Antebellum Texas

By: Randolph B. "Mike" Campbell

Type: General Entry

Published: November 1, 1994

Updated: April 15, 2021

In the drama of Texas history the period of early statehood, from 1846 to 1861, appears largely as an interlude between two great adventures-the Republic of Texas and the Civil War. These fifteen years did indeed lack the excitement and romance of the experiment in nationhood and the "Lost Cause" of the Confederacy. Events and developments during the period, however, were critical in shaping the Lone Star State as part of the antebellum South. By 1861 Texas was so like the other Southern states economically, socially, and politically that it joined them in secession and war. Antebellum Texans cast their lot with the Old South and in the process gave their state an indelibly Southern heritage.

When President Anson Jones lowered the flag of the republic for the last time in February 1846, the framework for the development of Texas over the next fifteen years was already constructed. The great majority of the new state's approximately 100,000 White inhabitants were natives of the South, who, as they settled in the eastern timberlands and south central plains, had built a life as similar as possible to that experienced in their home states. Their economy, dependent on agriculture, was concentrated first on subsistence farming and herding and then on production of cotton as a cash crop. the global revolution in cotton that occurred during the early nineteenth century brought immigrants to plant what historian Andrew Torget has called the “Seeds of Empire” in the rich soil of Texas. And along with cotton production came the introduction of what southerners called their "Peculiar Institution"-slavery. By 1846 Texas had more than 30,000 black slaves and produced an even larger number of bales of cotton (see COTTON CULTURE). Political institutions were also characteristically Southern. The Constitution of 1845, written by a convention in which natives of Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia alone constituted a majority, depended heavily on Louisiana's fundamental law as well as on the existing Constitution of the Republic of Texas. As befitted an agricultural state led by Jacksonians, the constitution prohibited banking and required a two-thirds vote of the legislature to charter any private corporation. Article VIII guaranteed the institution of slavery.

With the foundations of their society in place and the turbulence of the republic behind them, Texans in 1846 anticipated years of expansion and prosperity. Instead, however, they found themselves and their state's interests heavily involved in the war between Mexico and the United States that broke out within a few months of annexation (see MEXICAN WAR). Differences between the two nations arose from a variety of issues, but disagreement over the southwestern boundary of Texas provided the spark for war. Mexico contended that Texas reached only to the Nueces River, whereas after 1836 the republic had claimed the Rio Grande as the border. President James K. Polk, a Jacksonian Democrat from Tennessee, backed the Texans' claims, and in January 1846, after unsuccessful attempts to make the Rio Grande the boundary and settle other differences by diplomacy, he ordered Gen. Zachary Taylor to occupy the disputed area. In March Taylor moved to the Rio Grande across from Matamoros. Battles between his troops and Mexican soldiers occurred north of the river in May, and Congress, at Polk's request, declared war. Approximately 5,000 Texans served with United States forces in the conflict that followed, fighting for both General Taylor in northern Mexico and Gen. Winfield Scott on his campaign to capture Mexico City. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war in February 1848, Mexico recognized Texas as a part of the United States and confirmed the Rio Grande as its border.

Victory in the Mexican War soon led to a dispute concerning the boundary between Texas and the United States over the newly acquired Mexican Cession. This conflict arose from the Lone Star State's determination to make the most of the Rio Grande as its western boundary by claiming an area reaching to Santa Fe and encompassing the eastern half of what is now New Mexico. In March 1848 the Texas legislature decreed the existence of Santa Fe County, and Governor George T. Wood sent Spruce M. Baird to organize the local government and serve as its first judge. The people of Santa Fe, however, proved unwilling to accept Texas authority, and United States troops in the area supported them. In July 1849, after failing to organize the county, Baird left. At the same time a bitter controversy was developing in Congress between representatives of the North and the South concerning the expansion of slavery into the territory taken from Mexico. The Texans' western boundary claims became involved in this larger dispute, and the Lone Star State was drawn into the crisis of 1850 on the side of the South.

