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Like other great figures of 20th-century American politics, Lyndon Johnson defies easy understanding. An unrivaled master of vote swapping, back room deals, and election-day skulduggery, he was nevertheless an outspoken New Dealer with a genuine commitment to the poor and the underprivileged. With aides and colleagues he could be overbearing, crude, and vindictive, but at other times shy, sophisticated, and magnanimous. Perhaps columnist Russell Baker said it best: Johnson "was a character out of a Russian novel...a storm of warring human instincts: sinner and saint, buffoon and statesman, cynic and sentimentalist."
But Johnson was also a representative figure. His career speaks volumes about American politics, foreign policy, and business in the forty years after 1930. As Charles de Gaulle said when he came to JFK's funeral: Kennedy was America's mask, but this man Johnson is the country's real face.
In Lone Star Rising, Robert Dallek, winner of the prestigious Bancroft Prize for his study of Franklin D. Roosevelt, now turns to this fascinating "sinner and saint" to offer a brilliant, definitive portrait of a great American politician. Based on seven years of research in over 450 manuscript collections and oral histories, as well as numerous personal interviews, this first book in a two-volume biography follows Johnson's life from his childhood on the banks of the Pedernales to his election as vice-president under Kennedy. We see Johnson, the twenty-three-year-old aide to a pampered millionaire Representative, become a de facto Congressman, and at age twenty-eight the country's best state director of the National Youth Administration. We see Johnson, the "human dynamo," first in the House and then in the Senate, whirl his way through sixteen- and eighteen-hour days, talking, urging, demanding, reaching for influence and power, in an uncommonly successful congressional career.
Dallek pays full due to Johnson's failings—his obsession with being top dog, his willingness to cut corners, and worse, to get there— but he also illuminates Johnson's sheer brilliance as a politician, the high regard in which key members of the New Deal, including FDR, held him, and his genuine concern for minorities and the downtrodden.
No president in American history is currently less admired than Lyndon Johnson. Bitter memories of Vietnam have sent Johnson's reputation into free fall, and recent biographies have painted him as a scoundrel who did more harm than good. Lone Star Rising attempts to strike a balance. It does not neglect the tawdry side of Johnson's political career, including much that is revealed for the first time. But it also reminds us that Lyndon Johnson was a man of exceptional vision, who from early in his career worked to bring the South into the mainstream of American economic and political life, to give the disadvantaged a decent chance, and to end racial segregation for the well-being of the nation.
Robert Dalleck, winner of the prestigious Bancroft Prize, offers a brilliant portrait of one of this century's great American politicians--Lyndon Johnson. The first of a two-volume biography, Lone Star Rising deals with Johnson's childhood through his election to the Vice Presidency under Kennedy. Based on years of manuscript research, oral histories, and numerous personal interviews, this remarkable biography defines Johnson as never before--as a complex and representative figure with a penchant for both good and bad. 30 halftones.
|Introduction: LBJ in History,||3|
|Part One The Making of a Politician, 1908-1937|
|1. The Heritage,||13|
|3. Student and Teacher,||62|
|4. Kleberg's Secretary,||93|
|5. The Making of a Congressman,||125|
|Part Two The Congressman, 1937-1948|
|6. The New Dealer,||159|
|7. National Politics,||185|
|8. Politics, Patriotism, and Personal Gain,||225|
|9. The Liberal As Conservative,||268|
|10. Texas Elects a Senator,||298|
|Part Three The Senator, 1949-1954|
|11. "The Best Possible Senator for .. Texas,"||351|
|12. For Country, Party, and Self,||392|
|13. Bipartisan Politics,||426|
|Part Four The Majority Leader, 1955-1960|
|14. The Making of a Majority Leader,||467|
|15. The Liberal Nationalist,||509|
|16. The Making of a Vice President,||544|
|Abbreviations Used in Notes,||611|
From Andrew Jackson to Ronald Reagan, the image of the self-made man has effectively served occupants of the White House. All who could, made much of their rags to riches odyssey. "When I was young, poverty was so common we didn't know it had a name," Lyndon Johnson often said. A poor boy in a remote Texas town isolated from the mainstream of early twentieth-century American life, he grew up without indoor plumbing or electricity and sometimes made do on a bare subsistence diet. The rural small towns in which he received his elementary, secondary, and college schooling did little to broaden his horizons.
