Judge Mansfield of Texas

By Ray Hill
Joseph Jefferson Mansfield was originally christened “Beauregard” but as his father, born in 1807, died fighting for the Confederacy the younger Mansfield’s name was changed to honor his late father.  A slight man with a full head of hair, Mansfield wore a mustache.  Mild-mannered, pleasant and courteous, J. J. Mansfield amply demonstrated throughout his life he could be highly determined.  In 1921, Mansfield fell ill with what was likely polio, although some sources indicated he had suffered a stroke.  After being bedridden, Mansfield became paralyzed in his lower extremities for the rest of his life.  Bound to a wheelchair, Joseph Mansfield wheeled himself throughout the Capitol to attend committee meetings and the sessions of the House of Representatives.  Oftentimes the House Pages could be seen pushing Mansfield and his wheelchair from the Capitol back to his office in the Cannon House Office Building.  In one oral history, Glenn Rupp, a former page, recalled how he and other pages would push Judge Mansfield through the tunnel from the Capitol to the House Office Building and up the elevators.  “And sometimes we’d get a call to pick him up, and he was kind of generous; every once in a while, he slipped us a dime,” Rupp remembered.  “He was always grateful.

“And we were glad to do it, whether he tipped us or not,” Rupp added.

Judge Mansfield was impossible to miss while attending sessions of the House as his wheelchair was usually stationed right below the Speaker’s rostrum.

Mansfield climbed the political ladder throughout his life, serving for 60 years in various offices.  Stints as mayor, county attorney and county judge, where Mansfield was also in effect, the superintendent of schools, prepared him to run for Congress, which he did in 1916 and was elected.  Good constituent service and the loyalty of his friends kept Joseph J. Mansfield in Congress for the remainder of his life.  Like several of his contemporaries in the House of Representatives, Mansfield was usually referred to as “Judge” from his time as the county judge of Colorado County.

Judge Mansfield represented one of the wealthiest districts in Texas, the coastal area, which included the city of Galveston.  Mansfield had not been born in Texas, but rather in Virginia in what later became Wayne, West Virginia.  Joseph Mansfield came to Texas because of a land grant his late father had received from the Mexican government.  Mansfield was a highly industrious man, organizing two companies for the Texas National Guard, passing the Texas Bar exam, and starting a newspaper in his hometown of Eagle Lake all in 1886.  Three years later, Mansfield was elected mayor.

The congressman from the Ninth District of Texas was George F. Burgess, who had first been elected in 1900.  Burgess sought reelection and faced Judge Mansfield in the Democratic primary.  Despite a glitch in the printing of a ballot, which severely hampered Mansfield’s campaign in one county, the Judge nudged past Congressman Burgess to win the Democratic nomination.  Upon winning the Democratic primary, Mansfield sought to heal any wounds left by the bruising contest by publishing a letter thanking his supporters.  The Judge offered an olive branch to those who had not supported him, writing, “It shall be my purpose to represent fairly every section, class and interest in the Ninth congressional district, and without axes to grind, or enemies to punish.”

The 56-year-old Mansfield took his seat in the House of Representatives on March 4, 1917.  For the next thirty years, the people of the Ninth District of Texas would keep Joseph J. Mansfield in Congress.  Some had derisively noted Congress was the South’s revenge for the Civil War, as the South tended to reelect its congressman and senators, who grew in influence as they grew in seniority.  By the time the Democrats gained a majority in Congress in 1931, Joseph J. Mansfield became chairman of the House Committee on Rivers and Harbors.  Likely sounding rather innocuous to the average person, it was the ideal committee for a congressman representing coastal Texas to serve on, much less chair.  That chairmanship aided Mansfield politically and made him invaluable to the people of his district.

That committee assignment also won Mansfield a friend in James Stout of New York, an expert in shipping and navigation.  For years, Stout visited Washington, D.C., every weekend where he could be found in Mansfield’s office where the two men played chess.

After his initial race against Congressman Burgess, Mansfield faced no opposition or no serious opponent inside the only election that mattered in the Ninth District, the Democratic primary, from 1918 through 1938.  The decade of the 1940s saw a series of challenges to the aging incumbent.  The personification of that opposition came in the form of Louis J. Sulak, a businessman, politician and gentleman who had been appointed to the Board of Regents of the University of Texas by Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson in 1932.  That appointment apparently fueled Sulak’s political ambitions and two years later he ran for and won a seat in the Texas State Senate.  An immigrant, Sulak was lauded by his colleagues on the Board of Regents when he resigned before taking the oath of office as a state senator, for his “admirable control of both the English and Czech languages and with equal facility and ease edits a bilingual” newspaper.

Forty-five years old in 1940, Sulak evidently wanted a seat in the U. S. House of Representatives and challenged Congressman Mansfield inside the Democratic primary.  As is always the case with an aging incumbent, Sulak tried to contrast his own vigor and relative youthfulness with the 79-year-old Mansfield.  Judge Mansfield naturally stressed his value to the people of the Ninth District and his chairmanship of the House Committee on Rivers and Harbors.  Sulak ran what the Houston Post referred to as a “bitter campaign.”  Sulak’s campaign had circulated the charge Mansfield did not represent the people of his district, but rather the economic interests of Houston.  The Post retaliated with an editorial widely reprinted by daily and weekly newspapers throughout the Ninth District lauding “America’s Congressman,” Joseph J. Mansfield.  The editorial noted Mansfield had certainly benefitted the people of Houston as chair of the Rivers and Harbors Committee through the Port of Houston, just as he had every port in the State of Texas.  The editorial reminded readers Mansfield was the congressman for Galveston and Corpus Christi and every harbor and port in the Lone Star State.  The Houston Post stated Mansfield “has been too valuable to belong wholly to any city or any district.  He has belonged to the nation.”  The editorial dismissed Sulak’s charge Mansfield had neglected his own congressional district.

