From the 1840s to the 1870s the nature of the United States and the relationship of Texas to the United States dominated Texas political discussion. Those who defended the United States and advocated stronger or continued ties with their country were called Unionists, and they were opposed by Texas nationalists, secessionists, and Confederates. By the 1850s, when the population of Texas had grown enormously and when the details of annexation had been clearly worked out, most Texans were Unionists. In the 1850s Texans supported the Union because it could better protect the frontier, provide a more stable climate for economic development, and protect existing social and legal relationships. Texans also supported the Union for less pragmatic reasons. Unionism grew from habit and from the almost religious zeal with which some viewed their country. Memories and shared experiences common to Americans, such as the American Revolution and the War of 1812, perpetuated the habit and contributed to the zeal. Party ideology and point of origin also contributed to this Unionism of the heart. In general Whigs from the border states and German refugees of the 1848 revolution were among the most persistent Unionists. Close identification with symbols of the nation, such as Sam Houston's affinity for Andrew Jackson, also contributed.
Slavery was the single most troubling problem for Texas Unionists in the 1850s. Texans viewed their slaves as essential to economic prosperity. In the 1850s Texas was labor poor but land rich. There was no incentive to work for another when you could obtain a small amount of land for yourself a few miles down the road. Yet Texans realized that the most efficient and profitable cultivation of cotton required the use of organized gangs of labor working large units of land. Slavery provided that labor, and it also separated the White and Black races. Whites generally considered themselves superior to Blacks and thought that any mixing of the two races would debase the Whites. Besides, the law sanctioned the institution of slavery. Thus criticism of slavery threatened two of the pragmatic props of Unionism, economic development and social stability. Reverence for law was closely coupled with reverence for the Union, and many northerners disregarded the fugitive slave law, supported slave insurrections, and talked about the abolition of slavery; they denigrated the law. They also threatened the freedom of southerners to own and exchange all forms of property. By the late 1850s the value of the Union in defending the frontier had also come under attack. A series of Indian raids along the northwest frontier of the state made citizens of the area ready to listen to secessionists. Attitudes toward the Union among slaveholders and frontiersmen were not unanimous. Despite its defects the largest planters and the most prosperous merchants in the urban centers of Texas viewed the Union as a surer defender of slavery and economic growth than a smaller nation composed of southern states. On the frontier the United States Army provided the twin benefits of adequate protection from the Indians and a good market for surplus labor and crops. For those with the most reverence for the Union, pragmatic concerns had no meaning. They would cling to the Union no matter what. By early 1860 the dispute over slavery, the rise of a Republican party identified by Texans with the antislavery movement, and Indian troubles on the northwestern frontier caused attitudes toward the Union to fall into roughly three categories. A small minority were vocal advocates of secession and had abandoned hope of making the United States what they wanted it to be. Instead, they were ready to start anew. A much larger group, primarily former Whigs and products of an upper South or German culture, held the Union in higher regard and were unwilling to listen yet to the arguments of the secessionists. A final group of about the same size as the ardent secessionists was unwilling to listen to any practical argument for secession.
During 1860 and 1861 the election of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, to the presidency, fears of racial and social instability, and the growth of a near-hysterical secession movement in the lower South led the large center group of Democrats and former residents of the lower South to swing toward secession. Eventually the other large center group of Whigs and Germans or former upper South residents either kept quiet or accepted secession with the passage of the Secession Referendum of February 23, 1861 (see SECESSION CONVENTION). Many members of this group fought for the Confederacy. For the most dedicated supporters of the Union, however, secession presented serious problems. Most tried to keep quiet, but others openly condemned the states' actions and left their homes to fight for the Union. The institution of the draft in the summer of 1862 forced many more who had attempted to wait out the war in peace to flee their homes. Some wound up in the Union Army. Others lived in the back country of the state until the war was over. As might be expected, these obstinate Unionists were persecuted by the majority. Several accused Unionists were hanged at Gainesville in October 1862 (see GREAT HANGING AT GAINESVILLE). Although the majority of Germans either were neutral or supported the Confederacy, Germans in the western counties often remained loyal to the Union. A band of Germans fleeing the draft was massacred along the Nueces River in August 1862.
To some degree Unionism persisted in the minds of all but the most doctrinaire secessionists. It was not something that could be turned on or off. It rose and fell in the hearts and minds of most, but it seldom vanished entirely. A twinge of feeling for the nation of George Washington and Andrew Jackson, a fond remembrance of the prosperity partially engendered by belonging to the Union, made it difficult for Confederate nationalism to develop and made it easier for most to give up the war effort. Rejoining the Union in 1865 was for the majority a relatively painless process because Unionism never totally died.