By Allen C. Guelzo, Princeton University
By 1800, it had proven more and more difficult for the Spaniards to control an American dominion that still stretched from the southern cone of South America all the way up to the Missouri and the Mississippi Rivers. Over the years, pieces of that dominion in South America had thrown off Spanish rule and established republics based on the liberties and slogans of the American Revolution of 1776. However, the standoff between the Mexicans and the American colonists in Texas was different.
The Mexican Republic
As late as 1820, Spain still clung tenaciously to large parts of the new world empire it had won under the conquistadors of the 1500s. In 1820, the Spanish king was challenged by an uprising among his own officers who demanded reform and a republic.
Meanwhile, the Spanish province of Mexico took its future into its own hands, and established a revolutionary monarchy under Agustin Iturbide, in 1821. Iturbide’s monarchy proved only marginally more popular and successful than Spain’s. In 1823, Iturbide was overthrown, and the following year, a republic was established.
The Mexican republic had a rocky history, especially since the individual Mexican states had notions of independence and autonomy that were not unlike some of those held by their North American neighbors. At length, in 1833, an ambitious general, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, solved the republic’s problems by overthrowing it and setting up a personal dictatorship on the Napoleonic mode.
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Americans Colonists in Texas
In the meanwhile, the Mexican states dealt with their internal problems pretty much by their own lights.
For the state of Cohelia, which included the province of Texas, the principle problem was the sparsity of its population. From the 1820s onward, in order to cure that barrenness, Cohelia proposed franchising out large vacant stretches of eastern Texas prairie to land-hungry North Americans. Guided by impresarios and land brokers like Moses and Stephen Austin, large colonies of Americans migrated to Texas; some 20,000 of them by the end of the decade and 30,000 by 1835. These immigrants found, under the Mexican flag in Texas, a land perfectly formed for livestock and farming, especially cotton. Cotton meant slaves.
Americans Become a Threat
By 1830, they already had 1,000 African American slaves working in the rich new cotton fields of eastern Texas. What had, at first, seemed like the ideal solution to their population problem and the emptiness of their land soon turned sour for the Mexicans. Not only did the American colonists in Texas blithely disregard agreements that bound them to convert to Roman Catholicism and adopt Spanish as the civil language, but their numbers eventually dwarfed the tiny Mexican population of Texas.
Anxious that the Americans would soon attempt to set up an independent Texan government, Santa Anna stripped the Mexican states of their internal autonomy, and attempted to seal off the Texas border with Louisiana, to control further immigration from the United States.
Texas Becomes a Republic
However, the Mexican troops, under the clumsy command of Santa Anna’s brother-in-law, instead provoked an uprising in Texas, and in December of 1835, the enraged Texans drove Santa Anna’s men back across the Rio Grande River into Cohelia.
The resulting Texan War of Independence was short but spectacular. Many of the Mexican grandees of Texas had no more love for Santa Anna’s dictatorship than the American colonists did, and these Texanos and their Anglo neighbors declared Texas an independent republic in March of 1836.
The odds for the Texan republic survival were, at first, not very good. Santa Anna gathered an army of 4,000 men, and staged a remarkable midwinter march into Texas that threw the Texans into a panic. The small Anglo-Texano garrison in San Antonio barricaded itself into a crumbling Catholic mission known as ‘the Alamo’, and held up Santa Anna’s advance for 13 days, until a predawn Mexican attack overwhelmed the Alamo’s 183 defenders.
The Alamo was not a particularly significant engagement from a military point of view. The Alamo garrison had originally been instructed to blow the place up and retreat. Santa Anna did waste the lives of a few hundred of his men in the effort to capture the Alamo, but not enough to cripple his invasion effort. What turned the Alamo from being a military annoyance into a catastrophic misjudgment was Santa Anna’s temperamental decision to put every survivor of the Alamo garrison to death.
‘Remember the Alamo’
Across eastern Texas, the American colonists were both terrified and outraged, and ‘Remember the Alamo’ became an electrifying war cry for them. A small, ragtag Texan army under an old protégé of Andrew Jackson, named Sam Houston, fell back before Santa Anna’s advance, lulling the Mexicans into a sense of assured and easy conquest.
Then, on April 21, 1836, Houston and the Texan army turned and struck the Mexicans at San Jacinto, routing the Mexican army and capturing Santa Anna himself. As a condition of his release, Santa Anna signed an agreement recognizing Texan independence, an agreement that, of course, was immediately repudiated when Santa Anna reached Mexico City again.
Van Buren’s Problem
The aim of the Texans was not to remain independent, however, but to join the United States as a new state as soon as possible.
Here, the trouble began all over again. Martin Van Buren was elected president in 1836, the person who was Andrew Jackson’s anointed successor. As a Democrat, Van Buren owed a great deal to the Democratic constituencies of the southern states. Van Buren was also a New Yorker who was less than eager to promote the expansion of slavery, though, much less involve the United States in a dispute over a province that was still technically the property of Mexico.
Common Questions about the Texan War of Independence
While Spanish attention was preoccupied with its own revolutionary problems, the Spanish province of Mexico took its future into its own hands, and established a revolutionary monarchy under Agustin Iturbide, in 1821.
Cohelia proposed franchising out large vacant stretches of eastern Texas prairie to land-hungry North Americans.
The aim of the Texans was not to remain independent, but to join the United States as a new state.