An Honest History of Texas Begins and Ends With White Supremacy

The past few months have been rough for Texasand
for the Texas Republican Party in particular. 
Republicans in the state led
the charge
to overturn the 2020 election results, centering their
anti-democratic arguments on fantasies of stolen ballots and smothered voices.
Then a once-in-a-generation winter storm revealed the extent to which
years-long GOP control had
the state’s infrastructure
, providing a searing illustration of
collapse that gripped the news cycle and the nation. (And leading to Senator Ted

for Cancun.) Just last week, Governor Greg Abbott
in a fit of “neanderthal
,” as President Joe Biden saidlaunched
a premature lifting of the state’s mask mandate, setting the stage for new Covid-19 variants to wash across the population, the potential for new casualties in a
pandemic the rest of the country is finally obtaining the upper hand over, and
new reasons for voters who may be tilting in their partisan preferences to
consider ousting the governor when he’s
for reelection in two years

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the state’s GOPmimicking
its national counterpart
has responded to these cascading
failures not with sound policy proposals but with a bushel of distractions
related to America’s never-ending culture wars. The state’s oleaginous
lieutenant governor has led the way,
that would force publicly funded entities
and events to perform the national anthem. The Texas Republican Party’s
official headquarters, hurtling headlong into cognitive dissonance, endorsed
serious secession bill
the country has seen since the Civil
War. That measure has since picked up
Republican sponsors
in the House.

All of which brings us to the latest front that Texas
Republicans have launched in their war on reality. This month, one Texas
Republican House member filed legislation to force the creation of a new
project for supposedly “patriotic
.” Calling for the formation of an “1836 Project,”
named after the year Texas declared independence from Mexico, the bill models
itself after former President Donald Trump’s ill-starred “1776
.” Trump’s effort—which barely lasted a week before
the new administration obliterated it wholesale—was itself a response to The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which recentered slavery and human bondage
in the story of colonial America.

According to Representative Tan Parker, the legislator who filed
the bill, the proposal is “exclusively about celebrating Texas.” As Parker contended,
“Many of our children are taught to denounce Texas history and do not
understand what it means to be a virtuous citizen.” It’s unclear what Parker
has in mind when he describes “virtuous” citizens, but it’s clear that the
ultimate aim of the project is simply to whitewash Texas’s past of any
critiques about the central role human enslavement played in the Texas
Revolution. “It’s about reasserting whiteness and focusing on when white people
‘founded’ this state,” University of North Texas professor Amanda Vickery told The
Dallas Morning News.

Vickery has this correct. Parker’s paeans to
“patriotic education” are little more than a smokescreen for reinforcing the
kinds of myths and legends about the Texas Revolution that have played down
slavery’s central, essential role in breaking the state off from Mexico. But if
Parker wants to paper over the role of race and revolution in Texasand to
try to parley these myths to a new generation of Texas students
the least we
can do is highlight just how the Republic of Texas became arguably the most
anti-Black, and most avowedly white supremacist, country to have ever existed.

A few years before Texians, the term given to those
who resided in the state at the time, launched their independence movement
against the Mexican government in 1836, officials in Mexico City launched a historic salvo of their own. Decades before his counterparts in Washington,
Mexican President Vicente Guerrero issued a proclamation: Mexico, Guerrero
in 1829
, would abolish slavery.

While abolitionists celebrated the decree (and rightly
perceived it as a precedent that would eventually sweep through the rest of
North America), the Anglos flooding into northeast Mexico stood shocked.
Enticed by the region’s fertile cotton lands, white settlers from the U.S. had blanketed
the region, looking to replicate the slave-centered economic boom in other
parts of the American South. Led by those like the Austin family, Anglos pegged
economic success in the Mexican region of Texas to a single commodity: enslaved
humans. “Keeping slavery legal was a key component of the success of Moses
Austin’s settlement; Anglo settlement of Mexican Texas would not have happened
without it,” Emily McCullar wrote
for The Texas Monthly. Following Guerrero’s decree, Anglos were
“aghast.” As The Houston Chronicle summed it up,
Stephen F. Austin, Moses’s son, was clear: “Texas could not survive without

Led by the younger Austin, Anglos managed to lobby
Mexican officials for a carve-out to allow them to continue enslaving thousands
of Black residents, forcing them to work the cotton fields against their will.
(“The scheme simply redefined slavery as debt peonage,” the Chronicle
continued.) But a seed had been planted, and Anglo slavers began worrying about
their ability to extract wealth from those they enslaved. Those like Austin
were clear; as the Texan founding father stated in 1833, “Texas must be a slave country.”

A few years later, the piling tinder gave way to
revolution. While there was plenty of room for complaint about Mexican leader Santa
Annathe self-styled “Napoleon of the West” was hardly a democratdemands
for revolution caught fire among those with the most to lose: slaveholders.
“The fact that calls for revolt bubbled up among Texans in the primary
slave-holding region is no coincidence,” the
Chronicle wrote. Thanks in
no small part to Santa Anna’s incompetence, the Texians and Tejanos linking
arms managed, over the course of a few short months, to steal independence from
an anti-slavery republic.

