The Still Vengeful Texas Counter-Revolution of 1836
tags: Texas,ben tumin,skipped history,gerald horne,counter-revolution
With Texas at the heart of so many nasty cultural flashpoints today—attacks on the LGBTQ+ community, school book bans, expansion of gun rights, and more—I spoke with Professor Gerald Horne about what he views as the state’s defining event.
Horne is the Moores Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. His research has addressed racism in labor, politics, civil rights, international relations, and war. He’s the author of more than thirty books (!) including most recently, The Counter-Revolution of 1836: Texas Slavery & Jim Crow and the Roots of U.S. Fascism, the subject of our post today.
A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below.
Ben: Professor Horne, thank you so much for being here.
GH: Thank you for inviting me.
Ben: My pleasure. Today I’d like to examine the still-smoldering tendrils of the Texas "counter-revolution." To begin, let’s discuss Mexico, a central piece of the story. When did Mexico become independent, and who did it become independent from?
GH: Well, you may recall that in the first few decades of the 16th century, the Spanish conquistadores invaded the Indigenous land that we refer to as Mexico and seized power until the first few decades of the 19th century.
Then, you saw an uprising against Spanish rule. Spain at that particular moment was under siege by France and was hard-pressed to maintain its empire in a good deal of Latin America. In Mexico, a war for independence broke out in the 1810s.
As Mexico seized sovereignty away from Spain and Europe, it faced many internal problems, not least of which was contending with the powerful Indigenous population. The ensuing turbulence opened the door for the arrival in Mexico, circa 1819 and 1820, of so-called Anglo-Americans, led by Stephen F. Austin and later Samuel Houston (whose names still garland two of the state’s major cities).
Ben: You describe US nationals flooding into Texas as “the ultimate real estate deal,” which sounds infinitely worse than anything on the Property Brothers. As you add, the Indigenous land was “offered to settlers willing to countenance—or execute—genocide.”
GH: Well, I'm sitting right now in Texas. Approximately 200 years ago, this land was strictly populated by various Indigenous groupings. There was tremendous tension and conflict between and amongst Native groups that had built over the preceding decades and centuries.
The settlers were able to exploit this tension, particularly against the Comanches, who in some ways were the most powerful group in Tejas at the time. The settlers mobilized other Native American groups against this common enemy, ultimately to the detriment of them all. That’s what I mean by genocide: the dozens of Indigenous groupings that once occupied this land were virtually liquidated.
And this was the ultimate real estate deal in that settlers were able to offer other US residents and European migrants coming to Texas a land bonanza. People who were persecuted on the shores of Europe were embraced once they crossed the Atlantic. Why? Well, I’d argue not because the US was a bastion of enlightenment thought and progressivism, but because of pragmatism. Settlers knew they needed every warm body that they could muster to fight Indigenous groupings. And that’s not even to mention rebellious Africans, whom in many ways I put at the center of the story.
Ben: Let's go to the “rebellious Africans" in that case. As more and more settlers streamed into Texas, the number of enslaved Africans there grew larger than in Alabama and Mississippi combined. As you write, “with over 590 slave narratives materializing in the Lone Star State, Texas produced more of these valuable documents than any state, meaning a good deal of what we think we know about slavery is in fact what we know about slavery just north of Mexico.”
GH: The growth of the Black population in Texas during this time was spectacular. And interestingly enough, one of the motive forces for the rebellion of Texas against Mexico is the fact that in the 1820s Mexico had a president of African descent (two hundred years before the election of Barack Obama), named Vicente Guerrero, who spearheaded the abolition of enslavement.
Guerrero’s ascension wasn’t pleasing to the leaders of the settlers—Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, etc.—and it led to a revolt. In their vicious minds, what was the use of having all this land if you didn't have free labor to work it? The desire to protect their capital, their “property,” led to the counter-revolution of 1836: to Texas seceding from Mexico and becoming its own republic.
Ben: Right, and to becoming what was called at the time the “Rascal Republic,” filled with what you describe as “ruffians” and “cutthroats.”
Why after the counter-revolution did Texans seek annexation by the US? In your book, Texas comes off as not only incredibly violent but also just super messy during this time.
GH: Good question. Texans had grand ambitions. They saw themselves challenging the United States of America, and they lusted after Mexican territory, especially neighboring New Mexico.
However, independent Texas couldn’t alone fight Native Americans and keep a lid on slave revolts. There was also an anti-slavery front developing. Mexico was part of this anti-slavery front. So was London, which had abolished slavery decades earlier. In fact, there were abolitionists in London who thought that Texas should be turned into an abolitionist state run by Black people.
