John Henninger Reagan, Texas Democratic party leader and Confederate postmaster general, the eldest son of Timothy Richard and Elizabeth Reagan, was born on October 8, 1818, in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains in Sevier County, Tennessee. His early life was not unlike that of many young men who grew to maturity in frontier America. Although having moments to hunt and fish, he worked with his father at a tannery and on their small farm. Seldom did he have time for books and schooling, and he only briefly attended nearby Nancy Academy. In 1831 his mother died, and the added duties of caring for four brothers and a sister were thrust upon him. In 1834 Reagan, whose desire for learning permeated his life, decided to follow his ambitions. After a year of hiring out to a local planter, he attended Boyd's Creek Academy for fifteen months. When funds ran low, he worked to finance a year of study (1837) at Southwestern Seminary in Maryville. In 1838 Reagan left Tennessee to seek greater monetary gain. Briefly he managed a plantation near Natchez before being lured to Texas, where a job at Nacogdoches supposedly awaited him. Soon after arrival, however, he became involved in the Cherokee War and, on July 15, 1839, participated in an engagement in which the Indians were routed and their leader, Chief Bowl, was killed. For the next two years Reagan worked as a deputy surveyor and frontier scout before being elected a justice of the peace and captain of a militia company in Nacogdoches. For several years thereafter he also studied to be an attorney until, in 1846, he procured a temporary law license and opened an office at Buffalo on the Trinity River.
When Texas became a state in 1846, Reagan began his political career. In April he was elected the first county judge of Henderson County. The next year he became a member of the Second Legislature of Texas. Although he helped obtain the reapportionment of both the House and Senate, Reagan unsuccessfully tried to amend a bill for the Peters colony that, at first glance, seemed to benefit settlers but actually initiated costly litigation. In the race for the state Senate in 1849, this legislative measure was the chief issue of the campaign and one that led to Reagan's defeat. Yet in 1852 the Peters' colonists, who had previously opposed him, hired him to represent them after his predictions proved to be correct. As a result, when the judge of the Ninth Judicial District died in September, Reagan was popular enough to win a hastily called election. After 1855 Reagan became increasingly prominent. In East Texas he helped the Democratic party defeat the surging American (Know-Nothing) party; this victory contributed to his reelection as judge in 1856 as well as to his popularity. Consequently, in the summer of 1857 the Democrats nominated and elected him United States congressman from the Eastern District of Texas. In Washington he attended to constituent needs and dealt with the controversy over the status of slavery in Kansas. He soon feared for the safety of the Union. Thus in 1859 he assumed the somewhat contradictory position of officially supporting secessionist Democratic candidate Hardin Runnels against Unionist Sam Houston in the state governor's race while campaigning for his own reelection to Congress on a middle-of-the-road, pro-Union platform. Both Houston and Reagan won impressive victories.
After John Brown attacked the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry on October 16, 1859, all hope of maintaining the Union vanished as far as Reagan was concerned. With Republicans in the House inexorably opposed to southerners no matter what the issue, and with southern rights' men equally adamant, any hope of compromise was remote. Then when Abraham Lincoln was elected in November 1860, the breakup of the Union began. On January 15, 1861, Reagan resigned his congressional seat. Two weeks later he returned to Texas; for the next four years he served the Confederate States of America. In Austin on January 30, 1861, he attended the state Secession Convention and met with Governor Houston to persuade him to "submit to the will of the people" and recognize the convention. Texas withdrew from the Union on February 2, and two days later delegates elected Reagan one of the state's seven representatives to the secession convention at Montgomery, Alabama. Within a month Reagan was appointed postmaster general of the Confederacy, whereupon he raided the United States Post office of its documents and southern personnel. Upon the selection of Richmond, Virginia, as the Confederate capital late in the spring of 1861, he began seeking ways to make his department self-sufficient by March 1, 1863, as prescribed by the Confederate Constitution. He therefore abolished the franking privilege and raised postal rates. He also cut expenses by eliminating costly routes, inducing competition for mail runs, and employing a smaller, more efficient staff. He was even able to persuade railroad executives to cut transportation charges in half and accept Confederate bonds in whole or partial payment. Although such stringent measures were necessary, the public became dissatisfied with Reagan, despite the fact that Union armies had disrupted routes, demolished postal facilities, and interrupted mail with increasing frequency.
