Texas’s “Modern” Constitution: Constitution of 1876

Following the ratification of the Constitution of 1869, E.J. Davis, a Southern unionist, became the governor of Texas.  Radical reconstruction and Davis’s governorship set the tone for the context surrounding the drafting and ratification of Texas’s current constitution: the Texas Constitution of 1876.  At over 93,000 words and with over 500 amendments, the Texas Constitution of 1876 is a long, detailed constitution that leaves little room for judicial interpretation.  There were two basic goals at the constitutional convention of 1875: (1) restrict the size and scope of state government, and (2) control the excess of big business.

Restricting the Size & Scope of State Government

The Texas Constitution of 1876 epitomizes limited government.  This constitution represented a return to Jacksonian democracy, reinstating the long ballot (allowing citizens to directly vote on who will serve in various executive, legislative, and judicial positions) and shortened the terms of office for elected officials so they would face re-election more frequently and, in theory, be more accountable to the people.

This constitution maintained a separation of powers between legislative, executive, and judicial branches and a bicameral legislature that meets biennially; however, it:

  • restricted the legislature’s policymaking authority
  • weakened the governorship by cutting the governor’s salary, reducing the term of office to two years (which was later increased to four years through a constitutional amendment), and restricted the governor’s powers of appointment by expanding the plural executive
  • created a bifurcated court system (i.e., divided the state’s court system into two segments), limiting the types of cases individual courts would be authorized to hear

Controlling the Excess of Big Business

The Constitution of 1876 sought to control the excess of big business by prohibiting branch banking, allowing local voters to decide whether to legalize the sale of alcoholic beverages within their counties (known as local-option elections or wet-dry elections), and established homestead exemptions stating that prevent a legal residence from being taken in payment of debt except for delinquent taxes and mortgage payments on a loan taken out to purchase the home.

Constitutional Revision

Many believe the current Texas Constitution of 1876 is too restrictive and should be rewritten to promote more efficient state government, pointing to the need to strengthen the governorship, create a full-time legislature that meets more frequently, and remove judicial elections, which make the judiciary excessively dependent on campaign contributions from special interests.

During the 1970s and 1990s, there were several attempts to replace the Texas Constitution of 1876 or, at the very least, pass sweeping reforms through constitutional amendments.  These efforts at constitutional revision, however, have failed to pass through the Texas legislature.

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