For 48 years Sam Rayburn was an unforgettable presence in Congress and a devoted servant to the people of Northeast Texas. He served with eight presidents and was Speaker of the House of Representatives on three separate occasions. During his long career, Rayburn helped guide the United States through two world wars, the Great Depression, and helped craft important legislation that transformed the nation.
Samuel Taliaferro Rayburn was born to a farming family in eastern Tennessee in 1882. When he was five, the family bought a cotton farm near Windom in Fannin County. He eventually attended East Texas Normal College in Commerce, where he gained a teaching degree and became a teacher.
In 1906, at the age of 24, he was elected to the state legislature, representing Fannin County. He attended the University of Texas law school while a legislator, gaining admission to the bar in 1908. He served three terms in the legislature, rising to Speaker of the House by 1911. In 1912, Congressman Choice Randell ran for the U. S. Senate, leaving his seat for the fourth congressional district open. Rayburn jumped at the chance and won the election easily.
He was assigned to the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce, from where he helped steer new regulations for railroads as well as other important regulatory reforms. In 1914, with World War I posing an increased risk to American shipping to Europe, he pushed through the War Risk Insurance Act to help minimize American financial losses. The construction of the famous highway Route 66 was also through his efforts.
He became the committee chairman by 1931. During the Great Depression, through his committee leadership, he helped create the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the Federal Communications Commission. He also helped pass the Rural Electrification Act in 1937. This act helped bring electricity to rural communities as well as 90 perfect of the nation’s farms and ranches, a critical step in modernizing Texas agriculture and bringing industry to small towns.
Rayburn became House Majority Leader in 1937 and then House Speaker in 1940. He helped steer important war preparations legislation through Congress, such as the 1941 Lend-Lease Act, which helped provide the Allies desperately needed weapons against the Nazis and the Japanese, an act that probably saved the Allied war effort.
He faithfully served the people of his district as well, helping to provide funding for such reservoir projects as Lake Texoma in Grayson County and Lake Lavon in Collin County. He also helped establish a veterans hospital in McKinney. The now-closed Perrin Air Force Base in Sherman as well as Jones Field in Bonham were opened through his efforts.
Rayburn had a reputation as a man of impeccable integrity. As a lawyer, he refused to accept fees from clients who had business before the state legislature. On congressional trips, he insisted on paying his own travel expenses. He did not believe in the confrontational form of politics that constantly pitted one party against another. Instead, he worked quietly to forge compromises and keep the peace between members of Congress. He once said, “A jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one.” So widely respected, Rayburn was unopposed for each of his re-elections to Congress for 23 terms.
He died in office on Nov. 16, 1961, marking nearly 19 years as House Speaker. After his death, several schools and even a school district were named after him as well as portions of U.S. Highway 75 in Sherman and State Highway 121 in Bonham. The Sam Rayburn Reservoir was named for him in 1964 as well as the Rayburn House Office Building in 1965, which houses offices for members of Congress. His home in Bonham is now a museum and still a popular attraction.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.