John H. Reagan had risen through the ranks of Texas frontier politics, serving as a local judge and legislator and ultimately a member of Congress. He had fought for Texas secession and later became a member of the Confederate cabinet. But with the end of the Civil War at hand, everything he had worked for was now at stake.
By late April 1865, with the Confederacy disintegrating, Jefferson Davis named Reagan, already postmaster general of the Confederacy, as acting secretary of the treasury. By this point, the Confederate government was on the run and most Confederate military units had surrendered. He would be in charge of a treasury of now-worthless Confederate money. Within weeks, Reagan and Davis were both captured by Union troops in Georgia, along with former Texas Gov. Francis R. Lubbock, now a military aide to Davis, and sent to Ft. Warren in Boston. There Reagan was kept in solitary confinement for five months, uncertain of his fate.
While imprisoned, he read many northern newspapers and their blistering attacks on the South in the wake of the Civil War. Reagan wrote an open letter to the people of Texas urging cooperation with Reconstruction, warning that the enraged North would tolerate no resistance and would inflict even harsher penalties on the South if challenged. His letter provoked anger in a Texas humiliated by defeat. But the violence of Reconstruction, the military response, and martial law across the state later proved he was right. Reagan was later granted amnesty and returned to Texas in disgrace.
In 1874, after the chaos of Reconstruction had ended, he was elected to his old seat in Congress. While serving in Congress, Regan also served as a delegate for the new state constitutional convention. This convention produced the Texas Constitution of 1876, which is still used by the state today. Whatever actions he had committed for the Confederacy were quickly forgiven by his colleagues once he returned to Congress. He was quickly named chairman of the new post office committee and then became chair of the influential House Committee on Commerce after his 1876 re-election.
While in Congress, Reagan turned his interests to the railroad industry. Increasingly, farmers across the nation were upset with railroad monopolies and unfair hauling rates. He began pushing for legislation to regulate railroads but received strong pushback from the industry. In 1887, the state legislature elected him to the U. S. Senate, and Reagan was able to push through the Interstate Commerce Act. This legislation regulated railroad prices and practices and created the first federal regulatory body in the nation’s history.
Gov. Jim Hogg successfully pushed through a similar law in Texas in 1891, the Texas Railroad Commission. Hogg invited Reagan to serve as the first chair of the commission. Now 73, Reagan stepped down from the Senate to return to Texas to serve in this position. Reagan would continue to serve as chairman for the next 12 years.
He maintained an active interest in history and the story of his own role in the climactic events of the mid-nineteenth century. In 1897, he co-founded the Texas State Historical Association. In 1903, he published his memoirs. The state legislature also honored him by naming Reagan County after him in West Texas, near San Angelo. Later that same year, now aged 84, he retired from the railroad commission.
In March 1905, he contracted pneumonia and died at his home in Palestine at age 86. Several schools were named after him in the years after his death and a statue was erected to him at the University of Texas. The state even named an office building on the Capitol grounds after him. However, his defense of slavery and the Confederacy has led many to re-evaluate many of these honors in recent years.
Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at email@example.com.