Morris Sheppard, United States senator and champion of the Eighteenth Amendment, son of John Levi and Margaret Alice (Eddins) Sheppard, was born at the family farm near Wheatville, Morris County, Texas, on May 28, 1875. His father served in the 1880s and 1890s as a district attorney and district judge, and from 1898 to 1902 as a member of the United States House of Representatives. Morris, the oldest of seven children, was named after an ancestor of his mother's, Robert Morris, who helped finance the American Revolution and signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. After attending both public and private schools Sheppard enrolled at the University of Texas in 1891. There he excelled in a variety of academic, oratorical, and extracurricular activities. In 1895 he earned a bachelor of arts degree and registered in the university law school. While in law school in Austin, Sheppard joined the Methodist Church. After graduation in 1897 he attended Yale University and earned a master of laws degree in 1898. From that time until 1902 he practiced law in his father's firm, first in Pittsburg, Texas, and then in Texarkana. He also worked for the Woodmen of the World.
In 1902 Sheppard ran for Congress and won the seat previously held by his recently deceased father. He then journeyed to Washington to begin what became a ten-year career in the House of Representatives, most of that time in the minority Democratic party. As an admirer and friend of William Jennings Bryan, he worked unsuccessfully on legislation to insure small bank deposits, to provide other forms of low-cost credit for low-income groups, and to prohibit the shipment of alcohol into dry areas. But perhaps as important as legislation, by 1912 he established himself as a renowned orator. Whether delivering speeches to the House on subjects of political concern or traveling around the nation supporting fellow Democrats, he commanded respect as one of the most entertaining public speakers of his era. Since his seat in Congress was relatively safe, he spent election years raising money for his party and votes for his colleagues. Still another accomplishment of his time in the House was Sheppard's mastery of the tariff issue. He participated in the significant debates on the issue, in which he supported the traditional position of the Democrats-lower rates. In 1913 Sheppard collected enough support to win the United States Senate seat recently held by Joseph Weldon Bailey. From that time until 1921 he worked much more successfully than he had earlier, largely because Democrats were in the majority and Democrat Woodrow Wilson was in the White House. Sheppard consistently supported Wilson's policies on tariff reductions, on solutions to border conflicts associated with the Mexican Revolution, on war preparedness, and on the League of Nations. He also continued to sponsor progressive reform legislation promoting rural credit programs, child labor laws, and antitrust laws. Throughout this time he was also an advocate of woman suffrage. But Sheppard increasingly devoted his legislative time and talents to prohibition, an issue he had strongly promoted and been identified with since his early days in the House. In 1913 and 1914 he introduced an unsuccessful amendment to ban the sale of liquor. In March 1917 he authored an act that abolished the sale of liquor in the District of Columbia. Then on April 4, 1917, the day Congress declared war on Germany, Sheppard introduced the prohibition amendment, which was debated throughout the summer. Finally the senator negotiated a tactical move by offering to limit the time for ratification in order to get a vote on the amendment. His maneuver worked. By the end of 1917 the measure passed the House, and by 1919 the Eighteenth Amendment gained the requisite number of states for ratification. For the rest of his life, Sheppard gave an address on the anniversary of ratification.
In 1920, the same year in which prohibition went into effect, Sheppard witnessed the victory of the Republican party in the presidential race and in many of the congressional races. He continued his work, however, and achieved some success in a politically more conservative atmosphere through his membership in the nonpartisan agricultural bloc that subsequently became the progressive bloc. In a little-known but significant piece of legislation, Sheppard actually passed a reform law in 1921. The Sheppard-Towner Act provided for maternal and pediatric clinics and for an investigation of infant and maternal mortality. Although the law lapsed in 1929, the ideas found expression again in the Social Security Act of 1935. Within his own party he progressed when he gained a seat on the steering committee, and then in 1929 he became the Senate Democratic whip. In 1932 the economic crisis of the Great Depression brought significant political and social changes that affected Sheppard. His party captured both houses of Congress and put Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House. Just as Sheppard had believed that the government was obligated to protect human welfare through the Eighteenth Amendment, he now believed that government must act to preserve American institutions. He supported the president on every issue of the New Deal except the repeal of prohibition. Some Texans even criticized Sheppard for being a rubber stamp for the administration, especially when he spoke for the president regarding the attempt to pack the Supreme Court with Roosevelt nominees (seeCOURT-PACKING PLAN OF 1937). In 1934, the year in which Sheppard became the most senior member of Congress, he also added to the New Deal with a piece of his own legislation, the Federal Credit Union Act. In spite of major administration opposition, he maneuvered this law through the legislature. But in his last term in the Senate his major contributions were in the field of foreign affairs. As chairman of the Military Affairs Committee, he worked on increasing spending for defense, especially for the air force. He also supported bills to aid veterans and to increase the number of cadets at West Point. Then, in response to the war in Europe, he fought for the passage of the Selective Service Act and Lend-Lease. Soon after his work on this last measure, he suffered a brain hemorrhage, from which he died on April 9, 1941. He was survived by his wife, Lucile (Sanderson), whom he had married on December 1, 1909, and three daughters. President Roosevelt remarked that Sheppard "was my friend through many years." Later Gen. Douglas MacArthur told Mrs. Sheppard that her husband had been the first casualty of World War II.
Richard Ray Bailey, Morris Sheppard of Texas: Southern Progressive and Prohibitionist (Ph.D. dissertation, Texas Christian University, 1980). Escal F. Duke, The Political Career of Morris Sheppard, 1875–1941 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1958). Lewis L. Gould, Progressives and Prohibitionists: Texas Democrats in the Wilson Era (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973; rpt., Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1992). Lucile Sheppard Keyes, Morris Sheppard (MS, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin, 1950).
Texas in the 1920s
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
“Sheppard, John Morris,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed September 22, 2021,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.