Around the same time, legislators in Texas began
hammering out a new constitution for the breakaway regiona constitution
that, in language clear as any, illustrates how the Republic of Texas became
the first true slave empire in the Americas, surpassing even the U.S.
Indeed, while modern Texas Republicans like to view the Texas Revolution as a
spiritual successor to the American Revolution, it’s far more accurate to
describe it as a precursor to the Confederacy. To wit, the
explicitly prohibited its new government
from ever emancipating slaves. Moreover, the constitution expressly barred any
Texan from freeing other humans they enslaved, unless they pledged to evict
them from the new nation entirely. “No free person of African descent, either
in whole or in part, shall be permitted to reside permanently in the Republic,
without the consent of Congress,” the constitution read, effectively ensuring
that Texian slaveholders would never have to worry about free Black residents.  

This language had an immediate impact on both
the state’s economy and on the swelling ranks of those enslaved on these shores.
In less than a decade of independence, the numbers of Black residents enslaved
exploded, growing
some 500 percent
. And the driving force for
the race into American embrace—the U.S. annexed Texas in 1845likewise
centered on slavery. Texians
full well
that a regrouped Mexico could steamroll
the slave republic and enforce its abolitionist writ on the region once more.
The only thing saving Texians’ ability to enslave other humans was joining the U.S. But even that effort eventually faltered. Just 15 years after
annexation, Texas once more declared its intent to secede—this time, as part
of yet another would-be slave empire. As Texas’s
1861 declaration of secession made
clear, the state existed as “a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting
the institution known as negro slavery—the servitude of the African to the
white race.”

To be fair to Texas Republicans, it’s not yet clear
how much the central role of human bondage will play in any “patriotic
education” they have in mind. But the reactionary impulses that the “1619
Project” have broadly engendered among conservatives provide a window into why something
like this proposed “1836 Project” would suddenly become a
cause célèbre among
the Lone Star State’s GOP
and who would find it so appealing. For instance,
some of the state’s frothing, far-right militias (including those
at the January 6 insurrection
) have made similar rhetoric a staple
of their fascistic behavior. One in particular
the unfortunately named “This Is Texas Freedom Force,” or TITFFhas not only cozied

to Texas Republicans but has made
up whitewashed myths
about the Texas Revolution central to its

But it’s also not surprising that this effort to spin a
revisionist version of the Texas Revolution for another generation comes amid titanic shifts in the state’s political realities. Texas appears to be, at some
point in the not-so-distant future, a good candidate to be the next state to
tilt Democratic, following in the wake of states like Georgia and Arizona. In
2020 alone, Texas boasted the third-highest number of Biden voters, following
only California and Florida. And with that looming shift comes a looming
reckoning with the state’s sanitized historyand with the key role the
perpetuation of slavery played in Texas’s birth.

The contours of this shift are already in motion, and
what the reclamation of slavery’s central role in propelling Texas’s 1836 revolution will look like is slowly coming into view. While not
everyone is comfortable yet
placing slavery as the main
cause of the Texas Revolution, voices like the flagship magazine Texas
have dropped any qualms they may have had in portraying it as such.
As the magazine tweeted last
year, “Slavery was the driving force in Texas’s decision to break free of
Mexican control.”

Current and future voices that might attest to the
role chattel slavery played in the establishment of Texas will find themselves
substantially buoyed by the voices of the past and their own recollections.
Former President Ulysses S. Grantthe man who strangled one insurrection as a
general and
more as president
was, in many ways, perhaps the most
astute observer of the geopolitical tides of the era. To Grant, the iniquitous
Mexican-American War was “one of the most unjust [wars] ever waged by a
stronger against a weaker nation” (it was), while the Confederacy’s attempted
secession was “plainly suicidal for the South” (also true). Grant, as a recent
annotated version of his
makes clear, was likewise “never confused about the
fact that … ‘slavery’ was the ‘cause’ of the Civil War.”

Neither was he confused about the role Texas played in
the lead-up to the Civil War. The Civil War, Grant wrote in his memoirs, became
“inevitable” not due to Abraham Lincoln’s election but directly due to the
American annexation of Texas. And the “occupation, separation and annexation”
of Texas were not due to concerns about dictatorship in Mexico City, or arid
concerns about things like “liberty.” Instead, as Grant wrote, it was “from the
inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire
territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union.”
The revolution, in other words, lay at the feet of one thing alone: a would-be permanent
dominion of slavers and their enslaved.

Grant, of course, was a Republican president unafraid
of looking at developments—and insurrectionists, for that matteras they
truly were, rather than as he wished them to be. It’s a lesson that the current
crop of Texas Republicans would do well to heed. If not, they may face the same
fate as the white supremacist seditionists who once dominated the state before
and their version of Texas history might, like the Republic of Texas
itself, soon be relegated to the dustbin of history.

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