2017: The Sesquicentennial of the Republican Party of Texas

2017: The Sesquicentennial of the Republican Party of Texas

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By: Wayne Thorburn, Party Historian

            This year, Texas Republicans commemorate the 150th anniversary of the founding of their party, an event which took place at the Harris County Court House on July 4, 1867.  The following describes some of the events leading up to this historic meeting and the immediate results from it.

While the Republican Party was formed at Ripon, Wisconsin in 1854, it was not until some thirteen years later that the party would come into existence in Texas.  This is not surprising in that this new party was firmly against slavery and in favor of preserving the Union.  While there were a number of political leaders opposed to secession, not the least of whom was Governor Sam Houston, none were willing to associate with what was perceived as a small, new, northern party prior to the end of the Civil War.[1]   When the Confederacy fell and the Union was preserved, these Unionists were to temporarily play important roles in the reconstruction of civil government in Texas and the creation of the Republican Party of Texas.

The process of rejoining the Union and re-establishing state government took many turns and twists throughout the ten years from 1865 to 1875.  As the war ended in 1865, Federal officials appointed A. J. (Jack) Hamilton as governor of the provisional government of Texas.  By early 1866 delegates were elected to a constitutional convention formed as a condition of reunification with the Union.  Hamilton asked the convention to deny the right of the state to secede, repudiate the debt and statutes of the Confederate state government, and grant basic civil rights to the newly freed former slaves.  The convention adopted a document promising basic rights of person and property to freedmen but denied to them the right to vote, hold office, or attend public schools.  What became apparent during the convention was that the forces formerly allied as Unionists were now divided between those willing to accept the need for change and those wishing to restore the pre-existing order.

Resistance to Governor Throckmorton

Under this new constitution an election was called to select a new governor.   The more conservative Unionists allied with former secessionists behind James W. Throckmorton who overwhelmingly defeated the radical Unionists led by former governor Elisha Pease.  Throckmorton was an interesting choice to lead this coalition of more conservative forces. Of the 174 delegates to the 1861 convention on secession, Throckmorton had been one of only eight to oppose the action.  When the war broke out, he joined the Confederate army. [2] While Throckmorton garnered 49,314 votes, Pease could rally support from only 12,694 voters. As one historian of the times explains, “The failure to restore the old Unionist coalition was complete and Throckmorton’s candidacy helped make it impossible. With the latter on the Conservative Unionist ticket, Texans did not face the problem of deciding between a Unionist and Secessionist. Rather, they had to choose between the views on reconstruction held by two well-known Unionists.”[3] Allied together, the conservative Unionists and Secessionists attempted to bring the state back into the Union with as few changes as possible, limiting the rights of the newly freed former slaves.[4]  Like most of his supporters, Throckmorton was opposed to allowing blacks to vote and allocating public funds to educate African-American children.[5]

The conservative forces behind Throckmorton had overwhelming control of the Texas legislature and enacted policies diametrically opposed to the objectives of the more radical Unionists.  With few dissenters, the legislature voted against ratifying the 14th amendment to the U. S. Constitution and passed legislation to restrict the rights of the newly-freed former slaves. Blacks could operate their own schools but only with taxes “collected from Africans or persons of African descent.”  All labor contracts were to cover an entire family and laborers could not leave their work place without approval of their employer.  Laborers had a duty to be “especially civil and polite to their employer, his family and guests.”  Meanwhile, blacks would not be counted in the determination of legislative districts.[6]

As Throckmorton and his supporters consolidated their control of state government, the radical Unionists felt isolated and concluded that they could not succeed in the future without African-Americans allowed to vote.  This led them to oppose President Andrew Johnson’s policies for readmitting the former Confederate states and to ally with the Radical Republicans in Congress and the Union League.  In a speech given in Boston, former governor A. J. Hamilton claimed that “if the freedmen are excluded” from the electorate, then the state governments of the South will be “in the hands of the late rebels…who dread nothing so much as the cultivation in the South of a spirit of sincere attachment to the Union.”[7]

By 1867, the Radical Republican majority in the United States Congress was convinced that the postwar policies of President Johnson were insufficient to ensure an effective reconstruction of Southern state governments in a manner that would protect the rights of all citizens, including those freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.  Congress then passed a series of four Reconstruction acts that required the adoption of a new state constitution, ratification of the 14th amendment, and the election of new congressmen from any state wishing to rejoin the Union.  Until this was completed, military administration was established in each southern state with General Philip Sheridan placed in charge of Texas and Louisiana. Under these Federal acts the franchise was extended to all adult males who had not been leaders in the Confederate cause, thus preventing participation by some white males while ensuring the right to vote of blacks.  This action would have a significant impact on the election of delegates to the new constitutional convention and the subsequent election of a governor and state legislature.

