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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

What Perry Really Said About Secession

The Obama team falsely suggests Texas Gov. Rick Perry advocated secession. Perry's actual remarks have been mischaracterized. Perry entertained a reporter's question about secession after a tea party rally in 2009, and warned that "if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what may come out of that?" But he's made clear all along that "we've got a great union" and there is "no reason to dissolve it."

Perry has carelessly commented that Texas has a unique right to secede from the union, having once been an independent republic. That's a myth, historians say. But Perry never advocated secession.

Perry Never Advocated Secession

Perry has been dogged by mischaracterizations of his secession comments ever since he made them. But with Perry recently declaring himself a Republican candidate for president, those attacks have been ramped up by opponents trying to marginalize his candidacy by dismissing Perry as the guy who once talked about Texas seceding from the union.

In an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Aug. 21, Robert Gibbs, a former White House spokesman and now an adviser for the Obama reelection campaign, was asked about Perry's thinly veiled suggestion that President Barack Obama didn't love his country.

Gibbs, Aug 21: Well, two things come to mind. Rick Perry is the governor who, two years ago, openly talked about whether or not Texas should leave the union. So I think for Rick Perry to, at one point, talk about secession from the union as early as–or as far back as only 2009, I think it's good that he's professed his love for this country. But I'll be honest with you, Savannah, I think the American people are tired of the politics where, if you and I don't agree on something, I question your love of country and your patriotism.

A week earlier, White House spokesman Jay Carney took a similar jab, when he was asked by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd what he thought about Perry's comment that it would be "treasonous" for Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to print more money.

Carney, Aug. 16: We may disagree with our political opponents, but we certainly think they’re all patriots — even those who wanted to secede from the union.

Perry's secession comments came after a tea party event in April 2009. They quickly went viral on the Internet and touched off a firestorm of media scrutiny.

Here's the full exchange, which you can watch here, with Associated Press reporter Kelley Shannon:

Shannon: Some have associated you with the idea of secession or sovereignty for your state. …

Perry: I think there’s a lot of different scenarios. Texas is a unique place. When we came in the union in 1845, one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that.

You know, my hope is that America and Washington in particular pays attention. We’ve got a great union. There is absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what may come out of that? But Texas is a very unique place and we’re a pretty independent lot to boot.

Some Perry critics have also pointed to another statement from Perry, this time to a group of tech bloggers taking a tour of his Capitol offices the month before the tea party interview. At one point, according to audio posted on YouTube, Perry tells the group, "When we came into the nation in 1845, we were a republic. We were a stand-alone nation. And one of the deals was, we can leave any time we want. … So we're kind of thinking about that again."

The line was met with laughter, suggesting it was not meant as a serious position statement.

"You do that and I'll move in!" someone is heard to joke back, to more laughter.

Some may question the prudence of Perry entertaining the suggestion of secession, or talking too loosely about such a radical idea, but any fair-minded reading of Perry's fuller quote, and its context, makes clear that Perry was not advocating for Texas to secede. And Perry has repeatedly said since then that he did not, and does not, advocate secession.

Asked about his comments in a Newsweek interview a year later, Perry told Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune, "I said that we live in an incredibly wonderful country, and I see absolutely no reason for that to ever happen. But I do understand people's concern and anger about what this administration is doing from an economic standpoint–in particular, the long-term debt that's being created for not only them but for future generations."

Can Texas Opt Out?

So Perry has been wrongly portrayed as a secession advocate. But he is wrong when he claims Texas has some unique arrangement that would allow it to secede at will.

Perry's comments suggest the deal was part of the Joint Resolution for Annexing Texas to the United States, which was approved March 1, 1845. But the document neither talks about nor conveys any such right to secede.

“That’s a myth and not based on any historical reality,” said Walter L. Buenger, a professor of history at Texas A&M University and author of the book “Secession and the Union in Texas,” in an interview with FactCheck.org.

And then there's the matter of the Civil War.

“Among scholars, the consensus is that the Civil War settled all these issues," Harvey Tucker, professor in the political science department at Texas A&M, told us. "Texas does not have the right to secede.”

Buenger also pointed to a Supreme Court case in 1869, Texas v. White, in which the court ruled that unilateral secession by any state was unconstitutional.

“On all counts, this is a total fabrication,” Buenger said. “And it reflects poorly on our state that our governor would insist on this.”

The Joint Resolution for Annexing Texas to the United States does talk about allowing Texas to split into five states (four new states plus the State of Texas). But that's different than secession.

And it'll never happen, Tucker said, joking that “we can’t afford to dilute our football talent that way.”

“There is no doubt whatsoever that Texas does not have a reserved right to secede," said Sanford Levinson, professor of government at the School of Law at the University of Texas at Austin, in an exchange of emails with FactCheck.org. "One could argue that the state does have a reserved right to split into five separate states (and thus get a total of ten senators), but, interestingly enough, not even Tom DeLay suggested that.”

Robert Farley