In the spring of 1998, George C. Morris III of Houston, Texas, a great-grandson of Alexander Watkins Terrell, asked me to write a biography of his distinguished ancestor. Knowing of Terrell's central role in key aspects of Texas politics during the period 1877-1912, I agreed to take on this project. Morris and another Terrell descendant, James W. McCartney, also of Houston, provided funding to the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin to cover the cost of my research and writing. Their support was enthusiastic and unstinting, and at no time did they suggest what I should write or how I should interpret Terrell's career.
From the outset one problem confronted me. While Terrell's personal papers from 1893 to his death in 1912 were relatively complete, the records were sparse from his birth in 1827 until he went to Turkey as the American minister in the summer of 1893. Only a few family letters remain from his youth and early manhood in Missouri. Once he reached Texas in late 1852, there were more letters in the manuscript collections of his friends. Nonetheless, very little documentation existed about his family life, relations with his first two wives, and the difficulties he encountered with his children.
In the absence of contemporary letters from this early phase of Terrell's life, his biographers and other historians turned to his unpublished reminiscences and two articles he published in his final years about early life in Austin, Texas, and his friendship with Sam Houston. Terrell's account of his months in Mexico in 1865 with the forces of Emperor Maximilian and the French army was published in 1933, and it too became an oft-quoted source for historians of that eventful episode in Mexican history.
As an individual with a large ego, Terrell wanted to make his mark on the history of his time. However, he was not content with letting his achievements stand on their own. In his memoirs, his public statements, and his writings, he sought to shape the interpretation of what had happened to put himself in the best possible light. The result was a presentation of his career that often varied from the facts. In 1848, for example, Terrell had delivered political speeches in Missouri for the Democratic presidential candidate, Lewis Cass. He also spoke publicly as a Democrat in 1855 and 1857 in Texas. Yet he told audiences in Texas over and over in later years, "I never made a political speech until I was over fifty years old." On other matters such as whether he was a Unionist before the Civil War (he wasn't), whether he was a close friend of Sam Houston (he probably wasn't), and whether he had written a poem eulogizing John Wilkes Booth (he didn't), Terrell arranged the evidence to support his own view of himself. Sorting out where Terrell exaggerated and where he told the truth was a constant challenge.
Yet Terrell did not really need to embellish the record. His life unfolded like a "Who's Who" of nineteenth-century America. His mother was related to the wife of William Clark, and as a young boy on his way to Missouri Terrell probably met the great explorer. Terrell attended the University of Missouri, read law with a prominent attorney in the state, and held local office in St. Joseph as a Democrat during the height of the gold rush to California.
Traveling to Texas with his family in 1852, Terrell again entered politics and helped revive the state's Democratic organization to meet a threat from the Know-Nothing Party. He was elected a district judge from Austin in 1857, supported secession in 1861, and commanded a regiment as a colonel in the Confederate Army in 1863. Terrell fought in the Red River Campaign of 1864 and faced public charges of cowardice for his role in the Battle of Pleasant Hill. Promoted to brigadier general at the very end of the war, he fled to Mexico and briefly joined the French army supporting Emperor Maximilian.
After he returned to Texas in early 1866, Terrell spent four years operating a plantation in Robertson County. Back in Austin in 1871, he built a career as a prosperous attorney, landowner, and businessman. In politics, he fought the Republicans and argued the celebrated Semi-Colon case for the Democrats in 1873-1874. He won a seat in the Texas Senate in 1876 and during eight years as a senator wrote the law that created the educational system after Reconstruction and wrote the law that created the University of Texas with language that provided for co-education and the establishment of the Permanent University Fund; when oil was discovered in the twentieth century on university lands, that provision became the cornerstone of the institution's multibillion-dollar endowment.
Terrell ran an unsuccessful race for the United States Senate in 1886-1887 as an opponent of railroads and corporate power. He returned to the Texas legislature to serve in the House of Representatives in 1891-1892 and was a primary force in the law that established the Texas Railroad Commission. From 1893 to 1897, Terrell served as minister to Turkey in the administration of President Grover Cleveland. His closeness to Sultan Abdulhamid II made Terrell a figure of international controversy during the Armenian massacres of the mid-1890s.
Returning to Texas, Terrell reentered politics in his seventies and served two terms in the Texas House. He was the primary author of the Terrell Election Laws of 1903 and 1905. These measures reduced the role of blacks in state politics and cemented the control of the Democratic Party over the electoral process. In the last years of his life, Terrell opposed controversial Senator Joseph Weldon Bailey, supported prohibition and woman suffrage, and served on the Board of Regents at the University of Texas.
This brief review of Terrell's life does not capture all of his interests. He was also the reporter of the Texas Supreme Court for more than a decade, a renowned and popular orator, and something of an intellectual. Never comfortable with organized religion, he attended many Protestant churches but affiliated with none in any sustained manner. By his death in 1912 he had concluded that the religion of Zoroaster had much to recommend it.
In many respects, Alexander W. Terrell was an interesting, perceptive individual who reflected the uncertainties and challenges of the nineteenth century in the United States. But a strain of strong anti-black racism ran through his public career and made him an advocate of bigoted policies that history has repudiated. Coming to terms with Terrell required a recognition that he was a fascinating blend of political insight about some of the issues of his time and the repository of many of the worst prejudices of his society.
The largest question for a biographer of Terrell is why, despite all of his abilities, he never rose to high state or national office. Terrell believed that his talents had been overlooked and lesser men elevated to the governorship of Texas and to the United States Senate. Part of his problem was his aloof manner that often came across as condescension and his sense of his own brilliance that struck many of his associates as conceit. But even more important was a tendency toward deceit, excessive cleverness, and meanness toward political enemies. Many Texas Democrats respected and used Terrell's skills as a lawmaker and legislative draftsman. Few of his contemporaries really liked him as a person, and many distrusted him.
Two considerations reinforced these opinions. In a very religious state, Terrell's evident skepticism about Christianity was a drag on his ambitions. But Terrell suffered from another and more complex political disability. In 1864 at Pleasant Hill, he and his detachment became separated from other Confederates at a key moment of the battle. It took Terrell and his men a day to rejoin their comrades. Within a week, rumors circulated in Texas that Terrell had shown cowardice in the face of the enemy. He never dignified the allegations with a reply, and they were probably not true.
But the charge stuck and surfaced when he ran for the Senate in 1886-1887, when he supported James S. Hogg in 1892, when he opposed Joe Bailey in 1906-1907, and when he attacked Governor Oscar B. Colquitt in 1911. The story became part of the folklore of Texas politics to which audiences responded when speakers referred to Terrell and his past. There may have been other Confederate officers for whom such charges became part of their political baggage, but Terrell is the only one for whom the record is so complete and the charge so persistent. So writing the life of Alexander Watkins Terrell turned out to be both an intriguing journey into the career of a political figure who often articulated the attitudes of Texas Democrats, sometimes before they even knew what they thought about an issue, and the story of a man of great ability whose life changed forever on a single afternoon in April 1864.
When Terrell's portrait was hung in the Texas State Capitol, it carried the inscription on the name plate: "The author of more good laws for Texas than any man living or dead." Nine decades after his death, the verdict on the laws that Terrell wrote is mixed, but there is no denying that he was one of the most influential Texans of his time. In education, election laws, railroad regulation, and legal history, he provided much of the structure for how his fellow citizens carried on their daily affairs. Alexander Watkins Terrell's reputation may have been eclipsed since his death in 1912, but his influence on the state remains important. The narrative that follows is an attempt to explain how he played his part in the affairs of his time and why his career repays closer study.