In the aftermath of last week's elections, people in about thirty states have posted online petitions on the White House's dedicated online-petitions portal, announcing their desire to secede from the union. The fact that Texas is among those states and that Texas's petition is leading in the race for signatures has, of course, fueled a new round of commentary about Texas's inexplicable zeal for secession.

Jeff Turrentine has a piece at Slate arguing, first, that Texas's secessionist faction is serious, and second, that Texas's secessionists don't have to back down. When the state was annexed in 1845, he explains, one of the terms of the agreement was that the new state of Texas could, in the future, decide to divide itself into up to five smaller states. And while dividing itself into five smaller states doesn't seem like a surefire way to achieve secession, Turrentine notes that in 2009, Tom DeLay went on MSNBC and explained that it might turn out that way, because the five states would have ten senators and Congress would kick all the Texases out rather than deal with ten senators from Texas. Turrentine concludes:

Is it a nutty idea? Sure. An un-American idea? Definitely. But for yesterday's flag-waving patriots, a sizable number of whom have suddenly found themselves transformed into America-bashing cynics, it must seem like an idea whose time has finally, if sadly, come.

Tongue-in-cheek, presumably, but just in case anyone's wondering--secession being the third rail of US-Texan relations--the scenario Turrentine is describing doesn't make any sense.

First of all, the fact that a statistically negligible number of Texans signed a secession petition does not mean Texas wants to secede. True, Texas was the first state to amass 25,000 signatures on this particular petition; as of yesterday it had nearly 100,000. And as my colleague Sonia Smith reports, there are some people in Texas who are seriously considering the idea. Here's the thing, though: this is a really big state. Consider, for example, that Barack Obama got more votes in Texas than in Massachusetts and Oregon combined. Population numbers--so cray. 

The divisibility of Texas is an interesting historical aside, but there's no reason to think that that aspect of the 1845 annexation agreement would still hold water today. The issue's never come up, because Texas has never wanted to divide itself into five states, and it never will, because Texas never will. Despite all that, if Texas did try to invoke this condition of the 1845 agreement, the Supreme Court would no doubt shoot it down. The precedent is as follows. As a condition of its readmission to the Union after the Civil War, Texas had to agree that secession was illegal. It did, but with a lot of debate over whether secession had been illegal all along or whether it was simply illegal now because of the terms of the readmission. (The position of the federal government was that secession had been illegal for all the Confederate states, but Texas was on unique legal footing, because of the 1845 annexation agreement.)

The metaphysical status of Texas's secession was addressed in 1869's Texas v White, in which the Court found that in joining the Union in the first place, Texas had joined an "indissoluble" entity, regardless of what the annexation resolution had said about things. The 1845 agreement isn't entirely obsolete--it was referenced in the 1950s, for example, when Texas was lobbying for sovereignty over a few extra miles of coastal waters--but there's no question in my mind that if Texas tried to divide itself the Supreme Court could shoot it down, citing White v Texas if nothing else.  

More to the point, however, is that despite the occasional voice from the fringe, there's not really a serious popular movement for secession in Texas. Turrentine refers to a 2009 Rasmussen survey that found just under a third of Texans believe that the state has the right to secede. That's true, and I cite the same survey in my book. But the figure is a lot less shocking when you put it in context. I'm quoting here from my draft:

To be sure, there are a lot of Texans, including the governor, who seem to think that Texas could leave the union if it wanted to, although it can’t. (There’s a consensus among constitutional scholars that the Civil War put that question to rest for every state.) A 2009 Rasmussen survey put the figure at 31%...As it turns out, however, it’s not just Texans who think their state can secede. A June 2012 Rasmussen poll found that 24% of all Americans think individual states have the right to come and go freely—not Texas, that is, but any state that wants to go.

18% of Texans in the 2009 survey, however, said they wanted to leave the union; 75% wanted to stay. A Research 2000 poll, taken that same year for Daily Kos, found similar views around the country...Asked if their state would be better or worse off as a separate country, about 80% of Americans said they were better off together. The South was the outlying region in that survey: only 61% of southerners were sure they wanted to stay in the union and 9% thought their state would be better off as an independent country.

All of these figures, incidentally, strike me as implausibly high, and if they were palpably true it would be troubling. Secession is illegal, however, and even if it weren't, every state is clearly better off as part of the United States than it would be on its own. I therefore understand secessionist rhetoric--in Texas and elsewhere--as a euphemism for more general frustration, rather than a serious suggestion. In fact, I would argue that it's precisely because secession is such a preposterous suggestion that it's safe to clown on about; that's why some people in Austin have started up their own petition to secede from Texas if Texas secedes from America. I'm sure you can find people here and there who are seriously pushing secession, of course, but I doubt a new secessionist movement is going to spring from an online petition on the White House's website. 

Let me put this another way. Texas does have a unique relationship to the federal government and to the question of secession. It's not the only state that was an independent political unit before joining the United States--that's also true of Hawaii--but it is the only state that, while existing as an independent republic, agreed to its own annexation. Texas is also, today, more well-positioned for independence than any other state, given its size, location, natural resources, and robust, diversified economy. And yet despite its history of independence and its theoretical capacity for independence, Texas is pretty close to national opinion on the question of secession. Most if its residents believe, wrongly, that they could secede if they wanted to. And most of them don't, as it happens, want to.

This leads us to another problem with Turrentine's argument, which is the premise: that the primary objective of fractious Texans is "to stick it to the federal man."  While many of them wouldn't object, the animating force behind Texas nationalism, if I can call it that, is not belligerence so much as the pride that people feel for Texas. That's why the phrase is don't mess with Texas, rather than stick it to the federal man. Texans are pro-Texas, not anti-Union.  Texans don't talk about carving Texas into five states, even for hyperbolic purposes, because there's no appeal in the idea. Doing so would, in an obvious and literal way, mean the end of Texas. What Texan would go for that?

Matthew C
11/15/2012 15:40

Tiny language nitpick but your line:

"Most if [Texas'] residents believe, wrongly, that they could secede if they wanted to."

Doesn't jive with:

"a 2009 Rasmussen survey that found just under a third of Texans believe that the state has the right to secede."

31% isn't really "most". Otherwise, great post. I learned from it.

11/16/2012 08:01

well spotted--that 'most' should say many. thanks for reading!

11/15/2012 16:07

You might note that California was also (briefly!) an independent entity before becoming part of the United States. Heck, our state flag still says "California Republic" in big red letters!

But nobody considers that we might leave.

11/16/2012 06:31

Vermont, too:

11/16/2012 07:57

Neither California nor Vermont was independent in any meaningful sense (especially California). The Republic of Texas was pretty ramshackle, but it did have laws, elections, international recognition, etc.

Tim Balch
11/16/2012 07:15

Texas should remember the example of West Virginia. Formed by loyalist citizens after Virginia 'seceded' from the United States in 1861, the new state agreed to pay Virginia for the debt mostly incurred to finance public infrastructure improvements, such as canals, roads, and railroads. It took a series of Supreme Court cases, started in 1907 (206 U.S. 290; 27 S. Ct. 732; 51 L. Ed. 1068) and running through 1917, to settle the final amount owed. If Texas leaves the union, the United States is going to want payment for all the improvements it financed in the state, including the great number of military installations.


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