Nicholas G. Malavis.
Bless the Pure and Humble: Texas Lawyers and Oil Regulation, 1919-1936.
College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1996. xviii + 322 pp.
Bibliographical references and index. $44.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-89096-714-8 .
George N. Green, Department of History, University of Texas, Austin.
Upon the discovery of oil in the nineteenth century,
American courts were ill-prepared to cope with the legal issues it raised.
Since oil flowed across property lines, supposedly similar in that sense
to wild animals, courts resorted to the "rule of capture" to determine
ownership. A person who extracted the oil on his own property enjoyed full
ownership of it. When applied to the series of oil booms that began in
1901, the rule precipitated a series of crises. Operators and royalty
owners had to produce all they could regardless of current market
conditions and demand, and heedless of the waste and loss incurred.
It is not clear that the author realizes that this was as
huge a crisis in 1901 as it was in 1931. Beginning with the premature
draining of the Spindletop field over a twenty month period, the rule of
capture led to the massive and tragic waste of much of the nation's oil
supply during three decades of oil booms. Controls were not established,
through tangled federal and state court cases and legislation, until the
Dr. Malavis, a legal historian, focuses on the 1930s court
cases and claims that petroleum was primarily a legal problem to be solved
by lawyers. The book does not establish that case with this reader, since
by the end of 1934--after a half dozen years of litigation--the oil crisis
was as fluid and unsettled as ever, still awaiting legislation; and the
single most important event that ended it was an act of Congress. Also,
even though the Amazon and
cases are discussed extensively, I am still not certain whether
prorationing (legal limitation of oil production) was enhanced or hindered
The author's sympathies are, perhaps inevitably, with the
law firms whose records he has ably researched--that is to say, his
sympathies are with the major oil companies. He is unable to conclude, for
instance, that the majors were willing to endure a two-price system--a
prevailing price for East Texas crude and a much higher well-head price
everywhere else. Also, in 1931 Texas Governor Ross Sterling, who favored
conservation of oil resources, threatened to veto any market-demand
prorationing bill (allowing the Railroad Commission to limit pumping, thus
raising the price of oil as well as conserving the field) on the grounds
that it would promote an oil monopoly. Dr. Malavis states that Sterling
was overriding the philosophy of his former colleagues at Humble Oil and
that the governor never comprehended the relationship between limiting oil
production to market demand and preventing physical waste. These
conclusions seem naive, since--as Dr. Malavis knows--Sterling had accepted
$425,000 in bonuses and deferred royalties from Humble just before his
election campaign, since the connection between prorationing and
conservation was rather obvious, and since the governor soon endorsed a
comprehensive prorationing bill. With his threatened veto, the governor
was more likely engaging in political posturing in a futile effort to
obfuscate his sympathies for the major companies.
To keep track of all the innumerable lawyers, judges,
oilmen, politicians, and newspaper editors--all of whom are quoted
extensively throughout the text--and to keep track of numerous court
cases, legislative battles, hot oil running, and so on, it is probably
best to read the book straight through. I laid it down after eight
chapters and resumed reading a week later. I had forgotten who "Nichols"
was on pp. 135 and 137 and discovered that he and his firm are not cited
in the index for those pages. I had forgotten who Judge Hutcheson was on
p. 138 and discovered that he is not cited for that page. If there is any
mention of "Holmes" before p. 139, it is not cited in the index. I at
least knew who "Allred" was on p. 142, but would every reader recognize
the last name of the Texas Attorney-General when he had not been mentioned
for 54 pages? "Hardwicke" suddenly appears on p. 142; he had not appeared
in 40 pages, and I still do not know who or what he represented. Charles
Black also appears on p. 142, though he is not cited in the index for that
page; he and his client had not been mentioned for 61 pages. The first
mention of Charles Roeser is simply by last name, and his later appearance
on p. 254 is not cited in the index. Since these are just the glitches
emanating from the multitude of characters in Chapter 9, I am fearful that
there are more.
The extensive use of quotations are sometimes fascinating
and even hilarious, and they do bring a sense of immediacy to the
narrative, but a few of them cry out for a bit of interpretation or
elaboration. Attorney Charles Francis believed (p. 167) that one of the
Amazon-Panama decisions meant that the Texas Railroad Commission would
use supreme over federal agents in enforcing conservation, but the
narrative implies that the decision was aimed against the Commission's
authority as well as federal regulations.
The book demonstrates that the Vinson and Elkins law firm
in Houston was staffed with shrewd lawyers who doubtless enriched
themselves, but more importantly saved their clients a considerable
fortune and generally helped steer the oil industry toward the only course
of action that made sense, market-demand prorationing. Dr. Malavis shows
that the usual, well documented economic and political forces that
influenced public policy regarding petroleum need to be supplemented by a
consideration of the legal and judicial factors.
Library of Congress
Call Number: KFT1458 .A1 M35 1996
* Petroleum law and legislation -- Texas -- History
* Vinson & Elkins -- History
Citation: George N. Green . "Review of Nicholas G. Malavis,
Bless the Pure and Humble: Texas Lawyers and Oil Regulation, 1919-1936,"
H-Law, H-Net Reviews, April, 1997. URL:
“Malavis has all the
ingredients by never plumbs deeply the motives, gains, or losses of the
many interests in the oil industry…On balance, however, Malavis’s
discussion of judicial and legal influences on resource policy is timely
and well presented, particularly given current debates over public
interest versus private rights in resource policy.”
Sarah S. Elkind, review
of Bless the Pure and Humble: Texas Lawyers and Oil Regulation,
1919-1936, by Nicholas G. Malavis, The Journal of American History
84 (September 1997): 702-703.