Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.
State government acts quickly when it needs to. That’s why you can tell when state officials don’t think they need to act quickly.
To be clear, this is not about faceless bureaucrats bogging things down. It’s about elected state leaders with faces too politically cautious to make easy decisions.
The governor, the attorney general and presumptive speaker of the Texas House have lately turned their attention to a controversial and false plaque in the Texas Capitol that commemorates the Civil War.
It’s been a long time coming.
Credit state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, for raising a stink about this, and for showing all of us just how slowly state government can move, even when presented with what looks like a simple problem. Johnson pointed out well over a year ago that the memorial was an embarrassment, calling for the immediate removal of the plaque on August 17, 2017, in a letter to Rod Welsh, executive director of the State Preservation Board. He copied Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Speaker Joe Straus and House Administration Committee Chairman Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.
A month later, Straus agreed that it should come down. Nothing happened.
The brass plate remains screwed to the wall in the Texas Capitol and also screwed up in its version of Texas and American history. It’s second paragraph: “We, therefore, pledge ourselves to preserve pure ideals; to honor our veterans; to study and teach the truths of history (one of the most important of which is, that the war between the states was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery), and to always act in a manner that will reflect honor upon our noble and patriotic ancestors.”
There is an impressive amount of malarkey packed inside those parentheses.
Here’s a “truth of history” that every Texas student should have learned in school: The state seceded from the Union — that is, bailed out of the United States — after adopting “A declaration of the causes which impel the State of Texas to secede from the Federal Union” on February 2, 1861.
That document referred to Texas’ admission to the Union as a state just 16 years earlier, and it was pretty clear about where Texans thought the U.S. had run afoul of the original deal:
“She [Texas] was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery — the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits — a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them?
“The controlling majority of the Federal Government, under various pretences and disguises, has so administered the same as to exclude the citizens of the Southern States, unless under odious and unconstitutional restrictions, from all the immense territory owned in common by all the States on the Pacific Ocean, for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slave-holding States.”
That’s not all. They got even more specific a little further on in the document:
“In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon the unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color — a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and the negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.”
That “truth of history” promise carries some real baggage, doesn’t it? Wonder why anyone said the Civil War was about slavery.
It wasn’t only slavery, but that was the recurring subject in the secession document. The Confederate Texans also said the federal government had done too little to protect the state from “Indian savages” and “the murderous forays of banditti from the neighboring territory of Mexico; and when our state government has expended large amounts for such purpose, the Federal Government has refused reimbursement therefor...”
That last bit could have been written last month, come to think of it.
Toward the end, that document contains another historical gem:
“And, finally, by the combined sectional vote of the seventeen non-slave-holding States, they have elected as president and vice-president of the whole confederacy two men whose chief claims to such high positions are their approval of these long continued wrongs, and their pledges to continue them to the final consummation of these schemes for the ruin of the slave-holding States.”
The bad hombres in that paragraph were Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin. Perhaps there’s a plaque somewhere commemorating those guys.
So much for fact-checking the Texas plaque. With its content so easily debunked, the real question is why it’s still there for all the citizens and their kids to see.
A related tidbit: The plaque dates to 1959, but survived a renovation of the Capitol that was completed in 1995. The Confederacy apparently lasted longer than one might have thought.
It lingers in spirit, still. The plaque is still in place. But the elections are behind us all. The attorney general says the Preservation Board has the power to remove it and so does the Legislature. Straus is about to retire but his apparent replacement, state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, agrees the plaque should go. Abbott, who earlier promised to “look into” the issue, also said earlier this year that the Legislature should take it down. Meanwhile, the Preservation Board will meet next month; the governor chairs that panel, and the lieutenant governor and speaker are co-vice chairs.
Maybe they’ll do something. It’s no model of efficiency, but sometimes it takes months, years or even decades of legal opinions, committee meetings, political spats and thumb-sucking to accomplish what could have been done by a single Texan with a crowbar and the tacit backing of a high state official or two.