“Our cause is just, and is the cause of light and liberty:—the same holy cause for which our forefathers fought and bled:—the same that has an advocate in the bosom of every freeman, no matter in what country, or by what people it may be contended for.”
On March 7, 1836, Stephen F. Austin, the most successful empresario (one who recruited settlers) of Texan colonization, gave a speech in Louisville, Kentucky, imploring Americans to lend their support and assistance in Texas’s quest for independence from Mexico. His speech was methodical, detailing the history of Mexican involvement with Texas, the desire to raise colonies of respectable citizens—to do so was a deterrent to invading Native American tribes such as the Comanche—and the escalating issues with the Mexican government, culminating in the denial of basic rights. On two occasions, Austin strategically reminds his audience of the similar feelings of oppression that drove their forefathers to revolt against Great Britain only sixty years before, thus recalling a central part of American history still within living memory. It is important to note that Austin was not asking for Texas to be admitted into the Union; rather, he was seeking the assistance of one nation for another in its quest for self-government.
This speech of Stephen F. Austin’s presents a powerful message, even to a modern reader. His words were written not in haste but with careful thought and preparation. There is much evidence to suggest he wished to represent Texas’s pursuit for independence as thoroughly and honestly as possible; to this end, Austin was particular with dates and other details. Although not included below, found within the unabridged speech is a list of reasons Austin gave to prove that the Mexican government had failed in its federal duties to Texas and its people, principally the recent dissolution of the government by General Santa Anna. The following is an exceptionally emphatic example of Austin’s message regarding this: “The people of Texas firmly adhered to the last moment, to the constitution which they and the whole nation had sworn to support. The government of Mexico have not—the party now in power have overturned the constitutional government and violated their oaths—they have separated from their obligations, from their duty and from the people of Texas; and, consequently, they are the true rebels.” Although this section does not include a reference to the American Revolution, similarities may be drawn between the two conflicts. Governments have obligations to their constituents and, therefore, should be held responsible when they fail. For Austin, this particular failure could only be remedied by the secession of Texas.
The entirety of Austin’s speech makes a number of references to the American Revolution; no doubt this was done specifically to generate sympathy for Texas’s fight. Austin implored his listeners to recognize the justifiable reasons he and his people had for complete separation from Mexico, arguing that they, too, had been ill used by those in power and were no longer willing to endure it.
Stephen Fuller Austin, despite the many years that have passed since his death, is still fondly remembered and hallowed within the state of Texas, where he is popularly regarded as the father of the state. He was born in Virginia on November 3, 1793, to Moses and Maria Austin and was raised in Missouri. The career of Texan empresario was not the path Stephen chose for himself; rather, the vision of colonization throughout Texas was the dream of his father. Moses Austin, who originally dealt with the Spanish with regard to Texas, knew that Spain wished the land settled and had attempted to do so repeatedly in the past in order to “keep interlopers and Indians at bay and lend credibility to Spanish claims of possession” (Brands 21). Soon after permission for his colony was granted, Moses died, leaving his son Stephen in charge of carrying out his dream.
Settlement of Texas may not have been Stephen’s life goal, but it was a promise to his father that he successfully fulfilled, despite tangles with the Mexican government after Mexico won its independence from Spain. In time, he came to hold his own vision for Texas, which included a capital city: “The Texas of his dreams was not a collection of isolated homesteads but a community of cooperating individuals and families” (Brands 91).
The last year of Austin’s life—1836, the same year as his speech—saw the establishment of the Republic of Texas on March 2, followed the next month by the momentous victory against General Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto. He passed away from pneumonia on December 27, 1836, at the age of forty-three. Sam Houston, a general of the Texan army and later the first president of the new republic, lamented, “The Father of Texas is no more! The first pioneer of the wilderness has departed!” (qtd. in Brands 478). Since his death, Stephen F. Austin has continued to be hailed throughout the land he led toward independence.
