Was Slavery the Cause of the Texas Revolution?
Some of your city folks seem to think that the Texas war is to establish Negro slavery. This is incorrect—slavery has nothing to do with the cause, or the objects of this war.
Stephen F. Austin
Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s political acumen is about as sharp as a Bowie-shaped butter knife. In early July 2021, Patrick, a board member of the Bob Bullock Texas State Historical Museum in Austin, pressured the board of directors to cancel a book event with the authors of Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, which came out in June. About three hundred people were to attend the event, most of whom I assume, since they were members of the museum, know a thing or two about Texas history. But no matter, Patrick, who presumably knows more the history of his adopted state—he was born and bred in Baltimore—than the attendees was determined to save them from the lies contained in the book. What is interesting, however, before the board of the Bullock Museum canceled the event—and Patrick took took credit for it on Twitter—Amazon sales for the book ranked it on their bestseller list somewhere in the 2,000s. Not bad, perhaps, for a book on regional history. But once word got out about the cancelation journalists at the Washington Post and The New York Times, and other news outlets, lashed Patrick to a whipping post for abuse of power and practicing something he had previously criticized: taking part in the “cancel culture.”
Whether they read it or not, or knew enough Texas history to accurately judge its merits, journalist began praising the book for setting the record straight on the causes of the Texas Revolution (what the authors call “The Texas Revolt”) and busting the myths surrounding the Alamo. Within a matter of days, book sales soared, pushing the Amazon ranking into the top twenty-five and at one point just missing the top ten on The New York Times bestseller list. As they say in public relations: The only bad press is no press.
The irony of Patrick’s action was not lost on the three authors—Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford—or anyone else for that matter, as they and others began tweeting out changes in the Amazon and Times rankings, receiving congratulations, and thanking book buyers—and Dan Patrick for the good press. In an attempt to put a lid on a revisionist retelling of the Texas Revolution and the Alamo story (by the authors’ own admission), Patrick caused their retelling to boil over, which for many, who know little to nothing about Texas history, will now become the authorized version.
No one should be surprised because no one said Dan Patrick was the sharpest Bowie knife in the sheath—no one with half a brain that is. But this isn’t an essay about Dan Patrick’s folly. This is a review of Forget the Alamo—or more precisely, a review of the book from one particular but central perspective.
The authors write, “We intend this book to be a serious look at the Alamo and its legend, but we’ve tried not to take ourselves too seriously.” Before I read that sentence in the introduction I had serious doubts about how serious I should take this book. The title, playing off the famous battle cry at San Jacinto, “Remember the Alamo,” is purposely provocative.1* But so is click bait. The title is the authors’ cleaver way of telling readers that what he or she has learned about the Alamo is nothing more than mythology and should be forgotten. They, of course, tell the real, true history of the Alamo—the one that should be remembered.
The cover is also provocative: a photograph of the Alamo with the title “spray painted” across it, made to look like graffiti. This might be a nod to the recent vandalization of the Cenotaph, the statue erected in 1936, on the hundredth anniversary of the battle at the Alamo. For whatever reason the authors approved that cover and chose that title neither seems to represent what one would expect from a book of serious history.
But maybe I’m just nitpicking when it comes to the title and the cover. So, I read on and came to the opening paragraph in chapter 1 and realized I wasn’t nitpicking. The authors write,
The story of the Alamo is simple, right? Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Barret Travis, and a bunch of their friends come to Texas to start new lives, suddenly realize they are being oppressed by the Mexican dictator Santa Anna, and rush off to do battle with him at an old Spanish mission in San Antonio. They are outnumbered by fight valiantly and die to a man, buying Sam Houston enough time to defeat Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto. As almost any Texan will tell you, their sacrifice turned the Alamo into the cradle of Texas liberty.
The answer to the authors’ question is obviously no, the story isn’t that simple. “The actual story [is] well . . . a lot more complicated,” they correctly point out. But reading their book you wouldn’t think things were so complicated. It’s easy to knock over straw man arguments like the opening paragraph, of “Davy” (which he was never called) “and a bunch of . . . friends . . . suddenly realizing they are being oppressed.” But serious historians doing serious history don’t do that. Instead of dealing with the complexities of the Texas Revolution, the authors actually reduce the complexity of what was taking place in Mexico and Texas in the early and mid 1830s to one single issue: slavery.
For them, slavery is the narrative thread by which we should understand Texas history, not unlike the revisionist (and factless) retelling of American history by the 1619 Project. The authors bookend their story in the introduction and the conclusion: “Not until recent years have historians taken the next step, arguing that the need to protect slavery was a driving force behind the Texas Revolt. . . . We must recognize that the Battle of the Alamo was as much about slavery as the Civil War was about slavery.”
