Chapter 8 – Southerners Found the Republic of Texas
By Howard Ray White of N. C., S.I.S.H.
What an exciting story this is! What heroes Texans have in Stephen Austin and Sam Houston! Our story begins in Mexico City. But wait. Are you asking, “How can the history of the Republic of Texas, a foreign nation, pertain to understanding the War Between the States?” Good question. Answer. You are learning about the persistent political and economic conflict in the US between the Southern and Northern cultures. Well, in the Republic of Texas you experience the climax of the great westward expansion of the Southern Culture, the conclusion of a very important story, now presented here.
Mexicans declared independence from Spain and successfully defended it in 1821, bringing Augustin de Iturbide to power as Emperor of Mexico. Soon afterward Moses Austin, an American, received permission to bring immigrants from the United States into Mexican Tejas (Texas), the northern part of what was soon to become the vast, sparsely settled Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas. Under the guidance of Moses’s son Stephen, pioneers, mostly from the Southern states, left America to settle Mexican Tejas and become Mexican citizens. Why? – Because Mexico needed hardy settlers to come to vast Tejas and defend Mexicans against Apache and Comanche raids and Mexican land against future U.S. westward expansion. Emperor Iturbide was deposed in 1823 and a republican government was established under the new Constitution of 1824, which established states with elected governors and legislatures. Guadalupe Victoria was elected President. But soon, frequent political upheavals in Mexico City threatened to return Mexico to an all-powerful central government. After several coup d’etat overthrows, in May 1833, Antonio López de Santa Anna gained power and began killing the Constitution of 1824. He imprisoned Stephen Austin who was in Mexico City seeking improved relations for Tejans. In May 1835 Santa Anna brutally crushed a revolt in the state of Zacatecas, slaughtering 2,000 non-combatants. Opposed to centralization, Agustin Viesca, the governor of Coahuila y Tejas, disbanded the state legislature on May 21 and retreated northward with his government. But he was arrested in October at Béxar (San Antonio), Tejas. In late October Santa Anna completed the demolition of federalism, abolishing all state governments and reorganizing the nation as departments administered from Mexico City. Finally released from jail, Austin was back in Tejas on September 1, advising, “War is our only hope.” The War for Texas Independence was just beginning.
Trouble was brewing by November 3, 1835 when Texas leaders convened a “Consultation” in San Felipe and a 1,400-man Mexican army under Martin Cos was occupying Béxar (San Antonio). Meanwhile, the “Consultation,” approved one last attempt to establish a Mexican state of Tejas with assured State Rights. Sam Houston was named the state’s commander of military forces. But the Mexican State Movement was soon abandoned. Meanwhile, in early December at Béxar, Tejans forced Cos’ to surrender his army and depart Tejas. A spirit of independence and confidence was growing.
On March 1, 1836, the Texas Independence Convention opened at Washington-on-the-Brazos, Tejas. Working rapidly, delegates drew up a Republic of Texas Constitution (6 Southern States, VA, NC, TN, KY, SC and GA, provided nearly three-fourths of the signers). Dead was the idea of a Mexican State of Tejas. Elected Commander-in-Chief of Texas Armies, Sam Houston departed on March 6 to gather his forces. The Convention had just learned of the massacre at the Alamo in Béxar. Only a Texian for three years, Houston, a former Tennessee governor, had left his Cherokee wife Tiana for Tejas in December 1832. Volunteers were arriving with arms from LA, GA, MS, TN, KY and other American states.
Santa Anna had been personally leading 1,500 soldiers to Béxar, first arriving on February 23. Considered the government center of Tejas, the town’s major feature was the Alamo, a rugged and old Spanish Mission structure. Considering the Alamo a death trap, Sam Houston had sent James Bowie to Béxar with orders to salvage the cannon and destroy the building while time permitted. Instead, Bowie and William Travis had rallied the Texians within to stay and reinforce the building. A final message from Travis announced that Santa Anna “has demanded surrender at discretion, otherwise the garrison are to be put to the sword. . . . But I shall never surrender or retreat. I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible. . . . Victory or Death!” The army overran the Alamo on March 6. No defenders were allowed to surrender. When the walls were breached, about 80 Texians fled, but were killed by Mexican cavalry. Almost everyone was slain; the number killed estimated at 182 to 257 men. Among the dead defenders were leaders William Travis of AL, James Bowie of LA, and David Crockett of TN. Yet the heroism of those brave men accomplished much: Santa Anna was delayed at Béxar for two weeks, giving the Convention time to declare independence and form a government for the Republic of Texas. And they inspired Texans to fight harder to defeat Mexican forces. All would “Remember the Alamo” and derive enhanced justification for their rebellion against tyranny. All of them were heroes.
Santa Anna had three Mexican armies in Texas, viciously destroying the independence movement, not allowing surrender, not taking prisoners. The army under Antonio Gaona was moving northeast from Béxar. Santa Anna was leading an army eastward from Béxar and, since January, Jose Urrea had been leading an army, nearly 1,000 strong, along the Gulf Coast, which had already inflicted heavy damage by the time Houston had been named Commander-in-Chief of Texas Armies. Urrea’s main opposition were the much smaller Texian forces under James Fannin and others, which had taken control of the town of Goliad in October and its Spanish fort, Presidio La Bahia. Believing the Republic needed to consolidate its troops and avoid capture, Houston ordered Fannin to destroy the Goliad fort and march eastward toward Victoria. Receiving the order on March 11, Fannin declined, unwilling to leave any men behind. Unfortunately, his men suffered the Goliad Massacre two weeks later. Like at the Alamo, the Mexican command refused to take prisoners. Those who surrendered were killed. On Palm Sunday, March 27, Fannin of GA, William Ward of GA, Ira Westover of MA and their men were marched out of the Presidio and shot. Almost 350 Texians died. The Texas Independence Movement gained another war cry, “Remember Goliad.”
