One of the themes of the book I'm working on is that Texas's skepticism of government is deeply (and legitimately) rooted. All of its non-native settlers--Spanish, French, Mexican, and Anglo--had less support from HQ as they would have liked, and most of them had struggles with the nominal governing authorities to boot.

Still, the small-government stance has never been universal in Texas; among other data points, today's progressives note that Texas actually had a relatively voluble populist movement at the turn of the 20th century, as did most of the prairie states. So I've been going through the relevant primary documents and I wanted to call your attention to something that had me totally geeking out yesterday. Here's the Omaha Platform of the national Populist Party, adopted in 1892; I can't find the platform of the Texas Populist Party online, but I'm looking at it in the Documents of Texas History, which is a great book if you like that sort of thing. In many respects, these are similar documents. They argue that the working people of the United States, particularly farmers, are being systemically disadvantaged by governmental policies that favour established moneyed interests--bankers, corporations, etc. They call for many of the same things--a graduated income tax, free silver, labor protections, electoral reforms--and the Texas platform specifically endorses the populist platforms presented elsewhere, including Omaha.

However, I want to call your attention to a couple of subtle but significant differences. Here's the Omaha Platform on the proper role of government:

We believe that the power of government—in other words, of the people—should be expanded (as in the case of the postal service) as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.

The Texas platform doesn't quite specify the role of government, but its comments suggest that they see it as somewhat more limited:

We demand that all revenues--national, state, or county--shall be limited to the necessary expenses of the government, economically and honestly administered.

With regard to the railroads, for example--a major issue at the time--the national populists wanted a government takeover:

Transportation being a means of exchange and a public necessity, the government should own and operate the railroads in the interest of the people. The telegraph, telephone, like the post-office system, being a necessity for the transmission of news, should be owned and operated by the government in the interest of the people.

The Texas populists, by contrast, call for more oversight; they only want government ownership as a last resort:

We demand the most rigid, honest, and just national control and supervision of the means of public communication and transportation, and if this control and supervision does not remove the abuses now existing, we demand the government ownership of such means of communication and transportation.

This is, perhaps, because the national populists saw abuses arising from private greed, whereas Texas populists thought the problem was essentially political. Here's the national platform, on the source of the injustices they were reacting to:

The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of those, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty.

And here's Texas:

[Politicians] have snatched our government from the hands of the economy and now a billion dollars is spent by a single Congress; both parties vieing with each other in making big appropriations for rivers, harbors, public buildings, extravagances of officials, congressmen, the pensioning of rich widows, burying dead congressmen, etc.

On balance, then--I don't want to read too much into this, and as part of the process, I'll ask some historians to tell me if I'm wrong--but it seems to me that these differences are pretty significant. Both platforms are complaining about injustice perpetuated by the government. But the national platform suggests that government therefore needs to have a bigger role, so it can help more people. The Texan platform suggests that government should take on some additional tasks (one of its complaints, for example, is that the state has failed to provide effective schools and free textbooks), but it also suggests that government in general should be limited, or reined in, or at least subject to more oversight by the people. On its face, incidentally, the Texas framing seems logical enough: if you're having a problem with government, why would the solution be a bigger government, or a more powerful one?

04/25/2012 10:48

I wonder if extensive resources don't enter into it somehow. My documentation here is Riders of The Purple Sage, of course, and a few books by J. Frank Dobie but I have the idea that lots of space brings a lot of people looking for space enough that one of the big problems was overlapping claims.

Regulation gets in the way of both ambition and chaos. In old Texas there would have been plenty of both and it doesn't seem unlikely that the settlers would have self-selected with a preference for both.

04/26/2012 14:13

Interesting contrasts, and perhaps government ownership of land (or lack thereof) is part of it. That's certainly a notable difference between Texas, where federal and state government own only a small percentage of land, and Western states - Mountain states more than prairie - where the federal government is typically a huge landowner.


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