But was it, really?
From the earliest days of Anglo colonization into Texas slavery had been an issue. But whether slavery was the issue that caused the Texas Revolution is pure mythology.
The slavery question from the Mexican point of view is a complicated one. Laws and decrees regarding slavery issued from Mexico City were sometimes nonexistent, sometimes vague, and at other times clear. For example, in January 1823 the “Imperial Colonization” act was passed. The law specified the acreage distribution to Anglo-colonists in Texas: a league (4,428 acres) for cattlemen and a labor (177 acres) for farmers. The law also required colonies to convert to Catholicism, if they weren’t already Catholics. And on the question of slavery, the law allowed it, but required that children born into bondage in Texas must be freed by the age of fourteen.
Two years later, the federal “Colonization Acts of 1825” was passed—and was silent on the issue of slavery, prompting the state legislature of Coahuila y Tejas to pass Article 13 of the 1827 state constitution, prohibiting the importation of slaves into the state and granting those born into slavery their freedom.
Then on September 15, 1829, President Vicente Guerrero issued a decree emancipating all slaves in the republic, but was never enforced. Then, mysteriously, on December 2 of that year, Guerrero published another decree exempting Texas from the general emancipation order. Finally, on April 6, 1830, the Mexican congress passed a law that, among other things, banned the introduction of new slaves into Texas.
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.
Nothing was said about this hypocritical and brutal practice, only that the Anglo Texans who owned slaves—and by reading the account in Forget the Alamo, you’d think that was a lot—grew worried when it looked like Mexico might finally interfere with their “peculiar institution” and took up arms to defend their right to own human beings. To prove this theory they selectively quote Stephen F. Austin, who had a complicated view on slavery and racial matters (more about this in another essay), but failed to quote his letters where he specifically denied the charge that the Texas Revolution was an effort to protect slavery.
The authors rely heavily on Andrew J. Torget’s Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850 for their conclusion that slavery was the central cause of the Texas Revolution. However, Torget fails to address Austin’s letter to Thomas F. Leaming of Saturday, April 30, 1836, just weeks after the Battle of San Jacinto. Writing from New York, before a meeting that was to take place in Philadelphia on Monday, May 2, 1836, in which Austin would attend, Austin laid out the causes for the Texas Revolution, which “only requires to be properly understood, to have the support of all freemen, and all honest men.” I’ll let Austin explain without commentary from me. (I’ve retained Austin’s original spelling and emphasis.)
The Truth is we are fighting in Texas, for the cause of america—& american principles—we are contending against Military usurpation and priestcraft—it is a war of barbarism & religious intolerance waged by Santana, & the clergy of Mexico, against civilization & liberty—Are we to be abandoned by our native countrymen because we are so near, and because we are purely American in brith, education, principles & everything? Are the false statements of Mexican agents to be believed to our prejudice, without even investigating the merits of our cause? I cannot believe it possible—
It is deeply to be lamented that some of the news papers editors have suffered themselves to be misled, as to the true causes—the origin, principles & objects, of the contest in which Texas is engaged—If they would take the trouble to investigate this subject, they would find that the Texas war, as a kindred origin with that of the war of the American revolution, with the difference, that the Texians have much more cause for resisting Mexico, than the people of this country had to resist England.
These are the facts & I pledge my honor, & my life for their truth—
Because land speculations have been made in this city by some persons (who it seems, did not understand the subject, and who have done nothing but injury to Texas) a few news paper editors have denounced all the Texians and their cause—Is this just & impartial? Those land speculations are more odious in Texas than they are here—the Texans have had no participation in them—nothing to do with them, except to censure the mexian govt. & a system of legislation that left a door open for such operations—The men who are fighting in Texas, are the farmers, the settlers—they are not land speculators—Is it just to condemn them because persons living else where have speculated in Texas lands?—also some of your city folks seem to think that the Texas war is to establish Negro slavery &c—This is as incorrect as the other idea—slavery has nothing to do with the causes, or the objects of this war—
A pamphlet will be published here, I hope by Monday—If those who have doubts will take the trouble to read it—they will be convinced that the Texas war is what I have stated it to be—a war in defense of the same principles which have been canonized in this country by the blood of the patriots of 76—
This letter can easily be found in the three volume edition of the Austin Papers and in the July 1984–April 1985 (vol. 88) edition of the Southwest Historical Quarterly. But neither Torget nor the authors of Forget the Alamo bother to quote from this letter; the authors of the book in question don’t even include the Austin Papers in their bibliography. And yet, they claim they’re doing serious history.