Stephen F. Austin spoke before a crowd in Louisville, Kentucky, describing the plight of the newly declared Republic of Texas and making the case for its complete independence from Mexico. To him, the government of Mexico had no recourse to challenge the Texans’ decision; in fact, the government’s actions had precipitated the colonists’ pursuit of freedom. The available resources make it difficult to determine who exactly made up the audience for this speech, but it is clear that Austin possessed a strong desire to set the record straight. He opened by saying, “The public has been informed, through the medium of the newspapers, that war exists between the people of Texas and the present government of Mexico”; although his speech then describes how this has been misconstrued, Texas was indeed at war with Mexico. A crucial event in Texan history had occurred the day before Austin gave this speech, though he made no references to it; it is unclear whether he had yet received news of the Battle of the Alamo.
The Alamo is an integral part of Texas, both its history and its culture. Originally a mission, the Alamo, also referred to as the Mission San Antonio de Valero, was for the Texan side a symbol of the battle lines in the ensuing conflicts with the Mexican army. For two of the three men most associated with its defense, there was mixed communication from the start as to what exactly to do with the old mission. James Bowie, under direction from General Sam Houston, was determined to destroy it before leaving, as he saw the Alamo as difficult to defend; however, his attitude soon changed. William Barret Travis wanted to defend the fort, but he, like Bowie before him, realized it held far too few men to do so. In a letter later echoed by pleas from Travis, Bowie wrote, “Our force is very small; the returns this day to the commandant is only hundred and twenty officers and men. . . . It would be a waste of men to put our brave little band against thousands” (qtd. in Brands 340). Bowie and Travis, who held joint leadership over those stationed at the Alamo, were severely outnumbered by Santa Anna and the Mexican army, which has been estimated at approximately five thousand troops.
In the end, the men defending the Alamo could not fend off the troops surrounding them. Historian Richard Flores details the scene at the old mission: “Upon arriving, Santa Anna orders the men in the Alamo to surrender. Unwilling to do so, Travis answers with a canon [sic] shot aimed at the Mexican forces” (“Alamo” 93). The men in the Alamo made their choice, and surrender was not an option. The final battle on March 6, 1836, saw the fall of approximately two hundred men, including Travis and Bowie, as well as the illustrious Davy Crockett. In his detailed account of Texas’s fight against Mexico for freedom, historian H. W. Brands states that while Santa Anna proved his military might against the mission in San Antonio de Béxar that day, his success was a veneer, as it merely handed the Texans “a rallying cry that lifted their political struggle against Santa Anna to the moral realm. . . . Santa Anna’s great blunder at Béxar was not to lose so many of his own men but to kill so many of the enemy (and after the battle to burn their bodies, which added to the sacrificial significance)” (378).
Although hostilities with the Mexican army were known to Austin at the time of his speech, he chose instead to focus on what he and others had brought to the Mexican territory of Texas. He may have chosen this approach in order to present Texas’s bid for independence as a measured decision, rather than as simply the result of provocation due to armed conflict. This approach lent more credibility to their cause, especially given Austin’s past: he had led the first legal settlement within the territory; therefore, no one else possessed more authority to speak on the subject than he. In his speech, Austin said, “The government opened Texas for settlement. Foreign emigrants were invited and called to that country. American enterprise accepted the invitation and promptly responded to the call. The first colony of Americans or foreigners ever settled in Texas was by myself.” Historian Sam W. Haynes writes that the Mexican government was highly interested and invested in empresarios bringing in settlers; each empresario was obligated to “bring at least one hundred families to settle the area within a six-year period,” and to fulfill their mission, the empresarios were given vast land grants (57). In an effort to preserve heritage and cultural values, the government issued two stipulations that the settlers were to abide by and that, presumably, each individual empresario was required to enforce: they had to be Roman Catholics (or agree to convert), and they had to become Mexican citizens. Given the generous endowments of land the Mexican government was offering in order to bring in a population, most were willing to adhere to these requirements. However, as time went on and more settlers began arriving, more and more of them proved resistant to the government’s conditions. Haynes writes that Austin tried valiantly to carry out his obligations as an empresario, but “the challenge of turning [the settlers] into loyal Mexican citizens . . . proved more difficult. . . . Anglo-Texans possessed neither the resources nor the inclination to abide by the Mexican government’s insistence on building Spanish-speaking schools and Catholic churches” (57).
