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How Texas' history and mythology drive talk of secession

The Civil War largely adjudicated the idea of state secession — but Texas' history has fueled recent talks of breaking away again.
How Texas' history and mythology drive talk of secession
Posted at 10:03 PM, Feb 07, 2024

When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott introduced his fellow governor from Tennessee this week at a border press conference, his words made reference to a bedrock piece of Lone State lore.

"Now, I'm going to turn it over to Bill Lee, the governor of the great state of Tennessee — a state, by the way, that from the very beginning of Texas history has always been here for the great state of Texas," said Abbott. 

The introduction was a nod to Texas' widely held creation story including the Tennessee volunteers who rushed to defend the Alamo from Mexican troops in 1836 — the outsiders who answered the call to help the fiercely independent Anglo White settlers secede from what they viewed as a controlling Mexico.

"The people who are proudest about Texas, I find, are the ones whose identities are completely caught up in the mythology. And they don't know how to separate them," said Chris Tomlinson, author and columnist.

Understanding the psyche of Texas is useful in understanding the state's posture in immigration matters and its courtroom clashes with the federal government over policing the border. 

Immigration is legally under the authority of Washington, not Austin. But the unprecedented  conflict has given rise to musings about state secession. One state House candidate is even running on a vow to break Texas away, and has earned the endorsement of Donald Trump.

A fifth-generation Texan, Chris Tomlinson has written about his own family's past as slave-owners, as well as co-written the book "Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of the American Myth."

He says the legend leaves out one critical detail about why Texas craved independence in the first place.

"If you tell the truth that the battle was about slavery, that the people who fought it were not Texans, that the end result was the systematic oppression and ethnic cleansing of Hispanic people from the state of Texas — it blows up that origin myth," said Tomlinson. 

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Before Texas was a state, White Americans settled there at the invitation of imperial Spain, which was having difficulties expanding the territory while fighting native peoples. The Americans continued on when Mexico itself became independent from Spain.

"And throughout the whole time you have Stephen F. Austin going to Mexico City, begging the Mexican National Assembly not to ban slavery in Texas, saying that the only way Texas can survive is with slavery. And you have this newly minted democratic government in Mexico City that was committed to banning slavery," Tomlinson said. 

And when that happened Anglo settlers rebelled against Mexico, beginning in 1835 with a skirmish against Mexican troops at Gonzales, which spawned the "Come and Take It" flag you see today.

Then there was the siege at the Alamo, where Texas defenders perished fending off General Santa Anna, who came north to quash a rebellious Mexican state. The fighting ended at the decisive battle of San Jacinto, and then Texas flew its own flag. 

"The majority of Texans wanted to join the Union immediately after, seceding from Mexico. But the United States wouldn't have us. They didn't want a war with Mexico," said Tomlinson. 

"It's hard to find any evidence that there was not a moment where they didn't think of themselves as American first. They had to. They were American before they got there. They moved it. They moved. They immigrated to Texas," said Raul Ramos, historian at the University of Houston.

In 1845 the United States annexed Texas, and after war with Mexico the Lone Star State officially joined, but seceded again to join the Confederacy — once again over slavery. 

Historians have shot down the idea that a state could secede again, because the Civil War adjudicated that idea. The late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once wrote,"if there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede."

University of Texas government Professor Eric McDaniel says the Lone Star State's past secessions fuel the current idea that it could wrest free from the United States once again — but the dream ignores realities.

"So if Texas were to secede, there are a number of problems. A lot of the companies that have been brought in would now be seen as foreign companies. And so they may leave because of that. Also, if Texas leaves, one third of the state's budget comes from the federal government," said McDaniel. 

The complex reality of secession now is as complex as the reality of how the Lone Star State came to be Texas.

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