourbon and marathon card games.
Rayburn was a strong speaker, but he was not heavy-handed or flashy. He preferred small, intimate gatherings where he could exchange ideas and quietly lobby for his perspective. A newspaper account published after his death described him as a “man of taciturn dignity” who possessed “no talent or envy for polished oratory.” The description might appear to be damning by faint praise, but in Rayburn’s case, he reveled in his apparent ordinariness. In fact, he believed that his outward appearance allowed unwary opponents to underestimate him, often to their detriment. Beneath his quiet demeanor, he was a forceful man of powerful will and intellect. When he focused on persuading an undecided legislator, more often than not, the fellow bent to the force of Rayburn’s “persuasion.”
He came into the speakership after war had erupted in Europe, but the United States remained ostensibly neutral. Like so many Americans, he was fearful of becoming entangled in foreign wars. He remembered the hundreds of thousands of young soldiers killed in the Great War of 1917-1918. Reflecting the attitudes of many citizens, Rayburn vowed never to become embroiled in overseas affairs unless American interests were directly threatened.
President Franklin Roosevelt shared Rayburn’s concerns, yet FDR also feared that the fall of England would bring war ever closer to the United States. In this atmosphere of deepening gloom, the president developed a policy known as Lend-Lease to assist England and its allies even as America maintained her neutrality. Congress passed the measure and Roosevelt signed it into law on March 11, 1941. The law established a mechanism for transferring arms and other war materiel to “the government of any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States.” Those countries included England, China, Brazil, and the Soviet Union, among others. The president’s critics bitterly criticized the law, fearing that Germany and its allies would interpret it as a violation of American neutrality and use the statute as a pretext for war.
Less than four months after the president signed the law, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the Second World War. Although the nation was not prepared to go to war at the end of 1941, it was better prepared than it otherwise would have been thanks to Speaker Rayburn, who had previously supported a bill to extend the peacetime draft. In the words of one reporter reflecting on the speaker’s actions a few years after the measure passed, “Sam Rayburn for a moment literally played the role of dictator within the framework of representative government for the safety and good of the government itself.”
The speaker wasn’t quite a dictator, but he was a powerful man, and he knew how to use power. Although he considered himself a loyal Democrat, Rayburn possessed an independent streak that sometimes irritated his supporters. The speaker consistently championed the policies of his party, but he understood the reality of protecting his constituents’ interests. Throughout his tenure in the House of Representatives, he assisted executive leaders on both sides of the aisle, but his support was not automatic. He occasionally broke ranks with his party or became cantankerous when he believed that congressional authority was undermined. As an example, Rayburn supported legislation to ease the burden of federal price regulations on natural gas and oil producers, major economic powerhouses in Texas. President Truman disagreed, and so he vetoed the bill even though the speaker had strongly supported it. On the Marshall Plan to aid in rebuilding war-torn Europe after the end of the Second World War, however, Rayburn supported the administration. He also carried the water for the president on the Housing Act of 1949 and Social Security expansion in 1950.
During the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s, Rayburn worked with his former protégé-turned-Senate-majority-leader, Lyndon B. Johnson, to forge compromises with Republicans and the president on a variety of domestic bills. Although he was a southerner and hardly a trailblazer on civil rights issues, Rayburn supported the 1957 and 1960 civil rights bills. He also famously refused to sign the Southern Manifesto, a defiant statement concocted by southern members of Congress dissenting from the United States Supreme Court’s anti-segregation decisions, notably Brown vs. Board of Education. Unlike some of his counterparts, he understood that the times were changing, and he must change with them.
As the 1960s dawned, the speaker was embroiled in several controversies with conservative southern Democrats who were upset with the Kennedy administration’s domestic agenda, but he was oddly listless and disconnected from the fight. Rayburn’s friends noticed that he appeared tired and wan, dropping weight at an alarming rate. In June and July 1961, he even lost consciousness while presiding over the House. Clearly, the old man was ill.
On September 27, 1961, he received the news that he was suffering from terminal cancer. It had spread throughout his body. Sam Rayburn died on November 16, 1961, at the age of 79.
The accolades poured in from every major political figure of the day. President Kennedy observed that Rayburn’s “public service stretched from the Administration of Woodrow Wilson to the present day. But it was the quality of that service more than its length that was so distinctive. A strong defender of constitutional responsibilities of the Congress, he had an instinctive understanding of the American system and was a loyal counselor and friend of Presidents of both parties on the great matters which affected our natural interest and security.” Former President Harry Truman issued a statement saying, “Sam Rayburn was a statesman. When history is written, he will appear as one of the very great men of this period.” Vice President Lyndon Johnson, a Rayburn protégé, said “The capital is a lonely place without him, and the good people of the world have lost a companion and an ally. He was always there when he was needed. His voice and his judgment were heard and respected. In the end, it all added up to one thing: He did what was right.”