The Secret of My Secession

Rick Perry is not the first Lone Star politician to embrace the myth of Texan autonomy. Let’s hope he’s the last.

June 2009By Comments

From the moment Sam Houston’s army defeated Santa Anna, at San Jacinto in 1836, two distinct and incompatible visions have competed for the future of Texas. On the one side there was Houston, the first president of the new republic, who believed that his fledgling country, bereft of hard currency and still threatened with invasion by its defeated foe to the south, could not survive on its own; he sought recognition of Texas by his friend Andrew Jackson, the president of the United States, to be followed by annexation (which would not occur until 1845). On the other side was Mirabeau B. Lamar, who succeeded Houston in 1838. Lamar felt that the destiny of the Republic of Texas lay not in a union with the U.S. but in its sovereignty; he looked west rather than east, to territory he wished to conquer, all the way into what is now New Mexico and beyond.

Echoes of this distant feud were unmistakable as recently as mid-April, when Governor Rick Perry, while attending an Austin “tea party” organized by antitax activists, hinted that Texas might one day secede from the Union and reestablish itself as an independent nation. “There’s a lot of different scenarios,” Perry said, in response to a reporter’s question about secession. “We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that? But Texas is a very unique place, and we’re a pretty independent lot to boot.” He subsequently elaborated, “We are very proud of our Texas history; people discuss and debate the issues of ‘Can we break ourselves into five states, can we secede’—a lot of interesting things that I’m sure Oklahoma and Pennsylvania would love to be able to say about their states, but the fact is, they can’t, because they’re not Texas.”

Lamar would have appreciated Perry’s bravado. He believed that Texas didn’t need the United States. “Like many of his contemporaries, Lamar dreamed of a Republic of Texas extending westward to the Pacific,” wrote historian Rupert Richardson in a textbook that was inflicted on generations of the state’s schoolchildren. Lamar was a reckless adventurer whose dreams of transcontinental glory plunged the state into fiscal ruin and cost many of the Texans who had the misfortune to take part in his schemes their freedom or their lives. In 1841 Lamar defied the Texas Congress to send a ragtag army to take over Santa Fe, then in the northernmost territory of Mexico. He hoped to gain control of the revenue from local customhouses that collected duties from trade with the United States. Disaster! The expedition was met by Mexican troops, who took the Texans prisoner, marched them to Mexico City, and put them in a dungeon.

Lamar was constantly threatening war with Mexico, though the treasury was empty. He sent the Texas navy—whose vessels had been purchased by Houston’s administration—into the Gulf of Mexico to harass Mexican shipping. Houston returned to the presidency in 1841 to find the state saddled with a $5 million debt and teetering on the verge of hostilities with Mexico. Of Lamar, historian David McComb has written, “He had released demons which proved hard to recapture.”

Indeed, they have not been recaptured yet. The fundamental fact of Texas history is that this is a state that was once a nation. Houston is the father of Texas independence, but Lamar, for all his shortcomings, is the father of Texas nationalism. He, more than Houston, left his mark on the Texas psyche. It is to Lamar that we owe the powerful idea of Texas exceptionalism—the notion that we do not have to conform to the normal rules in order to succeed. I think most Texans, myself included, subscribe to this idea to some degree, and certainly this magazine has promoted it for 36 years. Nevertheless, it would be wise to view Texas exceptionalism with a skeptical eye. In the long run, the normal rules do apply. You have to educate your citizens, but Texas ranks forty-seventh in SAT scores and fiftieth in the percentage of its population over 25 with a high school diploma. The public needs health care, but we have more uninsured children than any other state and the highest percentage of the population without health insurance. Not very exceptional.

