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Texas v. White (1869)

Last Updated: 2006

The case of Texas v. White (1869) is particularly important because in it the Supreme Court, speaking through Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, gave its judgment on the large issue that the Civil War had raised: could a state lawfully secede from the union? The Court sided with the victors in the war; secession, it held, was not constitutionally permissible. The Court appealed to the provision in the Articles of Confederation declaring the union to be “perpetual,” and to the preamble of the Constitution “ordaining” a “more perfect union.” “It is difficult,” Chase remarked, “to convey the idea of indissoluble unity more clearly than by these words. What can be indissoluble if a perpetual Union, made more perfect, is not?” Chase concluded, “The Constitution in all its provisions, looks to an indestructible Union, composed of indestructible states.” In so arguing, he was closely following President Abraham Lincoln’s argument about secession in his First Inaugural Address. Three dissenting justices, led by Justice Robert Grier, thought the Court’s analysis too formalistic. Whatever the legal merits of the case for secession, Texas, as a matter of fact, had been out of the Union. The case also had implications for the Reconstruction era during which it was decided, for in finding the states to be “indestructible,” the Court countered some of the more radical theories put forward during Reconstruction that the seceding states had, in effect, self-destructed, and thus could be treated by Congress in any way it chose.

SEE ALSO: Civil War


Herman Belz, Reconstructing the Union (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1969); Harry V. Jaffa, A New Birth of Freedom (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001); and Stanley Kutler, Judicial Power and Reconstruction Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).