To make matters worse for the claim that slavery was the cause of the Texas Revolution, the authors don’t address the meeting that took place on July 17, 1835, near the rivers of Lavaca and Navidad, known as the Millican Gin Meeting. The meeting was organized and attended by average citizens, farmers. By unanimous consent, they drew up a list of four resolutions or grievances against Antonio López de Santa Anna and the federal government—none of which concerned slavery. They decreed that Santa Anna was a threat to state sovereignty and the state constitution; that they would oppose any military intervention in the state other than for constitutional reasons; that the two hundred soldiers stationed at Goliad and heading to San Antonio de Béxar to reinforce the garrison there should be intercepted and that San Antonio be captured and held as a guarantee against invasion; and that a general consultation of delegates be assembled from other municipalities in Texas.
It might be forgiven that the authors missed this meeting and the resolution passed there since the document was destroyed shortly after it was drafted to keep it from falling into Mexican hands. But since some of these resolutions anticipated the grievances specified in the Texas Declaration of Independence of March 2, 1836, they should have at least mentioned it—that is, if they had addressed the Declaration at all. But they didn’t.2
It’s curious why the authors didn’t address the Texas Declaration of Independence, which was modeled on Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of 1776, because anyone wanting to understand why one political group of people seeks a separation from another political group of people such a document is a primary source. And yet, the Texas Declaration is virtually absent from Forget the Alamo.
What makes this important is just like the Millican Gin resolutions, the Texas Declaration of Independence is silent on the question of slavery. The signers of the Texas Declaration specify fourteen grievances against the Mexican government. But nowhere do they mention slavery. The authors, if they had bothered to deal with the document, might have argue that the Declaration does mention “property,” which could include slaves. True enough. But if slavery were the central cause of the rebellion, as the authors claim, then why didn’t the signers just say so? Best to say it upfront, especially if you’re going to put your life on the line defending it; armed conflict is no time to be coy. And the white Southerns who signed that document certainly weren’t embarrassed by slavery. And yet slavery is absent in the Declaration. Why?
Historian Randolph B. Campbell wrote about slavery in Texas and it’s relation to the Texas Revolution in his 2003 Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State. In a section on the causes of the revolution, Campbell writes:
The protection-of-slavery interpretation seems plausible, especially since Mexican governments had regularly threatened the institution in Texas, whereas the revolution made it secure there. This argument, however, is undermined by the fact that slavery was not a major issue in any of the developments from 1830 to 1835. It played no important part in the disturbances of 1832 [the Anahuac standoff and the battles of Velasco and Nacogdoches] or the events that led to fighting in 1835 [the battles of Gonzales, Béxar, Concepción, and San Patricio], and Mexico took no action threatening it immediately or directly during those years. This is not to say that slavery had no role in bringing on the Texas Revolution. It was one of the differences separating Mexicans and Texians, but it was not the cause of rebellion.
For a book that purports to be a serious history about the causes of the Texas Revolution and the Alamo, and concluding that slavery lies at the very heart of the conflict, Forget the Alamo sure seems to have serious flaws in its research and conclusions—and I haven’t even gotten to the authors’ claims that those who died at the Alamo were more cowardly than heroic, to the umbrage they take against John Wayne’s 1960 movie about the Alamo (and other popular depictions) as pure mythology, or to British Rock Star Phil Collins’ donation of his Alamo related collection, which I’ll concede they make points that are of legitimate concern.
The authors don’t claim that their arguments are novel, but to the uneducated and uninitiated it would seem that their presentation of the “facts” about the central cause of the Texas Revolution is in fact revolutionary. The truth is, most of these “facts” and arguments have been hackneyed for a century and dismissed as too simplistic. What these authors have done is serve up stale, day old arguments in a fresh way for an audience ripe for a new mythology—one palatable for progressive tastes. Facts be damned, as long as the story is a good one. And with the help of Dan Patrick, their story, their “new” myth just might become old “truth.”
One last word. None of the authors are trained historians or historians in practice. Two are journalists and one is a political operative. And though journalist might write the first draft of history, few should write the final draft.
The title isn’t original with Burrough, Tomlinson, and Stanford. Debbie Nathan, in 1998, used it for her Texas Monthly article summarizing many of the same revisionists arguments found in their book.
There are only two mentions of the Texas Declaration of Independence in the book, both only in passing: a note on page 36 and on page 111.