The Mexican Position on Slavery Before the Texas Revolution
I am of the opinion that Texas will never become a slave state or country. I will be candid with you on this point, and say I hope it may never.
Stephen F. Austin
Last month (July 2021) I wrote a critique of the latest volume of revisionist history about the Texas Revolution. In that essay, I focused on the issue of slavery, primarily because the authors of Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth claimed slavery was the primary spark igniting the 1836 Texas rebellion; that, in order to create an independence slave state, pro-slavery radicals in Texas were spoiling for a fight against an antislavery Mexican government. But that wasn’t true. Part of the reason why was because the authors failed to take into account the complexities of slavery in Mexico. They presented the issue as uniform from the moment Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, which, they assert, was adamantly antislavery. As I wrote in my critique of the book,
The authors of Forget the Alamo fail to deal sufficiently with the often confusing and hypocritical positions of the Mexican government on the question of slavery. Not only did the authorities in Mexico City not interfere with Texans and their slaves—the few who owned them—antislavery laws violated their own practice of peonage, which was akin to slavery, requiring dirt-poor peasants, numbering in the ten of thousands, to toil on large haciendas in southern Mexico for little or no pay. This system kept these people, often times Indians, perpetually poor and hopelessly indebted—and like African slaves, could receive corporal punishment, endure severe penalties for escape, and be sold as commodities.
History is important. It should be read, discussed, and taught—and where appropriate, applied. But it should done accurately. This is where the authors of Forget the Alamo have failed (or worse, lied); they haven’t accurately presented the true history of the Texas Revolution or of the often shifting position of the Mexican government on slavery. And since, due to the foolishness of Texas Lieutenant Governor, Dan Patrick, their book is enjoying brisk sales. Many, as I wrote, “who know little to nothing about Texas history, will now [view Forget the Alamo as] the authorized version” of the Texas Revolution.
The following timeline is a summary to set straight the historical record on the actual changing positions of the Mexican government throughout the years leading up to the Texas Revolution.
1821—Moses Austin secures the first empresario contract to settle three hundred Anglo families in what would later become Texas. At the time, the land was in the possession of the Spanish crown, which, according to Spanish law, allowed slavery. The contract Austin signed with the Spanish government ensured the security of the colonists’ future property rights, include their right to own slaves.
1823—When Mexico won its independence from Spain, in the summer of 1821, Agustín de Iturbide becomes the first president of the new nation. With Moses Austin dead (June 10, 1821), the Iturbide government reaffirmed the original Spanish contract with Stephen F. Austin, including the importation of slaves with the settlement of Anglo colonists. However, with the passage of the “Imperial Colonization” act children born into slavery in Texas must be granted their freedom at the age of fourteen.
1824—The infant nation of Mexico established a new constitution as a federal republic. However, the Constitution was silent on slavery, throwing the question unto the individual states to address. That notwithstanding, the Law of July 13 prohibited the admission of slaves. Unfortunately, the vagaries of the language left the law open to wide interpretation. Many viewed the law as a measure to prevent the slave trade; only barring the importation of slaves for resale. Texas colonists, as well as planters and cattlemen in southern Mexico, therefore, continued to bring slaves into Texas for personal use. The federal government made no effort to curtail this practice or in anyway interfere with additional slaves coming into the country.
1825—The federal congress of Mexico passed the “Colonization Acts of 1825.” Like the Constitution, it didn’t address the issue of slavery. Once again, if they chose to, state legislatures would have to deal with the issue.
1827—The confusion regarding the federal stance of slavery prompted the legislature of Coahuila y Tejas to act. They passed a new state constitution. Though it allowed the importation of slaves into the state for six months after its ratification, Article 13 prohibited additional admission of slaves starting in September of that year, and required those born into slavery to be granted their immediate freedom.
1828—The Coahuila y Tejas legislature passed a law in May which made indentured servants, who had signed contracts in foreign countries, valid in Texas. The law was used by slaveholders to bring in addition slaves under the indentured servants law and keeping them in bondage for life, much like the long existing Mexican practice of peonage.
1829—The Mexican government failed to pass a law banning slavery throughout the nation. In an effort to prevent Spain from reacquiring the country, the Mexican congress granted President Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña extraordinary executive powers. Jose Maria Tornel, president of the Chamber of Deputies (akin to the American Speaker of the House), persuaded Guerrero to exercise his executive authority to ban slavery outright, which he did on September 15. Later, however, even though the ban was never enforced, Jose Maria Viesca, governor of Coahuila y Tejas, convinced Guerrero to exempt Texas, which he did on December 2.
1830—On April 6 the Mexican congress did pass a law outlawing the introduction of new salves into Texas.
1831—The Nation Congress annulled the Guerrero decree banning slavery, making slavery once again legal in Mexico. It would remain so until 1837, when Congress passed an emancipation bill (nearly a year after Texas had won its independence).
1832—The legislature of Coahuila y Tejas limited contracts of indenture to ten years. However, since those who were indentured accumulated food, clothing, housing, and medical debts few, if any, were able to pay them at the end of their indentured period. Like Mexican peons, those in Texas continued in servitude generationally, making this system effectively hereditary slavery.
Slavery was (and is) an abhorrent and degrading evil, and an indelible stain on our nation and our state. But it simply was not the reason for rebellion against Mexican abuses in the mid-1830s. Part of the reason why slavery was not a consideration among those who led the rebellion, as stated earlier, was because from the perspective of Texans the Mexican government’s position on slavery was so slippery.