Yet Lyndon came to maturity believing he was special--a young man destined for exceptional things. And he was. Fueled by his early poverty, his ambition, like Lincoln's, "was a little engine that knew no rest." It helped carry him to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, the vice presidency and the White House. But ambition alone did not give him the wherewithal, the inner confidence, to imagine himself in the Congress or the Oval Office. His family history gave initial stirrings to such dreams. In one of the many paradoxes that would shape his life, Lyndon was not simply an impoverished farm boy who made good, but the offspring of prominent southern families. Although he suffered painful self-doubts throughout his life, his heritage was a constant source of belief in a birthright to govern and lead. Stories told by his parents and grandparents about famous, influential ancestors were a mainstay of his early years. From the first, he thought of himself not as a poor boy consigned to a life of hardship, but as an heir of Johnsons and Buntons, Baineses and Huffmans, men and women who commanded the respect of their contemporaries and shaped public affairs.
A Texas journalist remembers how Lyndon "reveled in stories of Johnsons and Baineses who'd fought marauding Indians, of old uncles who drove cattle up the famous trails, of a hardy pioneer spirit in his genes. `Listen, goddammit,' he once said, `my ancestors were teachers and lawyers and college presidents and governors when the Kennedys in this country were still tending bar.'"
First there were the Johnsons. They had apparently migrated from England to Georgia, where John Johnson, Lyndon's great-great-grandfather, lived in Oglethorpe County in 1795 after service in the Revolutionary War as a teenager. At his death in 1828, John Johnson owned a few hundred acres in three different counties and two female slaves he bequeathed to his heirs. Jesse Johnson, John's fourth child and Lyndon's great-grandfather, was part of the mass nineteenth-century American migration west. After the War of 1812 he was one of the first settlers in Henry County in western Georgia, where he farmed for some twenty years and served as a sheriff and a judge. In 1838, however, he moved his family further west to Randolph County, Alabama. He prospered there as a businessman and acquired seventeen slaves. But in 1846 after Texas had entered the Union, Jesse joined the flood of southern migrants from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee drawn by the lure of fertile cheap land in the Lone Star state. Jesse led his wife, eight of his ten children, four grandchildren, and several slaves in covered wagons across Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and east Texas, nearly 900 miles over rutted roads and rushing rivers, to Lockhart in Caldwell County in the plains southeast of Austin. There, during the remaining ten years of his life, he acquired 330 acres of land valued at $2000 and another $740 in cattle, horses, oxen, and household goods, $525 less than the claims later made by creditors on his estate.
If Jesse Johnson did not exactly prosper in Texas, his sons fared somewhat better. Andrew Jackson Johnson, Jesse Thomas Johnson, Lyndon's great uncles, and Sam Ealy Johnson, Lyndon's grandfather, migrated to Blanco County in the Hill Country west of Austin. A frontier in the late 1850s with a population of fewer than two thousand, principally Germans and Mormons, the area was notable for its infertile soil, low rainfall, springtime flooding by the Pedernales and Blanco rivers, and hostile Apache and Comanche Indians. The lure of the Hill Country for the Johnson brothers was "stock raising," the hope of making a fortune in the cattle business. The principal feature of the area then was its miles and miles of grass, "grass knee high," "grass as high as my stirrups," as two of its early settlers described it. But it was grass that had grown up over centuries on "a narrow, thin, layer of soil atop ... limestone," and if initially the Hill Country was ideal pasture land, it would not be so for long. In the forty years after 1860, huge herds of cattle transformed the landscape. Eating the grass faster than it could grow, the stock left the land with nothing to anchor its top soil. And when periodic drenching rains washed it away, scrub brush sprang up in its place, making the hills and valleys unsuitable for grazing or agriculture of any kind.
When Jack, the oldest of the Johnson brothers, came to Blanco County in 1859, however, the region seemed like a farmer's paradise, a lush grassland where everything would grow. Settling on the north side of the Pedernales about four miles northeast of the present Johnson City, he lived there for six years, prospering as a cattle supplier for the Confederacy during the Civil War. His younger brother Tom also came to Blanco County during the war. After serving briefly in the Texas State Troops in 1864, he acquired a 320-acre spread on the Pedernales, where he began raising livestock.
