Texas Secession: Whose Tradition?

Texas Secession: Whose Tradition?

The Texan secessionists are at it again.  In a bill submitted to the Texas State Legislature on January 26, 2021, state representatives have sparked, in legal form, the question of Texas secession once more.  According to the author, Rep. Kyle Biedermann of Fredericksburg, TX, House Bill 1359 offers Texans “of all political persuasions” the opportunity, through referendum, to prime the engines of Texas independence. “Texas is seen as the bastion of freedom and a leader of free enterprise,” Rep. Biedermann has argued.  “A robust economy, financial solvency, and capacity for massive energy production worthy of the world state… are all indications that the Republic of Texas would not just survive, but thrive as an independent nation.  Now is the time for Texas to lead.”[1]

Advocates are claiming Texas’s right to secede is based on Article 1, Section 2 of the state constitution, which states: “All political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority, and instituted for their benefit.”  Rep. Biedermann, moreover, contends that “the federal government is out of control and does not represent the values of Texans,” nor those of “our Founding Fathers [who] established [liberty] with their lives, fortunes and sacred honor.”  It is, thus, “un-American and unpatriotic to not make our voices heard.”[2]

Within this rhetoric of secession there is an obvious appeal to Texas’s “inherent” roots and entitlements. Tradition, we are led to believe, empowers modern-day Texans to reject the oppressions of a centralized state apparatus, to throw the yoke of burdensome taxes, regulations, and restrictions.  It is their imperative, proponents say, to embrace Texas’s “sacred” past of political independence.

A review of Texas’s history of secession, however, reminds today’s observers that Texas secession was hardly just about preserving a righteous or freedom-fostering form of government.  Texas secession, in both the 1830s and 1860s, was about power and prosperity.  During the first two movements, secessionists sought to recalibrate Texas’s future by delineating the haves and the have-nots, the winners and losers of (an imagined) Texas society.  Power, nineteenth-century secessionists believed, certainly resided in “the people,” but the contest over who could claim the mantel of “the people” – and whose interests the government would serve – was often the very source of the secession movements themselves.

The first secessionist movement emerged at the cross-section of competing visions of conquest and colonization.  In the 1820s and 30s, “Texas” existed as both the far northeastern reaches of Mexico and the de facto western frontier of Anglo-America.  Anglo-Texas’s raison d’être, in the eyes of Mexican officials, was to create a buffer zone between the rest of Mexico and the Indigenous nations of the North, who for generations had rendered much of the Hispanic colonial apparatus impotent and vulnerable.  “Rarely a day passes that this capital [of San Antonio] is not attacked by the Indians,” declared Governor Antonio Martínez in April 1819.  “I predict with sadness that this province will be destroyed unwittingly by lack of inhabitants, and I myself by lack of the resources which are necessary for subsistence.”  Thus, when Moses Austin and his son Stephen reached out to the Spanish and then Mexican officials with their schemes to bring “civilization” to Texas, their Hispanic allies were optimistic that they had solved their so-called Indian problem.[3]

Anglo-American colonists generally understood the bargain they had struck with the Mexican government, and during the first decade-plus of colonization, Anglo settlers enthusiastically aided Mexican locals and officials in their quest to conquer or “pacify” their Indigenous adversaries.[4]  But Anglo-American colonization in Texas also drew energy from another violent impulse: a commitment to the exploitation of enslaved Black people.  Although a number of their Mexican counterparts wholly understood – and accepted – anti-Black slavery’s role in “civilizing” Texas, Anglo-Texans faced an increasingly hostile government response to their violent, cotton-generating institution, particularly as controversies surrounding its legality brought into relief the growing disconnect of Anglo-Texas from the Mexican heartland.[5]

