Texas Truth Telling: A Review-Essay
Contested Empire: Rethinking the Texas Revolution
edited by Sam W. Haynes and Gerald D. Saxon
College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2016
184 pp. $30 cloth
Jesús F. de la Teja
How is it that we understand the Texas Revolution as an event in American history, not Mexican history? The first sentence of the preface, “Few events have occupied as prominent a place in the American historical imagination as the Texas Revolution,” reflect that enduring perspective. In part, there are historical circumstances that attached Texas to the United States long before actual annexation took place in 1846. For one thing, France’s transfer of Louisiana to the United States in 1803 was done under such ambiguous terms that Thomas Jefferson laid claim to all of North America east of the Rio Grande. Preposterous as the assertion was, both from the perspective of Spanish (and later Mexican) claims and of indigenous sovereignty over much of the region, many Americans, particularly in the Mississippi country, took the claim seriously. When John Quincy Adams finally negotiated a boundary treaty with the Spanish plenipotentiary Luis de Onís in 1819, he conceded what eventually became the American Southwest to Spain in order to secure Florida and assert title to the Pacific Northwest. Westerners never gave up on the idea that Adams had alienated what rightfully belonged to the United States, and in December 1836, when the Republic of Texas legislated its boundaries, it went back to Jefferson’s original claim and called for the Rio Grande to serve as the Republic’s southern and western boundary; never mind that its claim included Mexico’s territory of New Mexico, and parts of the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas. Another war, a decade later, would allow the Texans to complete the absorption of their vast domain into the Union, although they had to give up their claims to New Mexico and parts of what are now the states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming.
The preceding, overlong introduction is necessary because it points to a variety of historical circumstances that form the deep background to the material covered in Contested Empire. The Texas Revolution was a product of contests of empire that began long before the essays in this book take up the story. In fact, the two significant deficiencies to this very engaging and thought-provoking volume are that it does not address the issue of indigenous sovereignty in the contest over Texas, and that it does not establish that earlier chapter of the struggle over Texas that conditioned Americans to think about the region as an American place. The closest we get is in the introductory part of Miguel Soto’s essay on the role of land speculation and Mexican government officials in the coming of the revolution, in which he talks about the negotiations leading up to the Adams-Onís Treaty. If we accept Pekka Hämäläinen’s argument for a “Comanche Empire” that included most of the territory now covered by Texas north and west of San Antonio and influenced things deep into the interior of Mexico, then indigenous people were also central to the contest for empire. And, if the Spanish-French disputes going back to the end of the seventeenth century formed the basis for Jefferson’s claim to Texas, then certainly those older empires were part of the contest.
The five essays that make up Contested Empire consist of papers presented at a successful conference held at the University of Texas at Arlington in 2013. The idea of the symposium and, therefore, the book, was to get outside perspectives on the seminal event in the state’s history. As conference organizer Sam Haynes, director of the university’s Center for Greater Southwestern Studies, argues in the preface, Texas historians have long studied the Revolution, which “has rarely been the focus of historians of the United States and Mexico.” The conference then asks historians of the United States and Mexico to add context to the story.
In many respects, this is a timely book. At a time when some Texas politicians have broached the ideas of secession or the breakup of the state into as many as five separate ones, when the state Republican Party is willing to discuss the idea of secession at its state convention (2016), and when Texas popular culture amps up the idea of the Republic as some kind of extraordinary period, some correctives are in order. And that is just what the essays in this slim volume do; remind us to be careful about how we project back our agendas onto people with different concerns and attitudes.
Eric R. Schlereth leads off with “Voluntary Mexicans: Allegiance and the Origins of the Texas Revolution,” an essay that posits the thesis that the early republic’s production of individualists extended to the notion of national allegiance. Ever since the struggle against English rule, Americans had been arguing that choice, not chance, should determine a person’s national allegiance. (And, is this not the principle on which the United States is based? As a nation of immigrants, we are the product of people having voted with their feet to become Americans.) Of course, the danger of accepting these “voluntary Mexicans” was that they could just as easily change their minds. One might argue with Schlereth’s interpretation of the Fredonian Rebellion within the context of voluntary allegiance, but certainly his correlation between allegiance and self-interest stands on solid ground. Having changed the terms under which many of them came to Mexico—abolitionist legislation, immigration restrictions—the expatriates believed they were under no obligation to remain loyal.
