The current occupant of the White House isn't the only Reagan to spend a little time in this town. About a hundred years ago, John Henninger Reagan, a businessman-lawyer-politician from Texas, made a name for himself in Washington. Although John and Ronald Reagan were products of different worlds, there are some eerie similarities in their lives.
The first Reagan was born in Tennessee in 1818, the son of very poor parents. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps, working on a farm as a youngster for $9 a month. Reagan paid for his schooling by working other jobs after school and on weekends. His good business sense attracted the attention of one of his employers, and Reagan became the manager of some flour and saw mills, making enough money to venture to college.
He also decided to venture to Texas, which in the 1840s was what California would be in the 20th century for rising and leading men. Reagan soon prospered in a variety of roles: he seemed to like best being cast as a politician, accepting a seat in the Texas legislature in 1847 and in the U.S. House of Representatives 10 years later.
When the Civil War broke out, Reagan remained true to his state and became involved in the politics of the secessionist South. He served as postmaster general of the Confederacy, making the mails self-supporting as time went on. And he even became secretary of the treasury for a short time during the closing days of the war.
When he was captured and sent along with other Confederate officials to Fort Warren in Boston harbor in 1865, he became a sort of celebrity in his home state. In the limelight, however, he put his foot in his mouth on one occasion. He wrote what was dubbed the Fort Warren letter to the people of Texas, designed to move his state to accept defeat in the war and to begin the task of cooperation and renewal. But the people down home didn't like what he said or meant to say.
Then when Reagan finally returned to Texas, he had the Palestine problem before him. Palestine was his home town, which had largely been destroyed in the war. Should he leave Palestine or attempt to share the task of rebuilding and partitioning with his neighbors? He chose the latter, keeping a low profile until 1874, when he was again elected as a U.S. representative.
For the next dozen years Reagan rose in Washington's political circles, becoming a senator in 1889. He was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee for a while, but it was as chairman of the House Commerce Committee that Reagan carved his name in history. For 10 years he introduced a bill dealing with railroads that finally became law in 1887: the Interstate Commerce Act. This act established the first federal regulatory agency, and Reagan, you might say, was its architect.
But he also was a strong believer in states rights, so much so that he resigned his Senate seat in 1891 to work on behalf of regulating the railroads in his own state, where he felt the most significant control could be exerted. Thus his last public service was as chairman of the Texas railroad commission.
One final point. During his long tenure on Capitol Hill, Reagan was identified with three other political objectives: lower tariffs, development of private commerce and economy in government.