My parents gave me every advantage a man can hope for. Almost. One of the few things I hold against Bob and Judy is their decision that mom should return from San Angelo to to her hometown in Illinois for my birth. Not that I hold anything against Illinois; some of my fondest memories are there. But I never lived in Illinois. On the other hand, for 40 of my 56 years Texas has been a physical home and God willing, my remaining years will find me in a Lone Star state of mind, with apologies to Billy Joel. So while my Texan bona fides are in order, native-born status would have been appreciated. Which is a long way of saying that Texas is special to me.
Today, however, reminds me that as great as Texas is, we Lone Star denizens are part of something far greater. On July 4, 1845, the Texas Convention called into session by Republic of Texas president Anson Jones unanimously assented to a resolution accepting the United States’ offer to become the 28th state in the union. The moment was a long time coming.
England, France and Spain ruled the world America was born into; every bit of our early foreign policy efforts sought to secure a place safe from the established empires. Washington’s farewell address warned the country to avoid the “foreign entanglements” that would result from siding with one power of another, Jefferson abandoned the idea of a limited executive to secure the Louisiana Purchase, and Monroe’s doctrine made clear that America had developed enough as a nation that we believed our interests in this hemisphere to be supreme and defensible. The common theme was buying time and peace to accommodate the westward expansion later labeled as our Manifest Destiny.
As much as we had grown in the thirty years following the Constitution’s adoption, by the end of Monroe’s first term, we were still a nation vulnerable to interference. Spain had Florida and Mexico (including California and Texas) while England claimed Canada and Oregon. Monroe attempted to solve part of that problem by negotiating the acquisition of Florida from the Spaniards.Texas was a subject of these negotiations, but Monroe decided he would not risk acquiring Florida by making a broader play for Texas. Given the craziness that inhabits our largest peninsula, it is easy to see now that Monroe had his priorities reversed. In any event, our treaty with Spain set America’s western border of the Louisiana Territory at the Sabine River. It turned out, though, that Spain had been working on a diplomatic double-track. Within a few short months of signing the Adams-Oniz treaty of 1819, the Spaniards granted Mexico its independence. The new rulers of neighboring Tejas were to be based in Mexico City rather than Madrid.
Over the next two decades, the precise outlines and ownership of the Texas landscape escaped certainty. President Jackson seemed to think some of Texas was included in the Louisiana Purchase. The Mexicans viewed their state (later combined with Mexican Coahuila) to include most of what is now the American West. Mexico first welcomed American immigrants to serve as a natural buffer from Native Americans fighting to maintain their way of life, but later wanted the spigot turned off when those same American immigrants failed to pay appropriate heed to Mexico City’s orders. Santa Anna let his army nap at San Jacinto and wound up ordering a retreat to Mexico to save his own skin.
Almost immediately, Texan thoughts turned to statehood. It seemed only logical. While Stephen F. Austin hailed from Missouri and Arkansas, it seemed like every other Texan of import was from Tennessee, foremost among them Sam Houston. Houston had been governor of Tennessee and a protege of President Jackson. While Jackson was ending his time in the White House at the time of Texas independence, his successor Martin Van Buren owed him much. Texas statehood would simply be putting the pieces back together. From a more practical point of view, statehood meant security from simmering Mexican ambitions , a way out of a staggering national debt for Texas, and much needed elbow room for an America that kept bumping into its own frontier.
But the obvious move was more easily imagined than accomplished. Over the next decade, Texas statehood was an issue hotly debated. Two points served as a barrier to entry. First, as important as Texas statehood might have been, it was not as important as the eternal struggle to walk the tightrope between slave and non-slave states. As Texas would nominally be a slave state (or maybe several slave states), northern interests were having none of it. Second, many thought that acquiring Texas would be buying a war with Mexico, an effort not worth the prize. Mexico had never fully adapted to the idea that Texas was not hers and it vehemently disagreed with the Rio Grande boundary recognized by Texas and the U.S. Enough to fight about it. So despite many aborted attempts, the annexation idea stalled until 1843.
By then John Tyler had ascended to the presidency, albeit through the happenstance of William Henry Harrison’s death at the beginning of his term. Tyler was deeply unpopular; so unpopular that his own party disowned him and his opposition ignored him. Tyler seized on annexation as an issue that spoke directly to the people and which the parties did not understand. The idea became an obsession to the President and after he rid himself of Daniel Webster as Secretary of State, he pursued the goal with a slavish focus.
By now, however, Texas and Sam Houston had grown suspicious of the long courtship and had begun to look to England as a potential protector from Mexican designs. Tyler’s efforts threaded that needle and his administration arrived at a treaty for Texas to become a U.S. territory. That treaty came before the senate in 1844, a presidential election year. John Calhoun and Henry Clay were the two leading candidates and they opposed annexation. The Senate rejected the treaty. Tyler was too far gone to be a viable candidate, but from the Hermitage in Nashville, Old Hickory saw opportunity in the chaos. He engineered a candidacy for yet another Tennessean and protege, James Polk. The election of 1844 became a referendum on how we were to define our southwestern border.
Polk captured the White House. Before the inauguration, Tyler and Texas proponents engaged in a parliamentary sleight of hand to reignite the debate. The argument that the people had spoken was forceful enough that the result was different, even if constitutionally dubious. As a result, before he left office, John Tyler once again offered Texas admittance to the union. This time it worked and 172 years ago today, the Texas Convention accepted the invitation (subject to a popular vote that was a foregone conclusion).
Two lessons taught along our long trail to statehood deserve repeating at a time we seem determined to tear ourselves apart. First, America became the world’s most powerful country in large part because we did what England, France and Spain could no do-bind disparate interests together until the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. For modern-day Texans who boast about secession and for states-rights activists who dream of governing without regard to Washington, it is worth remembering that Texas once begged to be ruled from Washington.
One of Texas native sons, Kris Kristofferson, may have said it best: “Freedom in just another word for nothing left to lose.” The freedom won at San Jacinto meant little without the power to protect that freedom and the opportunity to use it. While we rail at an overactive federal government, the truth is the power and opportunity that animate our freedom derives from a centralized expression of our national will. Sam Houston knew that American freedom would be a different and improved version from that offered by England, Spain, Mexico or even that his own government could offer.
Second, the fight to admit Texas was as heated and brutal as anything we see on cable news today. Many celebrated the end result, but almost as many wrung their hands. An aging John Quincy Adams (the chief negotiator of the original treaty with Spain while he served as Secretary of State) was certain it meant the end of the union. Adams was wrong, of course. America has always healed because Americans see tomorrow’s opportunities as more important than today’s divisions.
On my way to the fireworks tonight, I have to thank Sam Houston for the vision and tenacity that resulted in the Texas Convention. The pyrotechnics and the patriotic music remind us that despite ourselves we can still speak as one. When we do, the world is a better place.
As for mom and dad, they may have arranged my birth out of state, but they got me back as fast as they could.