Sam, the youngest of the brothers, enlisted in a cavalry regiment at the age of twenty-two in 1861 and served as a private throughout the war. In 1862-63 he participated in the successful defense of Galveston Island in the Gulf of Mexico, and in the spring of 1864 he saw action in the Red River campaign, the unsuccessful attempt by Union troops to force their way up the Red River Valley, capture Shreveport, Louisiana, and carry the war into Texas. At the battle of Pleasant Hill, northwest of Natchitoches, Sam Johnson had his horse shot out from under him by Union artillery, and the 26th Texas Cavalry lost one-third of its men. Seeing "men and horses shot in every conceivable way," carrying a wounded comrade on his back from the battlefield, and holding wounded soldiers immobile during amputations, Sam Johnson never forgot what the regimental chaplain described as the "unutterable hardships and, suffering ... hunger, sickness, and unbearable toils" of the fighting in the western Louisiana parishes along the Red River.
At the end of the war in 1865, Sam Johnson took up residence with his brother Tom in a log ranch house on the 320-acre spread. Circumstances now favored them as they never would again. During the war the cattle running free on the range had greatly multiplied--not only in number but also in value. A growing population in the north had increased the demand for beef. When the railroad reached Sedalia, Missouri, in 1866 and then Abilene, Kansas, in 1867, it provided a reliable means of getting livestock to the east, so the market for longhorn steers boomed. Two-dollar-a-head cattle in Texas sold for $10 in Sedalia the year after the war, and in 1867 four-dollar Texas steers brought between $40 and $50 in Abilene.
The Johnson brothers aggressively joined the cattle drives north. In the years between 1867 and 1870 they made four annual five-week treks of over 600 miles along the Chisholm Trail to Abilene. Each foray was more successful than the last: despite rainstorms, stampedes, quicksand, cattle rustlers, and outlaws, the Johnsons made huge profits. By 1870 they had become the most successful trail drivers operating in Blanco, Gillespie, Llano, Hays, Comal and Kendall Counties. That year they drove 7000 cattle to market and returned home with $100,000 in $20 gold coins stuffed in saddlebags. Flushed with success, they spent their money freely, paying some of their creditors more than they were owed, and buying thousands of acres of ranch land in Blanco, Hays, and Gillespie counties and real estate in Fredericksburg and Austin. In 1871, Tom Johnson was worth almost $17,000, making him the second largest taxpayer and property owner in Blanco County. Sam, with $15,000 in assessed value, was not far behind.
But the good times were short-lived. When the Johnsons broke camp in 1871, they headed up the trail with about 10,000 head, most purchased on credit. As in past years, the journey to Kansas was difficult--eighteen-hour days, a scarcity of water, stampedes and sleepless nights dogged them and the sixteen cowboys making the drive. But the difference this time was a glut of cattle, twice as many as had been sent up the Chisholm Trail in 1870 and four times the number driven to market in 1869, a total of perhaps 700,000. "There are not only cattle `on a thousand hills' but a thousand cattle on one and every hill," a newspaper recorded. The result was financial disaster for the Johnsons, who sold their cattle for well below what they hoped to get. As a consequence, they could not meet their debts at home and had to sell off most of the land they had bought in the preceding five years. The following year was no better. Although sending a smaller herd to market, they suffered fresh losses. A terrible drought in the summer of 1872 coupled with a Comanche raid that cost the Johnsons between 250 and 300 horses worth about $20,000 broke their financial resources. The Blanco County property rolls for 1873 show Tom Johnson with holdings of only $180, and Sam Johnson not even on the rolls. In 1872 or 1873, Sam left the Pedernales for Lockhart and then Buda, just south of Austin, where, with his father-in-law's help, he bought a farm.
Sam Ealy Johnson's in-laws were the Buntons, a family whose lustre shone more brightly than the Johnsons' and whose record of public service and political prominence was an even greater source of Lyndon's belief in his suitability for high public office. According to family lore, the line began in fourteenth-century Scotland, where several generations served in the Scottish Parliament. The first of the American Buntons was John Buntine I, who migrated to Rowan County, North Carolina, in 1758. He and three sons, John II, Robert, and James, were believed to have served in the Revolutionary War. In 1800, John II settled in Sumner County, Tennessee. His son Joseph Robert Bunton, Lyndon's great-great-grandfather, married Phoebe Ann Desha, a descendant of French Huguenots who had migrated to Pennsylvania and then Tennessee. Her brother Joseph Desha was a congressman from Kentucky for thirteen years, 1806-19, and governor of the state from 1824 to 1828. Another brother, Robert, was a congressman from Tennessee for four years, 1827-31.
