The Tidelands Controversy: The Forgotten Fight for States Rights

In the 20th century when people think of the term “state’s rights”, many think of a Southern excuse for treating black people as second-class citizens. However, there was another highly significant fight that involved states’ rights in its time and it had no racial connotations whatsoever. This was the fight for whether the federal government or the states have title over off-shore resources. The primary actors in this situation were the federal government and the states of California, Louisiana, and Texas as they had the most to keep from maintaining a states’ rights policy over continental shelf resources.

The 1930s and 1940s brought expansive ideas of the reach of federal power and in 1946 the U.S. government sued California for title over its offshore resources. Congress was alarmed by this development and passed a bill asserting state ownership, but President Truman vetoed the bill and Congress was unable to override. The following year, the Supreme Court decided in a divided decision against California, eliciting outrage. Since President Truman needed Texas in the 1948 election, he asserted that Texas was in its own class since it entered the United States willingly as an independent nation and thus owned its offshore resources. After the election, however, he ordered his attorney general to file suit against Texas, the first time its boundaries over its resources had been contested in its history as a state. The Supreme Court also decided against Texas, thus federal authority extended to offshore resources, including oil deposits. In 1952, Congress passed legislation restoring title to the states, but Truman, a firm believer in the federalism of the New Deal, vetoed the bill. Notably, all senators and representatives from the states of California, Louisiana, and Texas voted for this bill. The Republican candidate for president, Dwight Eisenhower, promised that if elected he would restore title to the states. The Democratic nominee, Adlai Stevenson, followed Truman’s lead and announced his opposition to this bill. This issue resulted in Texas’ Democratic Convention passing a resolution urging all Texas Democrats to vote for Eisenhower, and this issue played a significant role in him winning the traditionally Democratic state. This was only the second time a Republican had done so since Reconstruction.

On April 1, 1953, the House passed the bill 285-108 (R 188-18, D 97-89, I 0-1) (Govtrack). However, in the Senate, the measure encountered staunch resistance from Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon, a staunchly liberal Independent who had recently left the Republican Party. He led a group of senators in a twenty-seven-day filibuster, with Morse himself speaking for 22 hours and 26 minutes straight, setting a record that would be beat four years later when Strom Thurmond filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The measure nonetheless passed the Senate on May 5, 1953 56-35 (R 35-9, D 21-25, I 0-1) and Eisenhower signed the bill as promised (Govtrack).


Daniel, Price. Tidelands Controversy. Handbook of Texas Online.

Retrieved from

HR 4198. On Passage. Govtrack.

S.J. Res. 13. Committee Amend. in the Nature of a Substitute. Govtrack.

Retrieved from

Wayne Morse Sets Filibuster Record. United States Senate.

Retrieved from


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