By Aldo N. Mena
It’s that time of year again when people across the great state of Texas start the annual commemorations of the Texas Revolt of 1836. Unfortunately, much of what they are celebrating remains hopelessly obscured by myth and inaccuracies. Although, many others have made this observation before, I feel that this particular historical clarification warrants repeating as often as necessary especially in a time when objective history appears to be under siege not only in Texas but throughout the United States.
Like many Mexican Americans, the traditional version of the Texas Revolt that I was subjected to framed the conflict between the colonists in Texas and the Mexican government as a heroic struggle between truth, justice, and the American way, on the one hand, and tyranny and authoritarianism, on the other. According to this traditional version, the Texas colonists, inspired by an innate sense of American liberty, were fighting a valiant and noble revolution to defend their freedom in the face of the Mexican government’s stifling oppression.
The only problem with this rendering of the tale is that it simply isn’t true. Decades of academic scholarship have definitively and incontrovertibly established that the Texas Revolt was not fought in pursuit of some set of lofty moral ideals, but instead was fought to preserve and expand the institution of slavery, full stop.
From its inception, the success of Stephen F. Austin’s colonization project was contingent upon the viability of slavery in the colony. The vast majority of Texas colonists were pro-slavery Southerners who had migrated to Texas with the singular intention of farming cotton which, by its very nature, was a slave-intensive enterprise.
There was, however, one intractable complication for the colonists. Mexico had emerged from a brutal and debilitating decade long war of independence from Spain with a deep-seated hostility towards chattel slavery. Austin, of course, was keenly aware of the existential threat that this hostility posed to his colonization project and would extensively lobby the Mexican government to protect the institution in the nascent colony. In fact, it wasn’t until Austin recognized the futility of his diplomatic efforts to preserve slavery in Texas that he fully endorsed the path of armed rebellion against the Mexican government.
Any objection Austin may have had to slavery was certainly not founded in opposition to the inhumanity of the institution. He feared the specter of a slave rebellion fatalistically lamenting, at one point, that it would be “in vain to tell a North American that the white population” would be “destroyed some 50 or 80 years hence by the Negroes [.]”
It’s important to recognize that the essential cause of the Texas Revolt was never really in controversy even at the time. Mexican political and military officials definitely understood the root cause of the revolt. Col. Jose de la Piedra, a Mexican commander in East Texas, for example, warned that the Texans would undoubtedly revolt if laws prohibiting slavery were actually enforced noting that the colony “was formed for slavery[.]” Northern abolitionists also understood the role that slavery played in the Texas Revolt and astutely denounced the insurgency as the world’s first pro-slavery rebellion. Perhaps most importantly though, the Texas colonists themselves understood that they were fighting for the freedom to own slaves. Leaders of the revolt justified the rebellion as a fight to preserve the colonist’s “property” in an obvious reference to their slaves. Notably, upon securing their independence from Mexico, the Texas colonists would proceed to enshrine protections in the Texas constitution for slavery and outlaw any form of emancipation in the independent Republic of Texas.
This isn’t some new “woke” or “politically correct” interpretation as critics on the right have charged, and it really shouldn’t even be considered, in any historiographic sense, as revisionist. The essential cause of the revolt has been settled in the historical record for decades and has been correctly recognized as an early episode in the larger struggle between slave and free states occurring in the United States that would culminate in the American Civil War.
Unfortunately, the mythology obscuring the origins of the Texas Revolt has not gone gently into that good night. Many Texans, including some of the most prominent political figures in the state apparently, continue to believe in what is essentially a fairy tale even when confronted with compelling and conclusive historical evidence clearly establishing the essential origins and nature of the revolt. This recalcitrance, for lack of a better term, is the reason why it is ultimately incumbent upon the Mexican Americans of Texas themselves to rehabilitate the narrative associated with this seminal event in the state’s history. We can begin this larger process by, first of all, acknowledging the clarity of the historical record and insisting that descriptions of the Texas Revolt-especially in our schools-be premised in reality and not on mythology and anti-Mexican sentiment. We can also unequivocally reject the proto-Confederate symbolism of the Texas Revolt that invariably pervades our communities throughout the state. In El Paso, for example, there’s Bowie and Austin High School, and Bonham, Fannin, Rusk, Lamar, Lee, and Crockett Elementary, and, of course, San Jacinto Plaza, among others. It’s worth noting, incidentally, as others have before, that several of the schools referenced above were named by active members of the KKK to honor the so-called heroes of the Texas Revolt and, in the process, perhaps deliver a not-so-subtle message to the local Mexican American population.
At a time when objective history is being attacked in Texas and elsewhere, it is imperative that Mexican Americans convey a not-so-subtle message of our own. By insisting upon a historically accurate framing of the Texas Revolt and categorically rejecting its memorialization, we can let the political forces seeking to distort our history know that the inaccurate version of the revolt that has been imposed upon generations of Mexican Americans is a lie we don’t believe anymore.
About the Author:
Aldo N. Mena is a local educator, podcaster, freelance writer, and native El Pasoan who enjoys exploring issues of relevance to the Mexican American community. He is a graduate of the University of New Mexico where he received a B.A. in English and Political Science, and an M.A. in Latin American Studies with a research concentration in late colonial/early national period Mexican history. You can follow him on Twitter at @solidaritywmex.
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Now that is settled, perhaps you should work on the tooth fairy myth.
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