The two very different Texases that Houston and Lamar imagined still contend in the public imagination. Houston’s Texas is grounded in interdependence, Lamar’s in self-sufficiency. Houston’s embraces change and modernity; Lamar’s resists them. Houston’s looks to the future; Lamar’s celebrates our mythic past. These two Texases have waged intense political battles over the years. In 1861 Houston himself was vehemently opposed to secession from the Union, but the tide was against him, and he was ultimately overruled by a popular referendum. In modern times, the mythic Texas of Lamar fiercely resisted the change to daylight saving time, the legalization of liquor by the drink, and the end of blue laws that restricted commercial activity on Sundays—but Houston’s forward-looking Texas prevailed in all three instances. Conflicts between the two Texases often appear to be battles between rural and urban worldviews, but this is an oversimplification: Our cities are filled with people whose roots and sympathies are rural.

Rick Perry’s remarks about the possibility of Texas leaving the Union—which, of course, the state has no legal right to do, though the joint resolution of annexation does authorize it to divide into five states—raise the question of whether the 2010 Republican primary will be a proxy fight between the old antagonists, Houston and Lamar. The answer is surely yes. Perry will try to whip his base into a frenzy over Washington and Kay Bailey Hutchison’s Senate votes on controversial federal policies such as the bank bailouts. Hutchison, for her part, will focus on why the state still languishes in educating its children and preparing for the future.

This will not be the first election in which the two Texases oppose each other. Three previous races exemplified the split between them. The first came in 1948, when Lyndon Johnson defeated Governor Coke Stevenson, a rancher, by 87 (tainted) votes to win the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate (as Texas was a one-party state, his victory in the general election was ensured). Johnson was the candidate of Texas’s future, Stevenson the candidate of its past. The 1978 Democratic primary for governor presented a similar dichotomy: urban lawyer John Hill versus Governor Dolph Briscoe, a Stevenson-like rural conservative rancher. The most recent race of this sort was the 1990 battle between Ann Richards and Clayton Williams (also a rancher; you get the idea). These contests offered an explicit choice between the new and the old, and the forces of change and modernity won each time.

Perry loves to complain about Washington, but most of his gripes are about national policy issues, such as taxes and spending, as opposed to matters that are specific to Texas. Other Texas officials have had concerns that were closer to home. For Allan Shivers in the fifties, it was a prolonged battle over whether Texas or the federal government could develop the oil-rich tidelands off the Texas coast. The Democratic governor endorsed Republican Dwight Eisenhower for president; Ike carried Texas with Shivers’s help and as president signed legislation giving states control of their tidelands.

When Texas has worked closely with Washington, the state has reaped great benefits. In the years when LBJ and Sam Rayburn ran Congress, Texas oil producers enjoyed a liberal depletion allowance. The state had a large number of military bases and the rich federal payrolls that went with them. One also has to contemplate that Texas has been changed for the better by federal court decisions, particularly in the area of civil rights, which might not have been issued by more-conservative Texas judges.

Texas nationalism still thrives today, but it is different from what it used to be. It was tempered by the oil bust of the eighties and has never been the same. Texans were fully invested in the state’s myths—for example, the idea that Texas banks were better than New York banks because our lenders didn’t have to go through a lot of red tape to close a deal. But when oil prices hit bottom and our banks ran out of money, they didn’t look so smart. Frost was the only major Texas-owned bank to survive. But this was not a lost decade. As the participants in our roundtable discussion of the Texas economy note (see “Rain, Rain, Go Away”), the relative health of the current Texas economy can in part be attributed to lessons learned in the eighties: the value of diversification and the need for tighter regulations on real estate lending.

Texans of the pre-bust era had a sense of manifest destiny, an optimism that tomorrow would be better than today. This too was a casualty of the decline in oil prices. The arrogance of the boom—bumper stickers that read, “Drive 90, freeze a yankee”—is now gone. In its place is an attitude reflected by another bumper sticker: “O Lord, please send us another oil boom, and we promise not to screw it up this time.”

I can’t envision Texas without Texas nationalism. But Lamar’s version was all wrong; it was based on adventurism and glory-seeking and lacked any sense of realism about the state’s ability to achieve what he wanted. Perry’s version is similarly misguided. It is based on political opportunism rather than on making the state a better place. It is all about Rick Perry. Count me on Sam Houston’s side.

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