By the 1830s, Mexican officials – desperately trying to assert state authority – were actively working to end the enslavement of Black people in Texas.[6]  Anglo-American colonists, who were still committed to destroying or displacing the Indigenous people of Mexico’s northern frontier, felt betrayed.  Had they not, per their original agreement, brought “civilization” to the region?  Why, then, as Stephen F. Austin explained, was “a war of extermination… raging in Texas – a war of barbarism and of despotic principles, waged by the mongrel Spanish-Indian and Negro race, against civilization and the Anglo-American race”?  Secession, they reasoned, was their only recourse.  A tyrannical government that solicited help from “the merciless savage” and instigated Black rebellion, that supposedly catered to the most inferior of people at the expense of Anglo-American “life, liberty, and property,” was deserving of overthrow.[7]  In short, Anglo colonists rebelled against Mexico in 1835-36 because Mexico had lost sight of “the people” – who in this historical moment were generally anti-Black supporters of Native annihilation.[8]

“The Eagle of Liberty: The Free Eagle of Mexico Grappling the Cold Blooded Viper, Tyranny or Texas,” in The Anti-Texass Legion, Protest of Some Free Men, States and Presses Against the Texas Rebellion (1844).  Abolitionists were among the first to interpret Texas secession as a movement to advance anti-Black slavery.  Library of Congress.

Anglo-Texas would not join the United States until the mid-1840s, mostly because the question of Texas cession had become too politically volatile, at home and abroad.[9]  In the interim, the Republic of Texas – a nation that restricted citizenship to “all free white persons” – would represent a debtor refuge, a place where White slaveholders from the East could relocate, with enslaved Black people in tow, to escape their self-inflicted financial troubles and start their slave-based enterprises anew.[10]  The enslaved population in Texas swelled from at least 2,000 people in the mid-1830s to some 28,000 by 1845.  When Texas elected to join the Union that year, admission promised “the most abundant prosperity… the dawning of a new era indeed for Texas.”[11]

Then, in 1860, Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party won the U.S. presidential election.  Although U.S. federal failures to stimy Native resistance in Texas had for years bred anti-general government sentiment among many Anglo-Texans, the threat of “Black Republicanism” in the United States, along with recent evidence of internal Black rebellion (known to contemporaries as “Texas Troubles”), provided the primary impetus for Texas secession 2.0.  “We believe it is the intention of the Black Republican party to use the force of the Government to extinguish the system of slavery, and we do not intend to wait till we are so weak we cannot resist,” declared the Dallas Herald.[12]  Convinced that the Lone Star Republic’s constitution provided secessionists with the legal rationalization for abandoning the Union, Anglo-Texans organized a secession convention in late-January 1861 and a state-wide referendum the following month.  Official tallies reported a smashing victory for secession, with 46,129 votes in favor and 14,697 against.  Apparently secessionists were left with no other choice: “the non-slave-holding States… have formed themselves into a great sectional party… based upon the unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color – a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law.”  It also didn’t hurt that “the Federal Government… has for years almost entirely failed to protect the lives and property of the people of Texas against the Indian savages on our border.”[13]

“An Heir to the Throne, on the Next Republican Candidate,” 1860. Racist fears of “Black Republican” rule galvanized White Southerners, especially in Texas, against Abraham Lincoln, his administration, and ultimately the Union. Library of Congress.

Texas secession, both in the 1830s and 1860s, was thus as much about clarifying the relationship between the government and “the people” as it was about delineating relations – power and entitlements in particular – among the various inhabitants of the region.  The question was not simply How should the government serve the people? but also Whom should the government serve and at whose expense?  These concerns cut to the heart of the 1861 secession argument: Texas had to leave the Union and join the Confederacy for the sake of “holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery – the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits – a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”[14]

One necessarily wonders, then, what “values” are driving the current secessionist movement in Texas, especially if it is, by its own admission, drawing its energy from the secessionist traditions of the past.[15]  Perhaps modern-day secessionists speak only of a return to just government in the abstract, of government as the will of the people operationalized.  Or perhaps they aren’t well versed in Texas secessionist history and think secession was simply about ending generalized state-sponsored oppression in Texas.  Or perhaps they intend to refashion the body politic of Texas yet again, to restore the original secessionist visions of “the people” of Texas – White supremacy and all.  I suppose time will tell.