President Zachary Taylor, who took office in March 1849, proposed to handle the Mexican Cession by omitting the territorial stage and admitting California and New Mexico directly into the Union. His policy angered southerners in general and Texans in particular. First, both California and New Mexico were expected to prohibit slavery, a development that would give the free states numerical superiority in the Union. Second, Taylor's approach in effect pitted the federal government against Texas claims to the Santa Fe area and promised to stop the expansion of slavery at the Lone Star State's western boundary. Southern extremists resolved to break up the Union before accepting the president's proposals. They urged Texas to stand firm on the boundary issue, and the Mississippi state legislature called for a convention in Nashville during June 1850 "to devise and adopt some means of resistance" to Northern aggression. Ultra-Southern spokesmen in Texas took up the cry, demanding that their state send delegates to Nashville and take all steps necessary to prove that it was not "submissionist."

In December 1849 the Texas legislature responded to the crisis with an act designating new boundaries for Santa Fe County, and Robert S. Neighbors was sent to organize the government there. The legislature also provided for the election in March 1850 of eight delegates to attend the Nashville convention for "consultation and mutual action on the subject of slavery and Southern Rights." By June, when Neighbors reported that the people of Santa Fe did not want to be part of Texas, the state appeared ready to take aggressive action. Moderation prevailed, however, in Washington, Nashville, and Texas. By September 1850 Congress had worked out a compromise to settle the crisis. After much wrangling, Senator James A. Pearce of Maryland proposed that the boundary between Texas and New Mexico be a line drawn east from the Rio Grande along the 32d parallel to the 103d meridian, then north to 36°30', and finally east again to the 100th meridian. In return for its New Mexican claims, Texas would receive $10 million in United States bonds, half of which would be held to satisfy the state's public debt. Some Texans bitterly opposed the "Infamous Texas Bribery Bill," but extremism was on the wane across the state and the South as a whole. In Texas the crisis had aroused the Unionism of Sam Houston, the state's most popular politician. He made fun of the election to choose delegates to the Nashville convention. The vote had been called too late to allow effective campaigning anyhow, and of those elected only former governor J. Pinckney Henderson actually attended the meeting in Tennessee. (Incidentally, in this same election Texans approved the permanent choice of Austin as state capital.) The Nashville Convention, although it urged Texas to stand by its claim to New Mexico, generally adopted a moderate tone. In November 1850 Texans voted by a two-to-one margin to accept the Pearce Bill (see COMPROMISE OF 1850).

The crisis of 1850 demonstrated the existence of strong Unionist sentiment in Texas, but it also revealed that the Lone Star State, in spite of its location on the southwestern frontier, was identified with the Old South. Charles C. Mills of Harrison County summarized this circumstance perfectly in a letter to Governor Peter H. Bell during the crisis: "Texas having so recently come into the Union, should not be foremost to dissolve it, but I trust she will not waver, when the crisis shall come."

As the boundaries of antebellum Texas were being settled and its identity shaped during the first years of statehood, new settlers poured in. A state census in 1847 reported the population at 142,009. Three years later a far more complete United States census (the first taken in Texas) enumerated 212,592 people, excluding Indians, in the state. Immigrants arriving in North Texas came primarily from the upper South and states of the old Northwest such as Illinois. Settlers entering through the Marshall-Jefferson area and Nacogdoches were largely from the lower South. On the Gulf Coast, Galveston and Indianola served as entry points for many lower southerners. Numerous foreign-born immigrants, especially Germans, also entered through these ports during the late 1840s.

The Texas to which these migrants came was a frontier state in the classic sense. That is, it had a line of settlement advancing westward as pioneers populated and cultivated new land. Also, as in most American frontiers, settlers faced problems with Indians. By the late 1840s Texas frontiersmen had reached the country of the fierce Comanches and were no doubt relieved that, since annexation, the task of defending the frontier rested with the United States Army. In 1848–49 the army built a line of eight military posts from Fort Worth to Fort Duncan, at Eagle Pass on the Rio Grande. Within two years, under the pressure to open additional lands and do a better job of protecting existing settlements, federal forces built seven new forts approximately 100 miles to the west of the existing posts. This new line of defense, when completed in 1852, ran from Fort Belknap, on the Brazos River, to Fort Clark, at the site of present-day Brackettville. Conflict with the Comanches continued for the remainder of the decade as federal troops, joined at times by companies of Texas Rangers, sought to protect the frontier. They were never entirely successful, however, and Indian warfare continued after the Civil War. With the Comanches and the lack of water and wood on the western plains both hampering its advance, the Texas frontier did not move during the 1850s beyond the seven forts completed at the onset of the decade. Areas immediately to the east of the military posts continued to fill, but the rush westward slowed. In 1860 the line of settlement ran irregularly from north to south through Clay, Young, Erath, Brown, Llano, Kerr, and Uvalde counties.

