Texas and the Road to Secession

Texas has always embodied a fierce sense of independence that goes back to times before westerners settled it. Its rural and vast lands served as a home to tribal natives that valued their independence and typically resisted any efforts to encroach upon its territory. After Spain colonized modern-day Mexico, it moved into the Texas territory where it came in conflict with the French in the eastern parts of the state. In 1820, Mexico declared its independence from Spain which included the Texas territory, marking the first infusion of the spirit of resistance to centralized power. Fifteen years after Mexico gained its independence from Spain, Texas began the process of attaining its own independence from Mexico and in another ten years it would join the United States as the 28th state. Sixteen years after joining the Union, it would vote to secede and join the Confederacy. Texas was a unique state with a diverse population, eclectic history, and physical features that has contributed greatly to this spirit throughout history.

Before delving into the reasons why Texas voted for disunion, it’s important to understand some background that contributed to this fateful decision. The main issue of slavery was rooted in Texas since well before its founding when Stephen Austin successfully got the Mexican government to grant the territory an exception to the recently passed abolition of slavery throughout the country in 1829. The constitution of 1836 after Texas declared its independence specifically protected the ownership within the states and prohibited Congress from passing any laws that prevented immigrants from their slaves with them. The only way to free slaves was to petition the Texian Congress or ship them out of the state for emancipation. This paper analyzes the reasons for and against seceding from the Union and then joining the Confederacy from a social, economic, military, and political perspective.

The road to Texas secession wasn’t as clear cut as many believe. The diversity of the state contributed to wide divisions about the decision to leave the Union. Contrary to popular opinion, there was a huge population of people that were opposed to secession who may have had their votes and views suppressed. Texans were very opinionated, involved in state politics, and independent. The citizenry was composed of a majority of immigrants, both American and from foreign countries. In fact, only a quarter of those that lived in Texas in 1860 were born there and a third of the population was from Southern states. These immigrants brought with them their slaves which would be a major contributing factor in secession. The number of immigrants that lived in Texas was unparalleled in any other Southern state. With such an eclectic diversity of population, delving into the history of how it was possible that secession was overwhelmingly popular in nearly all quarters of the state.

Texas was no stranger to conflict having survived as both an independent nation and a state, it had had to deal with threats from Mexico and native Indian tribes. As the largest state in the Union, Texas had already displayed an extraordinary ability to handle violence and respond in kind. The influx of Northerners into the state began to plant more seeds of discontent in the state. The Texas Democrat Party Convention in 1860 added more fuel to the fire by laying out in no uncertain terms its support for slavery and opposition to anything that stood in its way. Despite their seemingly irrational stance, the platform did not gain much opposition because of going slave revolts, Indian attacks, and unrest along the southern Texas border. Extraterritorial issues like the Harper’s Ferry Raid and violence in Kansas steeled up support for protecting the state.

It is not surprising why delegates to the convention were more predisposed to leaving the Union to protect the institution of slavery. The median age of delegates was about 40 years old and 83% of them were under the age of 50. The ages of delegates no doubt played an important role since most of them were too young to remember or had taken part in either the Texas Revolution or were involved in the process of annexation from the beginning. Almost 91% of them were born in slave holding states. The remaining delegates were either foreign born or from free states. Not a single delegate was born in either Texas or the Republic of Texas.

The decision to secede from the Union was a contentious, though nearly unanimous, one in a state that prized its independent nature. Sam Houston himself cautioned delegates and citizens alike against secession and joining the Confederacy. Houston was a staunch Unionist and refused to pledge his allegiance to the Confederacy after the secession vote passed successfully in Austin. Houston sat whittling a piece of wood when his name was called four times to respond to annexation and the convention ruled that his seat was vacant. So strong was the mood in favor of secession that when one delegate, Senator James Webb Throckmorton, stood to vote against secession, an individual in the chamber gallery hissed at him. In response, Throckmorton uttered the famous retort that “when the rabble hiss, may well patriots tremble.” Throckmorton was one of Houston’s few Unionist supporters in the legislature. Though he opposed secession, Houston believed that the people should have a final say in whether the state left the union, not elected bureaucrats. He frequently chastised those whose voices were the loudest fighting for secession as men who had never sacrificed anything for liberty and were suddenly using it as a rallying call.

The Declaration of Causes presented the arguments and justification for leaving the Union. Chief among the complaints in the document was the preservation of slavery and a belief that the federal government had failed to live up to its promises fifteen years earlier when Texas joined the Union. Another complaint was that Texans felt abandoned to deal with threats alone against continued invasions by Mexico and violent raids by Indian tribes. There is no mincing words in the Declaration of Causes nor room for ambiguity. It makes clear that slavery was the number one issue that caused it to secede. Texas was admitted to the Union knowing that it would be a slave state. It was not forced to abolish that practice at the time and many Texans were not happy that President Lincoln, a northern abolitionist, was elected. They feared that the election would lead to the “peculiar institution” of slavery being banned and they were right. The state felt as if the promise granted to them upon statehood had been broken. Fifteen years after being admitted as a state, Texas was still having to deal with Mexican and Indian violence. Texans believed that the federal government wasn’t doing anything about these encroachments upon the land and were having to defend their own territory without its assistance. This is one of the reasons that many in Texas believed it could succeed simply reverting to an independent republic. Delegates already felt as if the North and South were separate nations with little in common beyond the constitution, which they felt was being violated in many ways.

