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seeds of empire

27 september 2021

A common talking point in defenses of the Texas Revolution against Forget-the-Alamo revisionism is that few of the Anglo immigrants to Mexican Texas in the 1820s and '30s owned slaves. How could Texan secession have been driven by a desire to defend slavery, when most of the seceders weren't slaveholders?

But history is complicated and context is everything. In Seeds of Empire, historian Andrew Torget confirms that only a small percentage of early Anglo colonists in Texas owned slaves (85-86). But, Torget continues, nearly all the colonists used slave labor to grow cotton on their land. No paradox is involved. A small number of colonists owned a great many slaves, and leased those slaves to cotton growers. The system provided extremely cheap labor to the entrepreneurial colonists, and to them, it was worth fighting for.

Mexico too was a land of contradictions. A coalition of idealists and opportunists in 1820s-30s Mexico fought for the abolition of chattel slavery. The opportunists among them cheerfully made good livings from the Mexican system of debt peonage. But outlawing chattel slavery made for good PR and was a way of distinguishing Mexico diplomatically from its richer, more aggressive slaveholding neighbors in the United States.

Torget stresses over and over that the only way to make Texas profitable was to invite slaveholders to migrate there – which was also the best way for Mexico to lose Texas to the United States. Sam Houston's odd military victory at San Jacinto in 1836, decisive in tactical terms but meaningless if the Mexicans had been intent on avenging it, worked mainly to assert that Texas was ungovernable and best abandoned to its own resources. Abandon it they did, though Mexico would not relinquish formal claim over Texas for many years to come. But the withdrawal of Mexican forces meant that small slaveholders felt confident enough to migrate from the American South in great numbers. During the Republic period, most Texans did own slaves, but the days of large slaveholders vanished, and there were no big plantations in Texas cotton country (Torget says) to match those in Mississippi and Louisiana.

And even as a Republic, Texas was still not profitable. Their best cotton customers were the British, who continually tried to undermine the Texas slave system. Fears of Mexican re-invasion and British subversion coincided with downturns in the cotton market to keep the slave republic unstable.

There are foreshadowings here of the classic Texan situation that Elmer Kelton would describe in The Time It Never Rained, over a century later. Texas has always been a land of cash crops (and later, fossil-fuel wealth), never a country of egalitarian subsistence homesteaders. It's hardly unique among American states in this, but it's also hardly the homeland wrested from the harsh elements that legend so often portrays. Rather, for Anglos at least, Texas is a stock to be plundered, at high speed and constant risk.

Still later, the exploiters would be the US military, which established so many bases in Texas and pumped money into its aerospace industry and defense contractors; and corporate relocaters who love the low labor costs of right-to-work Texas as much as earlier investors loved slavery. But the initial pattern for all this cowboy capitalism was cash-crop slavery, a system founded on getting a weak government (Mexico) to give you land for nearly nothing and forcing other people (slaves) to work it for your profit.

People still wedded to the Heroes of Texas ideology hate this kind of history, but Torget lays it out dispassionately and I don't think his focus is misdirected. From the moment that Moses Austin crossed into northeastern New Spain in 1820, looking for cheap land on which to settle American cotton planters, the dynamics of that part of the world centered on cotton and slaves. Texas was batted back and forth among three powers: Mexico (successor to the Spanish empire), the United States, and the United Kingdom.

In fact, one theme that Torget might overstate a little is the relative powerlessness of Anglo-Texans themselves. He presents the Texas Republic (1836-45) as something of a joke, a perpetually disorganized, bankrupt, economically ineffectual excuse for a sovereign state. Clearly the U.S. won out in the three-power struggle to control Texas (though of course the state would secede again just 16 years later). But the Anglos who had wrested the place from Mexico by sheer force of numbers may have had more to say about their destiny, and more power because of the resources they commanded, than the odd brief history of their national government would suggest.

And was it only a three-party struggle? Inland from the cotton coast was the great nation of the Comanches, much reduced even by 1836 but a constant check on Anglo ambitions till even after the Civil War. Torget tends to portray Native Americans, particularly the Comanches, as more a force of nature than as political actors. Throughout, he stresses the bloodthirsty violence of Comanche raiders (37, 208) in ways that almost put Natives beyond the pale of the human. I am influenced here by having recently read Gary Anderson's Conquest of Texas. Anderson does not sentimentalize Comanche raiding culture, which was indeed based on warfare and pillage. But he sees it more as a coherent economic system (linked, as Torget also notes, into the trade of stolen Mexican horses for American guns that helped enrich both Comanches and Anglos at the expense of Tejanos).

These are small flaws in a strong book, and in fact I am not even expert enough to know they are flaws; let's say they're just different emphases than I've seen in other reading I've done about 19th-century Texas. Seeds of Empire is overall an indispensable documentation of the two great concerns that built the Great State: cotton and slavery.

Torget, Andrew J. Seeds of Empire: Cotton, slavery, and the transformation of the Texas borderlands, 1800-1850. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.