When the Reconstruction constitutional convention reconvened on Dec. 4, 1868, Radical Republicans sharpened their knives in eager anticipation of carving up Texas like a Christmas turkey.
Any Texan, who passed the required courses in junior high, knows that as a condition of admission to the Union the Lone Star State retained the right to subdivide into as many as four separate parts. Less well known is how often the idea of two, three, many Texas’ was tossed around and how close the state came to being dismembered during the post-Civil War occupation.
Division was first suggested in 1844 during the acrimonious debate over annexation as a way of maintaining the delicate balance between free and slave states. Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri recommended slicing the giant applicant in two, but the novel notion was not taken seriously.
Over the next decade, several schemes were put forward for cutting Texas down to size by spiteful spokesmen from smaller states. However, in 1852 a native politician presented his own controversial plan to the Austin legislature. James W. Flanagan of Rusk County intended to turn the hostility between East and West Texas into geographic reality by partitioning along the Brazos.
“Who will be willing to give up the name of Texas?” a leading newspaper asked. “Who will give up the bloodstained walls of the Alamo?” The house of representatives answered with a 33-15 vote in favor of putting the unpopular proposal out of its misery.
Delegates to the 1868 constitutional convention met on the first of June to remold Texas in the Reconstruction image. Because of the wholesale disenfranchisement of the vast majority of former Confederates, only a handful of Democrats was present. To frustrate the Radical crusade for a divided Texas, they joined forces with the moderate wing of the Republican Party.
Edmund J. Davis, a former judge and future governor, James P. Newcomb, a San Antonio editor, and G.T. Ruby, head of the black Union League, were the threesome in charge of the Radical Republicans. These ambitious firebrands envisioned a separate state encompassing South Texas and a sizable southern chunk of the West.
The triumvirate’s strategy was to isolate die-hard Rebs in their traditional eastern stronghold, while consolidating Radical power in a Unionist bastion with San Antonio as the capital. The Germans of Central Texas, who suffered during the war for their pro-Union views, supported the Radical plan as did the residents of the Alamo City, who craved the prestige and prosperity a state government was expected to bring.
The Radicals had the votes to elect Davis presiding officer of the convention but not enough to pass their program. After weeks of angry stalemate, the factional strife turned violent with daily brawls among the delegates. The frequent fisticuffs and shouting matches made for colorful copy in the press and gave the gathering a chaotic carnival atmosphere.
With the entrenched contingents at each other’s throats, the convention recessed on Aug. 31. But a three-month break failed to cool the combatants’ tempers.
When the proceedings resumed in early December, a state of war existed between the Radicals and their moderate opponents. A roll call also showed the body was 11 delegates short. Three had died during the vacation, four had resigned and four others had not bothered to return.
Davis declared the question of division in order on Dec. 18, and the furious debate picked right up where it had left off. Meanwhile, Davis, Newcomb and five cronies spent their nights secretly drafting the constitution of the “State of West Texas.”
On the morning of Jan. 6, 1869, bleary-eyed delegates discovered on their desks a copy of the bylaws for the yet-to-be-approved Radical creation. This heavy-handed tactic alienated potential converts and earned the Davis clique the derisive nickname of Coyotes.
In an emotional address to the skeptical assembly, Davis defended division as the necessary measure for keeping ex-Confederates politically powerless. Condemning “magnanimity to rebels” as “weakness or stupidity,” he self-righteously thundered, “They are not fit to govern, and they shall not govern again!”
In a mockery of parliamentary procedure, the Radicals rammed through the State of West Texas resolution over the objections of the moderate majority. Following a hasty adjournment, both camps dispatched emissaries to Washington to plead their respective cases.
The incoming administration of President U.S. Grant realized the Coyotes were provoking a crisis that would aggravate an already grave situation. The task of imposing Reconstruction rule on one Texas was tough enough, but two?
The Radicals were told to shelve their scheme, and the Lone Star State stayed in one piece.
Jimmy Dean, Joan Crawford, Johnny Horton, “Big Boy” Williams and forty more are all in Bartee’s book “Texas Entertainers: Lone Stars in Profile.” Order your signed copy at the Christmas special price of $21.50 by mailing a check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.