On April 2, 1865, the end of the Confederacy was at hand. President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet were forced to flee southward from Richmond. For five weeks the Confederate government eluded Union patrols in both North and South Carolina. After Secretary of the Treasury George A. Trenholm resigned on April 27, Reagan was entrusted with the duties of the Treasury Department, but not for long. On May 9, near Abbeville, Georgia, Jefferson Davis, former Texas governor Francis R. Lubbock, and Reagan were captured. The harsh realities of losing awaited the Confederate leaders. On May 25, 1865, Reagan and Vice President Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia were sent to Fort Warren in Boston harbor, where for the next twenty-two weeks Reagan was in solitary confinement. After reading northern journals and newspapers that revealed the depth of animosity and bitterness toward the South, he wrote on August 11 an open communication to the people of Texas in which he appealed to them, as conquered people, to recognize the authority of the United States, renounce immediately both secession and slavery, and, if commanded by the federal government, extend the "elective franchise" to former slaves. Otherwise, he predicted, Texas would face the "twin disasters" of military despotism and universal Black suffrage. After his release from Fort Warren and return to Texas early in December 1865, Reagan discovered that most Texans had politically disinherited him because of the Fort Warren letter. He retired to Fort Houston, his family home at Palestine, and farmed his neglected fields.
Reagan's letter, which was published in Texas in October 1865, arrived in the state on the eve of the Constitutional Convention of 1866, called by provisional governor A. J. Hamilton, at which delegates grappled with carrying out federal mandates and solving immediate state problems. Taking a fairly conservative approach, the convention recognized the end of secession and slavery, offered limited rights to Blacks, and canceled the state's war debt. The election of former Confederate James Webb Throckmorton as governor the same year reinforced the Texans' belief that they could resolve their problems without the drastic measures Reagan had advocated. However, when the federal government sensed the continuing instability in southern states, it passed the Reconstruction Act of March 2, 1867. With this act the efforts of state governments were replaced by military districts (see FIFTH MILITARY DISTRICT). In Texas, Throckmorton was removed by Gen. Philip Sheridan and replaced in July 1867 by Governor Elisha M. Pease. Several more years of political upheaval followed for Texas. The Constitutional Convention of 1868–69 provided full voting rights for Blacks; the resignation of Pease resulted in the election in 1869 of Republican Edmund J. Davis, who was hated and feared by Texas conservatives. The new governor also faced frontier problems and a general sense of lawlessness in the state. Reagan, now respected by Democrats for his prophetic letter, became known as the "Old Roman," a modern-day Cincinnatus who had sacrificed popularity and political power on behalf of his fellow Texans. Reagan and other Democrats worked to regain power and restore political harmony. Their efforts culminated in the 1873 election of Democrat Richard Coke as governor and the writing of a new constitution in 1876. In the meantime Reagan was granted amnesty, and his full citizenship was restored. In 1874 he received the Democratic nomination for the First Congressional District and was easily elected.
From 1875 to 1887 Reagan served in Congress but also participated in state politics. In 1875 he was a delegate to the Texas Constitutional Convention that framed the Constitution of 1876. In Congress he chaired the Committee on Commerce, which was responsible for passage of the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887. The law, which represented fulfillment of many years of effort for Reagan, regulated railroads through a five-man commission and included provisions against pooling and rebates. Although the law was an effort to control the railroad industry, Reagan had the support of some railroad groups, as well as independent oil men, merchants, and farmers across the country who believed that the Interstate Commerce Commission would stabilize rates and end undue competition. As further appreciation for his legislative record Texans elected Reagan to the United States Senate in January 1887, but before the end of his term he changed jobs. Because his good friend Governor James Stephen Hogg had run on a platform of state regulation of railroads, Reagan was persuaded to resign his Senate seat and accept the chairmanship of the newly formed Railroad Commission of Texas. The commission, formed in 1891, was an effort to regulate commerce on a state level as an extension of the Interstate Commerce Commission's federal work. Attempts to establish such a commission in Texas dated to 1876. After five legislative failures, an amendment to the state constitution providing for a railroad commission was submitted to voters in 1890. With the amendment's ratification and Hogg's election as governor, the commission became a reality. Its powers included setting rates, classifying freight, requiring adequate railroad reports, and prohibiting and punishing discrimination and extortion by corporations. As Reagan led the Railroad Commission, it served not as a neutral regulator of Texas railroads but more as an institution capable of aiding the state's manufacturers and thus directing the growth of the state's economy. He accomplished this effort by having the commission set rates for Texas railroads that, in effect, created tariff barriers against products from other states and fostered native Texas industries. The commission survived a Supreme Court ruling in 1894 and thereafter became an even more vigorous supervisor of Texas railroads.
Reagan made an unsuccessful bid for the 1894 Democratic nomination for governor. He remained chairman of the Railroad Commission until his retirement in January 1903. His tenure provided the leadership and prestige necessary to the early years of this extremely powerful state regulatory body. In the latter part of his life Reagan was much concerned about recording history as well as preserving his heritage. In 1897 he helped found the Texas State Historical Association. On a number of occasions he attended meetings of Confederate veterans throughout the state. After retirement in 1903 he worked for two years to complete his Memoirs (published in 1906 and reprinted in 1968). On March 6, 1905, the "Old Roman" of Texas died of pneumonia; he was buried in Palestine. He had been married three times-in 1844 to Martha Music, who died in 1845; in 1852 to Edwina Moss Nelms, who bore six children before her death in 1863; and in 1866 to Molly Ford Taylor, who, with three of her five children, survived him.