So strong was the idea of popular sovereignty that most Texans who voted to secede did not want to join the Confederacy, but were determined to instead revert to their status as an independent nation so that they could govern themselves. Paul Pollard notes that those who argued for remaining in the Union remembered how fervently excited their fellow Texans were to become a state. Generally, Texans from the “upper south” were opposed to secession while “lower south” Texans were more favorable. Walter Buenger divided Texans’ support of secession into four groups: those who supported secession prior to the 1860 crisis; those who were spurred into support by the election of Abraham Lincoln; Texans who agreed with the convention declaration passed on February 23, 1861; and those who never supported secession. In his master’s thesis, Jimmie Hicks breaks down political sentiments into just three groups: those who supported “Southern Rights” and swift secession in the event Lincoln wins election; those who agree with the “Southern Rights” argument of the previous group but believed that such rights should be defended in the Union to the greatest extent possible; and unionists that disagreed with secession completely as extra-constitutional. For his part, Governor Sam Houston cautioned the convention to engage in a “calm deliberation” before making any final decisions. He noted that none of Texas’s neighbors had seceded and it would be more beneficial to try working with them to force the federal government’s hand to recognize the “constitutional rights” of Southern states.

When all the votes were counted, Texans voted by a three-to-one margin in favor of leaving the Union. Texan immigrants from the Upper Southern states tended to vote in favor of remaining in the Union, while those from the Lower Southern states, which had more in common with the Southern, cotton-planting states, voted for disunion. Immigrants and Mexicans were divided over the issue. This trend wasn’t absolute. Teresa York analyzed why Angelina County voted against secession despite the pro-secession proclivities of its surrounding counties. She found that wealth probably paid a part in why Texans voted against secession since they were less likely to own much land or slaves.

Matthew Hamilton’s research into the extremely pro-slavery attitude in Brazoria County supports York’s thesis. He found that Brazoria County was the most valuable farmland in Texas at the time. Some of the largest owners of land in Texas were in Brazoria County, which meant they owned a large number of slaves to produce its prized cotton. Unionists almost immediately began protesting the vote as fraudulent and rife with intimidation, outright voter suppression, and violence on the part of secessionists. Many innocent people were roped in to the conspiracy theories of slave uprisings and either whipped or lynched. Public outcry was growing but, as one Fort Worth citizen wrote, it didn’t matter how many suspicious men were hung as long as they didn’t let a single guilty man go free.

Dale Baum balks at suggestions that the secession referendum was skewed by voter fraud. In analyzing the data from the 1861 vote, he compared the disunion tallies with the number of votes for the Democratic candidate in the previous presidential election since Democrats were the loudest voices for secession. He did find evidence that suggested voter fraud was present, but not to such a degree that would have swayed the overall outcome of the referendum. Baum identified several counties where it seemed obvious voter fraud played a significant role in altering the vote totals in favor of disunion, but he also found several other counties where the exact opposite result was reached. In Cameron County, armed men were stationed at polling places where unionists were given “friendly warnings” to leave or refrain from voting. He concluded that even though evidence is present that disunionists played a role in vote tallies for secession, there was too much evidence of higher than normal votes for remaining in the Union in most of the counties where cries of fraud were loudest.

Walter Buenger suggests that the real reason voters cast ballots so overwhelmingly in support of disunion was because Democrat opponents, Upper South Texans, Texans in rural areas, and minorities simply were not organized well enough nor as united to make a difference. This nearly unanimous support for secession came as a surprise to at least one delegate from South Carolina who was confused about how a state with an ardent unionist governor, limited number of slaves in comparison to other southern states, and in which most of its land was still a vast frontier would decide to secede and join the Confederacy. In fact, it seemed as if Texas was not even paying attention to the issue of slavery in the years leading up to secession. As a Senator, Sam Houston never fully considered himself as a Southerner or Northerner. During the Oregon territory debate in Congress, Houston proclaimed that his only focus was on the Union and the constitution. Despite the opposition from many unionists, once the convention had made the decision and the voters had agreed to the referendum, most of them recognized that the “die is cast” and joined the fight. Before the provisional government had even voted by a 109 to 2 margin to be admitted into the southern Union, the Confederate Congress had already passed a resolution to admit Texas.

Secession seemed to be a foregone conclusion beginning in the mid-1850s. Northern states were becoming increasingly hostile to the institution of slavery and passing laws that made it difficult to expand the practice. New states were being admitted into the Union where slavery was illegal, which caused those in the South to worry that their interests were not being represented in Washington. By 1860, the decision to secede was overwhelmingly approved by both the Texas legislature and the voz populi. While the voting appears to be nearly unanimous, a closer inspection of the atmosphere surrounding the issue reveals that violence, intimidation, and disenfranchisement likely played a role. However, even taking these threats into account, the decision to secede would likely still have passed with a vast majority of support.

CJ Grisham, 1SG (Ret), US Army
Historian’s Craft
Texas A&M – Central Texas
Fall 2017 Semester

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4 Comments on “Texas and the Road to Secession

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