The secession controversy generated by Rick Perry has a long history in Texas politics, going all the way back to Sam Houston and Mirabeau B. Lamar, the first and second presidents of the Republic of Texas. The two presidents had totally different visions of Texas, which persist today. Houston recognized that Texas did not have the economic resources to succeed as an independent nation. Following the victory at San Jacinto, he immediately sought annexation with the United States. President Andrew Jackson, Houston’s longtime friend, favored annexation, but could not overcome opposition to the spread of slavery. The best that Houston could achieve was Jackson’s recognition of the Republic on the president’s last day in office.
Lamar had no interest in annexation. He was a reckless adventurer who sent an expedition to Santa Fe to bring that trading center under Texas’s control–it failed–and dispatched privateers to harass Mexican shipping. Like Perry, he reveled in Texas’s separateness, but Lamar brought the state to near ruin. Houston returned to the presidency to find the state saddled with a $5 million debt and on the verge of hostilities with Mexico. “[Lamar],” historian David McComb has written, “had released demons which proved hard to recapture.” Indeed.
The two Texases continue to exist today, one grounded in myth, one grounded in reality, one resisting change and suspicious of modernity, the other embracing them. They have waged intense political battles over the years. Mythic Texas fiercely resisted the change to daylight savings time, the legalization of liquor by the drink, and the end of blue laws that restricted commercial activity on Sundays, but all became law. Conflicts between the two Texases often appear to be battles between rural and urban Texas, but this is an oversimplification: The cities are filled with people whose roots and sympathies are rural.
I am writing about the two Texases because of the widely disparite reactions to Rick Perry’s “threat” of secession. Our magazine has made a good living out of celebrating the state’s myths, but secession was not, shall we say, a positive event. Most of the people I talk to about Perry’s remarks are appalled by them. But those I know who inhabit Mythic Texas think that he struck a chord with a certain segment of the state’s population. I disagree. The political races that most clearly exemplified the split between the two Texases were the 1948 U.S. Senate race between Lyndon Johnson and Coke Stevenson, and the 1990 governor’s race between Ann Richards and Clayton Williams. These were explicitly races between the new and the old, and the forces of change and modernity won both races (although Johnson’s victory was tainted). I think Perry’s remarks will do far more to hurt him than to help him.