From Texas Monthly
By Casey Michel
December 29, 2020, marks the 175th anniversary of the United States’ annexation of the Republic of Texas, an occasion that Texans seem to have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, Texans love their country as much as any other Americans. On the other hand, nostalgia for the republic’s decade of independence is ingrained in the Texas character. And talk of secession seems to be on the rise during this politically fraught time—after the presidential election was called for Joe Biden, Texas congressman Randy Weber posted a pro-secession meme on his Facebook page and state representative Kyle Biedermann threatened to file legislation that would give Texans the opportunity to vote on a secession referendum. A pair of recently published books offer sharp insights into what we should make of this contradiction. Journalist Richard Kreitner’s Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union (Little, Brown and Company) and historian Thomas Richards Jr.’s Breakaway Americas: The Unmanifest Future of the Jacksonian United States (Johns Hopkins University Press) demonstrate that the Republic of Texas played an outsized role in our nation’s development by inspiring other groups to strike out on their own. And they prompt us to ask some hard questions: What would have happened if Washington had rejected Texas’s entreaties to be annexed? Would Texas have managed to carve out an independent path and spurred others to do the same, upending the map of North America as we know it? Or would a Republic of Texas that never joined the Union have eventually wrecked on the shore of its own ambitions? Kreitner and Richards don’t explicitly address such counterfactuals, but they both point to some pretty clear answers.
Neither book focuses exclusively on Texas. Break It Up ranges more widely, from New England’s and California’s separatist flirtations during the antebellum period to the anarchist and feminist secessionisms that proliferated after the Civil War and continue to this day. Kreitner, a contributor to the liberal magazine The Nation, particularly shines when he focuses on the pre–Civil War era of disunionism. “The Age of Breakaway Republics,” he calls it, making clear that Texas served as the model for other regions in the United States that were looking, in Sam Houston’s words, to lift their heads “and stand among the nations.”
Others, though—including many Texans involved in wresting the territory from Mexico—saw Texas not as a model of independence but as the very opposite: yet another building block in the creation of the U.S. empire. “Generations of American expansionists and adventurers had schemed to pry Texas from Spain by means fair or foul,” Kreitner writes. Aaron Burr, a man who plotted to create his own North American polity west of the Mississippi, viewed Texas “as the shimmering Western gem in his new imperial crown.” In many ways, the American obsession with that jewel—and the fact that Texas could provide yet another outpost for slavery—inspired many of the rebels of the Texas Revolution, who had every intention of joining the United States once they extricated themselves from Mexico.
“Without American support, the Texan revolution would have failed, as the American one would have without French assistance,” Kreitner writes of the enthusiastic provision of arms, munitions, and bodies to the rebels. “After 1821, when Mexico won independence from Spain, hard-liners in the United States”—i.e., those dedicated to Texas annexation—“vowed to take the region one way or another.” Eventually, those hard-liners won out: in 1845, after a decade of propping up the nascent Texas republic, the United States plucked that jewel, pocketing it in its parade to the Pacific.
But during that interim, Texas independence inspired dreams of different, distant futures—futures that didn’t necessarily require becoming part of the United States. In Break It Up, Kreitner details stories overlooked in most histories of the country’s nineteenth century. For instance, thanks to Texas’s success in cracking off of Mexico, the leading American separatist group at the time—thousands of Mormons, restless in Illinois, looking to find a home beyond the reach of Washington—nearly chose South Texas over Salt Lake City. The Mormons “had closely followed Texan developments, sympathizing with another experiment in independence,” Kreitner writes. Perhaps the Republic of Texas could host the wayward Latter-day Saints. Perhaps Texas could be their new Zion. Kreitner continues:
Sam Houston was all ears. Warring with Comanches, wary of Mexico’s attempts to reclaim its lost province, worried that annexation to the United States would never happen, Houston believed that allowing the Mormons to settle in southern Texas offered advantages for both sides: Texas would have a buffer, defended by the Mormons’ impressive militia, between itself and Mexico, while the Saints could finally have a land all their own, far from their American tormentors.Those dreams of a Texan-Mormon alliance never came to fruition, largely because raging Americans murdered Mormon founder Joseph Smith soon thereafter. The new leader, Brigham Young, Kreitner says, broke off talks with Texas because he believed, rightly, that the Lone Star Republic was gravitating toward eventual American annexation. And so Texas’s underbelly remained soft, ripe for a revanchist Mexico to come storming northward once more. Rather than the Mormons and the Texans allying in mutually reinforcing independence, both went their separate ways—and, perhaps as a result, ended up in America’s embrace.
