On this day in 1836, an assembly of Texians at Washington-on-the-Brazos adopted a document that formally declared independence from a nation that had itself been independent for only 15 years.
Mexico had approved a formal republican constitution in 1824, but, rather than enjoying the blessings of liberty, the nation suffered near-continuous political instability bordering on anarchy over the course of the next decade. When General Santa Anna rescinded the 1824 constitution and established a centralized military dictatorship, the English-speaking and American-born settlers in the northern section of the province of Coahuila y Tejas had had enough. The Texians exercised the right of revolution to defend themselves from anarchy and despotism. The preamble of their Declaration of Independence opens thus:
When a government has ceased to protect the lives, liberty and property of the people, from whom its legitimate powers are derived, and for the advancement of whose happiness it was instituted, and so far from being a guarantee for the enjoyment of those inestimable and inalienable rights, becomes an instrument in the hands of evil rulers for their oppression.
When the Federal Republican Constitution of their country, which they have sworn to support, no longer has a substantial existence, and the whole nature of their government has been forcibly changed, without their consent, from a restricted federative republic, composed of sovereign states, to a consolidated central military despotism, in which every interest is disregarded but that of the army and the priesthood, both the eternal enemies of civil liberty, the everready minions of power, and the usual instruments of tyrants.
When, long after the spirit of the constitution has departed, moderation is at length so far lost by those in power, that even the semblance of freedom is removed, and the forms themselves of the constitution discontinued, and so far from their petitions and remonstrances being regarded, the agents who bear them are thrown into dungeons, and mercenary armies sent forth to force a new government upon them at the point of the bayonet.
When, in consequence of such acts of malfeasance and abdication on the part of the government, anarchy prevails, and civil society is dissolved into its original elements. In such a crisis, the first law of nature, the right of self-preservation, the inherent and inalienable rights of the people to appeal to first principles, and take their political affairs into their own hands in extreme cases, enjoins it as a right towards themselves, and a sacred obligation to their posterity, to abolish such government, and create another in its stead, calculated to rescue them from impending dangers, and to secure their future welfare and happiness.
I think it’s fair to conclude that the Texas Revolution was licit under the theory of the American founding, which justifies a right of revolution to safeguard a people against anarchy as well as despotism. In one very important respect, however, the Texas “founding,” as it were, is the antithesis of its American counterpart. Nowhere in Texas’s formal justification of its revolution to the independent states of the world is there a mention of the central principle of the American founding, namely, that “all men are created equal.” It’s the principle that opens up the possibility of just rule by the majority. The omission was no accident. When Americans began emigrating to Texas in large numbers following Mexico’s independence from Spain, they brought with them the institution of human chattel slavery, despite an official Mexican ban on the practice. While the U.S. Constitutional Convention was forced to compromise the principles of the founding in order to establish a union that could secure the new country from anarchy, the framers of the constitution hoped that they had set slavery on the course of ultimate extinction. In the Texas “founding,” there was a dimmer hope of eradicating slavery because there was no principle of natural human equality at the heart of the new republic. That is to say nothing, of course, of the practical difficulty of eliminating slavery from an independent state with an economy dependent on the possibility of earning one’s bread from the sweat of another’s brow.
Ten years after independence and sixteen years before the Civil War, Texas sought annexation by the United States. I assumed that Abraham Lincoln, who vehemently opposed the expansion of slavery into federal territories, was just as adamantly opposed to the annexation of Texas in 1845. It turns out that his position was somewhat ambivalent:
I perhaps ought to say that individually I never was much interested in the Texasquestion. I never could see much good to come of annexation; inasmuch, as they were already a free republican people on our own model; on the other hand, I never could very clearly see how the annexation would augment the evil of slavery. It always seemed to me that slaves would be taken there in about equal numbers, with or without annexation. And if more were taken because of annexation, still there would be just so many the fewer left, where they were taken from. It is possibly true, to some extent, that with annexation, some slaves may be sent to Texas and continued in slavery, that otherwise might have been liberated. To whatever extent this may be true, I think annexation an evil. I hold it to be a paramount duty of us in the free states, due to the Union of the states, and perhaps to liberty itself (paradox though it may seem) to let the slavery of the other states alone; while, on the other hand, I hold it to be equally clear, that we should never knowingly lend ourselves directly or indirectly, to prevent that slavery from dying a natural death—to find new places for it to live in, when it can no longer exist in the old.
It’s possible, I think, to draw a distinction between the expansion of slavery into relatively empty U.S. territories and the expansion of the United States into land where slavery dominated. In the latter case, one could hope with Lincoln that no men would find themselves to be slaves in the new state of Texas who would otherwise be manumitted. One could have hoped that few people would become new slaveholders and that new lands would be spared the moral and political evil of slavery. As long as the slaveholding states didn’t make up a majority in either house of Congress, it may have been in the best interests of those who hated slavery to expand the political power of a nation dedicated to the principle of natural equality into areas where slavery already existed. Especially if, as in the case of Texas, the culture had turned so much in favor of the institution that gradual or immediate emancipation in an independent republic was nearly impossible. If Texas hadn’t joined the union, the only certainty is that there would have been much enmity between Texas and the post-bellum United States. Every fugitive slave who escaped from Texas into Louisiana would have been cause for a tense crisis between the neighbors. One shudders to consider the numbers of Lost Cause southerners who may have emigrated to a slaveholding, independent Texas once the Civil War was lost. In retrospect, of course, it is obvious that slavery ended in Texas much earlier with annexation than it would have (if ever) without it. Thank goodness the Lone Star State was in the union before the Civil War.
None of this is to take anything away from the indisputable present greatness of my native state, or from the courage exhibited by the heroes of Texas revolution, such as Sam Houston, William Travis, James Fannin, Davy Crockett, James Bowie, and James Bonham, to name a few of the heroes from Texas lore off the top of my head. Only four days after Texas independence was declared, about 150 Texians fought to the death against thousands of Mexican soldiers at the Alamo. I’ll leave you with the memorable words of Col. William Barrett Travis, commander of the Alamo:
Commandancy of the Alamo
Bexar, Feby. 24th, 1836
To the People of Texas & all Americans in the World–
Fellow Citizens and Compatriots–
I am besieged by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna–I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man–The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken–I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls–I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid with all despatch–The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country–Victory or Death.