Important as it was to antebellum Texas, this western frontier was home to only a small fraction of the state's population. The great majority lived well to the east in areas where moving onto unclaimed land and fighting Indians were largely things of the past by 1846. These Texans, not frontiersmen in the traditional sense, were yet part of an extremely significant frontier-the southwesterly march of slaveholding, cotton-producing farmers and planters. "King Cotton" ruled the Old South's agricultural economy, and he came to rule antebellum Texas as well. Anglo-American settlers had sought from the beginning to build a plantation society in the region stretching from the Red River through the East Texas timberlands to the fertile soils along the Trinity, Brazos, Colorado, and lesser rivers that emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. During the 1850s this cotton frontier developed rapidly.

At the census of 1850, 95 percent of the 212,592 Texans lived in the eastern two-fifths of the state, an area the size of Alabama and Mississippi combined. Ten years later, although the state's population had grown to 604,215, the overwhelming majority still lived in the same region. The population had far greater ethnic diversity than was common elsewhere in the South. There were large numbers of Germans in the south central counties, many Mexican Americans from San Antonio southward, and smaller groups of Poles, Czechs, and other foreign-born immigrants scattered through the interior. Nevertheless, natives of the lower South constituted the largest group of immigrants to Texas during the 1850s, and southerners headed three of every four households there in 1860. Like immigrants from the Deep South, enslaved African Americans also constituted an increasingly large part of the Lone Star State's population (27 percent in 1850 and 30 percent in 1860). Their numbers rose from 58,161 to 182,566, a growth of 214 percent, during the decade.

The expansion of slavery correlated closely with soaring cotton production, which rose from fewer than 60,000 bales in 1850 to more than 400,000 in 1860. In 1850 of the nineteen counties having 1,000 or more slaves-ten in northeastern Texas and nine stretching inland along the Brazos and Colorado rivers-fifteen produced 1,000 or more bales of cotton. The census of 1860 reported sixty-four counties having 1,000 or more slaves, and all except eight produced 1,000 or more bales. These included, with the exception of an area in extreme Southeast Texas, virtually every county east of a line running from Fannin County, on the Red River, southwestward through McLennan County to Comal County and then along the San Antonio River to the Gulf. Only six counties in this area managed to grow at least 1,000 bales of cotton without a matching number of slave workers.

Slavery and cotton thus marched hand-in-hand across antebellum Texas, increasingly dominating the state's agricultural economy. Plantations in Brazoria and Matagorda counties produced significant sugar crops, but elsewhere farmers and planters concentrated on cotton as a source of cash income. By 1860 King Cotton had the eastern two-fifths of Texas, excepting only the north central prairie area around Dallas and the plains south of the San Antonio River, firmly within his grasp.

Perhaps, as historian Charles W. Ramsdell suggested in a noted 1929 article, the cotton frontier was approaching its natural limits in Texas during the 1850s. The soil and climate of western Texas precluded successful plantation agriculture, and proximity to Mexico, with its offer of freedom for runaways, reinforced these geographical limitations. In 2010, historian Sean Kelley reinforced the natural limits argument in an examination of the lower Brazos River valley that pointed out the many difficulties inherent in transplanting plantation slavery to that borderland region of Texas. Regardless, however, of those obstacles, slavery and cotton had great potential for continued expansion in Texas after 1860. Growth had not ended anywhere in the state at that time, and the north central prairie area had not even been opened for development. The fertile soils of the Blackland Prairie and Grand Prairie counties would produce hundreds of thousands of bales of cotton once adequate transportation reached that far inland, and railroads would soon have met that need. The two prairie regions combined were more than three-fourths as large as the state of South Carolina but had only 6 percent as many slaves in 1860. The cotton frontier of antebellum Texas constituted a virtual empire for slavery, and such editors as John F. Marshall of the Austin State Gazette wrote confidently of the day when the state would have two million slaves or even more.

