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“Almost a Populist”: Texas, the South, and the Rise of Lyndon Baines Johnson

From: Southwestern Historical Quarterly
Volume 117, Number 3, January 2014
pp. 236-265 | 10.1353/swh.2014.0017

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A young Lyndon Baines Johnson.

LBJ Library, photographer unknown.

Three noteworthy events transpired in Texas on August 27, 1908. One attracted little attention: the birth of Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) in Stonewall, a desolate farming community in the Hill Country of Central Texas. Two others, however, generated more interest. That same day, the Dallas-based National Farmers Union released a statement demanding the state criminalize the use of New York Cotton Exchange prices as a basis for cotton sales. These prices, National Farmers Union officials claimed, were fraudulent and exploitative, established to allow wealthy investors from the North to profit through speculation while the small farmers of the South suffered. Later that afternoon, the Interstate Commerce Commission ruled in favor of a group of Texas ranchers that had complained of the excessively high prices charged by railroads, most of which had out-of-state owners. The ranchers’ complaint, reveal-ingly, not only cited egregious rate increases but alleged a larger “conspiracy” that denied them fair access to the market and feathered the nests of the wealthy.

In the long run, neither of these complaints had long-term consequences. Yet, they do speak volumes about the world that welcomed Lyndon Johnson on the day of his birth. For in this world, poor farmers, ranchers, and laborers not only struggled financially but also struggled against what they perceived as the outside forces of capital and big business that, with the sanction of the federal government, were intent on exploiting the common man for their own economic gain and treated the people left in their wake with contempt if they bothered to notice them at all. Johnson’s formative years were thus marked by exposure to a set of assumptions, and to the lives that underlay them, that would shape his political career from its humble beginnings as a congressional assistant in 1931 to his years in the White House. One journalist, a Texan who followed Johnson throughout his long political career, spelled it out clearly: “He had a real thing about the poor, most of all about education. He was almost fanatical about education, about medical care. He was an old-fashioned, almost a Populist, in the domestic field.”

Scholars seeking to understand Johnson’s political worldview and subsequent policies thus should start by returning to the politics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century South, specifically to the Populist movement, where the guiding principles and beliefs of the future president were established. Numerous books have, of course, recognized the importance of LBJ’s southern heritage on his later political years, but their focus has rarely been on populism and its deeply-rooted suspicions of modern America. The first volume of Robert Caro’s work on Johnson does emphasize the importance of populism on Johnson’s upbringing, but it does so largely to draw a contrast between Caro’s scheming and selfish LBJ, who had no genuine concern with the common people, and his father, grandfather, and others from Lyndon’s past who truly championed them. LBJ, in this account, might have been surrounded by populism but it made no real impact on him or his later political career, in stark contrast to the more principled members of his community and family. Paul Conkin’s Big Daddy from the Pedernales offers an opposite approach; this LBJ was a genuine product of his southern environment, but this “southerness” affected his personal qualities—the sense of inferiority, the views about women, the brashness and boastfulness that concealed his many insecurities, his need to prove himself to those from more established backgrounds, and more—rather than his political values; the word “populism” or even “farmers” appears nowhere in the index of the book. Robert Dallek’s portrayal notes the influence of Johnson’s background in southern poverty but sees his political career as an effort to eradicate that poverty by bringing the South (and the disadvantaged overall) into the mainstream of American life. This Johnson thus emerged from his childhood embracing modern American society but largely free of the skepticism about it that had marked the Populist movement; again, the word “populism” appears almost nowhere in Dallek’s lengthy first...

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