Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Slaveowner Stranglehold on Early Texas Politics

In 2010, the University of Texas Press published "The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became A Power in State and National Politics," a book I co-wrote with Dr. Patrick L. Cox. We argue that Texas House Speakers labor in obscurity but exercise a disproportionate share of influence over events not just in Austin but also in Washington, D.C.. In this passage, we analyze how the disproportionate influence of slaveowners over Texas politics before the Civil War resulted in a state constitution creating a weak state government that could not interfere with the power of the wealthy.

In the beginning, Texas House speakers occupied a relatively obscure but simple niche in Texas government. Speakers presided over House debates, ruled on points of order, and ensured that total chaos did not reign in the chamber. Most served with little fanfare and then returned to private life.

Of course, not all Texas House speakers suffered later oblivion, especially in the twentieth century. Several remained prominent, with numerous speakers returning to their House seats after stepping down from the dais. Such speakers include Thomas B. Love, a leader of Texas Prohibition forces and a key supporter of President Woodrow Wilson, and Coke Stevenson who later served as lieutenant governor and governor. In a sign of the increasing importance of the speakership, however, in 1949, William Otey Reed became the last former speaker to serve as a mere member of the House after holding the top leadership post until 2003 when Pete Laney resumed his place as a backbencher after being unseated by Republican Tom Craddick. After World War II, the speakership gained such institutional power and media attention that retiring speakers were expected to seek higher office.

Five speakers (James Henderson, Hardin Runnells, Pat M. Neff, Coke R. Stevenson, and Price Daniel, Sr.) later became governor; six rose to the post of lieutenant governor (Henderson, David C. Dickson, Runnels, George C. Pendleton, Stevenson, and Ben Barnes); four became state attorney general (Thomas Smith, Robert L. Bobbitt, Daniel and Waggoner Carr); three later served as railroad commissioners (L.L. Foster, Neff and Byron Tunnell); two subsequently sat on the state supreme court (Robert W. Calvert and Daniel); and one served as Texas secretary of state (L. Travis Dashiell.) Additionally, three former speakers later won election to the U.S. House of Representatives: George Pendleton, Robert E. Thomason, and most prominently of all, Sam Rayburn, who served as speaker of the U.S. House for a total of 18 years between 1940 to his death in 1961.

These prominent earlier speakers differ from their successors in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, however, in that before the late 1970s the speakership was merely a valuable line on a résumé and a venue for political networking. Only beginning with the speakership of Billy Clayton from 1975 to 1983 did the speakership became a political end in itself. The office gained greater appointment power, exercised more authority in between legislative sessions, and drew greater attention from lobbyists and national political parties. With virtually no enabling power from the state Constitution, the speaker and the office maintained a political presence equal to that of the lieutenant governor and governor.

Texas speakers rose from a narrow social base. Drawing from a sample of 52 of the 73 men who have held the office one historian of the Texas speakership, William Kent Brunette, drew a composite portrait of the politicians who served in that post from 1879 to 1979. All were white men and Protestants, primarily from the Baptist and Methodist denominations. (Joe Straus of San Antonio, who is Jewish, became the first non-Christian speaker in 2009.) Most have grown up in rural counties, primarily from Central Texas, although in the post-World War II-era East and West Texas have been heavily represented. Speakers tend to be better educated than the population at large, having attended some post-graduate studies. The majority of speakers earned law degrees.

Such men, with above average wealth and associating with the elite planter class in the 19th century, embraced highly conservative politics. Anglo Texans largely sympathized with the Democratic Party in the United States, but a party system did not develop in the Texas Republic from 1836-1845. Instead, factions formed to support or oppose strong personalities such as Sam Houston or Mirabeau Lamar. No formal Democratic Party structures congealed in Texas after annexation until the 1848 presidential election. Opposition parties, such as the Whigs, the American or Know-Nothing Party, and the Constitutional Union Party, proved ephemeral.

The lack of an effective opposition ensured uninterrupted slave owner dominance of a loosely organized party apparatus and a weak state government in the two decades from initial statehood in 1846 to a year after the Civil War ended in April 1865. In antebellum Texas, slaveholders constituted the most grossly over-represented constituency at the statewide level. The year before the Civil War, slave owners represented 27 percent of the state population, but they held 68 percent of the state's political posts. As political scientist V.O. Key noted in his landmark study Southern Politics in State and Nation, a one-party system is akin to a no-party system in that there is no organizational means by which political opponents can effectively mobilize. The ease with which the slave-owning minority muscled Texas into the Confederacy, therefore, does not accurately reflect the level of political conflict in the state during the antebellum and immediate post-bellum periods.

During the early statehood era, the framers of the Texas Constitution intentionally created a weak central government in order to hamper dissent and ensure he rule of economic elites. Speakers merely presided over House debates, had no leadership function within parties, and no personal legislative agenda. Such presiding officers proved a perfect fit for a conservative, pro-planter agenda.

Following the Civil War, elites re-codified white supremacy in state law. In a bid to re-join the Union, Texas adopted its third state constitution in 1866 (the second had been written in 1861 when Texas seceded and joined the Confederacy.). Ex-Confederates joined with conservative pro-Unionists to write a Constitution that tacitly recognized the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery. The new state charter, however, denied freedmen the right to vote, hold public office, testify in court, serve on juries, or attend public schools. Voters approved the Constitution and the 1866 Legislature subsequently rejected the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship rights to African American men.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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