Like other cotton-growing and slaveholding states, Texas seceded from the Union in early 1861 and joined the Confederate States of America. Texas was the seventh state to secede and the last to secede before the firing at Fort Sumter signaled the start of the Civil War and forced citizens of the upper South to choose between fighting against or with their Southern brethren. The election of a Republican, Abraham Lincoln, to the presidency of the United States and fears that Republican control of the executive branch would threaten slavery and the traditional rights and liberties of Americans precipitated the secession crisis in Texas and elsewhere. South Carolina's decision to secede in December 1860 further encouraged Texas secessionists. Some Texans were slow to accept secession, however, or never accepted it. They did not simply react to the election of Lincoln and emulate South Carolina. Indeed, the timing of the secession of Texas and the motivation behind it are of continued interest because they open up a series of questions about the nature of the Texas economy, the population, political parties, local needs, the role of such Unionists as Sam Houston, and the effects of public pressure to conform. Running through all of these questions is the role of slavery.
Many Texans believed in the 1850s that slavery was vital to the Texas economy and to its future growth. Indeed, slavery had grown rapidly in Texas after annexation in 1845. By 1860 slaves constituted roughly 30 percent of the population. Limited means of transportation, however, concentrated plantations along the river valleys of eastern Texas and in the coastal counties just below Houston and Galveston. Only cotton grown in these places could easily reach a market. In other settled regions of Texas slavery was virtually absent, and the economy depended upon livestock, corn, or wheat and not on slavery and cotton. In 1860 Texas was divided between a region dependent on slavery region and a largely slave-free region.
Most of those who lived in the slaveholding region in eastern and southeastern Texas had come to the state from the lower South. The population of the rest of the state had more diverse origins. Settlement extended little more than 100 miles west of Austin in 1860. Along the frontier were nonslaveholders from the upper South or from Germany. In north central Texas were wheat growers from the upper South. In the southwest and also on the Rio Grande were Mexicans and Germans, as well as British Americans. The major Texas cities, San Antonio, Houston, and Galveston, which all had populations just under 10,000, had significant German or Mexican populations. Population and economic characteristics greatly influenced secession. The diversity of the state slowed the secession process and helped to produce pockets of resistance to it. On the other hand, the recent immigration of many Texans from the lower South and their dependence on cotton and slavery influenced many to follow the lead of South Carolina and the rest of the lower South. Groups of Germans or upper Southerners who lived close to lower Southerners and in areas in which slavery and cotton were feasible were beginning to be assimilated into a lower South culture by 1860 and largely supported secession. Ties to political parties and ideology could in some cases determine attitudes toward secession. In general, Democrats were inclined to support the right of individuals to own slaves even at the expense of the Union. Whigs and other opposition groups were less inclined to sacrifice the Union for the sake of slavery. Regardless of their personal stake in slavery, groups were often influenced by party ties to support or oppose secession. Germans who did not hold slaves supported secession in Comal County out of loyalty to the Democratic party. Slaveholding former Whigs opposed secession in Galveston and Harrison counties.
Local needs also influenced attitudes toward secession. Slaveholding Whigs in Galveston were often involved in extensive commercial dealings with merchants in England and New York. Any disruption of the Union would disrupt their business. Comal County Germans had learned during the nativist controversies of the 1850s that it was best to go along with other white Americans on the slavery issue. Along the frontier the ability or inability of the United States Army to protect the citizens often influenced attitudes toward secession. Well-protected areas, where the army garrisons were also the best market for local goods and services, opposed secession. Poorly protected areas supported secession. Closely related to local needs and political parties was the role of individuals, particularly individual Unionists. In Comal County, Ferdinand J. Lindheimer, a longtime Texan and the editor of the local German-language newspaper, helped sway the Germans to support secession. Usually, however, secession was popular enough without the help of community leaders. Prominent Unionists, on the other hand, were a major reason that Texas did not secede before March 1861. The most important of these was Sam Houston, the governor of the state from 1859 to 1861. He slowed the calling of a convention until January 1861, helped force the holding of a public referendum on secession (February 23, 1861), and opposed joining the Confederacy. Along with other outspoken and well-placed Unionists such as state senator James W. Throckmorton, who was one of only eight members of the Secession Convention to vote against leaving the Union, Houston slowed but could not stop the secession movement.
Secession could not be halted because public pressure became too great. Whether it was because the danger to slavery that Texans associated with the Republican party threatened the economy or because white Texans could not tolerate any move toward racial equality with black Texans, secession became an exceptionally charged issue. The emotion came to a head in late January and early February 1861, when a convention met in Austin and voted to secede. Pressure to call a convention to consider the issue began in October 1860, when it became apparent that Abraham Lincoln would be elected to the presidency. In Texas only the governor could call the legislature into special session, however, and only the legislature could call a convention. Houston refused to act and hoped that with time the ardor for secession would cool. Realizing that the governor would not act, Oran M. Roberts, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, John S. Ford, and several other prominent Texans took the law into their own hands. Starting around December 3, before South Carolina officially seceded, they printed calls in several Texas newspapers for the election, on January 8, 1861, of delegates to a convention to consider secession. The elections were to be supervised by the county judges of the state, and the convention was to meet on January 28. Once it was clear that some sort of secession convention would meet, Houston convened the legislature in mid-January, with the hope that it would declare the convention illegal. Instead, legislators validated the calling of a convention, turned over the House chambers to the convention, and adjourned.
