Through the history of politics, borders have always been a question up for debate. Man-made political boundaries have been a cause of strife for millennia, and the battles for who gets to draw those lines on maps may likely never end. More recently, borders, representative democracies, and their intrinsic ties to the political process have turned these permeable lines into constitutional weapons. In the 1930s, a debate arose over manipulation of borders—not to change trade or migration or money—but to shift the balance of power in the United States by splitting up the Lone Star State. Then US Speaker of the House, John Nance Garner, attempted to use a nearly 100-year-old law to legally divide Texas into five different states.
House-Speaker John Garner was a Texas-born lawyer who lived from 1868–1967. A Democrat, he served fifteen terms in the United States House of Representatives until 1933, when he was elected Vice-President to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Patenaude). Due to his warm relations with Congress, acquired in his tenure as a legislator, Garner was vital in passing Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms (Patenaude). Before his ascension to the Vice-Presidency, however, Garner proposed some controversial ideas. “Can He Sell the Old Man,” the comic by John Knott, and “Texas One and Indivisible,” the accompanying editorial, both published in The Dallas Morning News in 1932, reference a proposed option by national House Democrats to divide Texas into five separate states. Garner is depicted in the comic holding a map of the Lone Star State and “selling” the plan to “Old Man Texas,” Knott’s “most famous character” embodying the rural Texan’s ideals of honesty in government. (Perez).
Over the years, there have been many attempts to split Texas into multiple states. Of course, none of these plans ever came to fruition. To create a legal justification, all proposed divisions have used the original Texas annexation as signed by the United States in 1845. A compromise between slave-states and free-states, “The Joint-Resolution for Annexing Texas to the United States,” declares plainly that Texas may be divided into five individual states (United States Congress) to balance the number of slave and free states as needed. Even when slavery was banned in the United States and the number of free and slave states no longer had implication for the makeup of the Senate, the law remained on the books as a legal justification for dividing Texas.
John Garner’s first attempt to quintisect the state in 1921 was boisterous but unsuccessful as he had no clout. As Speaker of the House, however, Garner’s 1931 attempt to divide Texas had far more momentum. Contemporary sources identify a passionate and frustrated attitude taken on Garner’s part. His stated reason for his proposal was to “transfer the balance of political power from New England to the south” and “restore the prestige” of the southern states (Jacobs). Garner approached the rebalancing of Senate representation as a response to perceived attacks by powerful, regional political hegemons—particularly the North-Eastern United States and their unified interests.
This vengeance for Texas and the South tainted how the public viewed Garner’s ideas. John Knott’s comic exemplifies how Garner’s plan was received. From the outside of a barbed-wire fence, the artist pits the stocky Garner as a solicitor trying to convince “Old-Man Texas” of the Speaker’s grand plan. Garner comes across as smarmy—as if this is a back-alley deal to be cast with Texas joining the Democrats in a big score of federal voting power. “More senators on fewer acres,” he says, pointing to his map of Texas. “Old-Man Texas” appears to be humoring the Speaker, with a nonchalance that reflects an attitude of dismissal. That attitude is further elaborated in the accompanying editorial.
Garner’s goal was to increase Democratic representation in the US Senate (Jacobs). A divided Texas would have five times the amount of control in the Senate, with the majority of the new seats likely going to Garner’s party. Thus, his plan would have created a new regional bloc to compete with the North-Eastern states.
The editorial, “Texas One and Indivisible,” warned of competing regional interests in the United States—singling out the contemporary example of the East Coast’s homogeneity and how it was used as a voting bloc in the Senate. While Garner would have certainly agreed with a Southern bloc, The Dallas Morning News was not at all supportive of the idea of separating of Texas at all. Adding more regional blocks, it was argued, would only create more “petty states” with “overrepresentation in the Senate” (Dallas Morning News). In addition, the newspaper condemned the expensive construction of four additional legislative buildings and the costly redundancies of tax dollars going to prop-up four more governorships (Dallas Morning News).
The power of borders is unmistakable. Texan history has always had difficulties with the manipulation of how governments draw lines on the map. Legal gerrymandering lives on today in the Texas legislatures and has been a tactic for amassing power for political parties, much like John Garner’s schemes in the twenties and thirties. For example, the recent 2003 State redistricting was rife with protest and court cases. To date, dividing Texas into five states has never been realized, but other measures to remap the political landscape and consolidate political power in the Lone Star State have been successful.
Elliot, Claude. “Division of Texas.” Texas State Historical Association. 12 June 2010. Web.
Jacobs, Frank. “What’s the Plural of Texas?” Big Think Inc. Web.
“John Knott’s Cartoons Were Front Page Fixture of News” Editorial. The Dallas Morning News. 17 Feb 1963. Print.
Knott, John. “Can He Sell the Old Man?” The Dallas Morning News. 3 Jan 1932, sec. 3: 10. Print.
Patenaude, Lionel V. “Garner, John Nance.” Texas State Historical Association. 15 June, 2010. Web.
Perez, Joan Jenkins. “Knott, John Francis.” Texas State Historical Association. 15 June 2010. Web. https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fkn05
“The Joint-Resolution for Annexing Texas to the United States” United States Congress. 12 Dec 1844. Print.
Trickey, Erick. “For More Than 150 Years, Texas has had the Power to Secede…From Itself.” Smithsonian Institute. March 7, 2017. Print.
“Texas, One and Indivisible.” Editorial. The Dallas Morning News. 3 Jan 1932, sec. 3: 10. Print.