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Remembering the Alamo (Honestly) by Steve Davis

Remembering the Alamo (Honestly)

I first studied Texas history in 4th grade at David G. Burnet Elementary in the shadow of downtown Houston. As a boy I loved the bloody subject. It had violence like that in the comic books I devoured for escapist reading as one group was always fighting another for dominance of the future Lone Star state. By the time we learned about Texas in school, my friends and I were all immersed in the Walt Disney and John Wayne versions of the Alamo battle that saturated popular culture in the early 1960s. Rather than cowboys and Indians, we often played Alamo in the neighborhood with all of us contending to portray the legendary leaders Crockett, Bowie, or Travis and no one volunteering to be the hated Mexicans. Given the casual racism of the era, this was just as true of the Hispanic kids as of the Anglo children in our mixed East End community. Texas history was all around. Our school was named after the Republic’s first president, major downtown streets were Milam and Fannin after Anglos who died in the Texas Revolution, and my high school was named for Stephen F. Austin, the so-called Father of Texas. The San Jacinto battleground where Sam Houston secured Texas independence was perhaps a half hour’s drive, located downstream on the same bayou that passed four blocks from my house in the 6600 block of Avenue S.

By the time I was in college, I thought Texas history was a joke, not worthy of serious attention. I knew by then that much of what we were taught was utter mythology and I wanted to get my mind as far away from my hopelessly reactionary native state as possible. I never formally studied the subject after 7th grade, where all public-school pupils still must take it. I didn’t dream that I would one day teach it and love doing so. This happened because a community college colleague urged me to offer a Texas class as we were preparing a series of activities around the Sesquicentennial of Texas independence in 1986. I did a crash course of preparing and then dove in. In Fall 1985, I attended an Alamo symposium at SMU organized by David Weber. I would learn that he was one of the leading scholars in the Texas field, bringing the insights of a Latin Americanist to his vital publications. Paul Hutton, who also wrote extensively on Custer’s Last Stand, presented as did the painter Eric Von Schmidt, who gave a report on the massive Alamo canvas he was then completing. I took feverish notes and used my still-keen grad school study skills to absorb so much information that couple of days. That program gave me the confidence that with intensive reading and other prep, I could teach a credible course and at least not make a fool of myself in the classroom.

All these years later, comes a book that is going to change the way I teach the Alamo and the Texas Revolution. It has the provocative title Forget the Alamo and its authors—Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford---bravely call BS on generations of Texan writers and public figures who have propagated ridiculous notions about the state’s supposed exceptionalism. The main way Texas is exceptional is in the shameless manner we natives brag about the place and all its wonderful qualities. All that has done is obscure the degree we fall short of providing a decent life for so many of our citizens. Tomlinson and crew have touched a nerve among right-wing politicians like Gregg Abbott and Dan Patrick who prefer we not think critically about Texas history or anything else. Furious about the book’s themes, Lieutenant-Governor Patrick brutishly intervened on July 1 and forced a late cancellation of a panel at the Bullock History Museum in Austin where the authors were scheduled to discuss their findings. What is so explosive about the contents of Forget the Alamo that it would merit such attention from these arrogant guardians of tradition?

Most egregious to Patrick and his lot is Tomlinson and fellows insisting that slavery was the main cause of Texas’s rebellion against Mexico. It’s worth quoting the book directly here: “We must recognize that the Battle of the Alamo was as much about slavery as the Civil War was about slavery” (p. 341). This claim is a departure for me. I have taught for 35 years that the so-called Texas Revolution was in reality no revolution at all, but was in David Weber’s phrase, “a successful separatist rebellion” against the Santa Anna’s Centralist tyranny emanating from Mexico City. This takes at face value the insistence of the Anglo rebels (and their Tejano supporters) that the revolution was more than anything a fight against the dictatorship of Santa Anna, after the latter had set aside the federalist constitution in a Bonaparte-style coup in 1835. Tomlinson, et al accept Santa Anna’s action as indeed the triggering cause of the revolt. But the underlying reason they argue was the concern of the Anglo-American settlers over the future status of slavery in a Mexican republic that was officially and consistently hostile to the institution. As long as individual Mexican states like Coahuila y Tejas (Texas was never a separate state) retained some autonomy under the liberal Constitution of 1824, then Anglo settlers could exploit various loopholes and take advantage of the lack of Mexican military presence in Texas to hold on to their slaves. They had come to Texas to profit from cotton cultivation (see Seeds of Empire, Andrew Torget’s invaluable work on this subject) and deemed African bondage to be inseparable from that enterprise. But once Santa Anna crushed the Federalists (the state rights advocates in 19th century Mexico) and dissolved the Constitution, slavery’s continued life in Texas was in grave peril. Hence, the determination of the Anglo-Americans to fight.