 

[1] For the text of the bill, see https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/87R/billtext/pdf/HB01359I.pdf#navpanes=0.  Rep. Biedermann’s website lays out a rationale for the bill: “Representative Biedermann Files the Texas Independence Referendum Act,” Jan. 26, 2021, https://kylebiedermann.com/representative-biedermann-files-the-texas-independence-referendum-act/.

[2] Kyle Bidermann, “The federal government is out of control.” Dec. 8, 2020, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/kylebiedermann/posts/1714929152003141; “Texit FAQ: Texas Independence Referendum Act,” Jan. 26, 2021, https://kylebiedermann.com/texit-faq/.  It is unclear who counts as the “Founding Fathers” to Rep. Biedermann.  Notably, the authors of the 1875-76 state constitution were part of a “counterrevolutionary” movement of so-called Redeemers who sought to roll back the “Radical Republican” programs designed to assimilate the freedpeople (through state protections and schools) into a post-slavery society.  Carl H. Moneyhon, Texas after the Civil War: The Struggle for Reconstruction (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004), 138-54, 188-205. For the 1876 state constitution, see H.P.N. Gammel, ed., The Laws of Texas, 1822-1897, Vol. 8 (Austin: The Gammel Book Company, 1898), 781.

[3] Antonio Martínez to Commandant General, Apr. 1, 1819, in Virginia Taylor, ed., The Letters of Antonio Martínez: Last Spanish Governor of Texas, 1817-1822 (Austin: Texas State Library, 1957), 217–18; Mattie Austin Hatcher, ed., The Opening of Texas to Foreign Settlement, 1801-1821 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1912), 354-55; Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 143-52, 182-201.

[4] See, for instance, Francisco Ruíz to Antonio Elosúa, June 11, 1831; Francisco Ruíz to Antonio Elosúa, Aug. 1831; Ramón Músquiz to Green C. DeWitt and the Gonzales Commissar of Police, Oct. 15, 1831; Antonio Elosúa to Manuel Lafuente, Oct. 15, 1831; Diary of Capt. Manuel Lafuente, Oct. 18 to Nov. 26, 1831, all in Malcolm D. McLean, ed, Papers of Robertson’s Colony in Texas, Vol. 6 (Arlington: University of Texas at Arlington Press, 1979), 268, 335, 468, 470, 557–65.

[5] Mexican general Manuel de Mier y Terán was one of the more prominent voices in sounding the alarm of Anglo colonists’ “strong and indissoluble connections with [their] neighboring government.”  Manuel de Mier y Terán to Guadalupe Victoria, Mar. 28, 1828, in Jack Jackson, ed., Texas by Terán (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 33, 36–37.  For examples of Mexican complicity in anti-Black slavery, see Eugene C. Barker, “Native Latin American Contribution to the Colonization and Independence of Texas,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 46 (Jan. 1943): 320; Census Report of Nacogdoches, 1828, in University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures, Residents of Texas, 1782-1836, Vol. 2, 214, 216, 218, 242;

[6] Andrew J. Torget, Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 97-157.  Max Flomen’s recent contributions to The Journal of the Civil War astutely highlight the “unintended consequences” of Euro-American imperial warfare in Texas, especially how state-on-state warfare created fissures where “alternative emancipations” could thrive.  Max Flomen, “The Long War for Texas: Maroons, Renegades, Warriors, and Alternative Emancipations in the Southwest Borderlands, 1835-1845,” The Journal of the Civil War Era, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Mar. 2021): 36-61; and “Insurrections, Indigenous Power, & the Empire for Slaver in the Southwest,” Mar. 30, 2021, Muster,https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/2021/03/insurrections-indigenous-power-the-empire-for-slavery-in-the-southwest/.