Judge Mansfield defeated Sulak and another challenger easily, winning better than 62% of the vote.  Two years later, another challenger tried to dislodge Mansfield, but couldn’t draw even a third of the ballots cast.  By 1944, Judge Mansfield was 83 and ailing.  Four challengers lined up against him inside the Democratic primary, including his old foe Louis J. Sulak.  The old congressman was finally vulnerable, facing several opponents, Mansfield did not win the primary outright and was forced into a runoff election with Sulak.  In yet another bitter race, Mansfield beat back the challenge by just over 1,300 ballots.

Congressman Mansfield was photographed with his great-grandson on February 9, the Judge’s 85th birthday.  The chubby toddler occupied himself by playing with his great-grandfather’s pocket watch as General R. A. Wheeler, chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, cut the congressman’s birthday cake.  The picture appeared in any number of daily and weekly newspapers throughout the Lone Star State, which was a reminder of the Judge’s advanced age, but also showed the white-haired congressman as still on the job and looking alert.  The number of generals and other important officials honoring the congressman on the occasion of his birthday sent a message to Mansfield’s constituents that the Judge was still an important figure in Washington, D.C.  To a thinking person, no mere freshman congressman could possibly hope to wield the same influence and power as the Judge.

The 85-year-old congressman showed no inclination to retire and announced he was indeed running again for reelection in 1946.  Once again, Judge Mansfield faced opposition inside the only election that mattered – – – the Democratic primary.  Sensing the frail incumbent was increasingly vulnerable, a host of candidates announced their own congressional bids.  Aside from being sickly and aged, the Judge’s being confined to a wheelchair made it all the more difficult to get out and press the flesh with constituents.  What Mansfield did have was a record of almost 30 years of service in the House of Representatives.  Mansfield’s supporters pointed to his accomplishments, especially the yeoman work done by the congressman, as well as his seniority and chairmanship of the House Committee on Rivers & Harbors.  Congressman Mansfield’s campaign reminded voters in the Ninth District of Texas that from the time the Judge first took office in 1917 until the beginning of the Second World War in 1941, he had brought more than $127 million in federal money for improvements to the ports of the Lone Star State.  That figure, the Mansfield campaign heralded, was “more than three times as much as the entire period of Texas Statehood from the time you first elected him” to Congress.  So, too, did the Mansfield campaign point out that when Mansfield first campaigned for the House of Representatives “only” 9.6 million tons of cargo came into Texas’ ports.  During the time Mansfield has been in Congress, that had increased to 100.6 million tons.  The cargoes pouring into the ports in Galveston, Corpus Christi, Beaumont, Freeport and Texas City represented hundreds of millions of dollars to the economies of those municipalities and their people.  “There is scarcely a family in the district which has not sent one or more of their members to some good job close to home,” the Mansfield campaign stated in an ad urging the congressman’s reelection.

The Judge did announce the 1946 campaign would be his last.  L. J. Sulak was persistent in his effort to take Mansfield’s seat in the House and another strong candidate was Clark W. Thompson, who had served a brief term in Congress, winning a special election following the death of Clay Briggs.  Thompson had fought in the First World War and returned to active duty once again to fight after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Thompson ran third and the runoff election was once again between Judge Mansfield and his perennial rival L. J. Sulak.  The challenger pounded home the fact he was still “in the prime of life” in contrast to the elderly congressman.  Sulak’s campaign claimed he deserved a “promotion” from the Texas State Senate for his hard work in Austin.  The state senator’s campaign during the runoff election became more pointed and critical.  After three tries to dislodge Judge Joseph J. Mansfield, L. J. Sulak failed once again.

Old loyalties and friendships carried Congressman Joseph J. Mansfield to a narrow victory for a final time.

Political races can be won or lost, but one race always ends with the same result for any mortal.  Time itself can never be outrun.  Judge Mansfield had his photograph taken with 27-year-old George Sarbacher of Pennsylvania.  Mansfield, at 87, was the oldest member of Congress, while Sarbacher, a Republican, was the “baby” of the House of Representatives.  Mansfield continued going to his office and, as always, remained faithful in his attendance in committee and on the floor of the House.  In February, Mansfield’s office announced the elderly congressman was entering Bethesda Naval Hospital for a “checkup” upon the advice of the House physician.  Apparently, the congressman might need a “minor” operation, but his constituents were assured Mansfield remained “cheerful” and hoped to return to his duties as quickly as possible.

Joseph J. Mansfield went to Bethesda Naval Hospital one last time.  A combination of various ailments and old age finally caught up to the congressman.  Keeping his customary good humor to the very last of his life, Judge Mansfield passed away peacefully on July 12, 1947.

© 2024 Ray Hill