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Slavery and the Texas Revolution
Author(s): Paul D. Lack
Source: The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 89, No. 2 (Oct., 1985), pp. 181-202
Published by: Texas State Historical Association
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Slavery and the Texas Revolution
PAUL D. LACK*
IF LANGUAGE SERVES AS A USEFUL GUIDE, THE MATTER OF SLAVERY OC-
cupied an important place in the minds of the leaders of the Texas
Revolution. Their rhetoric brimmed with imagery depicting a struggle
between freedom and bondage. In their view Mexico sought to enslave
the only people in the land who still dared to defend the cause of liberty. A group of volunteers in October, 1835, labeled Mexican rule as
“worse than Egyptian bondage”; the following June General Thomas J.
Rusk sought to rally the people to the field against an enemy who intended “to make [them] the slaves of petty military commandants.” The
opposing soldiers thus became “menial slaves” of military despotism.
However appealing Texans found this vision of themselves as sufferers
“in the cause of Freedom and the Rights of Man,” in candid moments they
acknowledged that the conflict involved the issue of slavery in a manner
far different from that portrayed in this propaganda.’
Wars for independence had invariably subjected the institution of
slavery to profound tensions since the time of the American Revolution. Throughout the new world in the subsequent half-century a variety of forces shook the foundations of bondage and led to its overthrow, by a combination of black revolution and state action, in Haiti,
the British West Indies, and the South American republics. In all these
slave societies radical ideologies, accompanied by sudden shifts in political, economic, and military power, emerged during times of crisis to
undermine the old order. Wars–international, internal, or both-ac* Paul D. Lack is a professor of history at McMurry College in Abilene, Texas. He has published on urban slavery in the Southwest and is currently working on a social history of the
Texas revolution.
‘Texas Republican (Brazoria), Oct. io, 1835 (1st quotation); Thomas J. Rusk to the People
of Texas, June 27, 1836, John H. Jenkins (ed.), The Papers of the Texas Revolution, 1835-1836
(io vols.; Austin, 1973), VII, 287 (2nd quotation); Haden Edwards to James W. Robinson,
Nov. 29, 1835, William C. Binkley (ed.), Official Correspondence of the Texan Revolution, 18351836 (2 vols.; New York, 1936), I, 135 (3rd quotation); Council to the People of Texas, Feb. 13,
1836, ibid., I, 419 (4th quotation).
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182 Southwestern Historical Quarterly
celerated these challenges to slavery and enabled many blacks to seize
their freedom. Emancipation had not triumphed uniformly or without
struggle even where the slaveholding classes had been weak, but revolutionary movements had left slavery isolated and threatened from outside and within.2
This study of slavery and the Texas Revolution concentrates on the
impact of the 1835-36 struggle on both slaves and slaveholders. The
conflict with Mexico raised before Anglos the spectre of slave revolt,
created for blacks other avenues to freedom besides rebellion, generated forces that weakened the hold of masters over bondsmen, and
placed the very survival of the institution in Texas on the success of
Texas arms. In order to understand the events of these two years, some
attention will also be given to the status of slavery in the earlier period
of Mexican rule and to the difficult question of slavery as a factor leading to the Texas movement for independence.
This latter issue attracted attention as soon as war erupted between
Mexico and Texas; antislavery zealots quickly attributed the Texas
Revolution to a proslavery conspiracy. The most thoroughgoing of
these denunciations, The War in Texas by Benjamin Lundy, appeared in
1836. Lundy’s suspicions regarding the conflict grew out of a decadeold career as an antislavery writer and his visits in Brazoria, Bexar, and
other Mexican provinces in 1833. Lundy viewed the origins of the
Revolution as exactly opposite to those identified in public pronouncements in Texas, which stressed liberty and human rights. His historical
narrative developed the theme that southern-born immigrants had
evaded Mexican emancipation measures and had finally sought sepa-
rate statehood in order to establish the institution on a firm constitu-
tional basis. When foiled in this and other proslavery efforts, a “vast
combination” of slaveholders in Texas, supported by land-jobbers,
slave-breeders and dealers, and their political lackeys in the United
States, implemented a “treasonable” “scheme” to divide Texas from
Mexico and reestablish slavery. Like most abolitionists, Lundy placed
blame on individual sin: the Texas war derived from “motives of personal aggrandizement, avaricious adventure, and unlimited, enduring
oppression.”‘
2David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (Ithaca, N.Y.,
1975), 255-342.