Only a minority of antebellum Texans, however, actually owned slaves and participated directly in the cash-crop economy. Only one family in four held so much as a single slave, and more than half of those had fewer than five slaves. Small and large planters, defined respectively as those owning ten to nineteen and twenty or more slaves, held well over half of the state's slaves in both 1850 and 1860. This planter class profited from investments in land, labor, and cotton and, although a decided minority even among slaveholders, provided the driving force behind the state's economy.

Agriculture developed rapidly in antebellum Texas, as evidenced by a steady expansion in the number of farms, the amount of improved acreage, the value of livestock, and the size of crops produced. Slave labor contributed heavily to that growth. On the other hand, during the 1850s Texas developed very slowly in terms of industry, commerce, and urban growth. In both 1850 and 1860 only about 1 percent of Texas family heads had manufacturing occupations. Texas industries in 1860 produced goods valued at $6.5 million, while, by contrast, Wisconsin, another frontier state that had entered the Union in 1848, reported nearly $28 million worth of manufactures. Commercial activity, retarded no doubt by inadequate transportation and the constitutional prohibition on banking (see BANKS AND BANKING), also occupied only a small minority (less than 5 percent) of Texans. With industry and commerce so limited, no urban area in the state reached a population of 10,000 during the antebellum years. In 1860 San Antonio (8,200), Galveston (7,307), Houston (4,800), and Austin (3,500) were the state's only "cities." By contrast, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, reported a population of 20,000 as early as 1850.

Antebellum Texans failed to diversify their economy for several reasons. Part of the explanation was geographical: climate and soil gave Texas an advantage over most regions of the United States, certainly those outside the South, in plantation agriculture and thus helped produce an overwhelmingly agricultural economy. Slavery appears also to have retarded the rise of industry and commerce. Slave labor made the plantation productive and profitable and reduced the need for the invention and manufacture of farm machinery. Planters concentrated on self-sufficiency and on the cultivation of cotton, a crop that quickly passed out of Texas for processing elsewhere with a minimum involvement of local merchants along the way. Opportunities for industry and commerce were thus reduced by the success of the plantation. Moreover, the planters, who were, after all, the richest and most enterprising men in Texas and who would have had to lead any move to diversify the economy, benefited enough financially and socially from combining land and slave labor that they generally saw no need to risk investments in industry or commerce.

Planters did have an interest in improving transportation in their state. From the 1820s onward Texans had utilized the major rivers from the Red River to the Rio Grande to move themselves and their goods and crops, but periodic low water, sand bars, and rafts of logs and brush made transportation by water highly unreliable. Moving supplies and cotton on Texas roads, which became quagmires in wet weather, was simply too slow and expensive. Thus, as the cotton frontier advanced inland, the movement of crops and supplies, never an easy matter, became increasingly difficult. Railroads offered a solution, albeit not without more financial difficulties than promoters could imagine. The state legislature chartered the state's first railroad, the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado, in February 1850. Intended to run from Harrisburg, near Houston, westward to Alleyton on the Colorado River, and tap the commerce on both the Brazos and Colorado, this road became operational to Stafford's Point in 1853 and reached its destination by 1860. Dozens of other railroads received charters after 1850, but for every one that actually operated six came to nothing.