Immigration from the United States into Texas came to a halt in April 1830, nearly a decade after Austin’s first settlement. A Mexican official, Manuel de Mier y Terán, had made a visit to the territory two years before and was appalled by what he saw; there had been little attempt by the colonists to observe the precepts set down by the officials and particularly a lack of respect toward acculturation, inclining the colony dangerously toward what Mexico did not want to happen: the acquisition of Texas by the United States. Haynes closes his article by stating that the banning of new settlements in the territory, as well as the abolition of slavery—then a highly heated topic within the US government—led directly to the fight for Texan independence.
In Austin’s speech, he averred that he had done much for the Mexican government, turning Texas from a “wilderness” to a civilized society where the people had no fear of Indian raids; his speech specifically named the Comanche tribe as one that caused problems. He also brought the settlers the Mexican government had requested, thereby creating a thriving population of fresh Mexican citizens. Mexico failed to uphold its end of the bargain by not providing a stable government: “The constitutional general Congress of 1834 . . . was dissolved in May of that year by a military order of the President before its constitutional term had expired. The council of government composed of half the Senate . . . was also dissolved.” To Austin’s way of thinking, what good would the colonies be if there was not a proper overall structure and legislation in place for the populace?
However, Stephen Austin’s claim that Mexico was pushing Texas toward independence leaves out a critical detail. Austin, like his father before him, had assured Mexican officials that those signed on to move to the settlements either would already be professed Roman Catholics or would become so, and that they would become Mexican citizens, with the attendant adoption of associated cultural factors. As Mier y Terán had observed, these conditions had not been upheld. In this regard, whether due to the empresarios’ reluctance to hold the new colonists to the rules requested by the government or the colonists’ resistance to such regulations, Stephen Austin and the other empresarios had not fulfilled their part of the bargain.
Despite this, Austin’s argument about being let down by officials holds the most sway. No society can adequately be provided for without the support of a stable government. The repeated actions of the Mexican officials left the settlers with little confidence in those in power, as the balance shifted again and again among a mix of faces and offices. As already mentioned, Mexico greatly feared the annexation of Texas by the United States, which would have cost the nation a great territory. However, given the lack of a consistent administration, the loss of Texas was perhaps not surprising.
There are recurring references throughout Austin’s speech to “our forefathers.” His choice of words is clever: by using the word “our,” he includes his audience in the Texans’ plight. The audience, hearing the references to the revolution, may have held that parallel in their minds throughout his speech, ensuring empathy in the hearts of his listeners. Here was semiautonomous, English-speaking Texas being oppressed by Mexico, its parent country. The people of the United States, previously under the yoke of England, had risen up and broken away; such a nation would sympathize with the plight of Texas. At one point in his speech, Austin went further, suggesting that the Texans had a stronger case for independence: “Our forefathers in ’76 flew to arms for much less. They resisted a principle, ‘the theory of oppression,’ but in our case it was the reality—it was a denial of justice and of our guarantied rights—it was oppression itself.” Although it is unknown how effective Austin’s speech would have been if the tragedy at the Alamo had not occurred, or even what it lent to their cause overall along with the massacre, the Texans did find their support. The Republic of Texas was a separate entity in North America for nine years before being granted US statehood in 1845. The endeavors of Stephen Austin, William Travis, James Bowie, Davey Crockett, and Sam Houston have not been forgotten in the state. Their names have been enshrined in history, and Texans continue to hold them in the highest esteem.
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