Samuel Taliferro Rayburn was born January 6, 1882 on a farm near Kingston, Roane County, Tennessee to William Marion Rayburn and Martha Clementine Waller Rayburn. He was the seventh of their eleven children. His father, William Marion Rayburn, had served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. The Rayburns were a farming family. Sam was five years old when the family moved to Fannin County, Texas in 1887, settling on a forty acre farm where they raised cotton. He received his education in Texas. There was not enough money to pay for all of the siblings’ schooling and the family story was that Sam was sent off to college with $25 cash from his family. Rayburn enrolled at East Texas Normal College (later known as East Texas State and Texas A&M University-Commerce) and worked his way through the early days of his schooling by sweeping floors for $3 per month. While he was a student, he began to work as a teacher. Upon completing his Bachelor of Science degree, he enrolled in the law school at University of Texas in Austin. He did not earn a law degree, as far as we can determine, but upon completion of his studies, he was admitted to the state bar of Texas in 1908. His political career had begun two years earlier when he won an election to the Texas House of Representatives. Rayburn served two more terms before being elected in 1912 as a United States Representative.
Rayburn went on to serve for forty-eight years as a Representative until his death in 1961. He was a political ally of John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner and ran Garner’s unsuccessful 1932 campaign for President in the Democratic primary. The colorful character Garner had also served as Speaker of the House and relinquished his position to run for president. Garner was unsuccessful, but went on to serve as vice president under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for eight years (1933-1941). Rayburn is credited for assisting in the passage of many “New Deal” bills and programs under Roosevelt. During World War II, he helped support legislation that supported the war effort. Politically, he was considered to be a moderate, though as Speaker of the House, he supported the programs of the sitting Democratic presidents without regard to their political orientation.
Upon the death of Alabama Congressman William B. Bankhead in 1940 (also known as the father of actress Tallulah Bankhead), Rayburn was elected Speaker. He went on to serve as Speaker of the House for seventeen years (1940–1947, 1949–1953 and 1955–1961), which surpassed the length of time that Henry Clay had served as Speaker. Rayburn was known to be a skillful negotiator rather than being arbitrary or authoritarian. He enjoyed the position and was effective at it. Rayburn never had aspirations of serving in any higher capacity than Speaker of the House.
Rayburn was briefly married to Viola Metze Jones in 1927. The couple had no children. Following their divorce, Rayburn remained single until his death. He died on November 16, 1961 in a Bonham, Texas hospital after a short bout with pancreatic cancer. After his death, it was revealed that he had been diagnosed earlier, as recently as September 17, 1961. The diagnosis was confirmed by a biopsy in Dallas, Texas on October 5, 1961. He was said to have refused treatment. He was buried in Willow Wild Cemetery in Bonham, Texas along with other members of his family.
Upon being informed of Rayburn’s death, John Nance Garner said “One of the greatest men in the nation has died.” and added “He was one of the finest men in the United States and one of the best presiding officers the House of Representatives ever had. I was proud to claim his friendship.” [Corsicana Semi-Weekly Light (Corsicana, Texas), November 17, 1961.]
His honors include having a postage stamp designed for him. The group responsible for this, the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee happened to be meeting on the same day that Rayburn’s death occurred. When they were notified of his death, the committee immediately approved the creation of a stamp in his honor. The final design was approved and unveiled on July 30, 1962 depicting Rayburn in front of the United States Capitol Building. On March 18, 1966, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. In 1963, the U. S. S. Sam Rayburn, a ballistic missile submarine, was launched. A new hybrid rose was named “Speaker Sam” with his consent in 1961. Sam Rayburn Reservoir (Lake Sam Rayburn) is named for him and dedicated in 1965.
Numerous public buildings are named for him, including the Bonham, Texas Veterans Center of the Veteran’s Administration. Many of his historic documents now reside at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, on the campus of University of Texas at Austin. The Sam Rayburn Museum is located at 800 W. Sam Rayburn Drive in Bonham, Texas. It has been open since 1957. Rayburn’s former home at 890 West Highway 56, west of Bonham, is now the location of the Sam Rayburn House State Historic Site.
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