Secession Convention

By: Walter L. Buenger

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: July 1, 1995

In late January and early February 1861 a convention of the people of Texas met in Austin and voted to secede from the Union. Pressure to call a convention to consider secession began in October 1860, when it became apparent that Abraham Lincoln would be elected to the presidency. The secession of South Carolina in mid-December intensified this pressure and led to the secession of five other states in the lower South. In Texas, however, only the governor could call the legislature into special session, and only the legislature could convene a convention. Governor Sam Houston refused to act and hoped that with time, ardor for secession would cool. Realizing that Houston 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 they had printed in several Texas newspapers calls for the election on January 8, 1861, of delegates to a secession convention. 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 a secession convention of some sort 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. The election of delegates needed all the legitimacy the Texas legislature could give it, because what evidence still exists indicates that the election procedures did not even meet the minimal 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 overwhelmingly favored secession. Delegates to the convention 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. Though they were slightly wealthier than the average Texan, the great planters and merchants of the state did not dominate the convention. In two significant ways, however, the convention differed from the population as a whole. Lawyers made up 40 percent of the membership and slaveowners about 70 percent, although most owned fewer than fifty slaves.

After opening with prayer on Monday afternoon, January 28, 1861, the delegates to the convention elected O. M. Roberts 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 H. 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 other lower South states, called for a popular referendum to resolve the secession question. 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. Antebellum Texans 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 about the legality of secession. Just after 11:00 A.M. on February 1, with Governor 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 outspoken of those voting against was James W. Throckmorton of Collin County, who was later a Confederate general and a Reconstruction-era governor of Texas.

After voting for secession the convention formed a committee on public safety, sent seven 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 popular vote, the convention's committee on public safety used the power given it by the convention to authorize the seizure of all federal property in Texas. That included 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 appear an insignificant afterthought. By a vote of 44,317 to 13,020, Texans ratified secession on February 23, 1861. The Secession Convention reassembled on March 5, declared Texas independent, took further steps to join it to the Confederacy, and reorganized the state's government. In doing this it declared that all current officeholders must swear a loyalty oath to the Confederacy. Sam Houston refused, saying that the actions of the convention after it adjourned in February were illegal. Convention delegates declared the office of governor vacant and instructed Lt. Gov. Edward Clark to assume the office of governor. On March 23 the convention adjourned for the last time, having taken Texas out of the Union, allied it with the Confederacy, and ended the political career of its most prominent citizen. See also ANTEBELLUM TEXAS, CIVIL WAR.

Walter L. Buenger, Secession and the Union in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984). Anna Irene Sandbo, "The First Session of the Secession Convention of Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 18 (October 1914). E. W. Winkler, ed., Journal of the Secession Convention of Texas (Austin, 1912). Ralph A. Wooster, The Secession Conventions of the South (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1962; rpt., Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1976).

Time Periods:
  • Antebellum Texas
  • Civil War

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

Walter L. Buenger, “Secession Convention,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 16, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

July 1, 1995

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