So white Texans’ ambitions were more sizable and capacious than their capabilities, and they had trouble fending off their abolitionist adversaries. In 1845, Texas threw in the towel and crawled into the union as the 28th state.
Ben: How did the marriage between Texas and the US hasten the beginning of the Civil War?
GH: Of course the underlying reason for the Civil War was slavery, but an offshoot of that underlying reason was the spectacular capital flight—that is to say, Africans escaping—to Mexico. When we think about Africans escaping, we often think of the Underground Railroad whisking fugitives from Virginia or the Carolinas to Philadelphia or up to Canada. The other escape route was walking south into Mexico, which intensified conflict between Mexico and the United States.
Texas enslavers, now part of the US, were furious that thousands and thousands of enslaved Africans were escaping to Mexico, accelerating the Confederacy’s secession from the Union in 1861.
Ben: Speaking of fury, you also write that “the ceremonial closure of the U.S. Civil War did not necessarily bring ‘peace’ in Texas.” In fact, erm, quite the opposite. To use your words, the wrath of the “terrorist insurgency” that arose in Texas after the war fed “an ongoing hostility to the federal government that propels politics even today.”
GH: There was a simple reason for this: slavery generally was the most sizeable investment in the United States. The subsequent freeing of enslaved people amounted to the expropriation of slaveowners’ property, and it remains one of the largest uncompensated expropriations in world history.
I should also say enslavers from across the South sought refuge in Texas as the Confederacy collapsed, making the fury there after the Civil War burn even stronger. In fact, the enslavers who’d moved to Texas aspired to regroup in Mexico, which during the Civil War had been opportunistically invaded by the pro-slavery French.
Once in Mexico, enslavers hoped to reverse President Guerrero’s abolitionist decrees under President Guerrero and wage a new war against the US from Mexico. From my point of view, fortunately, it did not work out.
GH: Ha, I'm glad. But in any case, that left Texas with the largest Black population in the United States, and a white population united by unmitigated rage. It is no coincidence that in the 1920s, Dallas, due north from where I'm sitting, had the largest Ku Klux Klan chapter in the country.
Ben: You categorize white Texans’ “total disregard for law and order” and “intolerance of opinion differing from their own,” particularly during their abhorrent rollback of Reconstruction, as “markers of an emergent fascism.”
Can you elaborate?
GH: Well, there was something very curious about the US where on one hand you had this compliment of so-called democratic rights embodied in the Bill of Rights. And on the other hand, you had people who had no rights. They effectively did not have a right to trial by jury. They did not have the right to due process of law, since they could be dragged from their beds and lynched. And so, to quote the Kerner Commission of the 1960s, you had the rise of “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
[Editor’s note: see a recent interview with more information on the Kerner Commission here.]
In between, you saw the discovery of oil in Texas in the early 1900s, which drove the fabulous fortunes of Texan families who were by some measures the richest people in the world. It's also fair to suggest that they may have been the most reactionary people in the world, propping up many politicians around the country like Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.
And recall that Texas was and is the second most populous state behind California. Because of the way the House of Representatives works, that means that Texas probably has long had the most sizable and arguably influential right-wing delegation in Washington DC. So you cannot separate antagonism towards the federal government that is now endemic on the right from Texas’ history—from the fact that it was Washington who spearheaded the expropriation of billions of dollars of Texans’ “property” without compensation over 150 years ago.
Ben: Woof. On a related last note, you say “Texas is to the US as the US is to the world—suggesting that if you want to change the US, then the world: start in the Lone Star State.” I’m not trying to end on a positive note (not my forte), but I’m very curious about what you mean.
GH: Given the sheer size of Texas’ representation and its influence on national politics, if you want to push back against the right in the United States, then you must push back against the right wing in Texas. I don't necessarily like to end on an optimistic note either given the grim and gloomy times that we face, but in all fairness, I think that there is a lot of room for optimism. California provides an example.
Not long ago the Golden State was producing figures like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Now, conservatives view California as a lost cause, not least because of the Mexican American population. Despite the differences culturally and otherwise between the population of Mexican origin in Texas and California, we can do the same thing here. Also, the legislature in Austin has alienated a good deal of the local population of Asian origin by seeking to limit the property rights of residents of Chinese origin.
And maybe most importantly, thanks to the legacy of slavery, Texas still has the largest Black population in the US, which routinely votes against the right wing by a ratio of nine-to-one. So I think there's a potential to push back against Red Texas, but as the saying goes, “potential means you haven't done it yet.”
Ben: An encouraging point that helps explain why my career has so much potential, too.
Professor Horne, this has been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for your time.
GH: Thank you for inviting me.
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