Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Slavery and Texas Secession

For those of you who have been reading blogs for several years, you may remember that at one point Tacitus was supposed to be the conservative site you needed to take seriously. Pretty laughable, I know. Among their writers was Josh Treviño. Treviño attacks my take on the Texas Revolution as treason in defense of slavery. He calls the Texan Revolution "a good and just cause in defense of genuine liberties. If lefty bloggers wish to criticize Texas now, they might at least get its history right."

Hmmm...let's look at the evidence. I know conservatives aren't big on actual evidence, but as a historian, I am. When Mexico became a country and invited the Austin family to start a settlement, slavery was legal. But Gerald Horne, in his 2005 award winning book, Black and Brown: African Americans and the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920, succinctly discusses in his introduction how Mexico tried to abolish slavery, first through the Colonization Law of 1824, which emancipated all slaves on their 14th birthday and then through an 1832 law that forbade importation of slaves into Texas. He argues that Texas slaveholders saw the first law as a threat and the second as worthy of secession.

Southerners always saw Texas as an extension of their economy and wanted to bring the institution there. Alamo hero Jim Bowie (a notorious wife beater among other things) and his brothers used Texas as a way to smuggle slaves into the United States. In 1808, the importation of slaves into the United States became illegal because of the clause inserted into the Constitution. Slaveholders desperately wanted to get around this and they came up with various ways to smuggle human beings into the country. The Bowie brothers smuggled around 1500 Africans into the United States through Galveston between 1818 and 1820. Texans continued these activities throughout the 1830s; while the Texas constitution outlawed the importation of slaves, this was not heavily enforced and was a sop to international opinion rather than a heartfelt condemnation of the practice. Paul Lack, in his work, The Texas Revolutionary Experience: A Political and Social History, 1835-1836, writes "In the summer of 1835, many Anglo Texans concluded that Mexico had acquired the will and power to implement an antislavery strategy." Nothing scared Texans more than this and they acted accordingly.

I'm not going to go into all the details about the events leading to the Texas Revolution. But John Quincy Adams and northern antislavery activists spoke what everyone knew in 1836--that the Texas Revolution was about slavery. Adams said in Congress that "the war now raging in Texas is a Mexican civil war and a war for the re-establishment of slavery where it was abolished." Texas historian William C. Davis says that "you have the same contradiction [that you do in] the Civil War, when you've got several million Confederate citizens and soldiers preaching all the rhetoric of liberty while owning 3 million slaves." Randolph Campbell, in his book An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821-1865 writes "As the revolution developed in 1835, Texans saw the situation as a threat to slavery, and, ironically, as an attempt to reduce them to the status of slaves." Horne says "slavery--or rather the "freedom" to engage in slavery --was a "primary cause of the Texas Revolution."

African-Americans certainly saw the rebellion as about slavery. Slaves looked to rise up across east Texas and whites cracked down hard, including diverting troops away from fighting the Mexicans in order to stay at home and guard against slave revolts. Like in the Civil War, slaves fled to the Mexican lines whenever they could. I can go into much more detail about these revolts if anyone wants to hear about it. Moreover, when Santa Anna was captured and forced to sign the Treaties of Velasco, granting the Texans their independence, key to the conditions for his freedom was that he return all runaway slaves.

William Davis and Randolph Campbell also say that slavery wasn't the only reason for the Texas Revolution. That's true. White supremacy over Mexicans also played a role, as did religious differences, the isolation of Texas from Mexico City, that Mexico was an incredibly weak state during the 1830s, and that most of the white Texans always intended for the place to be part of the United States. But Treviño's argument does not include this complexity; rather, like Confederate apologists, he claims that slavery played virtually no role. It's not as if Santa Anna was marching to Texas to take away all the Texans' slaves. But ending slavery was the greatest threat Texans faced. Campbell argues, "Texas could not...have protected slavery had they lost their war with Mexico. Defeat almost certainly would have meant the end of the institution."