Organizing the Republican Party of Texas

Throughout early 1867 the Union Loyal League, comprised mainly of newly enfranchised blacks and a small number of white Unionists, held mass meetings across the state. Many of these individuals joined with Texans who had opposed secession (“scalawags”) and recent immigrants from the Union states (“carpetbaggers”) in the effort to establish a state unit of the Republican Party.  The first of these meetings was held in Austin on April 27, 1867 and called for a convention in Houston.  According to historian Carl H. Moneyhon, they “supported the National Republican Union party, approved the acts of Congress, and acquiesced in military rule. They encouraged the men who would meet at Houston to adopt a party platform that would eliminate all restrictions on the rights of freed slaves; safeguard, increase, and fairly distribute the state’s school fund; establish a free public school system; support railroad construction; hasten immigration to the frontier by backing a homestead law; and encourage a return to the rule of law in Texas.” [8]

On July 4, 1867 these activists met in Houston for the first Republican state convention.[9] Presiding at the meeting was Elisha M. Pease, the radical Unionist candidate who had lost to James Throckmorton in the governor’s contest one year earlier. Most of the convention’s leadership were either native-born or had immigrated to the state prior to the Civil War.

Closely associated with the Union and the abolition of slavery, the party’s initial membership was predominantly African-American but with a mainly white leadership consisting of a large proportion of German-Americans and those who had been opposed to secession and Texas’ membership in the Confederacy. The new party had to maintain a balancing act of appealing to the newly freed former slaves while still attracting the support of white Unionists. The convention adopted a platform promising support for free schools for all children, regardless of race or color, extending state aid to railroads, and a homestead law offering public land, without regard to race or color, to encourage migration and allow more citizens to acquire land.[10]

Later that same month, General Sheridan removed Throckmorton, viewing him as an impediment to the efforts at reconstruction, and replaced him as provisional governor with Pease.  As a leader of the newly-formed Republican Party, Pease would serve in this capacity until the state adopted a new constitution and elected new officials under the terms of that document.

By January 1868, Texas had an electorate of approximately 60,000 whites and nearly 50,000 blacks.  On February 10th, these voters were asked to decide whether to hold another constitutional convention and to elect delegates to such a conclave.  This election “solidified the union between blacks and the Republican party, an alliance that continued through the rest of the century.”[11]   When the votes were counted, those eligible to vote supported holding the convention and elected 90 individuals as delegates, 78 of whom associated with the newly-formed Republican Party.

The Republican delegation to the constitutional convention of 1868 comprised 57 native Southern-born whites, 12 immigrants from the North, and 9 blacks.[12]  While claiming affiliation with the newly formed Republican Party, these delegates split into four camps as the constitutional convention undertook its deliberations.  One group of moderates comprised supporters of Governor Pease and former Governor A. J. Hamilton.  A second faction, mainly East Texans, was led by James Flanagan of Rusk County.  The third group consisted of prewar Unionists from western counties led by E. J. Davis, Edward Degener, and Morgan Hamilton (a brother of A. J. Hamilton).  The fourth faction included the black delegates led by George T. Ruby of Galveston, a leader of the Union League.  Each in their own way, all of these factional leaders would play roles in the Texas Republican Party over the remainder of the 19th century.

By the time of its second state convention in the summer of 1868, the newly formed Republican Party had split between what were viewed as more conservative Republicans led by Governor Pease in control of the party machinery and a rump group of radical Republicans led by E. J. Davis and George T. Ruby.  Among those who bolted were Edward Degener, Morgan C. Hamilton, and George W. Whitmore, each of whom would eventually serve in Congress as Republicans. This resulted in the existence of two Republican parties, each with their own executive committee and state organization.[13] 

The Davis Years

The Texas Constitution adopted in 1868 called for state elections to be held in 1869 for both statewide offices and the legislature.  The Pease forces in control of the regular party machinery nominated former provisional Governor Andrew Jackson “Jack” Hamilton. Prior to the war Hamilton won election to Congress from the Western district where he opposed secession and reopening of the slave trade.  In 1861 he was elected in a special election to the Texas Senate but his Unionist sentiments forced him to flee the state, returning in the summer of 1865 as provisional governor, appointed by President Andrew Johnson.  Like many others, his views on reconstruction shifted over time and by 1869 he was aligned with the conservative Republican faction that favored a policy of simply readmitting the former Confederate states to the Union.  In the campaign for governor, he acquired the support of many Democrats who realized that their candidate had little chance of winning. [14]

