Remember The Alamo
The heroic story of the Alamo stirs the American sense
of pride in our independence, courage, and determination to stand for
values even when against an overpowering foe. The sacrifice of the American
occupants of the Alamo in the face of certain death is far braver than
the option of surrender. The various tellings of the story help in the
mythmaking process that began shortly after the US press told the story
as breaking news. However, the real story behind the myth is far more
believable and logical. The heroes of the Alamo didn't die for self-determination.
They died fighting to preserve their way of life, which was threatened
by Mexican taxation, government corruption, and most unacceptable to the
slave-holding Texans, a growing abolitionist trend in the Mexican government.
The rebellion in Texas and the Mexican-American War a decade later have
been given the hero making treatment for so long, and have become so endeared
in the hearts of U.S. citizens, particularly Texans, that the circumstances
have become well obscured over the years. Heroes are supposed to be larger
than life, without flaws, and should be seen in "black and white" so they
sharply contrast with normal mortals.
If the timeline is examined it is easy to see that slavery was indeed
an important issue in the Texas War of rebellion (1835-36) and the later
Mexican-American War (1846-48). Of course, in the early 1830's, with recent
abolition of slavery in some Northern states and other countries, and
a slavery debate over new states admitted to the Union, it seems like
the slavery controversy was a factor in practically everything that happened
at that time. There have been movies, primary and secondary textbooks,
and works of non-academic fiction and non-fiction that have worked to
glorify Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, the Last Stand at the Alamo, etc. The
phrase "Remember the Alamo" reminds us of John Wayne in the famous movie.
But how much do we want to remember, and how accurately do we want to
remember it? The issue of slavery clouds the issue in a moral sense, which
is anathema to hero making. In books which favour the heroic version of
history, the Texans' quest for unrestricted slavery is sometimes mentioned
but virtually buried among vague "rights" for which the Texans were said
to have fought, obscuring the importance of an issue which today would
cast much doubt on the morality of the fight. Indeed, mentioning slavery
along with other motivations for the Texas independence movement seems
a little like heresy.
Slavery is something that we in the 21st Century have little sympathy
for. However, ask a 19th Century slaveholder to give up his slaves, which
allowed profitability in labour intensive enterprises like cotton farming,
and for whom the slaveowner had paid up to $1000 per slave, and you might
find yourself looking into the barrel of a gun. This is what happened
in Texas, but the story has been sanitised to form the basis of a heroic
legend that has become accepted as history.
The story started in the 1820's when Mexico encouraged settlement of Texas
by ambitious American planters in order to add a share of potentially
huge cotton profits to Mexican tax revenues and, likely, to aid in control
of indigenous people. The settlers were Southerners, familiar with cotton
agriculture and the administration of the numbers of slaves necessary
to accomplish cotton's brutal labour demands. The settlers brought their
slaves with them, so from the beginning that there was approximately one
slave for every 5 Texans. The Texans enjoyed years of freedom to develop
their property and become established in Texas. Their investment produced
a potentially large tax revenue source for Mexico as well. Allowing the
Texans to continue to keep slaves to work the fields and pick the cotton
kept the relationship going. The Texans, after all, were producing large
amounts of valuable cotton on the otherwise desolate northern Mexican
lands, which enabled them to pay taxes to the cash starved Mexican government.
Also, it helped secure the land against Indian claims. However, events
outside the control of Texans threatened this mutually prosperous relationship.
Mexico had a politically active abolitionist movement . In September of
1829 slavery was prohibited in Mexico. Because the politically connected
Texans were outraged, one month later, the law was changed to allow slavery
only in Texas. A few months later in early 1830, Mexico altered its policy
under a new government that was less interested in catering to Texas.
Mexico passed a law that prohibited further American settlement, and banned
importation of additional slaves into Texas. The Mexican abolition movement,
following the pattern seen around the world, had apparently pressured
for more restrictions. This was a strict proviso, but for the Texans it
was survivable, as they already had thousands of slaves within Mexico.
The law must have created difficulties for the Texans and been a great
source of irritation to them as they worked to develop their slave labour
based agricultural economy. There were other grievances by this time,
such as the amount of taxes the Texans were required to pay, but none
struck home so much as the "bread and butter" issue of slavery. Without
it, the Texans could not make a profit and ultimately would be out of
As the American population of Texas grew increasingly disgruntled with
the various restrictions imposed by Mexico, an independence movement developed
led by Stephen Austin. He presented a petition for independence to the
Mexican government in 1833, and was then arrested and jailed until 1835.
In 1835, there were about 20,000 Texans and 4000 slaves in Texas. In December
of 1835 the newly crowned dictator General Antonio Santa Anna amended
the slavery laws to ban slavery in Texas.
The settlers and their newly freed leader Austin quickly announced that
they would secede from Mexico. To the great dismay of the Texans, however,
in December of 1835 President Santa Ana extended the slavery ban to Texas
to appease Mexican abolitionists. The Texans immediately rebelled and
declared that they were seceded from Mexico, and declared the Republic
of Texas. One of their first actions was to ban free blacks from the Republic.
Not content with the possibility of withdrawing from Texas, the Texans
enlisted the help of citizens of the United States in order to preserve
slavery and the huge tracts of cotton growing land. This resulted in the
famous siege and battle at the Alamo, a Catholic mission taken over by
There is some irony in the usurping of a church property by the Texans
to support their commercial enterprises, as the Mexicans had wanted them
to adopt Catholicism as well as end slavery. Newspapers told the story
of the Alamo in a way which played on the sympathies of Americans. It
became an epic, heroic tale of stoic determination on the part of Davy
Crockett and others, a classic, hopeless fight to the death. The Mexican
Army smashed a small but important group of Texans at the Alamo. Santa
Anna permitted a woman, her child, and a slave to escape death to spread
the word to other Texans of the consequences of rebellion.
One month after the Alamo, in March of 1836, Texas adopted a constitution
which included a provision declaring slavery was legal in Texas. In April,
Texans rallied under Sam Houston and "Remember the Alamo". They defeated
the Mexicans, declared the Republic of Texas, ratified the Texas Constitution
and requested U.S. statehood as a slave state. The Mexican American War
was fought about 10 years after the Alamo, and added a buffer territory
between the slave states and slave-free Mexico, where many Africans had
escaped to freedom. Fought by the U.S. Army against the Mexicans, the
men who fought in this war later fought on both sides of the Civil War.
Many of the people who fought for Texas after the Alamo were Southern
volunteers. The greatest number came from Tennessee, which is why the
state of Tennessee is now called "The Volunteer State". The Republic of
Texas, as they called it, was saved by the efforts of the volunteers and
the US Army, and later admitted to the Union as a state. This is an example
of an economic system that could probably not exist without slavery.
Texas was later admitted as a slave state and Texans fought against the
Union in the Civil War. After the Civil War, the morality of the banished
practice of slavery became more doubtful to Americans than it was prior
to the great conflict. The debate over whether or not slavery could be
acceptable legally and under God ended, and the 13th and 14th amendments
formally freed all slaves and made them citizens. It then became something
to sweep under the rug of our recollections in some cases. Thus, we "remember
the Alamo", but not the reality behind it.
30th April, 2003