Aroused by the shootings in South Carolina and the Confederate Flag controversy, Austinites are among many Southerners who are debating whether to purge its city of statues of Confederate leaders, along with considering name changes for the buildings and schools bearing their names.
Of the two issues, statues are more easily dealt with, being relatively easy to move from sight and mind. But school names that have a history in the hearts and minds of their graduates is a bit harder. For example, I wonder how I would feel if it were decided that O. Henry (pen name for William Sydney Porter) had been a subversive figure and my junior high school were renamed? I’m not a huge fan of the writer, but that school with that name is a part of my personal history and I’d rather not have to redact those memories now.
The question is, however, do we convenience past graduates or do we finally clean up the last smears of the Confederacy leadership that we still honor with naming rights? While there may be a pretty strong case for rejecting Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, the southerners most associated with the Civil War, there is a Texan of lesser fame, that I think should be pardoned from any purge. (Beware, the history buff is writing the rest of this piece.)
Most Texans don’t have an inkling about John H. Reagan beyond knowing of a high school and, perhaps, a state office building bearing his name. If they have any information about him, it’s been acquired as part of the recent Confederate leaders debate in which he was identified as Postmaster of the Confederacy – the only Texan to hold a Confederate cabinet position.
Reagan was a remarkable Postmaster. His main departments were headed by men who had served in similar positions with the U.S. Post Office Department and accepted his invitation to work with him. Accordingly, within six weeks, the Confederacy had functional post office facilities. Showing further flair for organization, he cut expenses – eliminating little-used routes and negotiating lower railroad rates – thereby turning a profit and making his post office department the only self-sustaining government postal operation in American history!
But, before he’s thrown to the historical dust heap for his Postmastership, I believe it behooves us to reconsider this Tennessean-turned-Texan by weighing his Confederate service against his otherwise impressive service to our state.
His resume of public service to Texas is a long one. Having relocated to Texas in 1839 and joined the Texas forces engaged in the expulsion of Cherokees, Reagan was elected two years later as militia captain and justice of the peace for his precinct. A year after statehood, he was elected to be the first county judge of Henderson County, and the following year, 1847, he was elected to the Second Texas Legislature. In 1852, Reagan won election as district judge and, in 1857, East Texans elected him to the U.S. House of Representatives. Although he opposed the institution of slavery, he supported it as a matter of state’s rights. However, he was strongly opposed to secession from the Union.
In fact, historians have explained that Reagan was a Unionist at heart. In his memoirs, written in 1903, Reagan insisted that as a member of the 35th and 36th Congresses, he struggled to maintain the Union. This position is supported by his contemporaries and the press. The Dallas Herald considered him a true patriot, “an able defender of . . . the Constitution and a Union-loving statesman . . . ,” while the Tyler Reporter viewed Reagan as an enemy of “the fire-eating disunionists.”
And yet, as a decision on secession loomed, Reagan made the choice to be loyal to his state and to his friend, Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, accepting his offer to join his Cabinet.
At war’s end, however, his Unionist sentiments reemerged. From a Boston federal prison where he spent 22 weeks in solitary confinement, Reagan wrote an open letter to his fellow Texans, urging them to accept the Confederacy’s defeat, return willingly to the Union, and work to rebuild a unified nation. This letter was not well-received in Texas, but he returned home in December, 1865, and began mending political fences.
By 1875, Reagan had been elected as one of 90 delegates to draft a post-Reconstruction Texas Constitution. Most of the forty-one farmers, twenty-nine lawyers, and other twenty delegates had no previous experience in elected office nor any intent to pursue such office in the future. As the San Antonio Daily Herald reported, they were “men without name, drawn from different sections of the state, most of them never having been heard of beyond their local habitation and district.” But John H. Reagan was one of the exceptions and, as the debates and drafting history show, provided valuable guidance based on his years of experience in various governmental branches.
Approximately half of the delegates, including Reagan, identified their political affiliation as Granger, a.k.a., the Society of the Patrons of Husbandry, and Reagan ably represented Grange party concerns involving railroads, including their control by absentee New York capitalists, the high and discriminatory rate setting, and notorious stock manipulation.
During the Convention, Reagan also served as chairman of the committee charged with drafting the judicial branch article. He explained the importance of this article, pointing out that court backlogs and other problems with the judicial system – more than any other grievance – had caused Texans to seek a new Constitution. As passed, the judiciary article maintained an elected judiciary and provided for a more efficient court system by creating more courts (including intermediate courts of appeals) and setting minimum jurisdictional amounts to keep smaller matters from clogging up the dockets of the higher courts.
The year 1875 also marked Reagan’s reelection to his pre-War congressional seat, where he served on the Commerce Committee, advocating for federal regulation of railroads and helping create the Interstate Commerce Commission. He also served as the first chairman of the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads. In 1887, he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Texas, but resigned that seat in 1891 to become chairman of the newly-formed Texas Railroad Commission at the behest of his friend, Governor James Stephen “Jim” Hogg, who had run on a platform of state regulation of railroads.
Reagan chaired the Commission from its inception until 1903. Designed to regulate state commerce as an extension of the ICC’s federal work, the Commission became an institution aiding the state’s manufacturers, thereby fostering state economic growth. It’s been said that his tenure provided the leadership and prestige necessary in the early years of this extremely powerful state regulatory body. I would also venture to say that he prepared the Commission for its subsequent role as regulator of the Texas oil and gas business, which prior to OPEC, became the most powerful state agency in this country because of its role in setting the world’s oil prices. When Reagan died in 1905, the entire Texas Legislature attended his funeral. History lesson over.
As Reagan’s struggle with the decision to serve the Confederacy reveals, those were complicated times in our nation’s history, and judging human beings from today’s perspectives should not be done lightly. I would be willing to bet that no one woke up one day in the 1860s and said, “I think I’ll work to destroy the union of the American states.” Most of the men who participated in the Confederate leadership were honorable gentlemen and Southerners, whose loyalties and obligations weighed heavily on the scales of the choices they made, choices that seem so obviously bad to us today, but for them, may not have even felt like choices at all.
The Confederate battle flag, however, is not complicated. As we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, it was resurrected and used in the South as a symbol of hate and racism in the wake of desegregation and the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s. Period.
While dumping the Confederate flag is a no-brainer, I’d like to urge that we think carefully before throwing out all of the historical leaders that may have bathed in the red and blue bath water. We can scrub ourselves clean of our history only so much before we lose the sense of who we are and where we’ve been. And where do we draw the lines amidst so many shades of grey? After all, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson held other human beings in slavery.
As for John H. Reagan, it’s relatively easy for me to draw the line between his Confederate service and the numerous contributions he made as a public servant in Texas. He represented his constituents assiduously and honorably. Over a century later, we still live with the fruits of his service, both as a nation and a state. Surely, he deserves to be honored by the statues and the buildings and schools that bear his name.
In fact, maybe he deserves another laurel. How about a John H. Reagan postage stamp to honor the only postmaster who ran a profitable postal system? Not exactly a moon shot, but a significant achievement as we head toward the half-dollar stamp!