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This Week in Texas History: Out of the frying pan into the fire

By Bartee Halie

On March 30, 1870, Pres. Ulysses S. Grant signed the act that restored Lone Star statehood. Texans were, for better or worse, back in the Union after four years in the Confederacy and five as an occupied territory.  

Upon hearing the news three days later, Gov. Edmund J. Davis dropped the word “provisional” from his job description and ordered the legislature into session on the last Tuesday of the month.  The military occupation of Texas officially ended on Apr. 16, when Gen. J.J. Reynolds, responsible for the Radical Republican’s tainted triumph over a moderate challenger, relinquished the reins to the civilian chief executive.

Twelve days later, the 42-year-old former judge and northern army officer swore he had never fought a duel nor taken up arms against the United States.  “Let us cultivate a belief that our neighbor who differs in opinion with us may so differ honestly,” the governor said in an inaugural address that echoed the conciliatory tone of his recent campaign.  

But Davis had not changed his stripes.  He was the same inflexible zealot who had branded ex-Confederates as “unfit to govern” and argued for their permanent disenfranchisement.  Now that most adult males again had the vote and Grant was pulling the troops out of Texas, it was left up to the unrepentant Radical to punish the Rebs.

The day after the swearing-in ceremony, Gov. Davis unveiled his agenda for the assembled lawmakers.  To take the place of the federal occupation force, he proposed a state militia composed of all able-bodied males between the ages of 18 and 45.  He also asked for a free hand in imposing martial law wherever and whenever conditions warranted.  The third and ultimately most controversial item on his get-tough wish list was a new law enforcement agency called the state police.

Radical representatives swiftly drafted the legislation to give the governor everything he wanted and more.  As commander-in-chief of two armed bodies — the state guard and reserve militia — Davis would be empowered to send as many citizen soldiers as he saw fit into any community or county.  He could on his own authority declare martial law, suspend habeas corpus, try civilians in military courts and compel the inhabitants of an occupied county to pay the expenses of uninvited militiamen.

Speaker Ira H. Evans closed the House debate on the militia bill with a stirring appeal for passage “in the name of the thousands of widows and orphans, who have been made such by the Ku Klux (Klan) of Texas.”  His colleagues responded with a lopsided endorsement of the measure.

The sailing was not nearly as smooth in the Senate, where three moderate Republicans joined forces with 11 Democrats to water down the draconian act.  Their substitute, which put the militia under local control and omitted martial law altogether, fell just one vote short of adoption.

Before the Radicals could call the question for their stern alternative, 13 opponents broke the quorum and barricaded themselves in a separate room.  The fast-acting majority placed the bolters under arrest for “conspiracy” and released only enough to reconstitute a cooperative quorum.  

Keeping their critics incarcerated for the next three weeks, the Radicals created the infamous state police — a 258-man force answerable only to the governor.  The fine print in the law also enabled him to remove any law enforcement official not to his liking.  In an unprecedented expansion of gubernatorial power, Davis was given the final say-so over voter registration and the authority to appoint mayors and aldermen.

The Radicals had the gall to delay their inevitable day of reckoning.  The congressional and state elections scheduled for 1870 and 1871 were put off until 1872.    

Gov. Davis and his legislative lackeys went too far even for leading, longtime Radicals. For his outspoken objection to tampering with the electoral calendar, Speaker Evans was stripped of his post.  When Morgan Hamilton dared to disagree, Davis had his U.S. Senate election declared invalid and Gen. Reynolds chosen his successor.

 Hamilton nevertheless held onto the seat.  The governor had better luck installing a new state treasurer, waiting until the incumbent left town before ordering the state police to seize his office.

Davis’ fondness for martial law and the unconscionable crimes of his hired guns pushed Texas to the brink of anarchy.  Homicidal maniacs like John Wesley Hardin and Clay Allison were hailed as public-spirited heroes for killing state policemen, while the governor was reviled as evil incarnate.

After Texans voted in a Democratic legislature and congressional delegation in November 1872, Edmund J. Davis spent the last 14 months of his term as a very lonely lame duck.  Stubbornly refusing to accept his own landslide defeat the following fall, he pleaded for federal troops to keep him in office.  President Grant wisely rejected the rash request, and the curtain finally fell on Reconstruction in Texas.             

“Murder Most Texan” is a must read for fans of true crime and Texas history. Order your copy for $24.00 by mailing a check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.

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