Review by Christopher Dow
Texas was populated by red-blooded men and women who farmed and ranched, but after the Spindletop well blew near Beaumont in 1901, the state’s veins ran black with oil. Oil spurred technological innovation, and within twenty years, manufacturing had replaced agriculture as Texas’s primary economic asset. But the beginning of the “fuel age” brought with it a new law of the jungle.
That law was the “rule of capture.” Simply stated, it said that the person who extracted oil had full rights to it, but there was nothing simple about its implications and repercussions or the backlash it generated. These topics and how the rule of capture and other petroleum legislation were challenged, refined, and changed during the decades between the world wars are the subjects of Nicholas George Malavis’s book Bless the Pure and Humble: Texas Lawyers and Oil Regulation, 1919–1936 (Texas A&M Press, 1996).
Combatants in the fight were producers, buyers, pipeline owners, refiners, religious groups, and the Texas Railroad Commission. And, of course, lawyers—and here, Malavis has the inside scoop. At the forefront of the legal regulations that grew out of those decades were the “Gold Dust Twins,” William A. Vinson and James A. Elkins. “The history and growth of Vinson & Elkins,” Malavis writes, “parallels the rise of petroleum and illustrates the significant role lawyers played in shaping oil and gas law.” Access to Vinson & Elkins archives allows Malavis to provide an insider’s view of the firm’s involvement in both petroleum legislation and the growth of an industry that, in many ways, defined the character of the latter half of the twentieth century.
It all began for Vinson & Elkins in 1921, when James Elkins met oil maverick Colonel Albert E. Humphreys. Humphreys was in the midst of a dispute with the Texas Company over unpaid crude oil purchases. Elkins solved the problem that very day, and Humphreys was so impressed that he hired the firm to represent his company. “The relationship,” Malavis writes, “blossomed into a marriage that ultimately made Vinson & Elkins Texas’ premier oil and gas firm.”
The book is, as well, a chronicle of the efforts of independent producers such as Pure, Humble, Gulf, Phillips, and others to form wholly integrated petroleum companies and challenge the dominance of that giant of American petroleum, Standard Oil. Along the way are litigation, injunctions, “hot” (illicitly produced) oil, mob violence, martial law, and enough convoluted claims of genealogical legitimacy and property ownership to populate more than one soap opera. But this isn’t fiction; it’s history as only Texans could have lived it.
Nicholas George Malavis, who practices law in Houston, earned a Ph.D. in legal history from Rice University in 1994. He is a lecturer in communications at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Administration. Bless the Pure and Humble recently garnered the annual T. R. Fehrenbach Book Award for the best book on Texas history.
This review originally was published in the fall 1997 issue of Sallyport: The Magazine of Rice University.
Bless the Pure and Humble