Richards, a history teacher at a private school in Philadelphia who researched much of Breakaway Americas while doing postdoctoral work at Southern Methodist University, writes in a more academic style than Kreitner, but his book is never boring. Much of its interest stems from the subject material itself, which examines the ripples of Texas independence in places like Oregon, Canada, and the Indian Territory (consisting largely of what is now eastern Oklahoma), all of which looked to the Texas republic for inspiration. In many ways, the mid-nineteenth century was a long “Texas Moment,” Richards argues. “Thus, when other Americans throughout the continent thought of establishing their own independent polities, they thought of Texas, spoke of Texas, wrote of Texas, and, in some cases, imagined themselves as would-be Texans. Texas became a language through which to understand the future geopolitics of the continent.”
As an example, Richards recounts a long-forgotten historical episode: the so-called Patriot War of 1837 and 1838, in which a group of self-proclaimed “patriots” on both sides of the United States’ northern border sought to seize a piece of British Canada for themselves. Inspired by the success of the Texans just a year prior, the patriots envisioned a new, independent chunk of present-day Ontario acting as a buffer between the U.S. and British forces.
Of course, Great Britain was a far more daunting foe than Mexico, and the U.S. government hardly warmed to the prospect of funneling arms and munitions to groups looking to assault what was then the world’s leading military power. This would-be Texas-on-the-tundra was stillborn, but the effort nonetheless “proves that the Texas Moment was truly a continent-wide phenomenon,” as Richards writes.
Canada was hardly the only area looking at its future through a Texas lens. Once again, Mormons sought to escape the grasp of the States, leaving Illinois in early 1846 for an empty expanse of northern Mexico, looking to carve out their own polity with little more than God and gunpowder on their side. Around the same time, early settlers of the Oregon Territory, a far-flung part of the United States proper, openly suggested that they would seek independence if the country refused to protect them from British predations. In mid-1840s California, then an under-governed swath of northern Mexico, Spanish-speaking Californios looked to Texas as a model of independence for their own province. Unfortunately for their dreams of a California republic, a flood of American settlers racing into the region drew a more cynical inspiration from Texas’s example. They were eager to play what American newspapers called the “Texas game,” which Richards defines as “declar[ing] an independent California republic and then seek[ing] admission to the United States.” Even relocated Native Americans peopling the Indian Territory looked with envy and enthusiasm at the success of the Texans’ movement.
Of course, an independent California, an Oregon republic, and a Federation of United Indians never materialized. Though Texas may have inspired many imitators, its time as a republic, however brief, remained sui generis.
Many Texans’ longtime interest in reestablishing an independent republic prompted Russian trolls to create a secessionist Facebook page during the 2016 election that gained hundreds of thousands of Texas followers, who thrilled to such near-English slogans as “In Love With Texas Shape!”
But Break It Up and Breakaway Americas also undercut the mythology that, to this day, colors our view of Texas independence. As Kreitner and Richards make clear, the Republic of Texas was, in many ways, an unimpressive republic. Held together by spit and tar and pleas for bodies and bullets from America, the republic resembled the straw house in the “Three Little Pigs”: one push from an organized Mexican military or an end to the aid and arms provided by the Americans, and the entire facade of independence could have come tumbling down.