Railroad promoters, faced with a difficult task and armed with arguments about the obvious importance of improved transportation in Texas, insisted that the state should subsidize construction. Their efforts to gain public aid for railroad corporations focused on obtaining land grants and using the United States bonds acquired in the settlement of the New Mexico boundary as a basis for loans. Some Texans, however, led by Lorenzo Sherwood, a New York-born lawyer who lived in Galveston, opposed the whole concept of state subsidies for private corporations. Sherwood developed a State Plan calling for the government in Austin to construct and own a thousand-mile network of railroads. Those who favored private promoters managed early in 1854 to obtain a law authorizing the granting of sixteen sections of land for each mile of road built to all railroads chartered after that date. However, the struggle between those who favored loans and supporters of the State Plan continued into 1856, as Sherwood won election to the legislature and continued to fight effectively for his ideas. His opponents finally seized upon statements Sherwood made against reopening the African slave trade, accused him of opposing slavery, and forced him under the threat of violence to resign from the legislature. Within less than a month, in July 1856, the legislature passed a bill authorizing loans of $6,000 to railroad companies for every mile of road built.

Antebellum Texans thus decided that private corporations encouraged by state aid would built their railroads. Progress was limited, however. By 1860 the state had approximately 400 miles of operating railroad, but almost all of it radiated from Houston. Major lines included the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado, from Harrisburg to Alleyton through Houston; the Galveston, Houston and Henderson, from Galveston to Houston; and the Texas and New Orleans, from Houston to Orange through Beaumont. Only the San Antonio and Mexican Gulf Railway, which ran from Port Lavaca to Victoria, and the Southern Pacific Railroad (not to be confused with the future system of that name) in Harrison County did not connect in some fashion with Houston. Railroad building progressed slowly because antebellum Texas did not have the native capital to finance it, the industrial base to produce building materials, or the population and diversified economy to provide traffic the year around. At least the stage had been set, however, for building an adequate network of rail transportation after 1865.

Thus, as the cotton frontier of Texas developed during the 1850s, the state's economy increasingly mirrored that of the Deep South. A majority of Texans lived as small, nonslaveholding farmers, but plantation agriculture and slave labor produced the state's wealth and provided its economic leaders. At the same time, there was little development in terms of industry, commerce, urban growth, and transportation. With an economy of this nature and a Southern-born population predominant in most areas, antebellum Texas naturally developed social practices and institutions that also were Southern to the core.

Women in antebellum Texas found their role in society shaped by traditions that, while by no means unique to the South, were strongly entrenched in that region. The ideal female was a homemaker and mother, pious and pure, strong and hardworking, and yet docile and submissive. She was placed on a pedestal and admired, but she had no political rights and suffered serious disabilities before the law. Women could not, for example, serve on juries, act as lawyers, or witness a will. Texas women, however, did enjoy significant property rights. Married women retained title to property such as land and slaves owned before they wed, had community rights to all property acquired during a marriage, and had full title to property that came into their hands after divorce or the death of a husband. These rights allowed Texas women to head families, own plantations, and manage estates in ways that were anything but passive and submissive.

Antebellum Texans favored churches in the evangelical tradition of the Old South. Methodists far outnumbered other denominations. By 1860 the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, as it was called after the North-South split of 1844, had 30,661 members. Baptists constituted the second largest denomination, followed by the Presbyterian, Christian, Cumberland Presbyterian, Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopal churches. These institutions provided spiritual and moral guidance and offered educational instruction as well. Moreover, religious activities brought people together in settings that encouraged friendly social interchange and relieved the isolation of rural life.

Education in antebellum Texas was largely a matter of private enterprise, both secular and church affiliated. At the most basic level, would-be teachers simply established common schools and offered primary and elementary instruction to children whose parents could pay tuition. More formal education took place in state-chartered institutions, which often bore names promising far more than they could deliver. Between 1846 and 1861 the Texas legislature chartered 117 schools, including forty academies, thirty colleges, and seven universities. Most of these institutions lasted only a few years, had relatively few students, and, regardless of their titles, offered little beyond secondary education. The University of San Augustine and Marshall University, for example, both chartered in 1842, had primary departments teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. The quality of education at all levels in Texas schools suffered from a variety of problems, including the fact that teachers who were dependent for their pay on the good will of parents could not afford to be very demanding. Schools often covered their shortcomings and bolstered their academic reputations by holding public oral examinations that the whole community could attend. Parents and most observers greatly appreciated these events and overlooked the fact that generally they were watching rehearsed performances rather than true examinations.