Opposing Hamilton was Edmund J. Davis.  Davis had been an active community leader and attorney in Laredo where he served as district judge from 1855 to 1861.  In the 1859 election Davis had backed Sam Houston and shared his views in support of the Union.  When secession came Davis followed Governor Houston’s lead and would not swear allegiance to the Confederacy.  From 1862 to 1865 he served in the Union Army as commander of the 1st Texas Cavalry.  After war’s end, Davis was elected as a delegate to the 1866 constitutional convention and aligned himself with Governor Hamilton and other Unionists.[15]

After a bitter and contentious election Davis received 39,901 votes to Hamilton’s total of 39,092.  Much of Davis’ election could be credited to support from the now eligible freedmen. According to one analysis of the election returns “in the 31 counties in which more blacks voted than whites, Davis won easily in all but three.  A strong statistical correlation existed between the Davis vote and the black population.”[16] Republican candidates were elected to a majority of both Texas house and senate seats and the party won three of the four congressional districts. Subsequently, the new state legislature selected two Republicans to represent the state in the United States Senate once Texas was readmitted to the Union.

As the winner of the 1869 election Davis was appointed to replace Elisha Pease as provisional governor on January 8, 1870. Military rule, however, did not end until April and it was April 28, 1870 when he was inaugurated as the elected governor.[17] Once in office, Davis moved to restore law and order through the creation of a militia and state police as well as support for building county jails.  Restoring order was a vital priority at the time. As Randolph Campbell noted,

Bands of outlaws operated most notoriously in the Big Thicket and the swamps and woodlands of northeastern Texas. Led by killers such as Cullen Baker and Bob Lee, these gangs often attacked U.S. troops and freedmen, thereby gaining a measure of support from some whites…(G)roups with names such as the Knights of the White Camelia and Knights of the Rising Sun carried out Klan-type activities – night riding, threats, whippings, and murder – especially in eastern counties.[18]

In addition to attacks by outlaws and violence against blacks, Texans in the western counties were threatened by Indian raids where “raiders traveled hundreds of miles to murder and steal from people against whom no grievance could exist.”[19]

Davis was a strong advocate of public education as a means of both individual achievement and overall economic development.  By 1871, the Republican-majority legislature passed a public school law with a centralized state board of education responsible for appointing local education officials.  One year later, some 125,000 students of all races were enrolled.  Many white Texans, however, were opposed to providing public education for black children, to the higher taxes needed to pay for public education, and to the centralized nature of the educational system put in place.  It was the same Republican majority legislature under Davis’ leadership that passed a bill creating Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College and providing funds to build the school.[20]

The Republican governor was one of the first public officials in the state to work towards ensuring equal treatment before the law for all citizens.  He was quoted as declaring, “I do not want to see white or black named in any law whatsoever.” [21]  Three African-American Republicans served in the Texas Senate during Davis’ term of office, including George Ruby of Galveston who acted as the chief spokesman in the senate for the Davis administration.  Senator Ruby also was president of the Union League and had used that position to rally support for Davis in the 1869 election.

From the end of the war through much of the 20th century, many historians viewed the Reconstruction era generally, and the Davis administration more specifically, as a time of corruption, incompetence, and carpetbagger rule. One frequently cited history of Texas claims “the years of Carpetbagger rule were gaudy, violent, sometimes comic in retrospect, but always tragic at the time.”[22]  More contemporary interpretations, however, view this period in a more favorable light and maintain that most of those who led the state during the Davis administration were native Southern Unionists and not carpetbaggers from the North.[23]  Most of those associated with the Davis administration had been active as Unionists in Texas before the war. Summarizing the accomplishments of Governor Davis, one Texas historian noted that he “championed the rights of African-Americans, sought to create Texas’ first meaningful system of public education, and tried to restore law and order and bring economic development to the war-ravaged state.”[24]

Some Prominent Early Texas Republicans

The following are some of the more prominent individuals who played important roles in the creation of the Republican Party of Texas and its early years in the 19th century.

Elisha M. Pease – former Governor, presided at the founding convention, led more “conservative” forces in the early Republican Party.

Edmund J. Davis – first Republican candidate to be elected Governor (in 1869) and later state chairman of the Republican Party of Texas.

Morgan C. Hamilton – Appointed as United States Senator from 1871 to 1877.

James W. Flanagan – elected as Lieutenant Governor in 1869 and appointed as United States Senator from 1870 to 1875.

