Sam Rayburn (1882-1961)

U.S. Representative Sam Rayburn (D-TX) was one of the longest-serving members of Congress.  His career in the House of Representatives spanned 48 years, 1913-1961, including17 years as Speaker of the House between 1940 and 1961 [1].  Rayburn was a loyal and key supporter of President Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Samuel Taliaferro Rayburn was born in Roane County, Tennessee, on January 6, 1882, to William and Martha Rayburn [2].  When Samuel was five years old, the family (which eventually included eleven children) moved to Fannin County, Texas, and worked on a 40-acre cotton farm [3].  These early years were difficult and influential on Rayburn’s future politics:

“Rayburn’s childhood was one of stupefying poverty and great family closeness.  The entire family, even the little children, had to work in the cotton fields every day, and even then finances were barely at a survival level.  During those years, Rayburn developed the intense animosities of the Populist South – a hatred for the railroads, because their freight rates skimmed off most farm profits, and the banks, because their interest rates burdened the farmer for a lifetime.  Indeed, Rayburn developed a deep suspicion of big business which never left him” [4].  The New Deal would offer Rayburn a unique opportunity to sponsor, support, and win various legislative efforts to help farmers and stop abusive business practices.

Early on, Samuel had a keen interest in politics. After listening to a speech by U.S. Representative Joseph Weldon Bailey (D-TX), sometime in the 1890s, he had the goal to one day become Speaker of the House [5].  In 1906, after earning a bachelor’s degree from E.L. Mayo’s Normal School (now East Texas State College) and teaching school for a few years, he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives.  By 1912, he had earned a law degree from the University of Texas and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives [6] – well on his way to achieving his goal.

During his years in Congress, Rayburn had an interesting saying: “You can’t be a leader and ask other people to follow you unless you know how to follow, too” [7].  When Franklin Roosevelt became president, Rayburn was ready to follow.  By 1939 Rayburn was included in a group of legislators described (in somewhat exaggerated terms) as “Rooseveltian Leaders” or “The Center group… who generally accept presidential leadership on national problems without question” [8].  But Rayburn didn’t just follow; he led.

Rayburn played an important role in ushering New Deal legislation through Congress.  He was especially “instrumental in the passage of the Truth in Securities Act, the bills that established the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, the Public Utilities Holding Company Act, the Emergency Railroad Transportation Act, and, with Senator George W. Norris, the Rural Electrification Act” [9].  By 1940, he was chosen as Speaker of the House, a position he would hold for a generation.

Rayburn remained one of the most influential people on Capitol Hill, known for his high ethical standards.  He died on November 16, 1961, at the age of 79.  Having been married only briefly, he had no children.  He was survived by one brother, Dick Rayburn, and two sisters, Mrs. W. A. Thomas and Mrs. S. E. Bartley [10].  Today, his legacy lives on at the Sam Rayburn Library, the Sam Rayburn Museum, and the Rayburn House Office Building [11].

Sources: (1) See, e.g., “List of Speakers of the House,” History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, accessed April 30, 2017.  (2) “Rayburn, Samuel Taliaferro,” Texas State Historical Association, accessed April 30, 2017.  (3) “Rayburn Is Dead; Served 17 Years As House Speaker,” New York Times, November 17, 1961.  (4) James S. Olson (ed.), Historical Dictionary of the New Deal: From Inauguration to Preparation for War, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985, p. 407.  (5) See note 3.  (6) Ibid.  (7) Ibid.  (8) “Votes Show Democrats Are Split Three Ways,” New York Times, July 9, 1939.  (9) See note 2.  (10) See note 3.  (11) See “Sam Rayburn Library,” Texas State Historical Association; “Sam Rayburn Museum,” University of Texas at Austin; and “Rayburn House Office Building,” Architect of the Capitol (all accessed April 30, 2017).