Our Fighting Governor: The Life of Thomas M. Campbell and the Politics of Progressive Reform in Texas by Janet Schmelzer
For a brief moment early in the twentieth century—the Progressive Era—there was a time in Texas when politics were competitive and liberal reform was a viable option. Southern Progressivism that accentuated political and economic reform over social issues was popular in the state. Thomas M. Campbell served as Texas’s governor during that era, from 1907 to 1911. He is generally considered the best example of a Progressive governor in Texas and was probably the state’s most effective reformer. Nevertheless, Campbell’s predecessor, James S. Hogg, is popularly associated with reform in Texas. Considering that Texans have mostly forgotten their state’s liberal past along with Campbell’s many political reforms, this work by Janet Schmelzer is long overdue.
Campbell was born in Rusk in 1856 and was a childhood friend of Hogg, who became both an influence on and benefactor to him. By 1884, Campbell was a successful lawyer in Longview with a reputation as an expert on civil and criminal statutes. It was his skill as a lawyer and familiarity with the International and Great Northern Railroad (IGN), and his friendship with Hogg, that propelled Campbell into the public eye. The IGN, owned by Jay Gould, was in danger of being taken over by the Kansas, Missouri and Texas Railroad. To avoid this, Gould forced the IGN into receivership. Hogg suggested Campbell as the receiver for the IGN, and the judge administering the receivership agreed. Campbell fended off Gould, ran the railroad efficiently, and even increased profits by 67 percent. Ultimately, Gould sued to regain control of the IGN in a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the validity of the Texas Railroad Commission. This experience cemented Campbell’s reputation as an legal expert and a Progressive.
The IGN experience also contributed to Campbell’s viability as a political candidate. Democrats groomed him for great things. In 1896, Campbell served on the platform committee that approved planks endorsing free silver, an income tax, the railroad commission, and William J. Bryan—co-opting the People’s Party. Campbell’s name was subsequently mentioned for various government posts. In 1906, he ran for governor and won. Schmelzer writes, “Campbell’s victory represented a major step [End Page 92] forward for southern progressivism in Texas” and his platform “stood as the strongest statement of progressive ideals to that time” (52). Campbell as governor pushed legislation that regulated the lumber, beef, and oil industries. He opposed legislation that allowed consolidation of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe and some smaller railroads, asserting it would create a monopoly. When the bill passed, Campbell issued a 5,000-word veto message. He also revamped public school funding, championing legislation to allow districts to levy school taxes.
Campbell was a typical Southern Progressive, but he proved more effective than most. He was not proactive on racial issues, holding the standard paternal, if not outright racist, ideals. Nevertheless, he reformed government, education, and industry, and he was truly a trustbuster. More importantly, he did all of that and was a Texan.