Though the election of delegates needed all the legitimacy the Texas legislature could give it, existing evidence indicates that the election procedures did not meet even the low standards of the day. Delegates were often elected by voice votes at public meetings. Unionists were discouraged from attending such meetings or chose to ignore the process because they considered it illegal. As a result the delegates disproportionally favored secession. The delegates were in some ways a typical cross section of the free male population of the state. Their average age was about forty, and almost all had been born in slaveholding states. They were slightly wealthier than the average Texan, but the great planters and merchants of the state did not dominate the convention. Two significant components, however, distinguished the convention from the population as a whole-lawyers, who made up 40 percent of the membership, and slaveholders, who constituted 70 percent.
After opening with prayer on Monday afternoon, January 28, 1861, the delegates to the convention elected Roberts as presiding officer. Roberts's words at that time demonstrate the conviction that the delegates were acting as the special representatives of the people: "All political power is inherent in the people. That power, I assert, you now represent." On January 29 John A. Wharton moved "that without determining now the manner in which this result should be effected, it is the deliberate sense of this Convention that the State of Texas should separately secede." Seconded by George M. Flournoy, the motion passed 152 to 6. In the next two days the convention delegates worked out a formal ordinance of secession which, unlike those of the lower Southern states, called for a popular referendum to resolve the secession question officially. The idea of submitting the convention's action to a popular vote drew opposition, but a motion to delete that provision was defeated 145 to 29. Texans had held a referendum on joining the Union in 1845, and most insisted on holding another to ratify leaving the Union in 1861. Besides, Governor Houston and the legislature had asked for such a referendum, and a popular vote would end all doubt, as the legislature saw the matter, about the legality of secession. Just after 11:00 A.M. on February 1, with Houston in attendance, the convention met to take a final vote on the ordinance of secession. It was a roll-call vote done in alphabetical order. When it was over, 166 had voted for secession and 8 against. The most prominent of those voting against was Throckmorton, of Collin County, who was later a Confederate general and a Reconstruction era governor of Texas. After the vote the convention formed the first of the Civil War Committees of Public Safety, sent delegates to Montgomery, Alabama, to participate in the establishment of the Confederate States of America, and adjourned on February 4 to await the popular vote. Before the vote, the Committee on Public Safety used the power given it by the convention to authorize the seizure of all federal property in Texas, including the arsenal at San Antonio. The committee order forced the evacuation of the almost 3,000 federal troops in Texas. The seizure of the San Antonio arsenal, the evacuation of federal troops, and the sending of delegates to Montgomery made the secession referendum itself appear an afterthought.
For some individuals and in some counties of Texas, however, the secession referendum was far from insignificant. Opposition to secession during the referendum campaign was concentrated in counties along the northern border of the state and in a circle of counties surrounding Austin. Leaders such as Throckmorton and Benjamin H. Epperson in North Texas and Elisha M. Pease, Svante Palm, and George Paschal of Austin led the regional fights against secession. Houston continued to question the necessity and wisdom of leaving the Union. United States representative Andrew J. Hamilton, another citizen of Austin, also spoke against secession. Opposition to the measure exhibited three notable traits. First, it persisted in areas culturally, geographically, and economically unlike the lower South. Second, the status and number of its leaders encouraged the weak at heart and the apolitical to vote against secession. Third, in all these areas Unionist leaders often had left the Democratic party in the late 1850s or never had belonged to that party. In contrast, the approximately one in four counties where over 95 percent of the vote was cast for secession were strongly linked to the lower South, had no outspoken critics of secession, and had very strong Democratic party organizations that facilitated secession. In these counties there is evidence of violence and intimidation of Unionists during January and February of 1861. Few opponents of secession spoke out on the eve of the secession referendum. Most probably did not vote.
On February 23, 1861, Texas went to the polls and voted for or against secession. The results for the state as a whole were 46,153 for and 14,747 against. Of the 122 counties casting votes only eighteen cast majorities against secession. Only eleven others cast as much as 40 percent of their vote against. Not surprisingly, almost all of these twenty-nine counties were located in the two areas where the campaign had been the most open and the Unionist leadership had high status and good organization. With a touch of drama the secession of the state became official on March 2, Texas Independence Day. On March 5 the Secession Convention reassembled and took further steps to join the Confederacy. Among these was the writing of a new state constitution. The Constitution of 1861 differed little from that of 1845, but it did clearly place slavery within the bounds of the law, and it made it illegal to free any slave in Texas. All current state officials were obligated to take an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy. This marked the end of the long political career of Sam Houston. In addition to his persistent opposition to secession, the hero of San Jacinto considered the drafting of a constitution and the joining of the state to the Confederacy without extensive public debate and another public referendum to be unconstitutional. Therefore, he refused to take the oath of loyalty, though he did later support the South in the war. The convention delegates declared the office of governor vacant and put Lieutenant Governor Edward Clark in Houston's place. On March 26 the convention adjourned. Texans had chosen to secede from the Union. The stage was set for them to fight and lose a bloody civil war.