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What was the Battle of the Alamo really about?
Beware replacing old myths with new ones
Reader Jake Peterson quotes the following from an essay titled “The myth of the Alamo gets the history all wrong,” by Bryan Burrough and Jason Stanford: “Rather than a courageous stand for liberty, the White men fighting at the Alamo were battling to own people of color.” Jake P., remarking that it has been some years since he read my Lone Star Nation, asks, “What’s your opinion on this?”
My opinion is that some of the Anglos fighting at the Alamo were defending what they viewed as their right to own black slaves. And some were fighting for other things.
Most of the Americans who ventured to Texas during the 1820s and early 1830s were attracted by the prospect of acquiring more and better land than they could hope to possess back in the United States. Some came legally, settling in colonies organized by Stephen Austin and other empresarios, or authorized agents of the Mexican government. More came illegally, squatting on territory in violation of Mexican efforts to keep them out. As long as Texas remained part of Mexico, their land claims would be insecure. But should Texas become independent - especially if independence came as a result of their gallant efforts at arms - they could credibly hope to be rewarded with secure titles.
In fact the nascent government of the self-proclaimed Republic of Texas offered land as a reward to all who would come and fight on behalf of Texas independence. Because the Texas declaration of independence was issued only days before the Alamo battle, when that fort was already surrounded, its defenders didn’t include those who responded to that explicit call. But the idea had been in the air for some time, and many of those behind the walls of the old mission doubtless counted on getting paid in land for their efforts.
In the weeks between the Alamo fight on March 6, 1836, and the climactic battle of San Jacinto on April 21, volunteers poured into Texas from Louisiana. James Fannin, commanding the rebel garrison at Goliad, complained at how few Texans there were among his hundreds of soldiers; most were recent arrivals from the States.
In a broader sense, the Texans were fighting for their right to govern themselves - “liberty,” they called it. Some had once been happy under Mexican rule; Stephen Austin was a charter citizen of the Mexican republic, having arrived just as Mexico was winning its war of independence against Spain. Others, led by Sam Houston, had come to Texas intending to steal it from Mexico and add it to the United States. Houston, who had been governor of Tennessee before his marriage dissolved in scandal, hoped to become a great man, again, in Texas. David Crockett, whose political career similarly hit the skids in Tennessee, traveled to Texas aiming to be the first senator of the new American state of Texas.
When they spoke of self-government they meant it in the terms in which it was understood in the United States at the time. It didn’t include women, and it didn’t include black people. This was neither more nor less than the liberty the patriots of 1776 had fought for against Britain. Indeed, the Texas declaration of independence shamelessly plagiarized the American Declaration, with Santa Anna standing in for King George
The Texas rebels didn’t like being told what they could and couldn’t do. They didn’t like being told they couldn’t own slaves, as the Mexican government had recently done. They didn’t like being told they had to convert to Catholicism, as the Mexican government had insisted from the start. They really didn’t like being told by Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who had just dissolved the Mexican federal constitution, that they would be under his direct control. On this last point they were joined by other Mexican states, including Zacatecas, which launched an even larger rebellion than the Texans’.
All of which is to say that slavery was part of the reason for the Texas revolt against Mexico. For the big slaveholders in Texas, it was a big part. Their fortunes depended on slavery. For the larger number of small slaveholders - farmers or town dwellers who owned one or a few slaves, and who might have hired those few workers if they hadn’t been allowed to enslave them - it was a smaller part.
For the even larger number of nonslaveholders and volunteers from the United States, slavery probably mattered very little, if at all. Nonslaveholding whites had reason to be ambivalent about slavery. Some valued the psychic boost that came from knowing there was a class beneath them; but nearly all suffered economically from the depressing effect of slavery on the returns to manual labor.
In sum, the war for Texas independence, like all wars, was fought by various people with various motives. Perhaps needless to say, single individuals often had multiple motives.
In physics, the simplest explanation that accounts for a given phenomenon is judged the best. This is the principle of Occam’s Razor, named for the medieval philosopher William of Okham.
History doesn’t work that way. People aren’t atoms. As a general historical rule, the more complicated the explanation of some event, the more likely it is to be true.
This can annoy those who want to use the past to score political points in the present. Which is why the politically minded often prefer myth - oversimplified history - to the messy real thing.
History always bears rethinking. But while rethinking, we should take care not to trade one myth for another.