“Anglo-Texans realized all too well that if Mexico could get its act together politically, it could then launch another devastating invasion of Texas that the Texans would be unlikely to defeat on their own,” Richards writes. As Andrew Jackson’s emissary to Texas observed, the republic’s security depended “more upon the weakness and imbecility of her enemy than upon her own strength.”
Nor was this simply a matter of Mexican military primacy or the fact that Mexico’s population was magnitudes larger than Texas’s. Post-1836, according to one historian cited in Breakaway America, Texas remained a “barnyard republic”—a rural, rudimentary affair, barely scraping by without the basic instruments of statehood. “Its economy was for the most part in shambles; its military was ineffectual,” Richards adds. Both were kept afloat only by a steady migration of Americans pouring in. The new Texas government, hemmed in by Comanche, Kiowa, and revanchist Mexicans, controlled at most 20 percent of the territory it claimed, and legislators in Washington appeared lukewarm about annexation, despite the territory’s value as a new slave state—and despite the fact that Texas had sought support from Britain, the bête noire of antebellum America. Nor did its leadership do much to help matters; President Mirabeau B. Lamar’s policies, including his genocidal thrusts against Native American populations and his failed efforts to occupy Santa Fe, “bankrupted the revenue-strapped Texas government,” Richards notes.
All of which point to an unequivocal answer to one of the questions posed at the beginning of this piece: If Washington hadn’t finally agreed to annex Texas, there would have been little hope for the fledgling republic. Whether its collapse would have been brought about by a resurgent Mexico, an imperial United States—which Kreitner says would have viewed Texas as a “rival and a menace”—or the kind of infighting that doomed other secession pushes, Texas’s independence was fated to failure.
Not that most Texans thought otherwise. After Houston’s victory at San Jacinto in 1836, Texans held a vote on what they should do next. As Richards recounts, a 97 percent majority voted to pursue annexation to the United States. To put it another way, the seeds of the Republic of Texas’s demise were sown at the moment of its birth, while the bodies on the battlefield of San Jacinto were still warm. As the political scientist Richard Maass recently wrote in The Picky Eagle: How Democracy and Xenophobia Limited U.S. Territorial Expansion, “Far from fueling resistance [to American annexation], Texan nationalism was U.S. nationalism.”
Yet the romance of Texan nationalism has never died. While Richards’s book sticks with the nineteenth century, Kreitner’s engages with the current political moment, assessing our recent strains of fracture and fratricide. Today, a startling plurality of Americans foresee a Civil War redux in our future, and according to a September poll from Hofstra University, nearly 40 percent of us are comfortable with the notion of states seceding from the country.
And where there’s the smoke of separatism, there’s usually the fire of Texas independence. As Kreitner reminds us, Texas secessionism has in recent years seen new life, thanks to agitation by both homegrown malcontents and foreign entities seeking to create discord here. From Rick Perry lobbing suggestions about secession a decade ago to leaders of the Texas Nationalist Movement traveling to Moscow as part of Russia’s 2016 interference efforts, the notion of Texas’s making an outright push for renewed independence isn’t nearly as fantastical as we once thought. And given how unlikely our current political situation would have seemed even ten years ago, Kreitner’s willingness to take such seemingly far-fetched movements seriously seems prudent.
The sudden surge of interest in Texas independence, though, relies heavily on the myths still swamping the realities of the ramshackle Republic of Texas. Rather than the gloried society of legend, the republic portrayed by Richards and Kreitner had only two plausible destinies: annexation or disaster (which would have almost certainly led to annexation anyway). The original Texans knew which one they preferred. As the final Texas president, Anson Jones, said when lowering the Republic of Texas flag for the last time, “The final act in this great drama is now performed. The Republic of Texas is no more.” Long may it rest.
Casey Michel, a graduate of Rice University and a former staff writer for the Houston Press, has written for numerous publications, including Foreign Policy and the Atlantic.
This article originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Breaking Badly.” Subscribe today.