The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Texas governor who refused to concede after losing a bitter election

Texas Gov. Edmund J. Davis, date unknown, left; and Texas Gov. Richard Coke, circa 1870-1880. (Texas State Historical Association; Library of Congress)

The incumbent refused to concede. He had lost reelection, by a lot, but he claimed it was only because of election fraud. He appealed his case to the courts and called on militias to defend him.

No, this is not a story about President Trump, who still hasn’t publicly acknowledged his defeat in the election nearly two weeks ago. This is a story about a Texas governor who barricaded himself in the governor’s office and refused to give up control.

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When Edmund J. Davis started out in politics in the 1850s, he was Whig. Then he became a Democrat. When the Civil War gripped the country, Davis — like then-Gov. Sam Houston — opposed secession. He led a cavalry regiment for the Union during the war, fighting all over the South and witnessing Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith’s surrender in Texas.

Davis’s wife and children were treated badly by Confederates, and Davis himself had narrowly escaped lynching only by the intervention of Mexico, according to historian and Davis biographer Carl Moneyhon. So when state constitutional conventions were held in 1866 and 1868 to 1869, Davis showed up with some personal and political bones to pick.

Now a Radical Republican representing the border region, Davis worked to block ex-Confederates (largely Democrats) from political power and expand voting rights to Black Texans. In 1869, he defeated a fellow Republican in the race for governor.

For a long time, Davis was depicted as a typical “scalawag,” a derisive term for White Southerners who became Republicans during the Reconstruction era, supposedly out of self-interest. Moneyhon’s biography restores Davis’s reputation somewhat, pointing out he started public schooling in the state, stood up to police forces and further expanded civil rights for newly freed Black people.

When he ran for reelection in December 1872, ex-Confederates had regained the right to vote, and Davis got a Democratic opponent, Richard Coke. Voter intimidation, fraud and other irregularities occurred on both sides, to what degree is unclear. When Davis lost by a margin of 2 to 1, he declared the entire election invalid. The Texas Supreme Court agreed, but Democrats declared that, actually, the court was invalid.

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In mid-January 1873, Coke arrived in Austin to assume the governorship. Davis locked himself inside the governor’s office in the Texas Capitol building; Coke and his supporters took over the second floor, where he took the oath of office.

For two days, there were two governors. Armed supporters for both men paced the streets, and violence seemed inevitable.

If Trump refuses to leave on Inauguration Day, as some have feared, President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign has said the government “is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House.” That isn’t far off from what happened to Davis. When he summoned a local militia to protect him, it sided with Coke instead.

Davis then begged President Ulysses S. Grant, a fellow Republican, to send in federal troops. On Jan. 17 came Grant’s reply: No federal troops, and “Would it not be prudent, as well as right, to yield to the verdict of the people as expressed by their ballots?”

Davis gave up, effectively ending Reconstruction in Texas. There wouldn’t be another Republican governor until party realignment 100 years later. But on his way out, he locked the door to the governor’s office and took the keys with him. Coke’s supporters busted it open with an ax.


A previous version of this story misattributed a quote President-elect Joe Biden. It was from his campaign.

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