The first of the Texas Buntons was John Wheeler Bunton, Joseph and Phoebe's son and Lyndon's great-great uncle. Arriving in Texas from Tennessee in 1833, John Wheeler was a central figure in the fight for independence from Mexico. Standing six feet four inches in height and holding a college degree and some training in the law, Bunton was an imposing figure, physically and intellectually. After participating in the successful siege of San Antonio in December 1835, he served as a delegate to the constitutional convention of March 1836, where he signed the Texas Declaration of Independence and was a member of the committee that wrote a constitution for the new republic. When the convention adjourned in late March, he rejoined the army and three weeks later fought in the decisive battle of San Jacinto. His "towering form could be seen amidst the thickest of the fight. He penetrated so far into the ranks of the defenders of the breastworks that it is miraculous that he was not killed. But he came out of the deadly conflict unscathed." In the painting, The Surrender of Santa Anna, which hangs in the Texas date capitol, John Wheeler Bunton is portrayed observing the event. Elected twice to the Congress of the new country, Bunton wrote the bill that established the Texas Rangers. But for unknown reasons he quit politics in the early 1840s and lived the rest of his life as a rancher and cotton planter in Bastrop and Hays counties, just east of the Hill Country. In the latter he built a traditional Old South mansion--a two-story house with white verandas attended by slaves and surrounded by cotton fields and pastures.
Robert Holmes Bunton, John's younger brother and Lyndon's great-grandfather, did not leave Kentucky for Texas until 1858, when he was already forty years old. Like John, Robert was "a large impressive man, standing six feet and three inches in height and weighing about two hundred and sixty pounds.... A handsome man with fair skin, coalblack hair, and piercing black eyes," he was also "an excellent conversationalist" who was remembered best for his discourses on government and politics. After serving for four years in the Civil War, during which he won a battlefield commission as a lieutenant, Robert, like Tom and Sam Johnson, made and lost a small fortune in the cattle business. Unlike the Johnson brothers, however, Robert Bunton was a shrewd businessman who staved off ruin in the declining cattle market. Instead of continuing to raise stock for which there was little demand, he rented his pastures in Lockhart to cattlemen from south Texas who needed feeding and resting grounds for the herds they were driving north to Abelene. As a consequence, he survived the downturn of the early seventies and had enough money to help stake his daughter, Eliza Bunton, and her husband, Sam Ealy Johnson, to the farm at Buda.
Eliza Bunton, Lyndon's grandmother, was eighteen when she married Sam Johnson in December 1867 and moved to the Pedernales. She was a beautiful young woman with "patrician bearing, high-bred features, raven hair, piercing black eyes, and magnolia-white skin." She took great pride in her family and loved to talk about her famous relatives--John Wheeler Bunton, Governor Joseph Desha of Kentucky, a cousin, Mary Desha, co-founder of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and her brother Joe in the Texas Rangers. She often reminded her children to be worthy of their heritage, and through her own life gave them an example with which they could identify. A "heroine" of the southwest Texas highlands, a "leading pioneer" woman, Eliza Johnson accompanied her husband on the trying cattle drives north and conquered the terrors of the frontier. Living in near isolation in a drafty log cabin in which she cooked and baked in a Texas skillet, a boiling pot hung over a fireplace, she hauled water and firewood, canned fruits and vegetables, washed, sewed, and made her own soap in an almost endless round of work days. "This life," one historian records, "was hardy, dirty, terribly monotonous, lonely, and damagingly narrow.... Few of the Americans who later eulogized it would care to relive it."