3Merton L. Dillon, “Benjamin Lundy in Texas,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, LXIII (July,
1959), 6o (the Quarterly is cited hereafter as SHQ); Stephen F. Austin to Thomas F. Leaming,
Apr. 30, 1836, Andreas Reichstein (ed.), “The Austin-Leaming Correspondence, 1828-1836,”
SHQ, LXXXVIII (Jan., 1985), 282; [Benjamin Lundy], The War in Texas: A Review of Facts and
Circumstances … (2nd ed., 1837; reprint, Upper Saddle River, N.J., 1970), 3-7, 14 (1st quotation), 20 (2nd quotation), 27 (3rd quotation), 33-34 (4th quotation).
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Slavery and the Texas Revolution 183
When historians like Eugene C. Barker challenged this conspiracy
theory, they marshalled not so much new evidence as a new perspective.
In fact, Barker acknowledged the southern, proslavery origins of many
Anglo-Texans and their resistance in the name of progress to Mexican
efforts to limit, exclude, or abolish slavery. He not only recognized
other facts-the proslavery features of the constitution of the Republic
of Texas, the military support that came from the southern United
States, and the Texans’ desire for annexation-but published evidence
that, if known to Lundy, would have made the conspiracy theory seem
irrefutable. On his way from Mexico to Texas in the summer of 1835,
Stephen F. Austin had written to his cousin, “The best interests of the
United States require that Texas shall be effectually, and fully, Americanized. . . . Texas must be a slave country. It is no longer a matter of doubt.”
But like other “scientific” historians, Barker doubted the existence of a
“slaveocracy” or the prevalence of proslavery crusading zeal among
Texas revolutionaries. He asserted that the number of slaves and the
frequency of Texan-Mexican disagreements over the status of slavery
had both declined after 1830. Subsequent scholars have followed this
lead so faithfully that they allude to the issue mostly to deride Lundy’s
theory. Barker’s conclusion “that anxiety concerning the status of slavery [does not appear to have] played any appreciable part in producing
the Texas revolution” has gone virtually unchallenged.’
Whatever doubts they express about the significance of slavery as a
causative factor in 1835-1836, historians have acknowledged that disputes over the institution served as a long-standing irritant in relations
between Anglo settlers and Mexico. A sense of uncertainty had characterized the status of slavery from almost the beginning of North Ameri-
can colonization of Texas. Throughout the 182os local authorities
blunted repeated but indecisive antislavery measures enacted by the
Mexican Congress. In 1822 and again in 1824 the Congress passed legislation to abolish the slave trade and gradually erode the institution.
Anglo Texas leaders gained little legal relief by their arguments that
these measures undermined economic progress, but they either muted
the impact of these laws or simply ignored them. Even the state constitution, which recognized the legality of slavery, outlawed further im-
4S. F. Austin to Mary Austin Holley, Aug. 2 1, 1835, Eugene C. Barker (ed.), The Austin Papers
(3 vols.; Vols. I, II, Washington, D.C., 1924- 1928; Vol. III, Austin, 1927), III, 101 (1st quotation), 102; Eugene C. Barker, “The Influence of Slavery in the Colonization of Texas,” SHQ,
XXVIII (July, 1924), 1, 2 (3rd quotation), 3-5, 28-32, 33 (4th quotation); Eugene C. Barker,
Mexico and Texas, 182 1-1835 . . . (Dallas, 1928), 72-86; Samuel Harman Lowrie, Culture Confict in Texas: 182 I – 1835 (New York, 1932), 47-52, 125- 131; William C. Binkley, The Texas Revolution (Baton Rouge, 1952), 3-5; Seymour V. Connor, Texas: A History (New York, 1971), I U9.
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184 Southwestern Historical Quarterly
portations and freed children born of slave parents. Texas memorials
then persuaded the Coahuila legislature to sanction a bogus “contract”
system allowing imports of bound labor. This apparently successful
subterfuge evaporated suddenly on September 15, 1829, with the pro-
mulgation of a general emancipation decree by Mexican president
Vicente Guerrero. An exemption for Texas was once again granted;
however, the pattern of evasion by Texans created alarm regarding the
governability of the province. On April 6 of the next year another decree ended all North American emigration to Texas, though it recognized the existence of slavery there.5
The 183os brought something of a respite from the barrage of antislavery measures of the previous decade, partly because of political instability in Mexico. Yet the status of the institution remained in doubt.