As long as Mexico offered terms that were understandable and appreciable to Americans, they were more than happy to adopt a new country; but just what were those terms? We get some idea from Sam Haynes’s essay, “‘Imitating the Example of Our Forefathers’: The Texas Revolution as Historical Reenactment.” Beginning with Stephen F. Austin, extending through the Edwards brothers (leaders of the Fredonian Rebellion), and finding full throat during the Texas War of Independence, it was the language and imagery of the Anglo-American experience, particularly the American Revolution, that governed how the rebellion was sold to Texans and Americans. As he succinctly puts it, “The trope of colonial resistance to British authority informed Anglo-Texan behavior in a number of meaningful and substantive ways. It fostered a sense of collective identity among a far-flung and disconnected set of Anglo-American communities; it provided a political language through which Anglo-Texans could articulate their grievances; and it endowed those inclined toward political activism with a ready-made ideology of opposition that lent their cause an instant legitimacy.” And Haynes cites example after example, including cultural productions, that support the notion that Anglo Texans saw their relationship to the rest of Mexico in terms of their ancestors’ relationship to the British Crown. In fact, that analogy could be used to sell the Texas Revolution in the United States, as the fundraising and volunteer-promoting mission of Texas’s commissioners to the United States amply demonstrated. Ironically, Haynes points out, these patriotic Anglo Texans quickly abandoned the American Revolution rhetoric for one that emphasized the triumph of the Texan David over the Mexican Goliath once they had succeeded in establishing the republic.
Mexico, as Miguel Soto points out in “Politics and Profits: Mexican Officials and Land Speculation in Texas, 1824-1835,” did not lose Texas with Santa Anna’s defeat in the battle of San Jacinto. Rather, Texas was lost piecemeal, as policy makers going back to the dawn of Mexican independence made a series of mistakes that allowed the province to slip away. In part, the loss of Texas came about as Mexicans in a position to profit from speculative land transfers, either personal or through colonization contracts, alienated huge portions of the public domain to a population that those same policy makers took little interest in. Most of the land acquired by Mexican speculators actually wound up in American hands, and even the colonization contracts acquired by Mexicans, including Lorenzo de Zavala, became the object of speculation in the United States. Soto’s conclusion that Mexico’s demographic disadvantage viz. the United States contained the seeds of the loss of Texas—“The failure to assimilate the new population into the social and economic fabric of Mexico soon became a problem for the young nation”—is not a new one, but it is framed in a new context.
Will Fowler’s “The Texan Revolution of 1835-1836 and Early Mexican Nationalism,” is actually the bookend of Sam Haynes’s essay on the role of American revolutionary patriotism in Texas independence. The question of the Mexican nation’s lack of a national identify in the post-independence decades has long kept scholars of nineteenth-century Mexico busy. Fowler employs a survey of that literature, and of the problem of nation in a country where there was an immense gulf between the small intellectual elite and “the majority of the population, living in remote sierras, barely speaking Spanish, with strong local, regional, and/or ethnic identities,” for whom there was no “clear sense of what it meant to be Mexican,” to argue that the Texas Revolution actually helped Mexicans define Mexico. In fact, Fowler claims, the role of slavery in the Texas Revolution, Republic, and eventual secession from the Union, as well as Mexico’s war with the United States, all became fodder in the development of “Mexicanness.”
Contested Empire concludes with Amy Greenberg’s meditation on Thomas Cole’s five paintings series, Course of Empire, as a vehicle for understanding American expansionism. In “‘Time’s Noblest Empire is the Last’: Texas Annexation in the Presumed Course of American Empire,” she argues that the Texas Revolution actually contributed to different arguments over what came to be called Manifest Destiny. Those who opposed expansion held views similar to what Cole represented in his canvases—the decline and eventual collapse of the nation because expansion weakened the institutions that made for a strong country. For supporters of expansion, the American experiment was different in its nature, and the story of Rome held no moral for the United States. As Greenberg makes clear, the allure of conquering a continent—in the case of Texas, rescuing it from a lesser fate—proved too strong to resist. The rejection of Cole’s allegorical art for an optimistic one in which a fertile wilderness awaited American civilization, demonstrated the triumph of the American Manifest Destiny worldview. She concludes: “Although he would forever be revered as the father of the Hudson River School, Cole’s progeny would reject him, just as surely as young America would reject old Europe, and they would do so in favor of the same exceptionalist worldview that Course of Empire fought vainly to critique.”
There is a lot to rethink in this slim volume. Most importantly, it is a reminder that Texas history has not taken place in isolation. Much as the purveyors of Texas exceptionalism try to feed us a simplistic, often racist and misogynist version of events, the historical reality is much more complex than Texas making its way in the world on its own terms.
Jesús F. de la Teja is the Jerome H. and Catherine E. Supple Professor of Southwestern Studies, Regents’ Professor of History, and Director of the Center for the Study of the Southwest at Texas State University.