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edmund j davis of texas

26 july 2012

I first encountered Edmund J. Davis as a minor character in an Elmer Kelton novel. I ran across his name here and there in histories of the American 19th century, and then prominently in an exhibit on Reconstruction Texas in the Bullock state-history museum in Austin. Davis intrigued me, and I was delighted to find that there was a recent full-length biography of him Carl Moneyhon, in a TCU Press series edited by Gregg Cantrell.

Davis was the last Republican Governor of Texas, until Bill Clements was elected in 1978. "First Republicans since" Davis's time are still being elected to this or that office in the old Confederacy. One always knows that those post-Civil-War Republicans had two things in common: the courage to take on overwhelming and sometimes murderous opposition, and a posthumous reputation among Southern historians somewhere between General Sherman and a dead skunk.

So it was with Edmund Davis, who for many decades was seen by Texas historians as a tyrannous scalawag out to oppress the tender innocents of the Texan secession movement. Such Birth-of-a-Nation historiography ran remarkably deep, and survived until surprisingly recent times. In retrospect, the evil interpretation of Davis and his allies is incredible. It was motivated by sheer racism, and a particularly virulent racism, at that. To suggest that black people could be legislators and could bear arms as police or militia, in postwar Texas, was more than just a tactical political position; it was the trigger for fanaticism, reprisals, lynchings, and nearly a century of apartheid.

When one reads Davis's actual record, one is amazed at how anodyne his policies seem, at least to any sane historian. He was born in 1827 in Florida. Davis's family moved to the Texas Gulf Coast in the 1840s. Young Edmund was admitted to the Texas bar at a young age, and in the 1850s he practiced law in Laredo and Corpus Christi, holding various judicial posts.

Though his family was Southern, Davis is a good example of how regionally diverse Texas can be. He was an expert on border law; Moneyhon assesses his work on cases of rival claims to former Mexican holdings as fair and colorblind. He was not a slaveholder, and had nothing in common with the interests of East Texas planters. But Davis was hardly free from racial biases. One of his lifelong concerns was suppression of Indian activity in West Texas. His proximity to Indians and Mexicans made him a staunch Unionist; he had no confidence in state or Confederate authority to police border and frontier regions.

Davis thought secession a disastrous idea, and he put his life where his ideas were. He became a colonel of a Texas cavalry unit in the Union army. He fought in the Red River campaign, and saw desultory action in South Texas (failing to establish much of a southern front against Texan Confederates); rising to the rank of brigadier general, he oversaw anti-guerilla operations in Louisiana.

Five years after the War ended, Davis became Governor of Texas, succeeding his sometime Unionist ally Elisha Pease. His election, and his subsequent re-election defeat in 1873, were disputed. It was nearly impossible to hold a fair election in Texas (and many other states) immediately after the Civil War. Even to know who was enfranchised was hard; the proper authority and institutions were lacking; and even when the disputants could agree on the rules, there was little to prevent gangs of terrorists from keeping black voters away from the polls. In the conditions of 1870, however, the high-water mark of multiracial democracy in Texas for a century to come, Davis won the state house with overwhelming African-American support.

Reconstruction Republicans are often accused in Southern historiography of being cynical opportunists, promising black voters all kinds of things in order to seize power for themselves. In so doing (if so doing; Moneyhon doesn't document much carpetbagging), these Republicans were only doing what all politicians do: identify a constituency and win their votes by appealing to their interest. The trouble was that unreconstructed Confederates saw black voters' interests as being inherently illegitimate.

In office, Davis pressed for law-and-order measures. He established a state police and a state militia, both of which could be deployed to suppress Klansmen and other terrorists – and in keeping with his biases, could be used against Indians, too. He deployed these forces infrequently, and over the screaming objections of Texas Democrats. Many African-Americans served in Davis's state police, and one of the legacies of the Davis years is that troopers in Texas are not called "state police" to this very day: our state cops are instead the "Department of Public Safety," a post-Reconstruction code word for the later all-white force that served segregationist interests.

Davis also called for fully-funded, integrated public schools – in vain, as it turned out. (Most Texas schools have been integrated for a long time now, but funding is still appalling.) He showed a common-sense attitude toward taxation: "If you have public schools, and law and order, you must pay for it" (209). And his ideals for public education are still anathema to many Texan conservatives:

The creation of a public school system was essential. Without it, [Davis] feared a quarter of a million Texans would be reared in ignorance that would fit them either to "fill white leagues or Ku klux klans" or if black, "be driven to the fields under labor and contract laws." Education would, he believed, produce a world which would undermine the ideas that divided people and bring an end to "false pretences." (231)
Davis is assuredly spinning in his grave to see his own political party adopt a 2012 platform that opposes the teaching of "critical thinking" in Texas schools.

Radical Republicans like Davis are often accused, too, of being left-handed or even overt racists. (Incidentally, Moneyhon, even in 2010, is wary of attaching the "Radical" label to Davis, though by the early 1870s it's the only one that fits him.) The idea is that the Radicals really hated black people, you see, and that only old Confederates really had family feeling for their former retainers. Davis's racial attitudes, however – apart from his distaste for Indians – seem devoid of prejudice. He was closely allied with State Senator George Ruby, one of the states's most powerful African-American politicians in the 1870s. And Davis's popular standing among African-Americans was unparalleled: "To the colored race of Texas," a Galveston newspaper wrote in 1880, "his name is like that of Lincoln and Grant to the whole colored race in America—a strong, brave friend" (260). Campaigning for Congress in 1882, Davis told audiences of "his commitment to the equality of all men without regard to color or nationality, the protection of the rights of all men, encouragement of immigration, and the spread of education" (270). He lost. Heck, he'd lose if he ran with those ideas in Texas in 2012.

Moneyhon, Carl H. Edmund J. Davis of Texas: Civil War general, Republican leader, Reconstruction Governor. Fort Worth: TCU Press, 2010.