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Texas v. White - Political Fact Or Legal Fiction

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The case was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court on 5 February 1869 and was sufficiently complicated to take three days to argue. Nevertheless, the Court returned its decision relatively quickly on 12 April. By a 5-3 vote, the Court returned jurisdiction over the bonds to the state of Texas.

The decision hinged on the nature of American statehood. Chief Justice Chase noted that a state was comprised of a combination of people, territory, and government. Of these, the people or "political community" were the primary component, not a government. By the logic of the Court's majority, Texas had "entered into an indissoluble relation" upon assuming statehood in 1845. "The act which consummated her admission into the Union was something more than a compact; it was the incorporation of a new member into the political body," wrote Justice Chase. "And it was final. The union between Texas and the other States was as complete, as perpetual, and as indissoluble as the union between the original States."

The Court considered the state's secession from the Union to be inconsistent with the constitutional concept of "a perpetual Union," which had been agreed to by Texans upon assuming their statehood. All acts of the Confederate Texas legislature--including the disputed bond sale--were "utterly without operation in law." Despite the Civil War, the Court found that Texans had never ceased being American citizens. To decide otherwise, Chase wrote, would be to conclude that the war had not been fought to save the Union, but had been instead a war of conquest, waged against "foreigners."

The majority's conclusion that Texas had continued to be a state, in spite of the war, brought a pointed dissent from Justices Grier, Swayne, and Freeman. Justice Grier's written opinion noted that the Supreme Court had jurisdiction only in cases involving actual states and rejected the idea that Texas had remained a part of the Union. During its eight years as a "rebel state," Grier noted, Texas was not represented in the U.S. Congress, had not participated in the national presidential election, and was presently under the military rule of the federal government. "Politically, Texas is not a State in this Union," wrote Grier, insisting that the case should be decided on the basis of "political fact," not upon "a legal fiction."

The Court's decision that the Constitution created "an indestructible Union, composed of indestructible States" was not received well by Northern Radical politicians intent on punishing the defeated Confederate states. The decision was equally unwelcome among Southern Democrats, who hoped that the defeated states would be reintegrated into the Union with their prewar governmental powers intact. While the Court's decision affirmed the compact between states and the federal government, it also acknowledged the right of the U.S. Congress to control how Reconstruction would proceed. In this sense, the decision strengthened the hand of Republican Reconstructionists, who presided over the healing of a troubled but indivisible nation which, in theory at least, had never been torn asunder.

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