Texas Manhandle

Does the Republic of Texas have a case?


Jonathan Broder
April 30, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

in the remote West Texas town of Fort Davis, the standoff between state police and armed members of the Republic of Texas veered between peaceful settlement and violent showdown Wednesday evening. Armored vehicles had moved into the area, but a state law enforcement official said he was "optimistic that there's going to be a peaceful outcome to all this." Telephone negotiations were taking place one day after two hostages were released in return for the freeing of two jailed members of the group.

The organization, founded in December 1995, claims Texas was illegally annexed in 1845 and should be treated as a sovereign nation. In what law enforcement officials refer to as "paper terrorism," the group has filed a lien against the state and all its assets -- some $93 trillion. The group's "ambassador," Richard McLaren, said the "Republic" is "at war with the United States government." However, he has been disowned by other factions who say McLaren has "gone completely off the deep end."

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Salon talked with Ralph Brock, a law lecturer at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, who has studied the Republic of Texas.

The Republic of Texas claims that the U.S. annexation of Texas in 1845 was illegal. Most people regard the group as just another crackpot militia outfit. But is there any basis for their claim?

No. When Texas became independent from Mexico in 1836, Sam Houston, Texas' first president, wanted Texas to be annexed to the United States. Andrew Jackson was president of the United States. Jackson and Houston were old friends and Houston thought Jackson would immediately annex Texas. In fact, Jackson didn't even recognize Texas as an independent republic until his last day in office in 1837. The reason the federal government wasn't so eager to annex Texas was because it didn't want a war with Mexico, and the Northern states didn't want another slave state. This rocked along for a few years, during which time the annexation movement waxed and waned. Then Houston was re-elected president of the republic and he revived it.

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There was one attempt to annex Texas before 1845.

Yes, in 1844, the U.S. tried to annex Texas by treaty but that failed in the U.S. Senate. A lot of people, particularly Northern senators concerned about the addition of another slave state, were dead set against it. But there was a lot of popular sentiment in favor of annexation, so a number of annexation resolutions were introduced in the House of Representatives in 1845. Unlike a treaty, which needs two-thirds vote, a resolution only needs a majority vote to pass. Finally, one did pass by a bare majority in both the House and Senate on March 1, 1845.

So what is the group's basis for claiming that the annexation was illegal?

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The Republic of Texas group argues that the only way Texas could be annexed would be by treaty, not by a resolution.

Why?

Because the whole business involved two independent nations. Indeed, Texas was independent at the time. It had been recognized by the United States, Britain, France and other nations. The argument that it was unconstitutional to annex Texas by resolution was raised in 1845 and debated on the Senate and House floors. In fact, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opposed the resolution on those grounds. But pro-annexation forces argued that Texas was coming into the union not as a territory but as a state, on equal footing with the other states. And the Constitution gives Congress the power to admit new states.

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So, it was a blurry situation.

This annexation was unique. No other territory had ever given up its sovereignty to become subordinate to another existing nation. Texas' last president, Anson Jones, noted this when he handed over the republic to the federal government. He said the annexation of Texas would write a new chapter in international law, and he was right. It's been cited in international law as the first example of a sovereign nation voluntarily relinquishing its sovereignty.

How did ordinary Texans of the time feel about being annexed?

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They supported it. The Texas Congress agreed to it because the resolution required that the existing government give its consent. Then President Anson Jones called a convention, on July 4, 1845, which adopted the resolution. The convention also adopted a new state Constitution and called an election, which was held in October. The statehood Constitution and the annexation resolution were submitted as separate issues, and new state officials were elected. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of annexation and for adopting the statehood Constitution.

Have other states joined the Union this way?

Yes, Hawaii was annexed by joint resolution. Now, of course when the Hawaiian Legislature voted on Congress' "invitation" to join the United States, there were a few U.S. gunboats sitting in the harbor at the time, so I don't know how voluntary its desire for annexation was. But on paper, it followed the legal precedent set by Texas.

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If the so-called "Republic of Texas," instead of taking hostages and barricading itself in the mountains, were to take their argument before the U.S. Supreme Court now, would they get a hearing?

They would not. First of all, you have to have "standing" to bring any case in any court. They have claimed to be the Republic of Texas and have claimed to be an independent nation. But they have no such status under any kind of international law.

Some senators and House members in 1845 questioned the legality of the annexation. Could a senator or member of the House challenge the legality now?

I don't think so. Too much time has gone by. Plus the fact that Texas acquiesced willingly to this -- which is another reason why the annexation is binding, even under international law. We here in Texas were not overwhelmed by the United States. Unlike Hawaii, there were no gunboats in Galveston harbor when the Texas Congress and the Texas convention voted overwhelmingly to become a state. We've had the benefits of statehood for 150 years, not counting the Civil War. Two presidents, two vice presidents and two Speakers of the House have been elected from Texas. We've taken in trillions of dollars from the U.S. government for military bases and highway construction and federal buildings. You can't come back 150 years later and say it's all void.

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If the constitutional and legal claims are totally bogus, how did this group manage to tie up the state bureaucracy with it's "liens"?

They filed a lien against the company that developed the land in Fort Davis that McLaren lives on. That's where it all started -- with his dispute over the surveys and titles to his property. Then the group filed a lien against the state of Texas and all its assets, $93 trillion. They named Gov. George W. Bush as the debtor, filed it, and the clerk took it. Those clerks will take anything.

Do these liens have any more legal weight than the group's constitutional claims?

Attorney General (Dan) Morales has cleared out the lien against the state, and he's issued an injunction against McLaren and the group from filing any others. There's legislation pending to make it a criminal offense to file these kinds of liens and to make it easier to get such liens removed. That will probably pass -- the Legislature is in session right now. But we'll have to wait and see. As we say in Texas, the lives and property of all men are in jeopardy when the Legislature is in session.

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Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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