In the six or seven years after the Civil War, it was also full of danger. In the summer of 1869, Tom and Eliza Felps of Blanco County, a young couple, were abducted and killed by Comanches. Tom was "shot, stabbed, and stripped of his clothes. Eliza Felps lay naked, the shaft of an arrow protruding from her breast. She had been scalped while still alive, but had managed to crawl some distance before dying." Sam Johnson rode with the posse that unsuccessfully chased the Indians. Eliza Johnson almost suffered a similar fate. One day while Sam was gone, Eliza sighted a party of Comanches riding toward her through the mesquite. Racing to the cabin before they detected her, she took refuge with her baby daughter, Mary, in a cellar beneath a trap door. Using a stick pushed through a crack to pull a braided rug over her hiding place, she tied a dirty diaper over the baby's mouth to keep her from crying. The Indians ransacked the cabin and stole horses from the barn before riding off. Eliza waited in the cellar until Sam returned home that night.
The sixteen years beginning in 1873 that Sam and Eliza lived on the plains in Buda east of the Hill Country were less eventful. They were also a time of economic austerity when Sam barely made a living as a farmer. By 1880 he and Eliza had managed to acquire over 800 acres in property valued at $3000 and livestock worth $500. But they had only 100 acres under cultivation; the annual yield was a mere 200 bushels of corn, 100 bushels of oats, 250 bushels of wheat, and 4 bales of cotton, all worth just $560. Paying a hired hand $200, Sam and Eliza had only $360 left to support their family, which now consisted of six children. Failing to prosper at Buda and eager to return to the Hill Country, Sam and Eliza put a down payment on a 950-acre spread along the Pedernales near Stonewall in Gillespie County in 1882. The new farm was only twelve miles from their old ranch, which had been bought by James Polk Johnson, Sam's nephew, who in 1879 laid out the town of Johnson City near its site. Eliza raised the money for the new place by selling a silver-mounted carriage and matched span of horses, which had been given to her by Sam's brother Tom as a wedding present. During the next six years the Johnsons sold off all their property in Buda. In 1889, after Sam had an altercation with a local troublemaker who had killed number of people and now threatened him with a similar fate, he and Eliza returned with eight of their nine children to the Pedernales in Sam's beloved "mountains."
Although they remained there for more than twenty-five years, the rest of their lives, it was never easy. Like their neighbors, they were subsistence farmers living with a minimum of the physical comforts other Americans had begun to enjoy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. To make a go of it, they mortgaged 600 acres of the farm and sold another 160 acres of it during the next twelve years. The money from the mortgage was apparently used to help build a house, outhouses, barn, smokehouse, cistern, and corrals and dig a well. Later, another house, barn, and well were added to the property some 500 yards away, where Sam's daughter Frank and her husband Clarence Martin lived for a number of years. The houses, as one writer describes them, were little more than "shanties" connected by a "dog-run," the open corridor between two cabins connected by a sagging roof in which animals relieved themselves. A poorly constructed front porch surrounded by a dirt yard that was spotted with tufts of grass and weeds and fenced by barbed wire completed the picture of the Johnson living quarters.
On 170 acres, which Sam brought under cultivation, he raised corn, wheat, and cotton, the latter being his cash crop used to purchase "staples," which were stored in the smokehouse. Except for these "staples," the farm was self-sufficient, yielding potatoes, cabbages, turnips, beans, watermelons, and peaches. Several times a year "the family butchered holes. Bacon and hams were cured and hung in the smokehouse, while lard was rendered and sausage made and stored." There was enough to eat, but, as one of Sam's contemporaries recalled, "there was no money, and you had a hard time getting by." If cotton prices fell or you had a poor crop, there was not enough cash to buy seed and supplies and pay the mortgage and taxes. The only alternative was to go deeper into debt or lose your land, which occurred anyway if additional poor years forced you to the end of your credit. Happily for Sam, this did not happen to him, but, as one of Lyndon's biographers, concludes, "the Johnsons arrived back on the Pedernales poor, and lived there almost thirty years- during which they grew poorer."
Sam Johnson may have been poor but he was never defeated by his poverty. He is recalled as being gregarious, a participant in all the neighborly gatherings, where he "met his friends with a handshake, friendly greetings and a hearty resounding laugh." He was widely known for his hospitality and eagerness for conversation about serious issues, philosophy, politics, and theology. "He encouraged his children to engage in games that required them to think, such as dominoes, hearts, pitch, and whist." He laid great value on the power of reason, the ability to persuade others with the written and spoken word. He loved a good debate and could be moved by a cogent argument. When a Christadelphian minister bested the local Baptist preacher in an all-day debate about the Bible, Sam quit the Baptist church and became a Christadelphian. On matters of religion, however, he was not a strict rationalist. He once knocked one of his sons across the room for belittling the Scriptures.