Regardless of its doubtful quality, private school education lay beyond the means of most antebellum Texas families. In general only the well-to-do could afford to buy schooling for their children, a situation that conflicted with democratic ideals and growing American faith in education. Texans expressed considerable interest during the 1850s in establishing a free public school system. Action came, however, only after the legislature devised a scheme to establish a fund that could be used for loans to promote railroad building, with the interest going to support public schools. In January 1854 the legislature set aside $2 million of the bonds received from the boundary settlement in 1850 (see BOUNDARIES OF TEXAS and COMPROMISE OF 1850) as a "Special School Fund." Two years later another act provided for loans from this fund to railroad corporations. Interest from the school fund was to go to the counties on a per-student basis to pay the salaries of public school teachers, but counties had to provide all the necessary buildings and equipment. Knowing that this would be expensive and doubtless feeling pressure from private school interests, the legislature permitted local authorities to hire teachers in existing educational institutions. It quickly became apparent that the interest from the school fund would be totally inadequate to do more than subsidize the schooling of children from indigent families. The private schools benefited, and public education remained only a dream. (see HIGHER EDUCATION.)

Educational opportunities notwithstanding, literacy, at least as measured by census enumerators, was high in antebellum Texas. The state's many newspapers (three dailies, three triweeklies, and sixty-five weeklies by 1860) constituted the most widely available reading matter. Among the most influential publications were the Telegraph and Texas Register, the Clarksville Northern Standard, the Marshall Texas Republican, the Nacogdoches Texas Chronicle, the Austin State Gazette, the Dallas Weekly Herald (see DALLAS TIMES-HERALD), and the Galveston Daily News (see GALVESTON NEWS). What the papers lacked in news-gathering facilities they made up for with colorful editors and political partisanship. Virtually anyone who cared to could find both information on current events and entertainment in an antebellum newspaper.

Texans had a notable variety of amusements. Amateur theater groups, debating societies, and music recitals, for example, provided cultural opportunities. Many other amusements were notably less genteel. Horse racing, gambling, and drinking were popular, the last to such a degree that the temperance crusade against liquor was by far the most important reform movement of the era. Cruder amusements often sparked violence, although antebellum Texans needed very little provocation. The constitution had outlawed duels, the Old South's traditional method of settling affairs of honor, but violence in Texas was generally more spontaneous and less stylized, anyhow. In June 1860, for example, a man named Johnson spotted on the street in Hempstead one McNair, with whom he had a long-standing quarrel. Firing three times from his second-floor hotel room window, he hit McNair in the neck, side, and thigh. As Johnson prepared to ride away, a crowd gathered around the dying McNair. "By God, a good shot that," one said.

Politics in antebellum Texas reflected the state's preeminently Southern economic and social structure. Institutionally, political arrangements were highly democratic by the standards of that era. The Constitution of 1845 permitted all adult White males, without regard to taxpaying or property-holding status, to vote and hold any state or local office. In practice, however, wealthy slaveholders dominated officeholding at all levels and provided the state's political leadership. Their control was democratic in that they were freely elected, and they governed without having to coerce nonslaveholders into supporting their policies. Nevertheless, leadership by a minority class whose status depended on the ownership of slaves introduced an element of aristocracy and gave a pro-Southern cast to antebellum Texas politics.

Virtually all of the men who governed Texas from 1846 to 1861 were identified with the Democratic party. "We are all Democrats," Guy M. Bryan wrote in 1845, "since the glorious victory of that party, who fearlessly espoused our cause and nailed the `Lone Star' to the topmast of their noble ship." When the Whig party displayed a lack of enthusiasm for the Mexican War and supported President Zachary Taylor in denying Texas claims to New Mexico territory in 1849–50, Bryan's statement became even more accurate. The Democrats won every presidential and gubernatorial election between 1845 and 1861. Indeed, so complete was their domination that the closest contests during these years came as a result of intraparty divisions, usually with the towering figure of Sam Houston occupying center stage.

