Sam Rayburn, Texas legislator, congressman, and longtime speaker of the United States House of Representatives, was born near the Clinch River in Roane County, eastern Tennessee, on January 6, 1882, son of William Marion and Martha (Waller) Rayburn. In 1887 the family moved from Tennessee to a forty-acre cotton farm near Windom in Fannin County, Texas. Bonham, in the same county, eventually became Rayburn's permanent residence. At the age of eighteen he entered East Texas Normal College; he alternately attended college and taught school and still completed in two years the three-year normal-school course leading to the B.S. degree. He taught school two years, then left teaching to pursue a long-standing ambition of becoming a lawyer and legislator, inspired in part by an acquaintance with the political career of Senator Joseph Weldon Bailey. In 1906 Rayburn won a seat in the Texas House of Representatives; he attended the University of Texas law school between legislative sessions and was admitted to the State Bar of Texas in 1908. He was reelected to the state legislature in 1908 and 1910; in his third term he served as speaker of the House. In 1912 he was elected to the United States Congress as a Democrat from the Fourth Texas District. After the 1912 election Rayburn had no Republican opponent at any time during his lengthy congressional career.
His oath of office on April 7, 1913, as a member of the House of Representatives marked the beginning of more than forty-eight years of continuous service, the longest record of service in the House ever established (at the time of his death in 1961). He became majority leader in the Seventy-fifth and Seventy-sixth congresses (1937–40) and in 1940 was elected speaker of the House to fill the unexpired term of Speaker William B. Bankhead. Rayburn continued as speaker of the United States House of Representatives in every Democratic-controlled Congress from the Seventy-sixth through the Eighty-seventh (1940–61). During the two periods of Republican majorities in the House (1947–49 and 1953–55), he served as minority leader. On three occasions during his legislative career (in 1948, 1952, and 1956), he served as permanent chairman of the Democratic national convention. Rayburn's congressional career spanned the particularly accelerated legislative activity that occurred during the administrations of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman; Rayburn was a participant in the passage of most of the significant legislation of the first half of the twentieth century. During his first term in Congress he was appointed to the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, where he specialized in railroad legislation. This was the only House committee on which he ever served, and he remained on it until he was elected majority leader in 1937. In his first term he introduced a measure for increasing the power of the Interstate Commerce Commission, and during World War I he sponsored the War Risk Insurance Act.
Rayburn became a close political ally of the powerful Texas congressman John Nance Garner and in 1932 served as Garner's campaign manager in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Rayburn was a major figure in the negotiations that led to the Roosevelt-Garner ticket in 1932. After Roosevelt was elected president, Rayburn became a leading supporter of the New Deal. As chairman of the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee (1931–37), he was 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. After 1937, as majority leader and then speaker of the House, Rayburn was responsible for guiding the remaining portions of the basic New Deal program through that chamber. During World War II he helped ensure the legislative base and financial support for the war effort, and in the postwar years he opposed what he regarded as reactionary or inflationary legislative proposals, while supporting President Truman's foreign-assistance programs and his basic domestic measures. During the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Rayburn worked closely with Lyndon B. Johnson, who was majority leader of the Senate. They proved to be a potent team. Rayburn supported his protégé Johnson for the presidency, and his approval was crucial to Johnson's decision to run for vice president with John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Throughout Rayburn's career he was a strong supporter of the Democratic nominee for president, a position that often placed him in conflict with the conservative wing of the state Democratic party. That conflict was most intense in the 1950s, when Rayburn supported Adlai E. Stevenson for president, even though most state elected officials supported Eisenhower. Although a review of Sam Rayburn's legislative record reveals a pattern of broad consistency, his career is not easily reduced to categorization. Even though he sponsored or supported most of the New Deal legislation, he was regarded at the time as more of a "middle-of-the-roader" than a liberal or "New Dealer." Although he was viewed as a loyal "party man," he retained and exercised an independence of action that occasionally cut sharply across party aims, and though his complete mastery of political process made him a formidable congressional adversary, his fairness and candor within the process brought him respect from both sides of the aisle. Rayburn's personal integrity was legendary: he accepted no money from lobbyists, he went on only one congressional junket in forty-eight years (he paid his own way), and he even refused travel expenses on speaking tours. Within his Northeast Texas congressional district, Rayburn was known as a politician who kept in close touch with constituents. His informality allowed him to identify with the people of his largely rural district. He was known to be very effective in dealing with his constituents' individual problems, and he brought numerous projects to the district, including rural electrification, farm-to-market roads, Lake Texoma, Lavon Lake, several smaller lakes, the Veterans Administration Hospital, McKinney, the Bonham Veterans Domiciliary (see SAM RAYBURN MEMORIAL VETERANS CENTER), and such bases as Perrin Field (later Perrin Air Force Base) near Sherman and Jones Field near Bonham.
In 1949 "Mr. Sam" was awarded the $10,000 Collier's award for distinguished service to the nation, and this award became the basis of an endowment for establishing and maintaining the Sam Rayburn Library at Bonham. The library, completed in 1957 and dedicated by former president Truman, housed Rayburn's public and private papers until they were moved to the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. With its related research materials, the Rayburn Library operates as a study center for problems in contemporary American politics and government. Rayburn was married in 1927 to Metze Jones, the sister of his good friend Congressman John Marvin Jones, but the marriage lasted less than three months. Rayburn remained unmarried thereafter. He joined the Primitive Baptist Church in Tioga, Texas, in 1956, shortly after the death of his sister Lucinda Rayburn and two other relatives. He died of cancer at age seventy-nine on November 16, 1961, and was buried in Bonham.