Hey, it’s Texas Independence Day! That’s the day that Texas declared treason against Mexico to defend slavery. What a joyous occasion. There was a time, many moons ago when Josh Treviño, probably because some nation was paying him, hated me because I talked on my blog that no one read about this issue. He used to call me “the worst history professor in America” and the like, which I assume makes me persona non grata in Malaysia. It was a good time. Anyway, back in 2009, I got sick of his lies about Texas not being a white supremacist slave nation from the moment it broke free from Mexico. So I went to the historiography and wrote this, which I still think holds up well.
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.”
In conclusion, LBJ by no means makes up for the tremendous damage Texas has done to this nation’s politics. But we’ve done far too much to Mexico to demand it takes back Texas. Talk about horrible imperialism.