Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The Lege Thinks About Secession

Posted in Leadership by Andy Hall on January 25, 2011

The secession crisis of the winter of 1860-61 didn’t pop up overnight; it was a long time a-building, and it moved forward with what, to many at the time, must have seemed a slow, inexorable process. But there were many points along that way where the key issues at hand, including the right of secession and the validity of nullification, were discussed, dissected, and debated.

During the Eighth Texas Legislature (1859-61), increasing tensions between the states and the federal government were becoming increasingly distracting. Inevitably, the Texas House of Representatives dealt with this in the way every legislative body does, by forming a committee. The House Committee on Federal Relations ended up with a stack of motions, reports and correspondence to deal with. One of these was a letter to Texas Governor Sam Houston from his counterpart in South Carolina, William Henry Gist, accompanied by resolutions from that state’s House of Representatives and Senate, reasserting South Carolina’s “right to secede whenever she may think it expedient to do so” and calling on other Southern states to reciprocate with similar resolutions of their own.

Governor Gist’s message was handed off to the House Committee on Federal Relations, which reviewed it for several weeks. Finally, in an evening session on February 8, 1860, in the closing days of the legislative session, the committee returned to the House membership two reports (34MB PDF, beginning p. 634), one expressing the views of the majority of the committee, and other a “minority report,” prepared by committee members who dissented from the majority view. The majority report called for emphatic support for South Carolina, and embraced secession as an option:

The “preamble and resolutions” passed by the Legislature of the State of South Carolina, and submitted for our consideration, have been deliberated upon by the committee on Federal Relations, and your committee respectfully submit to the House for its action the following resolutions:

1st. Resolved, That the State of Texas declare, that “whenever one section of the Union presumes upon its strength for the oppression of the other then will our Constitution be a mockery, and it would not matter how soon the Union was severed into a thousand atoms, and scattered to the four winds.”

2d. Resolved, “If the principles” of confederation upon which the American Union “was consummated, are disregarded,” there will be for Texas neither honor nor interest in the Union; if the mighty, in the face of written law, can place with impunity an iron yoke upon the neck of the weak, Texas will be at no loss how to act or where to go before the blow aimed at her vitals is inflicted. “In a spirit of good faith” Texas “entered the Federal fold. By that spirit she will continue to be influenced to make her the victim of Federal wrong. As she will violate no Federal right, so will she submit to no violation of her rights by Federal authority.”

3rd. Resolved, That the Legislature of Texas assure South Carolina and all her sister States, that “she will not submit to the degradation threatened by the Black Republican party, for sooner than subject herself to “ignominy ensuing from sectional dictation, she would prefer restoration to that independence which she once enjoyed. Sorrowing for the mistake which she has committed in sacrificing her independence upon the altar of her patriotism, she would,” if there were none others to act with her, “unfurl again the banner of the lone star [sic.], and re-enter upon a national career, where if no glory awaited her, she would at least be free from a subjection by might, to wrong and to shame.”

4th. Resolved, That we pledge ourselves to any one or more of the States to co-operate with them, should it become necessary, to resist Federal wrong, and claim that it is not only our right, but imperative duty, at all times to aid any member of this confederacy, in protection of property, in preserving the lives of women and children, and in resisting fanaticism and treason.

Sec.__. And that the Governor is hereby requested to transmit a copy of the above preamble and resolutions to the Governor of South Carolina, and to the Executive of various States of the Union, and to our Representatives and Senators in Congress.

M. S. Munson, One of the Committee

The minority report, naturally, rejected both secession and nullification:

1st. That the Constitution of the United States is the fundamental basis of our Federal Union; that the laws and treaties made in pursuance thereof, are with the Constitution itself, the supreme law of the land, by which the Judges in every State are bound; anything in the Constitution or laws of our State to the contrary notwithstanding; that the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States are conclusive and binding upon every citizen. And obedience to the Constitution, Laws and authorities of the Federal Government, is the only condition upon which the Union can be maintained.

2d. That none of the alleged evils which have ever, or are now disturbing the harmony of the confederacy are ascribable to the legitimate operations of the Federal Government, but are justly chargeable to the disloyalty of those, who in obstructing the laws and authorities are themselves designedly or undesignedly enemies of the Union, and so far from considering these troubles a pretext for unfriendly demonstrations against it, we regard them as a fit occasion for summoning every patriot to its defence against all assaults, front whatever quarter, or on whatever pretence.

