John Henninger Reagan

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John Henninger Reagan
Born October 8, 1818,
Sevier County, Tennessee.
Died March 6, 1905,
Anderson County, Texas.

John Henninger Reagan ( October 8, 1818 – March 6, 1905), was a leading 19th-century American politician from the U.S. state of Texas. A Democrat, Reagan left the U.S. House of Representatives when his state seceded from the Union to join the Confederate States of America. During the American Civil War, he served in the cabinet of Jefferson Davis as Postmaster-General. After the Confederate defeat, he called for cooperation with the federal government and became unpopular, but returned to public office when his predictions of harsh treatment for resistance were proved correct.

He has no known relation to Ronald Reagan.

Early life

Reagan was born in Sevier County, Tennessee, to Timothy Richard and Elizabeth Lusk Reagan. (Some sources say he was born in the county seat, Sevierville.) He left Tennessee at nineteen and like many from Tennessee traveled in Texas. There he worked as a surveyor from 1839 to 1843, and afterward was a farmer in Kaufman County until 1851. He studied law on his own and was licensed to practice law in 1846, opening an office in Buffalo.

The same year he obtained his license, he was elected a probate judge in Henderson County and in 1847 he went to the state legislature but was defeated for a second term in 1849. He returned to his law practice and was elected a district judge in Palestine, serving from 1852 to 1857. His labors in defeating the American Party ( Know-Nothings) in Texas led to his election to Congress in 1857 from Texas's First District.

In Congress, he was a moderate and a supporter of the Union, but resigned from Congress on January 15, 1861 and returned to his home state when it became clear that Texas would secede. There he participated in the secession convention that met at Austin on the last day of January. The convention voted for Texas to leave the union and for Reagan to represent the state in the Provisional Confederate Congress, but within the month he was in the cabinet instead.

Civil War

President Jefferson Davis named him to head the new Confederate States of America Post-office Department and he accepted. Reagan was an able administrator, presiding over the only cabinet department that functioned well during the war. Despite the hostilities of the Civil War, the United States Post Office Department continued operations in the Confederacy until June 1, 1861, whereupon the new Confederate service assumed its functions. Reagan's masterstroke in establishing his department was sending an agent to Washington, D.C., with letters asking the heads of the United States Post Office Department's various bureaus to come work for him. Nearly all did so, bringing copies of their records, contracts, account books, etc. "Reagan in effect had stolen the U.S. Post Office," historian William C. Davis wrote. When President Davis asked his cabinet for the status of their departments, Reagan reported he had his up and running in only six weeks. Davis was amazed.

Reagan cut expenses by eliminating costly and little-used routes and forcing the railroads that carried the mail to reduce their rates. Despite the problems the war caused, his department managed to turn a profit, "the only post office department in American history to pay its own way" wrote William C. Davis.

When Davis fled Richmond on April 2, 1865, before the Army of the Potomac under George G. Meade, Reagan accompanied the president on his flight to the Carolinas. On April 27, Davis made him Secretary of the Treasury after George A. Trenholm's resignation and he served in that capacity until he, Davis, and Texas Governor Francis R. Lubbock were captured near Irwinville, Georgia on May 10.

Reagan was imprisoned with Confederate Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephens at Fort Warren in Boston. On August 11, he wrote an open letter to his fellow Texans urging cooperation with the Union, renunciation of the secession convention, the abolition of slavery, and letting freed slaves vote. He warned of military rule that would enforce these policies if Texans did not voluntarily adopt them. For this, he was denounced by Texans. He was released from prison later that year and returned home to Palestine in December.

Return to public life

Reagan would serve as chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas
Reagan would serve as chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas

To those who felt that the Reconstruction was unduly harsh, his prescience was hailed—he became known as the "Old Roman," a Texas Cincinnatus. He was part of the successful effort to remove the Republican Edmund J. Davis from the governorship in 1874, after he attempted to illegally remain in office. That year he returned to the Congressional seat he held before the war, serving from March 4, 1875 to March 3, 1887. In 1875, he served in the convention that wrote a new state constitution for Texas. In Congress, he advocated federal regulation of railroads and helped create the Interstate Commerce Commission. Though he had been elected to the Senate in 1887 (serving March 4, 1887 to June 10, 1891), he resigned to become chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas at the behest of his friend, Governor James Stephen "Jim" Hogg, chairing it until 1903.

Conscious of the importance of history, he was a founder of the Texas State Historical Association and attended reunions of Confederate veterans in his state. He wrote his Memoirs, With Special Reference to Secession and the Civil War, published in 1905, and died at his home in Palestine in Anderson County later that year, the last surviving member of the government of the Confederacy.

Historian Ben H. Procter included Reagan in his list of the "four greatest Texans of the 19th century," along with Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, and James Stephen Hogg.

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