Politics as well could arouse his passions. He had an intense interest in current events and would ford the Pedernales every other day to get an Austin newspaper mailed to him in Stonewall. His sense of injustice about the plight of Texas farmers moved him to join the Texas People's party, which had been formed in 1891. Like other Populists, he worried about farmers losing their land. People in Blanco County remembered the sign on an abandoned farmhouse in the drought year of 1886: "200 miles to the nearest post office; 100 miles to wood; 20 miles to water, 6 inches to hell. God bless our home! Gone to live with the wife's folks." To aid farmers who clung to the land, Sam advocated a government program which would help tenants buy their farms. Because he felt so strongly about the issue, he ran for the state legislature in 1892 as a Populist. His opponent in the campaign was Clarence Martin, his son-in-law, who ran as a Democrat. Riding together to a speaking, Sam would cuss Clarence as "a reactionary so-and-so" and Clarence would call Sam a wild radical. Afterward, they would "get back on the double buggy on the front seat and ride to the next speaking." Enraged by the "enemies" of the farmer--railroads, bankers, and conservative gold or tight-money Democrats like former President Grover Cleveland, who was trying to regain the White House in 1892--Sam warned voters that a Populist defeat would mean civil war and declared that Cleveland "ought to be hung." Although Populist candidates for governor and lieutenant-governor carried the Hill Country, they lost the statewide elections. Clarence, moreover, defeated Sam two-to-one. If he were discouraged, Sam didn't give up hope. He maintained a keen interest in politics, which he passed along to his oldest son, Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., who twelve years later won the seat his father had sought in the state legislature.
Sam, Sr., and Eliza had nine children. The first four born between 1868 and 1875 were girls. Although Sam called them "the four prettiest little girls in ten counties," he longed for a son and greatly resented being called "Gal Johnson" by neighbors poking fun at him. He was apparently so frustrated by the birth of a second daughter in 1870 that he named her Frank. The arrival of Sam Ealy, Jr., on October 11, 1877, therefore, filled the parents with joy. Each took special pride in the boy. Eliza focused on the Bunton in him--dark eyes, black curls, and "magnolia-white" skin. She also saw evidence of the Deshas in his "quick mind, keen perception, and ... amazing memory." As a pre-schooler, he astounded an older sister by repeating a poem of thirty-two verses she had been memorizing for a school recital.
Sam treated his son as all his own. He not only named him Sam but also dressed him as nearly as possible like himself and took Sam, Jr., with him whenever possible. Growing tall, six feet, one inch, with a large nose, "thick, bushy, black eyebrows ... piercing eyes," "enormous ears ... and a habit of pulling in his chin until it almost disappeared inside his collar," "Little Sam," as people came to call him, may have resembled the Buntons, but he was "Big" Sam's son. He was gregarious, friendly, outgoing. He "was the cowboy type, a little on the rough side, but he had good principles.... He shouted slogans when he talked." Most of all, he was fiercely competitive with an urge to dominate people. As a boy, he needed to "ride faster; plow longer, straighter rows; and pick more cotton than his companions." He "was a very persuasive man"; Congressman Wright Patman, who served with him in the Texas House of Representatives, recalled, "he would get right up to you, nose to nose, and take a firm hold."
His ambition and drive were evident in his struggle to gain an education. His parents could ill afford to send him to the one-room schoolhouse in Johnson City. Not only did they need his help on the farm but they lacked the small tuition fee required to attend the public school. "Once his father gave him some cattle, saying, `This is all I can do on your schooling this year.'" Undaunted, "Little Sam" "turned butcher, slaughtered and cut up a steer and sold steaks and soupbones to tide him over until the next `butchering day.'" He also took up barbering. When the town barber became ill and had to retire, he bought his barber chair and tools on credit, and after practicing on friends, began giving haircuts on Saturdays and after school. Before he could finish high school, however, he was stricken by what the family called "indigestion," or some kind of nervous condition. To cure his ills, he was sent to rest on a ranch near Marfa in southwest Texas owned by Lucius Desha Bunton, his mother's younger brother. There is no record of his few months there, but when he returned to Stonewall, it was with a determination to become a schoolteacher and self-supporting. Since he had not earned a high school diploma and had no prospect of getting to a teachers' college, he set his sights on passing a state-certification exam. With thirteen books needed to prepare him in the academic subjects covered in the exam, "a bottle of pepsin pills and a sack of dried fruit (doctor's recommendation)," he took up residence with grandmother Jane Bunton, a former schoolteacher, who tutored her favorite grandson "Sammie." After only a few weeks of intensive preparation he passed the exam, scoring grades of 100 percent on the Texas and United States history sections.