3rd. That a dissolution of the Union would cure no evil — repel no aggression — right no wrong — diminish no alarm — indemnify no damage; but on the contrary, would be the source of unnumbered evils. If wrongs are inflicted they can better be righted in the Union than out of it. And it behooves those who have been faithful to the Constitution to maintain the government, and not surrender to the enemies of the Constitution.

4th. That we dissent from the doctrine that a State has a right to secede from the Union at its pleasure.

5th. That we in like manner dissent from the doctrine of Nullification.

6th. That we deem it inexpedient to send deputies to a convention of the shareholding States, as invited to do by South Carolina.

7th. That in our opinion there is no sufficient cause to justify us in taking the incipient steps for a dissolution of the Union

8th. That the Governor be requested to cause a copy of these resolutions, under the seal of the State, to be transmitted to the Governor of South Carolina, and to each of the Governors of the other States.

John H. Manly, One of the Committee

The House ordered 200 copies of the two resolutions printed, and placed consideration of them on the schedule twice more. Both times consideration of the two resolutions was set aside in favor of more immediate legislation, and they died with the adjournment of the Legislature on February 13, 1860.

There’s nothing really new in either of these reports; the rhetoric, particularly in the pro-secession majority report, is familiar to anyone who’s looked at the secession crisis. What’s striking to me — but again, not really surprising — is the difference in tone. The majority report frames its argument on language that’s both grandiose and inflammatory: “severed into a thousand atoms, and scattered to the four winds,” “fanaticism and treason,” “an iron yoke upon the neck of the weak,” “unfurl again the banner of the lone star,” and so on. Its appeal is almost purely emotional and impulsive, heavily skewed toward the listener’s affective domain.

The minority report, by comparison, is almost wholly cognitive; it appeals to a much more deliberative and (in my view) rational way of thinking. It rejects the validity of secession or nullification, and argues against rash and irrevocable action: “a dissolution of the Union would cure no evil — repel no aggression — right no wrong — diminish no alarm — indemnify no damage; but on the contrary, would be the source of unnumbered evils. If wrongs are inflicted they can better be righted in the Union than out of it.” The tone is measured, almost quiet: “no sufficient cause” and so forth. Rhetorically it’s weak — very weak. Phrases like “we deem it expedient” just don’t raise the ire of the listener.

In the end, of course, secession won out and Texas herself would leave the Union almost exactly a year later. But it’s interesting to see how, in the runup to that momentus act, each side framed its argument.

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2 Responses

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  1. Commodore Perry said, on January 26, 2011 at 11:57 pm

    Since you touched on the thought processes involved, I’d like to see a major document like this point out exactly how such wrongs “can better be righted in the Union than out of it.” The phraseology used in this minority report does not allude to how wrongs could be righted within the Union nor to why that process would be better than leaving the Union. It does, interestingly, appeal emotionally in the 2nd resolution in speaking of traitors and defense, but on a cognitive level, it fails to say why staying in would be helpful or at least not as bad as secession. It only claims that secession is illegal and would be bad without speaking directly to the good of staying in the Union; maybe that’s right, but how would the citizens have known that staying in the Union was not even worse? I think it would be very interesting to see how Southern Unionists used serious logic and reason to appeal to the populace before 1860, especially since people were so flooded with rationales for the opposite.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 27, 2011 at 9:31 am

      That’s a great question. I haven’t seen a compelling pro-Union argument in the Texas House Journals (see here for the 8th regular session), but they’re a slog. Not indexed, and the House picked up and dropped action on legislation and resolutions on a whim. Hard to follow the discussion of any particular subject at this remove. That’s one reason why I latched on to these two reports — they’re succinct, and were written in parallel in response to the same question. A matched set, if you will.

      More generally, I think this example illustrates something we see in political discourse (in the broadest sense) all the time, that is that it’s easier to get results, to get people moved to action, if you can frame the opposition was an immediate, direct, or even existential threat. We see it continually in all sorts of discussions today, and that’s exactly how the fire-eaters framed the rise of the “Black Republicans”(cited explicitly above) and, a few months later, with the election of Abraham Lincoln. It’s much harder to say, in effect, settle down, we can work through this, don’t take a precipitous step you can’t take back.” The latter argument simply doesn’t cut through the raw emotion of the former.


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