Federalism

Postcards from Texas Part II

In 1842, Texans were just as wary of centralized government as they are today, a fact illustrated by a little-known episode in Texas history called the Archive War.

In the early years of the Texas Republic, the capital city moved around the state, sometimes for political or patronage reasons and sometimes to escape an invading army. During the presidency of Mirabeau B. Lamar, Austin was proclaimed the seat of government. When the hero of the Texas revolution, Sam Houston, trounced Lamar in the election of 1841, Houston exercised his emergency executive authority to move the government archives from Austin to a new capital city: Houston.

Though Houston claimed he undertook the move to provide the seat of government better protection from Comanche raids and incursions from Mexico, this did not sit well with the residents of Austin. To them, it looked like Houston was playing petty politics and undertaking a dangerous executive power grab to boot—the Texas Congress had already shot down prior attempts by the President to move the capital to Houston.

The riled-up citizens of Austin organized patrols to keep the archives in the city. Houston sent Texas Rangers (the Texan equivalent of U.S. Marshals) to Austin to seize the archives and sneak them out of the city. After loading the archives into wagons and initiating their escape, the Rangers were spotted by a resident of Austin named Angelina Eberly. She tore down the street to fire an ancient and decrepit cannon standing inexplicably along an Austin road, at the fleeing Rangers. The Rangers escaped the city but were captured by a band of Austinites a few miles away. The archives were returned to Austin, and the city remains the Texas capital today.

One hundred seventy-five years ago, Texans had a demonstrated commitment to local control and an aversion to executive authority. Today, Texans maintain their commitment to local control through their support for state sovereignty. An idealistic history student from Brownwood, Texas offered his prescription to increase local control in the United States, with a minimum of cannon-fire:

To start off, I would like to say that I am not one of those crazies advocating Texas secession. Like it or not, ever since the end of the Civil War, we are the United States of America, singular, not plural. The federal government must provide safety for its citizens, bust trusts, regulate inter-state disputes – but I do think the states should have more power within their states.

Although… I would say in the end it isn’t about the federal government giving power back to the states; it is about reinvigorating the public’s passion for state politics. If people start to get more supportive and more interested in their governors or state legislators, that would be a good thing. Then you wouldn’t have to worry about forcing a showdown between the national and state governments. If people care about state decision making, that gives power to the states.

I don’t know if there will be any feasible pullback of federal power without some sort of disaster, unless Americans get more enthused about state government. I would say Texans have a very unique perspective because of Texas’ history as its own Republic – compared to other states, people care more about what the state legislature or Governor is doing on any given day. Texas is a long ways away from those cushy politicians in Washington D.C. Life is better and more fruitful when Texans are running Texas.

Though, thankfully, Austin has traded in its ready cannon for the catchphrase “Keep Austin Weird”, support for state sovereignty and local control still runs deep in the heart of Texas.


In Depth: Federalism

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