What’s the evidence that the protection of slavery was indeed the main motive of the Texas rebels? Well, you won’t find it in the Texas Declaration of Independence, adopted on March 2, 1836, four days before the Alamo fell. George Childress hurriedly composed the document like a student pulling an all-nighter to complete a term paper. His “statement of a part of our grievances” contains not a word about slavery unless it is cloaked in a couple of passing references to the rights of property. There is far more damning evidence in the constitution written a few days later by the same delegates who signed the Declaration, a governing framework which the authors characterize as “the only one in history to guarantee slavery and actually outlaw any and all emancipation” (111). The relevant text is attached at the bottom. Unlike the original U.S. Constitution, the Texas document is explicit in its references to slavery and openly racist in its denial of citizenship to Blacks. I think Tomlinson and company are on the right track. Recent historians have always known that slavery was a major concern for Anglos in Texas. It becomes arguably the major concern if we view Santa Anna’s destruction of Mexican states rights the ominous way many of the Texas rebels surely did. Such a conclusion clearly constitutes a significant shift of perspective regarding the causation of the Texas Revolution.

There are other myth-busting elements in Forget the Alamo almost as odious as the slavery issue to Texas conservatives. For example:

1) Travis, Bowie, and the other Alamo defenders made no heroic decision to sacrifice themselves in San Antonio for the cause of Texas liberty. They simply got surrounded and trapped by Santa Anna’s superior numbers because they foolishly lingered in a mission site that was militarily indefensible. As late as March 5, the eve of the final attack, Travis unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a surrender.

2) The Alamo garrison didn’t universally stand its ground once the battle commenced. Dozens of defenders tried to break out and were lanced outside the Alamo walls by the superb Mexican cavalry. Davy Crockett was among a handful taken alive and executed immediately after the battle upon Santa Anna’s orders.

3) The Alamo’s self-sacrifice didn’t make possible the ultimate Texan victory. Santa Anna’s 600 or so casualties at the Alamo still left him with an overwhelming military advantage over the Texans. Only his gross incompetence as a general allowed Sam Houston to engage him on relatively equal terms, take him by total surprise, and win a complete victory at San Jacinto a few weeks later.

Dan Patrick, Gregg Abbott, and the other Trump-supporting zealots who condemn this book are like the French Bourbons who returned to power after Napoleon. They too, have “learned nothing and forgotten nothing,” remaining stuck in mindsets of American and Texas history that were prevalent in the 1950s. On the other hand, the authors of this new Alamo book have performed a great public service by being truth-tellers in an age of pervasive prevarication. The great Sam Houston once advised to “do right and risk the consequences.” Burrough, Tomlinson, and Stanford have done right. The consequences so far are the wrath of right-wing Republicans, the gratitude of professional historians, and a place on the New York Times bestseller list. Not a bad showing for their efforts.

Stephen Davis

July 29, 2021

Appendix: From the 1836 Constitution of the Republic of Texas:

Sec. 9. All persons of color who were slaves for life previous to their emigration to Texas, and who are now held in bondage, shall remain in the like state of servitude: provided, the said slave shall be the bona fide property of the person so holding said slave as aforesaid. Congress shall pass no laws to prohibit emigrants from bringing their slaves into the republic with them, and holding them by the same tenure by which such slaves were held in the United States; nor shall congress have power to emancipate slaves; nor shall any slave holder be allowed to emancipate his or her slave or slaves without the consent of congress, unless he or she shall send his or her slave or slaves without the limits of the republic. 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; and the importation or admission of Africans or negroes into this republic, excepting from the United States of America, is forever prohibited, and declared to be piracy.

Sec. 10. All persons (Africans, the descendants of Africans, and Indians excepted,) who were residing in Texas on the day of the declaration of independence, shall be considered citizens of the republic, and entitled to all the privileges of such.

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