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.

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

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