Lincoln wasn't going to take away slaves either, but the South saw his election as a threat and seceded rather than live under an anti-slavery government. When Texans revolted against both Santa Anna and Lincoln, they took the opportunity to try and end slavery. The desire for a slave republic led Texas to commit treason in defense of slavery twice, first in 1836 and again in 1861. The differences between the supposed oppression Texas faced from Santa Anna and Lincoln are slight. Also like Treviño, Confederate apologists say the Civil War wasn't about slavery--it was about westward expansion or tariff policy or capitalism vs. agrarianism. But none of these things could have broken apart the nation without slavery at the center of the issue. Similarly, there were several reasons that Texas wanted to be rid of Mexican control and most of them had slavery at their heart.

This leads me to another question I'd love Treviño to answer--do you think defending slavery caused the South to secede from the union? And how do you feel about the Confederacy? Were they also engaging in a "good and just cause?"

Treviño's discussion of Santa Anna and the Mexican government is just absurd. He's right that the Mexican government faced many rebellions during the 1830s. That's because Santa Anna was trying to create a centralized nation that would in fact be a nation. His situation is not dissimilar to the United States in 1786: weak, divided, and on the verge of collapse. Saving his country by suppressing regional rebellions did not necessarily make him a tyrant, it made him a strong leader. Yes, he was a dictator, but the conditions Mexico faced in 1836 were extremely grim. Remember, there were many in the United States who wished George Washington would also make himself ruler for life. That Washington resisted is to his credit; Santa Anna was certainly no George Washington.

The equivalent American Revolution event to the Texas Rebellion is not the American Revolution itself, it's Shays' Rebellion, where in 1786, a group of Massachusetts farmers revolted over debt issues, threatening the Republic; or the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, when Pennsylvania farmers attacked government agents and threatened rebellion over the federal excise on whiskey, their major product.

Treviño no doubt wouldn't criticize Washington and Alexander Hamilton for crushing the Whiskey Rebellion, yet he claims that Santa Anna was a despot worse than King George III. What precisely were these depredations Texans suffered under the oh so hideous Santa Anna? I'm not saying Santa Anna is someone to admire today, but it's completely insane to talk of him oppressing the Texans. That he claims the Texans were right in revolting because they based their revolt on the Constitution of 1824 is analogous to using the Articles of Confederation to say that Shays' Rebellion was right--both documents were dumped by centralizing federal governments because they weren't working.

What a two-faced argument Trevino throws out there--Texans were fighting for their liberties guaranteed in the 1824 Constitution. What rights had changed for Texans since 1824? The legality of slavery!

Finally, I expect Treviño to note that there were Tejanos fighting at the Alamo. That's true, there were a few, though not a lot. But many of them were also fighting for slavery! It's not like slavery was only something white people did. Moreover, the history of these pro-Texas Mexicans in the years after 1836 puts the lie to the idea that Texas was not about white supremacy. Juan Seguín is the most famous Mexican supporter of the Revolution. It was Seguín who William Travis sent through the Mexican lines at the Alamo to get help. But in 1842, when the Mexicans briefly retook San Antonio, all prominent Mexicans were suspect and suffered discrimination. Seguín, a supposed hero of the Alamo, was forced to flee to Mexico, charged with aiding the Mexican army. What really made Texans angry though was that Seguín was fighting for Tejano rights. Forced to "seek refuge among my enemies" as Seguín said, he was arrested upon his return to Mexico and forced into the army as an officer, where he served against Texas and the United States in the Mexican War. I can provide any number of white supremacist quotes from Texans of the times; Texans such as Travis openly talked of the spectre of Mexican men raping white women. David Burnet wrote to Henry Clay about races and the revolution, saying "The first [race] are primarily Anglo-Americans; the others a mongrel race of degenerate Spaniards and Indians more depraved than they."

What's really disgusting is that in the video about the Texas Revolution in the Texas State History Museum, they tell the story through Seguín's eyes. They do this to undermine the (correct) idea that the Texas Revolution was about white supremacy. They make it seem like a biracial battle against tyranny. That there were slaves at the Alamo that Santa Anna set free is never mentioned. But in order to find out what happened to Seguín in 1842, you have to read every small word of text on one display far away from the video screen. Texas, where half-truths and lies run wild. Though one could say the same thing about the conservative blogosphere, with Treviño as Exhibit A.