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Really 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 business.

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 the Texans.

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.


William Kincaid
30th April, 2003

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