Prior to the 2009 Black Tie & Boots Gala, the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute commissioned the following essay on the history of Texas Governors, and Governor Rick Perry’s achievements as Texas’ longest-serving chief executive. This essay is especially relevant today in light of Governor Perry’s announcement that he will not run for reelection.
HONORING RICK PERRY
Texas’ Longest-Serving Governor
By James L. Haley
Since the State of Texas commenced its official functions on February 19, 1846, forty-four men and women have held the high honor of serving as Chief Executive of the state. That number has embraced war heroes and Indian fighters, prosecutors and educators, ranchers, newspapermen, lawyers, businessmen, career public servants and a flour salesman.
Certainly, some have been more colorful than effective, but in sum those forty-four have comprised a brilliant pantheon of leadership: the first Governor, James Pinckney Henderson (1846-47), had served the Republic of Texas as Attorney General, Secretary of State and Minister to France and Great Britain. Both he and the second Governor, George T. Wood (1847-49), commanded troops in the Mexican-American War. The seventh Governor, the legendary Sam Houston (1859-61), had led the Texas revolutionary army to victory and served two terms as President of the Republic. John Ireland (1883-87) quelled range wars and oversaw the building of the Capitol; James Hogg (1891-95) enacted Populist reforms and founded the Texas Railroad Commission; Dan Moody (1927-31) battled the Ku Klux Klan; Price Daniel (1957-63) fought the federal government and vindicated Texas’ right to offshore oil; William P. Clements (1979-83, 1987-91) widened the door to appointive offices for minority candidates, a process accelerated by Ann Richards (1991-95.) The sum of their accomplishments is the Texas we have today.
The shortest term, just twenty-eight days, was served by the fourth Governor, James Wilson Henderson (1853) a name that bedevils history students who confuse him with the first Governor, to whom he was not related. This Henderson, who went by the name of “Smoky,” was the Lieutenant Governor who filled in the short remainder of Governor P. Hansbrough Bell’s (1849-53) term when he resigned to replace Texas’ first Congressman, David Kaufman, who had died.
Many others have had their terms cut short, and two have been removed: in 1861 the Secession Convention, knowing how ardently Governor Houston opposed the Confederacy, determined to humiliate him by requiring that he swear an oath of allegiance to it. When he refused, the office was declared vacant and Ed Clark (1861) was sworn in to serve the remaining eight months of his term. Confederate defeat brought Reconstruction, and James W. Throckmorton (1866-67) was elected the first Governor under the post-war constitution. A Unionist who nevertheless served as a Confederate general, Throckmorton was unable to cooperate with a rash and tyrannical commander of the Union occupation, and was forced out. Another, James E. Ferguson (1915-17) would have been removed, but resigned after being impeached. Yet another, Beauford Jester, was the only Governor to die in office, in 1949. Three resigned to continue serving Texas in Congress: Hansbrough Bell entered the House and Richard Coke (1876) and W. Lee O’Daniel (1941) became United States senators.
In 1975, the gubernatorial term of office was doubled from two to four years, and in serving his two non-consecutive terms, Bill Clements became the longest serving Governor at just two days short of eight years. On December 21, 2000, Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry became Governor upon the elevation of his predecessor, George W. Bush, to the Presidency of the United States. In serving out that term, and in winning election and re-election in his own right, Rick Perry now claims the honor of serving as Governor longer than any other.
No man or woman swears the oath of office as Governor of Texas without feeling the weight of the responsibility that they undertake. Equally, they are moved by the history of it, and when Rick and Anita Perry moved into the Governor’s Mansion, they were surrounded by history. Visitors are received in the great double parlor, overlooked by a portrait of Governor Richard Coke (1874-76.) A burly, bearded bear of a man, Coke’s election was vacated by a state supreme court packed with Reconstruction appointees, on the justification that two clauses in the constitution were separated by a semicolon instead of a comma. Coke took office anyway at the head of a people’s militia, finally ending a decade of Reconstruction in Texas. The upper walls of the parlor are ringed with an elegant crown moulding, installed during a redecoration by First Lady Orline Sayers for a visit by President William and Ida McKinley in 1901. A glass breakfront in the parlor contains small silver mementoes of every Governor who has lived in the Mansion.
In the library is the fireplace where Governor Sam Houston burned a letter from President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln knew of Houston’s Union sympathies, and sent a secret communication offering him command of fifty thousand Union troops if he would lead Texas into the Civil War—on the Northern side. Late one night Houston closed himself in the library and asked the advice of four close friends. They voted three to one against making a fight of it, and Houston dropped Lincoln’s letter into the fire.
Guests eat in the dining room once presided over by Governor Miriam Amanda “Ma” Ferguson (1925-27, 1933-35.) Conscious of her status as the first woman to be elected Governor of any state (although by two weeks she was the second to be actually sworn in), she still insisted on placing her personal touch on meals. She served her famous home-made chili and ambrosia salad to friends such as Will Rogers, who once quipped to an audience in the Paramount Theater that she would arrive late; she was still washing dishes.
Even the furniture in the two state bedrooms connects the Governor and Mrs. Perry to their predecessors. It was First Lady Sally Culberson, wife of antitrust Governor Charles Culberson (1895-99), who was able to identify the monumental mahogany four-poster in the southeast bedroom as the same one purchased by Sam Houston. Temple Houston, born in this bed on August 12, 1860, was the first baby born in the Governor’s Mansion. In the southwest bedroom are the great walnut matching beds and wardrobe brought into the Mansion by Governor Marshall and Lucadia Pease (1853-57, 1867-69.) Also in the Pease bedroom is preserved an invitation to a “levee” on August 23, 1856. It was the first entertainment held in the Mansion, an anniversary that Governor and Mrs. Perry keep with a garden party every summer. Together the state bedrooms bear witness to a century and a half of family life in the Mansion—as does even the stair banister, in which putty fills the holes where Governor Hogg hammered tacks to prevent his four rambunctious children from sliding down.
In his official acts as well has his private reflections, Governor Perry has had an extensive heritage on which to draw. Assuming leadership in the recovery from the destruction of hurricanes Rita and Ike, he has had the example of Governor Jimmy Allred (1935-39), who oversaw the distribution of federal relief during the Great Depression. In creating a favorable business climate that is helping Texas to weather the current recession, he has taken the example of Governor Joseph Sayers (1899-1903), who worked tirelessly to promote private investment after Galveston was destroyed by the Great Storm of 1900. And now, casting an eye back to Governors Colquitt in 1914 and Clements seventy years later, Governor and Mrs. Perry are called upon to oversee reconstruction of the mighty but injured Mansion that has sheltered every governor for a century and a half.
So now let all Texans, regardless of their political affiliation, pause to commemorate one of the most historic moments in the history of the Texas governorship. Rick Perry’s record-setting tenure is a significant milestone, and one deserving of congratulations and best wishes for the successful remainder of his term.
James L. Haley
Author of Sam Houston and Passionate Nation