A New Land: Texas and Annexation
A New Land: Texas and Annexation
“El Norte.” During the months immediately following Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, the nation’s new rulers pondered ways to develop its sparsely populated northern states. A treaty signed by both Spain and the United States in February 1819 had drawn the American boundary so as to exclude the state of Texas, which was situated just west of the American tide of settlement. Nevertheless, within months of the treaty’s ratification Americans began to settle in the eastern region of the Spanish (soon to be Mexican) state of Cuahuila-Texas. The new Mexican government quickly seized upon the idea of using American immigrants to develop their underpopulated Northern provinces.
Austin. Entrepreneurs and speculators such as Stephen F. Austin encouraged land-hungry farmers and planters to settle in easternmost Texas, far from the Mexican tejano settlements to the south and west. In
order to gain title to their free land and qualify for Mexican tax breaks, the settlers had to agree to speak Spanish, convert to Catholicism, and adhere to Mexican laws—which included the abolition of slavery. However, the American settlers did not accede to these requests. Instead, they retained their own language, religion, allegiances, and institutions, including slavery. Moreover, they were coming in droves eager to plant cotton on the fertile plains of east Texas. By 1830 there were already twenty thousand white Americans and two thousand slaves in Texas; the number of Mexicans was less than five thousand.
Exertion of Power. Hoping to head off any conflict over the territory, President John Quincy Adams offered Mexico $1 million for Texas, and his successor Andrew Jackson was willing to pay $5 million. Although the Mexicans refused to sell, more than a few members of the government were beginning to rue the day they allowed the Americans into Texas. In 1830 the Mexican government decided to halt all further American immigration into the country. The Texans, chafing under the new restrictions, began talking about formally rejoining the United States.
Declaring Independence. Things got even worse for the Texans in 1835, when a conservative new government seized power in Mexico City, intent on establishing tighter authority in the north. For a time Anglo-Texans and tejanos (the Mexican residents of Texas) formed a political alliance in an attempt to protect their eroding political autonomy, but the new Mexican dictator, Antonio López de Santa Anna, responded in early 1836 by marching an army of six thousand men north into Texas. Just days after Santa Anna reached San Antonio, delegates from across Texas met in convention and, on 2 May, declared themselves an independent republic.
Siege at the Alamo. When Santa Anna’s army arrived in San Antonio in late February 1836, a band of Texans took refuge in the Alamo, a former mission that they had already converted into a small fort. They withstood Santa Anna’s frequent assaults and inflicted significant casualties on the Mexican army for ten days. Finally, on 6 March, Santa Anna captured the fort and killed all of its defenders, including frontier legends Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett. Responding to the cry “Remember the Alamo!” thousands of Texans and volunteers from
Southern states flocked to the rebel army led by Sam Houston, a former Tennessee congressman and governor.
San Jacinto. Two weeks later the Mexican army slaughtered another band of Texans at Goliad, a town southeast of San Antonio, after they had surrendered. This seeming atrocity further galvanized Houston’s men, who defeated a much larger Mexican force on 26 April at a battle on the San Jacinto River near present-day Houston. More significantly, Houston’s forces captured Santa Anna in the battle and forced him to sign a treaty granting Texas’s independence. The Texans almost immediately elected Houston president and petitioned for annexation to the United States as a slave state.
Annexation. In Washington, President Andrew Jackson found himself in a delicate position: if he annexed Texas, he would almost certainly provoke a war with Mexico and expose himself to charges that such a move would expand slavery. On his final day in office Jackson formally recognized the Texas republic, but he chose not to act on its request for annexation. His successor, Martin Van Buren, also refused to act on the Texas question. The Texans, for their part, spent their time securing their new republic and finding support from across the Atlantic. Both Great Britain and France recognized and signed trade treaties with Texas. An independent Texas perfectly suited the British, who hoped to free their thriving textile industry from dependence on American cotton. Politically savvy Texas diplomats also knew that their acceptance of British overtures would quickly catch the attention of the American government.
Sectionalism. The alliance between a newly independent Texas and the historic enemy of the United States sent shock waves across the American continent. Southern congressmen were especially alarmed. Fearing that a Texas dominated by Great Britain might abolish slavery, they urged action on annexation. When the sudden death of William Henry Harrison in 1841 made the states’ rights advocate John Tyler president, the annexationists found an ally in the White House. The Virginian Tyler, spurned by the Whigs and hated by most Democrats, quickly seized upon Texas as an issue that could galvanize Southern support for his bid for reelection in 1844. Tyler named the proslavery South Carolinian John C. Calhoun secretary of state and charged him with negotiating a treaty of annexation with Texas. However, his strategy backfired. No one was more associated with slavery and its expansion than the outspoken Calhoun. In addition, Calhoun made the situation worse when he presented an annexation treaty to Congress in 1844 as if its only purpose was to extend slavery. Fearing a proslavery plot, Northern senators from both parties banded together to defeat the treaty, 36 votes to 16, in June 1844.
Polk. With a new presidential election in the offing, Texas became a hot political issue. Whig candidate Henry Clay openly opposed annexation, and in a surprise move so did the leading Democratic contender, Martin Van Buren. In the Democratic convention pro-Texas Southerners blocked Van Buren’s nomination and threw the convention to their own “dark horse” candidate, former Tennessee
congressman James K. Polk. Southerners were ecstatic. Polk was a slaveholder and an ardent expansionist, and his nomination at the expense of the Northerner Van Buren illustrated the extent to which Southerners dominated the Democratic Party.
Manifest Destiny. Democrats interpreted Polk’s victory in the 1844 election as a mandate for annexation even though he won by less than 40,000 votes (he received 170 electoral votes to the Whig Henry Clay’s 105). Before Polk even took office, President Tyler persuaded Congress to approve an annexation treaty in February 1845. Texas entered the Union as the fifteenth slave state the following December, bypassing the territorial stage. The drama surrounding Texas’s annexation significantly altered the way the U.S. government viewed westward expansion until the Civil War. After the annexation of Texas, the issue of slavery’s expansion would be forever intertwined with the political organization of the West.
Marshall De Bruhl, Sword of San Jacinto: A Life of Sam Houston (New York: Random House, 1993);
Charles G. Sellers James K. Polk, Continentalist 1843-1846 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966).