WASHINGTON - Texas can't legally secede from the Union, as the White House reminded petition signers last weekend, but a little known federal law allows for carving it up into five states.
It sounds far-fetched, yet it's been tried more than once.
In the early 1990s, for instance, a legislator wanted to turn the Panhandle into a state called "Old Texas." Still, the likelihood of Texas breaking up into smaller states is remote.
"This will never, ever, ever happen," said Sean P. Cunningham, associate professor of history at Texas Tech University. "The political realities in Texas would never allow that to actually come to fruition."
Where to draw borders and funding concerns would factor in against it, Cunningham said.
Retired Del Mar College professor Herb Arbuckle of Corpus Christi thought about the obscure provision after reading about an online petition filed on the "We the People" section of WhiteHouse.gov.
Filed just after President Obama's re-election, it has more than 125,700 signers calling for Texas to secede "peacefully" from the Union.
The White House response, titled "Our States Remain United," referenced the Constitution, the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln, but the basic message was "no" to secession requests for eight states. It also was the official answer to a petition to deport everyone who had signed secession petitions.
Arbuckle, who taught history, pointed out Texas can't legally secede, and he wasn't singing the praises of those who signed the petition in what political observers say was a sign of protest at President Obama's re-election.
"We did fight a bloody Civil War, which proved no one has the right to secede," Arbuckle said. "If these idiots with their petition don't understand that, then they are indeed fools."
But the joint resolution Congress approved March 1, 1845, to usher the struggling Republic of Texas into the Union and statehood included the five-state measure.
It stated Texas could divide into four more states — for a total of five, Arbuckle said.
"The Civil War did not negate that joint resolution of Congress, and it is my belief that provision is still in effect," he said.
Texas lends itself to five separate entities: the Coastal Plains, East Texas, Llano Estacado, far West Texas and Central Texas, Arbuckle said.
"But I doubt that will ever happen even though it would give us 10 senators," he said.
Cunningham said the Texas provision actually is not unusual.
The Constitution provides a process for states to split up, he said. What's unusual about the Texas provision is that it was in legislation to add the state to the Union.
At various times in Texas history, lawmakers or factions have pushed for slicing up the state, according to the Texas Handbook of History Online.
The chief historian of the Texas State Historical Association, who shares Arbuckle and Cunningham's belief that a carved-up Texas will never come to pass, recalled a post-Civil War attempt.
"The point was to create a state that would be Republican rather than Democratic then," said Randolph B. "Mike" Campbell, a history professor at the University of North Texas.
In the late 1860s during Reconstruction, talk turned to splitting Texas along a diagonal line running up the Colorado River to create the new — Republican — state of West Texas, he said.
During another attempt to divvy up the state, lawmakers floated a doomed congressional proposal in 1906 to establish four independent legislatures under a single governor and have eight senators, according to the Handbook.