[7] Stephen F. Austin to Senator L. F. Linn, May 4, 1836, Eugene C. Barker, ed. Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1919: The Austin Papers, Vol. 3 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1924), 344–48; The Declaration of Independence Made by the Delegates of the People of Texas, Washington, Mar. 2, 1836, in Gammel, ed., The Laws of Texas, Vol. 1, 1063–66; Paul D. Lack, “Slavery and the Texas Revolution,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 89, No. 2 (Oct. 185): 181-202.

[8] Notably, Rep. Biedermann also has filed House Bill 3013, termed “The Alamo Heroes Act,” which seeks to advance a Texas exceptionalist interpretation of the first secession movement, one that does not “dishonor the moral character of our brave Alamo Defenders.” “Biedermann Files the Alamo Heroes Act,” Mar. 5, 2021, https://kylebiedermann.com/biedermann-files-the-alamo-heroes-act/.

[9] William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion, Volume I: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 355-71.

[10] Sec. 6 of the Republic constitution stipulated citizenship for White immigrants, while Sec. 10 explicitly excluded “Africans, the descendants of Africans, and Indians.”  Constitution of the Republic of Texas, 1836, in Randolph B. Campbell, ed., The Laws of Slavery in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), 52-53; Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 284-88.

[11] Juan Nepomuceno Almonte, Secret Report on the Present Situation in Texas, 1834, in Jack Jackson, ed., Almonte’s Texas: Juan N. Almonte’s 1834 Inspection, Secret Report and Role in the 1836 Campaign (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2003), 253; Randolph B. Campbell, An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1989), 55; Llerena Friend, ed., “Contemporary Newspaper Accounts of the Annexation of Texas,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Oct. 1945): 274.

[12] Donald E. Reynolds, Texas Terror: The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1860 and the Secession of the Lower South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007); Dallas Herald, December 19, 1860.  Of course, Black resistance – fugitivity in particular – already had a long history in Anglo-Texas.  See, Alice L. Baumgartner, South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2020), especially 165-83; James D. Nichols, The Limits of Liberty: Mobility and the Making of the Eastern U.S.-Mexico Border (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018), 57-79, 125-46; Sean M. Kelley, “‘Mexico in His Head’: Slavery and the Texas-Mexico Border, 1810-1860,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Spring 2004): 709-23.

[13] William Winkler, ed., Journal of the Secession Convention of Texas, 1861 (Austin: Austin Printing Company, 1912), 62-63, 87-90; Dale Baum, The Shattering of Texas Unionism: Politics in the Lone Star State during the Civil War Era (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998), 42-81.

[14] Winkler, ed., Journal of the Secession Convention of Texas, 61-62

[15] As Rep. Biedermann has explained, one of his goals is to have “the whole country, the whole world” think: “Oh my goodness, those Texans are at it again.”  Andrea Zelinski, “What the Newest Lone Star Secessionists Want,” Texas Monthly, Feb. 11, 2021, https://www.texasmonthly.com/news-politics/texas-secession-kyle-biedermann/.  The Civil War, they argue, did not “settle” the question of secession.  “Can Texas Legally Secede from the Union?” Texas Nationalist Movement, Jan. 29, 2019, https://tnm.me/news/political/texit-is-it-illegal-for-texas-to-leave-the-union/. The modern-day ties between Texas secessionism and “defense” of the Alamo are also illustrative.  “The Alamo Needs Your Help,” Texas Nationalist Movement, accessed Mar. 25, 2021, https://tnm.me/alamo/.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paul Barba

Paul Barba is an assistant professor of history at Bucknell University. He graduated with a Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2016. His first book project, tentatively titled Country of the Cursed and the Driven: Slavery and the Texas Borderlands, tracks and analyzes the multiple forms of slaving violence that emerged, dominated, and intersected throughout Texas from the early eighteenth century into the latter half of the nineteenth century. It is currently under contract with the University of Nebraska Press. Prior to Bucknell, Dr. Barba served as a managing editor at the Journal of Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos.

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