J. Pinckney Henderson easily won the first race for state governor in December 1845 and took office in February 1846. He presided over the transition from republic to state and spent the latter part of 1846 commanding Texas troops in Mexico. Worn out from the war and in failing health, Henderson declined in 1847 to run for reelection. He was succeeded by George T. Wood, a Trinity River planter who had the support of Sam Houston. Wood served from 1847 to 1849, as the dispute over the New Mexico boundary built to crisis proportions. During his term Texans participated in their first presidential election and gave Democrat Lewis Cass 69 percent of the vote in his contest with the Whig Zachary Taylor. Wood lost the governorship to Peter Hansborough Bell in 1849, probably because of lukewarm support from Houston and Bell's promise of a more aggressive policy on the boundary question. The Compromise of 1850, although considered a shameful surrender by some extremists, did not seriously injure Bell's pro-Southern reputation. He defeated four opponents in 1851, including the Whig Benjamin H. Epperson, and served a second term before resigning in 1853 to take a seat in Congress. In the meantime the Democratic presidential candidate, Franklin Pierce, carried Texas overwhelmingly in the election of 1852. The Whigs made their most serious bid for the governorship in 1853 with the candidacy of William B. Ochiltree. Democrats met this challenge by agreeing to support one man, E. M. Pease, rather than their usual multiplicity of candidates. Pease's first term was significant for efforts to start a public school system and encourage railroad building. It also marked the appearance of a new political party that offered the most serious threat to Democratic domination of state politics during the 1850s. The American (Know-Nothing) party, an antiforeign, anti-Catholic organization that had originated in the Northeast, appeared in Texas during 1855 and attracted many Whigs, whose party had disintegrated as a result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. The Know-Nothings supported Lieutenant Governor David C. Dickson for governor in 1855 and forced the Democrats to call a hurried state convention and unify in support of Governor Pease. The new party had considerable success in legislative and local elections, but Pease defeated Dickson with relative ease. The Know-Nothings lost badly in their support of Millard Fillmore during the presidential race of 1856 and rapidly withered into insignificance thereafter.

During Pease's second term (1855–57), Texas politics came to focus on pro- and anti-Houston issues as they had not since the end of the republic. Senator Houston's consistent Unionism in the crisis of 1850 and in voting against the Kansas-Nebraska Act greatly irritated ultra-Southern Democrats in Texas. A flirtation with the Know-Nothings had the same effect. Believing that he would not be reelected to the Senate when his term ended in 1859, Houston decided to run for governor in 1857 as an independent. The regular Democrats nominated Hardin R. Runnels, a native Mississippian with strong states'-rights beliefs, and a bitter campaign followed. Houston presented himself as a champion of the Union and his opponents as disunionists, while regular Democrats said that Old Sam was a Free-Soil traitor to Texas. Runnels won by a vote of 32,552 to 28,678, handing Houston the only defeat he ever suffered in a major political campaign. As governor, Runnels pursued an aggressive policy toward Indians in Northwest Texas, and there was more bloodshed on the frontier in 1858–59 than at any other time since 1836. The Comanches, although pushed back, mounted destructive raids on exposed settlements in 1859, creating considerable dissatisfaction with the Runnels administration. Also, during Runnels's term sectional tensions increased as the governor endorsed an extreme version of states' rights, and leading Democrats, including John Marshall, state party chairman and editor of the Austin State Gazette, advocated ultra-Southern policies such as reopening the African slave trade.

These developments under Runnels set the stage for another bitter and exciting gubernatorial contest in 1859. The regular Democrats renominated Runnels and Lieutenant Governor Francis R. Lubbock on an ultra-Southern platform, while Houston and Edward Clark opposed them by running as Independent or Union Democrats. This time, in his last electoral contest, Houston defeated Runnels, 33,375 to 27,500. The victory may have resulted in part from a lack of pro-Southern extremism among Texas voters, but Houston's personal popularity and the failure of Runnels's frontier policy played key roles, too. In any case, the state legislature's choice of Louis T. Wigfall as United States senator only two months after the gubernatorial election demonstrated that Unionism by no means had control in Texas. Wigfall, a native of South Carolina, was a fire-eating secessionist and one of Houston's bitterest enemies in Texas.

