OTD 1866: Delegates swear to support the US Constitution and receive a message from Governor A.J. Hamilton

On February 10, 1866, 81 delegates to the post-Civil War Texas constitutional convention swore an oath to support the Constitution of the United States.

The convention also received a lengthy message from Governor A.J. Hamilton. In addition to commenting on the “amnesty oath” and other qualifications for electing and serving as delegates to the convention, Governor Hamilton addressed the task of revising the state constitution. In part, he wrote:

To what extent it is expected by the people, or may be thought proper by you, to remodel the Constitution of the State, I do not know. No one, however, can doubt that it is expected by the President, the Congress, and the people of the United States, that such changes will be made in the organic law of this State, as will make it conform, in its spirit and principles, to the actual changes that attended the progress of the late war, and followed the overthrow of the rebellion. There can be no doubt that it is expected by the country that you will embrace within the scope of your action, a clear and explicit denial, in such form as may seem to you to be proper, of the right of Texas to secede or withdraw from the Federal Union: a right assumed by an unauthorized and revolutionary body of men in 1861, sitting in this Hall: a right then invoked to justify rebellion against the free and parental government instituted by the patriot sires of ’76, and justly esteemed as the best hope of freedom in the world. It cannot be thought unreasonable that the people of the United Slates should desire a formal and solemn recantation of a political heresy so dangerous to their peace and liberties. It may be said that no act of this, or any other body of men in this State, can destroy the right, if it exists, or settle the question in any authoritative manner: and this may be urged as a reason for declining to take action upon it. It may be well to bear in mind that the people of the United States are not looking to this body for a settlement of this question. The question was transferred, by action of the Southern people, from the tribunal of reason to the field of battle, and has been settled there, by a series of events, the memory of which is likely to endure as long as the American name itself. The country now looks to this body for evidence of an acquiescence in that settlement, as it has been made, and for such further action as will bind the people of Texas, in the most solemn manner, to make that acquiescence perpetual. Too much has been predicated upon the doctrine of the right of secession, too much dared and done by the people of the South to maintain it, to justify the people of the United States in accepting silence on our part as an admission of error. They are not likely to be so credulous and if they were disposed to be so, the utterances of some of the leading presses of the State, during the past three months, would enlighten them.

* * *

It is not now necessary to controvert he opinions of those who maintained that the proclamation of the President of the United States, declaring the freedom of the slaves of the South was but a military order, which was no longer operative after the cessation of actual hostilities. The wise and beneficent spirit of that proclamation has, by the voice of the American people, assumed the form of Constitutional law. It is now the supreme law of the land that slavery, or involuntary servitude, except for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall not exist in any State or Territory of the Union. I doubt not that you will concur with me that this radical change in the condition of those persons in our State who were formerly in slavery ought to be fully recognized in the Constitution, and their new condition provided for. It is, of course not now necessary to incorporate in the Constitution of the State a provision against the future existence of slavery in Texas, since, by virtue of the amended Constitution of the United States, it cannot exist here. But it may nevertheless be eminently proper for you to manifest, in some unmistakable manner, if not your approbation of great act of the nation, at least your cheerful acquiescence in it.

* * *

The most important questions, gentlemen, to which you will be required, by the peculiar circumstances in which we are placed, to direct your attention, grow out of the emancipation of those who were formerly in a state of bondage, and who still remain in our midst. Our former slaves are declared by the Constitution of the United States to be free. Shall we treat that declaration as a mere form of words or shall we receive it as a living truth? Shall we repose upon the postulate that the act of emancipation is only a wrong done to us, or shall we question honestly with ourselves concerning its significance? It seems to me that the events of the past five years should abate, somewhat, our pride of opinion. We have seen a war, inaugurated for the perpetuation of slavery, result in the declaration, by the most powerful of the nations of the earth that it shall no longer exist. Let us not deceive ourselves by the supposition that the nation will fail to make that declaration good, or to redeem, fully, the high obligations which it has assumed in this behalf, before the civilized world.

In my judgment, here could not be devised a more successful mode of procrastinating our return to our original position in the Union, than to deny to the freedmen, in our midst, those civil rights and privileges, without which, to call them free would be only “to keep the word of promise to the ear, and break it to the hope.”



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