In April, 1832, the legislature of Coahuila y Texas set a ten-year limitation on the length of labor contracts, thus jeopardizing the evasions of
Texas slaveholders and indicating that abolitionist sentiment still prevailed among Mexican authorities. Realization of this fact helped spur a
movement in Texas for separate statehood that originated in that year.
Texans had blunted some of the effects of governmental hostility to
slavery, but defense of the institution ultimately rested on sympathetic
and weak local governments that failed to enforce antislavery measures. When a more powerful (authoritarian from the Texas perspective) government arose in Mexico, rebellion broke out. The immediate
target of the resistance was John Davis Bradburn, commander at
Anahuac. The insurgents included in their Declaration of Grievances a
charge that he had encouraged and protected runaway slaves.”
Clearly, critics like John Quincy Adams exaggerated in asserting that
the Texas Revolution reestablished slavery “where it was abolished.”
Emigrants from the United States used the indenture system to bring
forced labor into Texas, while masters bought, hired, and sold workers
without regard for antislavery enactments. In no instance did bondsmen or women become free due to legal procedures. Mexican hostility
5 Lester G. Bugbee, “Slavery in Early Texas,” Political Science Quarterly, XIII (Sept., 1898), 394,
397, (Dec., 1898), 648; Constitution of the State of Coahuila y Texas, Art. 13, H. P. N. Gammel
(comp.), The Laws of Texas, 1822-1897 … (io vols.; Austin, 1898), I, 424.
“Barker, “Influence of Slavery,” 5, 8-11, 18-23, 25, 28-29; Bugbee, “Slavery in Early
Texas” (Sept., 1898), 391, 393-395, 397-399, 403-404, 407, 409, 411 (quotation), (Dec.,
1898), 648-649, 661; Ohland Morton, Terdn and Texas: A Chapter in Texas-Mexican Relations
(Austin, 1948), 115; Mattie Austin Hatcher, Letters of an Early American Traveller: Mary Austin
Holley, Her Life and Her Works, 1784-1846 (Dallas, 1933), 206; San Felipe de Austin Texas Gazette, Apr. 3, 1830; Harold Schoen, “The Free Negro in the Republic of Texas,” SHQ, XL (Oct.,
1936), 85; Alleine Howren, “Causes and Origin of the Decree of April 6, 1830,” SHQ, XVI
(Apr., 1913), 388.
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Slavery and the Texas Revolution 185
toward slavery, however, did have some effect.7 Slaves in Texas had a
measure of judicial privilege, such as the right of petition. A knowledgeable observer like Mary Austin Holley believed that blacks were
“invested with more liberty and [were] less liable to abuse” in Texas
than in the United States. Flurries of antislavery legislation had other
effects as well. The laws slowed the pace of American immigration and
possibly the importation of blacks. An estimate from 1834 suggests that
the number of slaves had grown at a slower rate than had the white
population. Also, continual labor shortages lengthened the period of
frontier conditions and retarded the growth of plantations, except for
a few instances along the coast.”
All things considered, however, Anglo immigrants seem not to have
significantly modified their hopes or expectations of slavery, inhospitable laws and government disapprobation notwithstanding. Planters
commonly considered their slaves “indispensable,” as one traveler
noted, and leaders of the province believed that cotton held the key to
progress. When Anglo lawmakers came into power in places like Nacogdoches in the mid-183os, the legal privilege conferred on bondsmen
by Mexican law was quickly eroded. And Mexican inattention to slavery
after 1 83o allowed the institution to grow in at least one area: statistics
for the Nacogdoches region reveal a spurt in the slave population be-
tween 1831 and 1835.”
The persistence of this complex of attitudes toward slavery was reflected in the colonists’ ideology. Stephen F. Austin sounded the keynote when he argued that settlers in a raw land should not be deprived
of laborers. From their first confrontations with Mexican antislavery
law, Anglo-Texans had conceded the moral arguments while emphasiz-
ing the necessity of forced labor to develop the land. They also defended slavery on racial grounds, contending that emancipation would
lead to black demoralization and that color differences naturally re7Adams, quoted in Lundy, War in Texas, 34; indenture contract, County of Leon, Territory of
Florida, Apr. 30, 1831, James Morgan Papers (Rosenberg Library, Galveston); Texas Gazette
(San Felipe de Austin), Sept. 25, 1829; A Visit to Texas. . . (2nd ed.; New York, 1836), 187-188;
Schoen, “Free Negro” (Oct., 1936), 86-94.