Houston's inaugural address, which he delivered publicly rather than to the hostile legislature, concluded with a plea for moderation. "When Texas united her destiny with that of the United States," he said, "she entered not into the North, nor South. Her connection was not sectional, but national." The governor was at least partly correct about the attitude at the time of annexation, but by 1860 Texas had become so much a part of the Old South that not even Sam Houston could restrain the state's rush toward secession. Ultrasoutherners controlled the Democratic state convention in 1860 and sent a delegation headed by Runnels and Lubbock to the national convention in Charleston, South Carolina. Rather than accept a platform favoring Stephen A. Douglas, the northern Democrat who called for popular sovereignty to decide the matter of slavery in the territories, the Texans joined other Deep South delegations in walking out of the convention. This step opened a split in the Democratic party that soon resulted in the nominations of Douglas by the Northern wing and John C. Breckinridge by the Southern. In the meantime the Republican party nominated Abraham Lincoln on a platform opposing the spread of slavery, and conservatives from the upper South formed a Constitutional Union party aimed at uniting those who wished to avoid disunion. Sam Houston received serious consideration for the presidential nomination of the new party but lost to John Bell of Tennessee.

Regular Democrats in Texas supported Breckinridge and threatened immediate secession if the "Black Republican" Abraham Lincoln won. The Opposition, as those who opposed the Democrats were now called, turned to Bell and the Constitutional Unionists in the hope of preventing disunion. This group, which generally sought to carry on the traditional unionism of the Whigs, Know-Nothings, and Houston Independent Democrats, did not oppose slavery or Southern interests. They simply argued that secession amounted to revolution and would probably hasten the destruction of slavery rather than protect it. A minority from the outset, the Opposition saw their cause weakened further during the late summer of 1860 by an outbreak of public hysteria known as the Texas Troubles. The panic began with a series of ruinous fires in North Texas. Spontaneous ignition of phosphorous matches due to extremely hot weather may have caused the fires. Several masters, however, forced their slaves to confess to arson, and Texans decided that a massive abolitionist-inspired plot threatened to destroy slavery and devastate the countryside. Slave and White suspects alike fell victim to vigilante action before the panic subsided in September. "It is better," said one citizen of Fort Worth, "for us to hang ninety-nine innocent (suspicious) men than to let one guilty one pass." (see SLAVE INSURRECTIONS)

In November 1860 Breckinridge defeated Bell in Texas by a vote of 47,458 to 15,463, carrying every county in the state except three-Bandera, Gillespie, and Starr. Abraham Lincoln received no votes in Texas, but free-state votes made him the president-elect, scheduled to take office in March 1861. His victory signaled the beginning of a spontaneous popular movement that soon swept the Lone Star State out of the Union. True to its antebellum heritage as a growing part of the cotton frontier, Texas stood ready in 1860 to join the other Southern states in secession and war.

Walter L. Buenger, Secession and the Union in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984). Randolph B. Campbell and Richard G. Lowe, Wealth and Power in Antebellum Texas (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1977). Randolph B. Campbell, An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821-1865 (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1989). Mark M. Carroll, Homesteads Ungovernable: Families, Sex, Race and the Law in Frontier Texas, 1823-1860 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001). Earl Wesley Fornell, The Galveston Era: The Texas Crescent on the Eve of Secession (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961). Llerena B. Friend, "The Texan of 1860," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 62 (July 1958). Sean M. Kelley, Los Brazos de Dios: A Plantation Society in the Texas Borderlands, 1821-1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010). Charles W. Ramsdell, "The Natural Limits of Slavery Expansion," Mississippi Valley Historical Review 16 (September 1929). Mark J. Stegmaier, Texas, New Mexico, and the Compromise of 1850: Boundary Dispute and Sectional Crisis (Kent, OH, Kent State University Press, 1996). Jean A. Stuntz, Hers, His, and Theirs: Community Property Law in Spain and Early Texas (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2010).  Andrew J. Torget, Seeds of Empire:  Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Time Periods:
  • Antebellum Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Randolph B. "Mike" Campbell, “Antebellum Texas,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 27, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 1, 1994
April 15, 2021