The new Texas ‘Fire Eaters’ are Republicans

Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, wasn’t a big fan of secession.

After 11 Southern slave states exited the Union and started the Confederate States of America in 1860-1861, the Great Emancipator led the country to victory in the Civil War, which returned the wayward states to what Lincoln called their “proper relation” with the rest of our federal republic.

Secession talk is back, just as our nation prepares to observe the sesquicentennial of the Civil War starting next year, the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s election. This time the “secesh” are some Republicans from Texas, an ex-Confederate state.

Gov. Rick Perry fired up the disunionists. At a tax day tea party rally last April, he wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of his fellow Texans getting so mad at the federal government that they might secede.

“We’ve got a great union,” he said. “There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that.”

By “Washington,” Perry meant President Barack Obama and the Democrats.

Larry Kilgore, who wants the governor’s job, flat out says the Lone Star State should leave the Union. He also says he hates the American flag and the U.S. government.

Kilgore, who is running against Perry in the 2010 Texas GOP primary, is a darling of the pro-secession Texas Nationalist Movement. So is Debra Medina, another secessionist and Republican gubernatorial hopeful.

I teach history. Kilgore, Medina and the “nationalists” sound like the secessionist “Fire Eaters” of 1860-1861, who included Sen. Louis T. Wigfall and his fellow Texan, John A. Wharton, a future Rebel general. (Medina is chair of the Republican Party in Wharton County, which is named for the Confederate commander.)

Wigfall, Wharton and like-minded white supremacists wanted a new government of the white folks, by the white folks and for the white folks, complete with slavery and the Good Lord’s blessing. Kilgore, Medina and their nationalist fans claim they’re not racist. But, not coincidentally, all the secessionists seem to be white people.

In Lincoln’s day, a majority of white Southerners were pro-secession. Obama faces only secessionist talk – bluster is more like it – from a tiny minority in just one state. More than a few Texans – including Republicans – think Kilgore, Medina and the nationalists are nut jobs.

Still, there are parallels between white Southerners’ reactions to Lincoln’s election and how many of their descendants feel about our first African American president.

The Confederate states forsook the Union because the white guys who ran them feared Lincoln and his “Black Republican” party aimed to free the slaves.

Of course, not every white Southerner who voted against Obama is a racist. But Obama, by far, received his lowest vote percentage from whites who live in the ex-Confederate states (26 percent – including 26 percent in Texas — to 43 percent nationally).

Also, I didn’t hear Perry hint at Texas secession while President George W. Bush – a Republican and former governor of Texas – lived in the White House. The Texas Nationalist Movement seems to have gotten noisier since Obama was sworn in as president last January.

No president was more despised in the white South than Lincoln, who did put slavery on the road to extinction. Obama seems to be edging out Lyndon Johnson as second most hated. A lot of white folks in Dixie still loathe LBJ – a Texan – claiming he betrayed his race and his region for supporting landmark civil rights bills in Congress in the 1960s.

Anyway, I have no doubt that Perry and his party’s national bigwigs would be in high dudgeon against a Democrat who dissed Old Glory and the government like Kilgore did. But mum seems to be the word from the GOP brass about Kilgore. (Perry is trying to keep him at arm’s length but would love to peel off some nationalist votes.)

Maybe the Republican honchos don’t feel the need to “mess with Texas” because the secessionists are just a few wackos. But my guess is the GOP big shots are keeping quiet about the secessionists because they don’t want to rile other uber-right-wing Southern whites who have been a big chunk of the GOP base since LBJ made the Democrats the party of civil rights activism.

In Texas and elsewhere in the former Confederate states, the Republicans are largely what the Democrats used to be: the white people’s party. Lincoln must be spinning in his tomb.

Of course, Kilgore has no chance to beat Perry, whose real competition is Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Medina is also a long shot. Texas is among the reddest of the Republican Red States. So either Perry or Hutchison would be the favorites to win the general election, too.

On the other hand, primary voters often are more gung-ho than general election voters. True believers like Texas nationalists – and their “birther,” “deather” and “Obama’s-a-Muslim-socialist-Nazi” kin — turn out big for primaries. So Kilgore and Medina may do better than expected against Perry and Hutchison.

Meanwhile, based on what they’re saying, Perry and Kilgore might have slept through history class in school. More likely, they’re fudging history to suit themselves, a common practice among extremists, right-wing or left-wing.

Perry says  Texas joined the Union in 1845 with the understanding it could leave whenever it pleased. Baloney. No state got an opt-out clause when it got a star on Old Glory.

“You go ask Sam Houston what he thought about secession,” Kilgore challenged, metaphorically speaking, at a recent rally. It was the one outside the Texas capitol where he pointed to Old Glory flying over the building and yelled, “I hate that flag up there.” He added, “I hate the United States government.”