His teaching career was short-lived. In the fall of 1896, at the age of nineteen, he took a job in the small Hill Country community of Sandy, where he taught in a typical one-room, rural Texas school "with pupils of all sizes and ages, some older and larger than he." A second year in a school near Hye, a hamlet between Stonewall and Johnson City, persuaded him that teaching would barely allow him to earn his keep. His only strong memory of this period was of sitting around the fire in a boarding house listening to Captain Rufus Perry describe his experiences as an Indian fighter and Texas Ranger.
In 1898, at the age of twenty-one, he returned to Stonewall, where he rented his father's farm and lived in his parents' house. For several years he enjoyed considerable success. Mild weather, good crops, and high cotton prices allowed him to accumulate some money, which he used to hire farmhands and successfully speculate in cotton futures. People remember him at this time as self-confident, even arrogant, with an "air of command." Like "all the Johnsons," he "strutted." And he dressed differently from the other farmers, more formally, often in the evenings wearing a suit and tie with attractive boots and hat and riding a well-groomed horse. His best friends were not local farmers and townsfolk but two "lawyers of statewide repute" and a "brilliant" engineer who would sometimes visit him at the farm.
Sam, Jr., wanted to be more than a farmer. And Clarence Martin, his brother-in-law, who had defeated Sam, Sr., for the seat in the Texas House, encouraged him. After studying law and serving as a justice of the peace in Blanco and as a state legislator, Martin became a district judge in Gillespie County. At Martin's suggestion, Sam, Jr., ran successfully for justice of the peace in 1902. For two years he "married more boys and girls than any pastor in Gillespie County because he just charged $5."
In 1904, Sam, Jr., ran for the 89th District seat in the Texas House of Representatives that Martin had held from 1893 to 1895. By an unwritten rotation rule, the four counties making up the district took turns sending men to fill the seat. Since a Gillespie County man was slated to have the job from 1905 to 1907, Martin urged Sam, Jr., to stand for the position. Although he had some doubts about his suitability for the office, he ran anyway. Many persons consider it "in the nature of a joke to become a candidate and to be elected as a member of the Legislature," he announced in a campaign speech, but he viewed it as a serious undertaking. He also felt that his determination to speak for the people against the interests made him worthy of the office. Like his father before him, he saw an apocalyptic struggle between democracy and corporate power. The issue in the election, he said, was "whether the principles and tradition of a Republic shall be longer perpetuated, or whether we shall meekly surrender to the great trust combines the interests of the nation."
Winning the Democratic primary and then three of the four counties in the general election, Sam went to Austin ready to do battle with the state's conservative business and financial interests. Although he found ample opportunity to vote with a minority of "agrarian liberals" supporting unsuccessful bills to tax insurance, telephone, and sleeping and dining car companies, to regulate rates charged by public utilities, to establish a pure-food standard, to levy a franchise tax on corporations, to create a juvenile court system in the state, and to give railroad workers an eight-hour day, he quickly established himself as a practical legislator guiding less dramatic bills through the House. The architect of measures to purchase and restore the historic Alamo Mission in San Antonio, to bar brutal calf-roping contests, and to exempt Blanco County from paying a bounty on every wolf shot, a charge that would have worked financial hardship on the county, Sam Johnson was described by a newspaper as one of the few legislators "who did not fail on a single measure." His political astuteness was also reflected in the fact that the 1907 legislative session, responding to a rising tide of progressism in the state, passed some of the reform legislation Sam favored. When Sam decided to break the rotation tradition by standing for a second term, he gained widespread support from local Hill Country newspapers and won the Democratic primary by such large margins in all four counties that he ran unopposed in the general election of 1906.