8Mary Austin Holley, Texas (Lexington, Ky., 1836), 133 (quotations); David J. Weber, The
Mexican Frontier, 1821-1-846: The American Soulthwest under Mexico (Albuquerque, 1982), 213;
James Michael McReynolds, “Family Life in a Borderland Community: Nacogdoches, Texas,
1779-1861” (Ph.D. diss., Texas Tech University, 1978), 188- 19o; Bugbee, “Slavery in Early
Texas” (Sept., 1898), 39o-397, 400-40 1; Barker, “Influence of Slavery,” 11, 32; W. L. Foleys to
“Messrs. Austin or Milan [sic],” Oct. 28, 1834, Samuel May Williams Papers (Rosenberg Library); Lowrie, Culture Conflict, 31; Connor, Texas, 75, 85, 86.
d to Texas, 57 (quotation); Bugbee, “Slavery in Early Texas” (Dec., 1898), 662-664;
Carlos E. Castafieda (trans.), “Statistical Report of Texas by Juan N. Almonte, 1835,” SHQ,
XXVIII (Jan., 1925), 178; McReynolds, “Nacogdoches,” 288-290, 295.
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186 Southwestern Historical Quarterly
sulted in some form of inequality. Neither the empresario nor many of
his colonists seemed to share the Mexican sense of outrage at the institution nor their sympathy for the plight of the slaves. But while Aus-
tin defended slavery on grounds of necessity he also expressed apprehension about its effects, believing that it demoralized whites and
fearing that society itself would be first Africanized and then “San Domingonized.” At the same time, the Texas Gazette condemned slavery as
an injustice tolerated in Texas and through the ages only because it contributed to “prosperity,” but rightly condemned by international phi-
lanthropic opinion and Mexican law. Proponents of the peculiar institution had been placed in a defensive position in Mexican Texas.”‘
In a common retort to their moral critics Texas slaveholders also as-
serted that their laborers had not been imported from Africa or elsewhere for speculative purposes but were what Austin called “family servants.” Beginning in the early spring of 1833, however, the situation
with regard to the African slave trade changed: one boatload after another of Africans (totaling four documented cases in the next eighteen
months) arrived by way of Cuba at Galveston Bay for distribution to
labor-hungry farmers. At least two ventures lured free blacks from the
Caribbean into Texas and then treated them as slaves on their arrival.
Leaders like David G. Burnet and John A. Wharton pushed through
public condemnations of this “in human [sic] and unprincipled [African slave] traffic” and urged united “efforts to prevent the evil from
polluting our shores.” Resolutions discountenanced this “odious …
detestable” form of “treason” and “Piracy,” while claiming it “was perpetrated by transient foreign adventurers.” However strong these pronouncements, popular opinion seemed in fact rather tolerant. African
slave traders included such future luminaries as Benjamin Fort Smith
and James W. Fannin, and prominent planters like Monroe Edwards
and Sterling McNeel purchased the human cargoes. These enterprises
seemed ominous to Wharton, who concluded that their originators intended to “experiment” with the power of civil authority in Texas.”
“‘Barker, “Influence of Slavery,” 12 (Ist quotation), 28 (2nd quotation); Bugbee, “Slavery in
Early Texas” (Sept., 1898), 399-400; Hatcher, Early American Traveller, 41-42, 145; Texas Gazette (San Felipe de Austin), June 19, 1830.
11Bugbee, “Slavery in Early ‘Texas” (Sept., 1898), 400o; Austin quoted in Barker, “Influence of
Slavery,” io; San Felipe Resolutions, Apr. 4, 1833, Texas Republican (Brazoria), June 6, 1835
(2nd-7th quotations); Edward Hanrick to Samuel May Williams, Aug. 28, 1833, Williams Papers; Eugene C. Barker, “The African Slave Trade in Texas,” Quarterly of the Texas State Histori-
cal Association, VI (Oct., 1902), 147-152 (thisjournal is cited hereafter as QTSHA); “The Remi-
niscences of Mrs. Dilue Harris,” ibid., IV (July, 1900), 97-98; Ben C. Stuart, “The African
Slave Trade in Texas,” 12 (typescript, Rosenberg Library); John A. Wharton to David G.
Burnet, July 8, 1834, David Gouverneur Burnet Papers (Eugene C. Barker Texas History Cen-
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Slavery and the Texas Revolution 187
Mexican officials disagreed about whether responsibility for the illicit
introduction of Africans rested with dishonest Texans or an inadequate
coastal navy.” In fact a …
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