Slavery and the Myth of the Alamo

by James W. Russell

republished from History New Network, May 28,2012

Two and a half million people visit the Alamo each year where, according to its website, “men made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom,” making it “hallowed ground and the Shrine of Texas Liberty.”

There can be no doubt that the symbolism of the Alamo is at the center of the creation myth of Texas: that the state was forged out of a heroic struggle for freedom against a cruel Mexican dictator, Santa Ana. It represents to the Southwest what the Statue of Liberty represents to the Northeast: a satisfying confirmation of what we are supposedly about as a people.

But if Northeasterners can be excused for embracing a somewhat fuzzy notion of abstract liberty, the symbolism of the Alamo has always been built upon historical myth.

As the defenders of the Alamo were about to sacrifice their lives, other Texans were making clear the goals of the sacrifice at a constitutional convention for the new republic they hoped to create. In Section 9 of the General Provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of Texas, it is stated how the new republic would resolve their greatest problem under Mexican rule: “All persons of color who were slaves for life previous to their emigration to Texas, and who are now held in bondage, shall remain in the like state of servitude … Congress shall pass no laws to prohibit emigrants from bringing their slaves into the republic with them, and holding them by the same tenure by which such slaves were held in the United States; nor shall congress have power to emancipate slaves.”

Mexico had in fact abolished slavery in 1829, causing panic among the Texas slaveholders, overwhelmingly immigrants from the south of the United States. They in turn sent Stephen Austin to Mexico City to complain. Austin was able to wrest from the Mexican authorities an exemption for the department — Texas was technically a department of the state of Coahuila y Tejas — that would allow the vile institution to continue. But it was an exemption reluctantly given, mainly because the authorities wanted to avoid rebellion in Texas when they already had problems in Yucatán and Guatemala. All of the leaders of Mexico, in itself only an independent country since 1821, were personally opposed to slavery, in part because of the influence of emissaries from the freed slave republic of Haiti. The exemption was, in their minds, a temporary measure and Texas slaveholders knew that.

The legality of slavery had thus been at best tenuous and uncertain at a time when demand for cotton — the main slave-produced export — was accelerating on the international market. A central goal of independence would be to remove that uncertainty.

The Mexican armies that entered the department to put down the rebellion had explicit orders to free any slaves that they encountered, and so they did. The only person spared in the retaking of the Alamo was Joe, the personal slave of William Travis.

Once the rebels succeeded in breaking Texas away from Mexico and establishing an independent republic, slavery took off as an institution. Between 1836 and 1840, the slave population doubled; it doubled again by 1845; and it doubled still again by 1850 after annexation by the United States. On the eve of the Civil War, which Texas would enter as a part of the Confederacy, there were 182,566 slaves, nearly one-third of the state’s population.

As more slaves came into the Republic of Texas, more escaped to Mexico. Matamoros in the 1840s had a large and flourishing colony of ex-slaves from Texas and the United States. Though exact numbers do not exist, as many slaves may have escaped to Mexico as escaped through the more famous underground railway to Canada. The Mexican government, for its part, encouraged the slave runaways, often with offers of land as well as freedom.

The defenders of the Alamo, as brave as they may have been, were martyrs to the cause of the freedom of slaveholders, with the Texas War of Independence having been the first of their nineteenth-century revolts, with the American Civil War the second.

Texas Amnesia

by James W. Russell

Republished from May 5, 2012

With unauthorized immigrants crossing illegally into Texas and fears that the border region was growing out of control, the government responded by militarizing the area. The year was 1827 – not 2012. The unauthorized immigrants were from the United States, not Mexico. The nervous government was that of Mexico, not the United States.

In 1827, East Texas, as it is known now, was a backward frontier area of the Mexican federation, the northeastern corner of the state of Coahuila y Tejas. Three groups warily and sometimes violently confronted each other over who was to prevail: Indians, the original inhabitants, who, along with migrant Indians being pushed out of the United States, sought to preserve their hunting areas; Mexicans, who wished to farm and ranch; and Anglo Americans, who also wished to farm and ranch, and who, most importantly, carried with them the slave system of the South.