Dr. Theodore Hertzberg – elected in 1869 as state senator from San Antonio

George T. Ruby – state senator from Galveston, prominent African-American leader, and initial Vice Chairman of the Republican Party of Texas.

Edward Degener – Member of Congress, 1870-71 and San Antonio City Council, 1872-78.

William T. Clark – Member of Congress, 1870-72 and resident of Galveston.

George W. Whitmore – Member of Congress, 1870-71 and resident of Tyler.

Norris Wright Cuney – State Chairman of the Republican Party after Governor Davis and National Committeeman, 1886-1896; most prominent African-American leader in the South.

[1] For those interested in the formation of the Republican Party nationally see: George H. Mayer, The Republican Party 1854-1966, 2nd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967) and Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men – The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970). Unionist support in pre and post-Civil War Texas is covered in Dale Baum: The Shattering of Texas Unionism: Politics in the Lone Star State during the Civil War Era (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998).

[2] Kenneth Wayne Howell: Texas Confederate, Reconstruction Governor – James Webb Throckmorton (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2008).

[3] Carl H. Moneyhon: Republicanism in Reconstruction Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980) p. 49. During the 19th century, the terms “radical,” “conservative,” and “liberal” took on varying meanings as the issues and times dictated. Thus, Elisha Pease is at times described as a radical Unionist and later as a conservative Republican. It would be incorrect to associate such terms with current 21st century usage. Nevertheless, there is no easy way to avoid using them to describe the various factions and elements competing for dominance in the new Republican Party of the time.

[4] Randolph B. Campbell: Grass Roots Reconstruction in Texas, 1865-1880 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997), p. 10.

[5] James A. Baggett, “Birth of the Texas Republican Party,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume LXXVIII, Number 1 (July 1974), p. 10.

[6] Ibid., p. 13.

[7] Moneyhon: Republicanism in Reconstruction Texas, p. 57.

[8] Moneyhon: Republicanism in Reconstruction Texas, p. 62.

[9] Casdorph: A History of the Republican Party in Texas 1865-1965 (Austin: The Pemberton Press, 1965), pp. 4-5. There is uncertainty as to how many participated in this initial convention.  According to Casdorph there were 20 whites and 150 Blacks from 27 counties participating in the convention.  Moneyhon (Republicanism in Reconstruction Texas, p. 65) claims the convention was attended by about 600 from 21 counties.

[10] Carl H. Moneyhon, “Texas Out-Radicals My Radicalism,” in David O’Donald Cullen and Kyle G. Wilkison, editors: The Texas Left: The Radical Roots of Lone Star Liberalism (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2010), pp. 25-26.

[11] Moneyhon: Republicanism in Reconstruction Texas, p. 80.

[12] Randolph B. Campbell: Gone to Texas-A History of the Lone Star State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 274.

[13] Moneyhon: Republicanism in Reconstruction Texas, p. 103.

[14] Campbell: Gone to Texas, pp. 241, 271-273.

[15] Carl H. Moneyhon: Edmund J. Davis of Texas: Civil War General, Republican Leader, Reconstruction Governor (Fort Worth: TCU Press, 2010).

[16] Moneyhon: Republicanism in Reconstruction Texas, p. 123. According to Campbell, whites comprised 56% of all eligible voters but turned out at a much lower rate than blacks in the 1869 election. Campbell: Gone to Texas, p 280.

[17] These dates become important when Davis is defeated for re-election in 1873. Davis and his supporters maintained that the four year term to which he had been elected did not begin until April 1870 when civil government was restored and, therefore, his term would not end until April 1874.

[18] Campbell: Gone to Texas, p. 281. Examples of such violence and Davis’ concern are discussed in Moneyhon: Edmund J. Davis, pp. 119-121.  For violence against blacks attempting to vote see Moneyhon: Republicanism in Reconstruction Texas, pp. 78-79, 123-124.

[19] Moneyhon: Edmund J. Davis, p. 163.

[20] Campbell: Gone to Texas, p. 282-283.

[21] Moneyhon: Republicanism in Reconstruction Texas, p. 130.

[22] T. R. Fehrenbach: Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans (New York: Collier Books, 1968), p 417.  This period is covered throughout pp. 409-432 in a chapter titled “The Carpetbaggers.”

[23] Such a position is reflected in Campbell: Grass-Roots Reconstruction in Texas and Moneyhon: Republicanism in Reconstruction Texas.

[24] Gregg Cantrell, p. x in Moneyhon: Edmund J. Davis.