Houston was a staunch Southern Unionist like his friend, President Andrew Jackson. Houston loved the U.S. flag and the U.S. government. He opposed secession when he was governor of Texas in 1861. He warned that the North would win the Civil War and destroy the South, according to the Handbook of Texas Online.

Houston reluctantly went along with disunion “rather than bring civil strife and bloodshed to his beloved state,” the handbook explains. “But when he refused to take the oath of loyalty to the newly formed Confederate States of America, the Texas [secession] convention removed him from office.”

While Kilgore and Medina preach secession, Perry probably thinks that blathering about “state sovereignty” and “states’ rights” is enough red meat for the GOP faithful to get himself renominated. “States’ rights” was the old white Southern code word for the right of a state to have slavery and to keep black folks separate and unequal from white folks.

Of course, no state is sovereign. The federal government is. The Civil War settled that.

Kilgore’s rant for secession and against the American flag and government can be viewed on The Texas Observer’s blogsite — Medina raves on camera, too.

Not surprisingly, the post drew a flurry of comments.

“Interesting how they didn’t hate America when Dick Cheney was President,” one blogger observed, tongue-in-cheek.

Another blogger didn’t pull punches: “The South, including Texas, tried this once before and got their asses kicked.”

I’m proud to say that between 90,000 and 100,000 sons of my native Kentucky – white and African American – donned Yankee blue and kicked their share of Rebel butt and helped preserve our Union in 1861-1865. 

“Under the auspices of Heaven, and the precepts of Washington, Kentucky will be the last to give up the Union,” is chiseled on the marble block the Bluegrass State donated for the Washington Monument in 1850. We Presbyterians – the “Frozen Chosen” – don’t usually do “amens.” But I’ll ”amen” the sentiments on that historic stone.

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About Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a native Kentuckian, a professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance journalist. He is a member of the American Federation of Teachers and the Kentucky Education Association/National Education Association. He is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, which he describes as "a strictly non-partisan chronicle of our political past from Gov. Isaac Shelby to Gov. Ruby Laffoon."
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5 Responses to The new Texas ‘Fire Eaters’ are Republicans

  1. Dems4Texas says:

    I am a liberal, a democrat and a Texas Nationalist. And I am not alone. Before you paint secession as some right-wing conspiracy you should take the time to find out why hard-core Dems (like your truly) support Texas independence.

  2. Hart Williams says:

    Sir, as a Son of Union Veterans of the Civil War, the lineal successor to the Grand Army of the Republic — whose Great Great Grandfather helped Gen. Thomas GET his nickname as the “Rock of Chickamauga,” who fought at Missionary Ridge and the Battle of Chickamauga, and whose family has spent three generations recovering from his disabling in that terrible war — I can tell you that the question of secession has been COMPLETELY resolved in blood and in fire.

    Discussion of the matter is now merely a discussion of treason.

    You get that? T-R-E-A-S-O-N.

    There is no rational argument for your position. Period.

  3. Boyd says:

    Just thought you’d like to do a little fact checking and see Debra Medina’s entire speech. It isn’t advocating secession at all. Watch the entire thing and then report the entire truth.

    Then go check her out at

  4. Kilgore election results: 8% in 2006; 19% in 2008; in a four way race about 25% will take me to the runoff. I have a very good chance of winning because secession offers freedom. Contrariwise, Quote from Hutchison, “Silly rhetoric about secession from the union being an option is not a good image for Texas.” And from Perry, “I have never advocated for secession and never will.”

    I ran as a secessioninst during the Cheney years. And will support any secession candidate in the November election regardless of party affiliation.

    Sam Houston supported the secession of Texas from Mexico.

    Flippant remarks about the reoccurreance of military actions against seceding states is not funny; especially now with the possibility of nuclear scenarios.

  5. Hart Williams says:

    Mr. Kilgore, your ignorance of history is only matched by your dogged determination to commit treason — a determination that your personal influence has given all the impetus of a gnat’s wingwash.

    The “secession” of Texas from Mexico came about because Mexico had outlawed slavery. That’s the cold, hard fact the entire state refuses to acknowledge, instead maundering on about nobly remembering the Alamo. Too bad they never bother remembering the ignoble WHY of the Alamo. (And Goliad.)

    As for Sam Houston, THIS is what he said about secession from the US, which you either know about and are suppressing — which paints you as dishonest — or else you’ve never heard of — which paints you as ignorant:

    “To secede from the Union and set up another government would cause war. If you go to war with the United States, you will never conquer her, as she has the money and the men. If she does not whip you by guns, powder, and steel, she will starve you to death. It will take the flower of the country-the young men.”

    “In the name of the constitution of Texas, which has been trampled upon, I refuse to take this oath. I love Texas too well to bring civil strife and bloodshed upon her.”

    — Sam Houston

    Too bad you’re not the patriot that Sam Houston was — to the United States OR to Texas.