Unbeknownst to them at the time, it was in the struggle among these three groups that led to the roots of the United States becoming an imperial power taking shape. In short order, the Anglo Americans would triumph – first in the 1836 Texas War of Independence, and then in the 1846-1848 war with Mexico, confirming the Mexican government’s worst fears about the growing danger in Texas. In 1848, with their troops occupying Mexico City, the Americans would force Mexico to cede over half its national territory for some twenty million dollars. The sold area included what would later become the western half of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Colorado, Utah and part of Oklahoma – in short, the contemporary Southwest of the United States.

Out of the Southwest in the second half of the 19th century would come half of the United States’ total mineral wealth, including gold, copper and oil; the ranching industry; and California, which includes what is perhaps the richest agricultural area in the world. It is doubtful that without this windfall bonanza of wealth the United States would have been propelled in fifty short years to the first rank of world powers. It is also doubtful that if the area had remained a part of Mexico that the severe first world/third world inequality that exists between the two most populated countries of North America would be nearly as severe as it is today.

Even in hindsight, after the facts, there are different perceptions and interpretations of the events. Controversy continues to surround the motive forces of the Texas War of Independence. On one side, American folklore has traditionally celebrated the war as a heroic attempt by frontier pioneers to break out from under the yoke of cruel Mexican oppression. The view from south of the Rio Grande (called the Rio Bravo there) is distinct, seeing the war as the first step in American expansionism which would shortly cost Mexico over half of its national territory.

Connected to these opposite claims is the interpretation of the role of slavery as a motive force. Mexico abolished slavery on September 16, 1829, the ninth anniversary of its own independence from Spain. Two months later, after a windstorm of protest from slave-owning Texas colonists, the central government allowed slavery to remain in Texas under restrictions. On April 6 the next year, the Mexican government issued the Bustamante Decree, which forbade the importation of new slaves and severely restricted new immigration from the United States. Though President Santa Anna rescinded the Bustamante Decree (or April 6th law, as it was popularly known) in 1833 after special pleading from Stephen Austin, it and the issues surrounding it contributed to the causes of the Texas War of Independence. Even before their victory in the war, the Anglo-American colonists made one of their intentions completely clear in their prospective Constitution: they explicitly legalized slavery and slave importation.

The Mexican government never recognized the independence of Texas. Throughout the rest of the 1830s and the 1840s, it planned to retake the breakaway territory, even sending troops to briefly occupy Bexar, which later became better known as San Antonio. Numbers of loyalist Mexicans, Indians and Negroes supported the Mexican efforts to retake Texas, engaging in guerrilla skirmishes that lasted throughout the years of the Republic of Texas. On July 16, 1839, as a result of their rumored collaboration with Mexico, the Cherokees under Duwali were massacred at the Battle of the Neches and their survivors driven out of Texas, some into Mexico.

Slavery accelerated in size and density in Texas. Between 1836, the year of independence, and 1840, the slave population doubled; it doubled again by 1845; and it doubled still again by 1850. In 1836, there was one black for every six whites; by 1847, it was one black for every three whites.

East Texas then, in the 1820s and 1830s, was the location of a world-historical nodal point, or crucial turning point in the development of what was to follow. It is in such nodal points of history that men and women struggle with and resolve the problems of their personal and public lives with varying degrees of consciousness of the historical issues at stake.

Texans today live with the historical consequences of those events: a still-subjugated black population; an unauthorized Mexican population of low-wage, off-the-books labor that lives in tenuous conditions in an area that was once its homeland; a dwindling Indian population; and a white population divided between ultra reactionaries, who continue to celebrate the aggressive seizing of the state and demand a wall to keep those to the south from coming back in, and others who, with varying degrees of guilt or amnesia, live their lives without actively worrying about the origins of where they live them.

This article may not be republished without permission from Truthout.

Adapted from the Afterword of Escape from Texas: A Novel of Slavery and the Texas War of Independence