Richard Coke

Richard Coke (March 18, 1829 – May 14, 1897) was an American lawyer and statesman from Waco, Texas. He was the 15th governor of Texas from 1874 to 1876 and was a US Senator from 1877 to 1895. His governorship is notable for reestablishing white supremacist rule in Texas following Reconstruction. His uncle was US Representative Richard Coke Jr.

Richard Coke
Richard Coke - Brady-Handy (cropped).jpg
United States Senator
from Texas
In office
March 4, 1877 – March 3, 1895
Preceded byMorgan C. Hamilton
Succeeded byHorace Chilton
15th Governor of Texas
In office
January 15, 1874 – December 1, 1876
Preceded byEdmund J. Davis
Succeeded byRichard B. Hubbard
Personal details
Born(1829-03-18)March 18, 1829
DiedMay 14, 1897(1897-05-14) (aged 68)
Political partyDemocratic
Alma materCollege of William and Mary

Early life and educationEdit

Richard Coke was born in 1829 in Williamsburg, Virginia, to John and Eliza (Hankins) Coke. He graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1848 with a law degree.

Texas and ConfederacyEdit

In 1850, Coke moved to Texas and opened a law practice in Waco. He developed a reputation for attacking Comanche people.[1] In 1852, he married Mary Horne of Waco. The couple had four children, but all of them died before age 30. They enslaved fifteen people for forced agricultural labor.[2]

Coke was a delegate to the Secession Convention at Austin in 1861. The Convention's chief concern was keeping slavery legal.[2] For this purpose, Coke voted that Texas should leave the United States to join the Confederacy.[1]

He joined the Confederate Army as a private.[3] In 1862, he raised a company that became part of the 15th Texas Infantry and served as its captain for the rest of the war. He was wounded in an action known as Bayou Bourbeau on November 3, 1863, near Opelousas, Louisiana. After the war, he returned home to Waco.


In 1865, Coke was appointed a Texas district court judge, and in 1866, he was elected as an associate justice to the Texas Supreme Court. The following year, the military Governor-General Philip Sheridan fired Coke and four other judges as ‘an impediment to reconstruction’, in pursuit of unionist Reconstruction policies.[3] The firing of the five judges became a cause célèbre and made their names famous, synonymous in the public eye with resistance to Union occupation.

No one benefited more from prevailing public sentiment than Richard Coke, who in 1873, leveraged resentment at Union occupation to construct a Democratic electoral coalition that ruled Texas for more than 100 years. This Democratic power was based on disfranchisement of blacks, Mexican Americans, and poor whites through the use of poll taxes and white primaries. For example, the number of black voters decreased sharply from more than 100,000 in the 1890s to 5,000 in 1906.[4]

Having been fired by Sheridan, Coke ran for governor as a Democrat in 1873 and took office in January 1874. The Texas Supreme Court – forever after known as the "Semicolon Court" due to this case – ruled his election invalid in an extraordinary habeas corpus writ styled Ex Parte Rodriguez.[5] As recounted by the Texas State Historical Association, in response,

Disregarding the court ruling, the Democrats secured the keys to the second floor of the Capitol and took possession. [Incumbent Gov. Edmund] Davis was reported to have state troops stationed on the lower floor. The Travis Rifles (a Texas military unit created to fight Indians), summoned to protect Davis, were converted into a sheriff's posse and protected Coke. On January 15, 1874, Coke was inaugurated as governor. On January 16, Davis arranged for a truce, but he made one final appeal for federal intervention. A telegram from President Ulysses S. Grant said that he did not feel warranted in sending federal troops to keep Davis in office. Davis resigned his office on January 19. Coke's inauguration restored Democratic control in Texas.[6]

Coke's administration was marked by vigorous action to balance the budget and by a revised state constitution adopted in 1876. He was also instrumental in creating the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, which became Texas A&M University. Having once been fired from the Texas Supreme Court, as governor, he appointed all its members, naming as Chief Justice Oran Roberts (after the US Senate had refused to seat him). George F. Moore, who was Chief Justice when he had been fired along with Coke, became the first chief justice elected under Texas' 1876 Constitution, an honor he held until his death. Others from the Texas judiciary under the Confederacy received key appointments.

Once the new Constitution had been negotiated, Coke resigned his office in December 1876, following his election by the legislature to the United States Senate. He was re-elected to federal office in 1882 and 1888, serving in the 45th53rd Congresses until March 3, 1895.[3] Coke was not a candidate for reelection in 1894.

Coke retired to his home in Waco and his nearby farm. He became ill after suffering exposure while fighting a flood of the Brazos River in April 1897. After a short illness, he died at his home in Waco and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery.


Coke's defeat of Davis marked the return of a white supremacist, pro-Confederate government in Texas. Historians in the state praised Davis for this, and consolidated a version of Texas history that downplayed or omitted the liberal government that had preceded him.[1] In 1916 the state archivist wrote:

Governor Coke had faith in his people. He believed in the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race—he prided himself in the rich blood of the Southern people. As their leader he fought back the tide of tyranny that was about to engulf them in the murky water of mulatto domination. He was a constructive statesman; he served his people with true fidelity and left Texas to rich heritage of a fruitful and useful like. His name is engraved on the scroll of immortals, and his footprints are in the sands of time.

— Sinclair Moreland, Texas state archivist (1916)[1]

The 1876 constitution created under Coke's administration is the current Constitution of Texas. Coke County in West Texas is named for him.


  1. ^ a b c d Minutaglio, Bill (2021). A Single Star and Bloody Knuckles: A History of Politics and Race in Texas. University of Texas Press. pp. 31–33. ISBN 9781477310366.
  2. ^ a b "Richard Coke (1829-1897)". Tarlton Law Library. University of Texas. Retrieved July 8, 2021.
  3. ^ a b c US Congressional bioguide
  4. ^ African-American Pioneers of Texas: From the Old West to the New Frontiers (Teacher's Manual) (PDF). Museum of Texas Tech University: Education Division. p. 25. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 5, 2007.
  5. ^ "TSHA | Semicolon Court". Retrieved September 14, 2021.
  6. ^ "TSHA | Coke-Davis Controversy". Retrieved September 14, 2021.

External linksEdit

Party political offices
Preceded by Democratic nominee for Governor of Texas
1873, 1876
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by Governor of Texas
Succeeded by
U.S. Senate
Preceded by U.S. senator (Class 2) from Texas
Served alongside: Samuel B. Maxey, John H. Reagan, Horace Chilton, Roger Q. Mills
Succeeded by