Houston planned to avoid the West and Gulf armies and find a way to defeat the middle army, which was under Santa Anna himself. Retreating with purpose, Houston was patient and intent on preserving his army. He finally found his chance at the San Jacinto River. His men surprised Santa Anna’s army at 4:30 pm on April 21, overran their camp and captured Santa Anna. In remembrance of the Alamo and Goliad, about 650 Mexican soldiers were killed. Texans only lost 6 killed and 24 wounded, one being Houston, whose right leg was “shattered above the ankle.”
Santa Anna accepted surrender and ordered the other two Mexican armies to leave Texas. On May 21, 1836 he signed a document at Velasco, Texas recognizing the Republic of Texas and establishing the boundary at the Rio Grande River. Santa Anna would be forced to travel overland and by steamboat to Washington, DC to meet with President Andrew Jackson and discuss Mexican recognition of the Republic of Texas. They would meet in January 1837 and Jackson would formally recognize the Republic of Texas on March 3. Santa Anna would be free to return to Mexico City and resume his political career. France would recognize Texas in late 1839.
On September 5, 1836, Texans approved the Constitution and elected Sam Houston as President. Not allowed re-election, Houston’s vice-President Mirabeau Lamar served as President from December 1838 to December 1841. Houston returned as President, serving to December 1844. Anson Jones was President until February 1846.
The Republic of Texas was a vast expanse of land, much larger than the present State of Texas. The Republic claimed rights to the present state, plus westward to the Rio Grande River (now over half of the state of New Mexico, including Santa Fe), plus northward to the Arkansas River (now southern and western Colorado, including Grand Junction), plus a small slice of south-central Wyoming. To view a map, Google: “Map of Texas and Countries Adjacent, 1844, U. S. War Department.” Although huge in land, Texas was small in population and growing by only 7,000 per year. In 1836, the central, settled region of Texas contained 30,000 people of US background, mostly Southerners, 5,000 slaves of African descent, 3,478 people of Mexican ancestry and 14,000 Native Americans. So, Texas had insufficient population to rule over the upper Rio Grande Valley and Santa Fe, already 225 years old. Pueblos and Mexicans there saw no Texas authority.
But the Republic was a success even through debt was troublesome. By December 1843, President Houston took pride in progress: Mexico was not threatening, agriculture was growing, trade was expanded, the Texas dollar was strong, and diplomatic relations with Great Britain and France had been secured. But Santa Anna returned to power in Mexico City for a time in 1844, threating again to conquer Texas. Although Texas was a viable Nation, soon to be 10-years old, this combination of troublesome debt and invasion threat caused President Houston and then President Anson Jones to explore transitioning to statehood.
President John Tyler of Virginia thrice submitted merger treaties to the U.S. Senate; but northern Senators rejected it every time, the last in early June, 1844. But Tyler’s term in office was coming to a close. Democrats nominated James K. Polk of Tennessee and Whigs nominated Henry Clay of Kentucky. The contest for President was heated and pivoted around the issue of “to admit” or “not to admit” Texas. The Whig Party opposed admitting Texas. The Democrat Party favored it. Democrat Polk was elected. Tyler viewed Polk’s election as a mandate for immediate admission. In his annual message on December 2, he urged Congress to approve admission by a joint resolution (this was different from a treaty). The bill passed the House. The Senate concurred. Tyler signed the Texas Merger Bill on March 1, 1845.
Andrew Jackson Donelson, a nephew of Andrew Jackson, was dispatched to Texas with instructions to present the Texas Merger Bill to President Anson Jones. The terms were generous. Texas would be admitted as a slave state rather than as a territory (only land north of the Missouri Compromise latitude must exclude slavery). She would keep her public lands and pay her own public debts. She could divide herself into as many as four additional states with population growth.
Upon getting news of the Merger Bill (“Annexation”), British and French diplomats rushed to President Jones encouraging that Texas remain a Republic with guarantees of military support from their two nations. Also, fearing the Americans more than the French and British, Mexican President Santa Anna indicated he would make peace with Texans if they remained a Republic. Jones was impressed. So U.S. diplomat Andrew Donelson had to campaign for merger votes. Progress was evident by May: Houston was supportive and President Jones relented, calling the Texas Congress into session.
A Texas Constitutional Convention, made up of delegates elected by Texas voters, gathered in July and framed a State Constitution for the State of Texas. The result was submitted to voters. On October 13, 1845 Texas voters approved the merger by 94% and the State Constitution by 93%. Apparently Texans felt secure under the Democratic administration of James K. Polk of Tennessee. It seemed like a good deal. They were promised that the boundaries of the State of Texas would match the boundaries it claimed for its former Republic. At this point the population was barely sufficient for one state; the 1847 census would count 102,961 whites and Mexicans and 38,753 slaves.
The First Texas State Legislature convened in Austin on February 19, 1846. In a ceremony in front of the Capitol, President Jones gave a valedictory address, the flag of the republic was lowered, and the flag of the United States was raised above it. The ceremonies concluded with the inaugural address of the newly elected governor, J. Pinckney Henderson. Texas would send two men to the US Senate: Sam Houston, formerly of Virginia and Tennessee, and Thomas Jefferson Rusk, formerly of South Carolina and Georgia.
Texas is a story of the Southern culture and hardy Southern pioneers. It is a fast-moving story that stirs the emotions – 1821, first settlement – 1835, independence and war – 1836, Republic of Texas – 1846, State of Texas.
Suggestions for Class Discussion
Did Texans understand the grave danger in giving up their rights under a Republic in exchange for U.S. statehood?