Monday, January 16, 2017

Republican Tradition and Universality

The cause of independence in Spanish America was embraced widely in the United States, especially in the West. Europe was in the throes of a revolution against monarchy under Bonaparte, and for westerners who were generally of republican and pro-French leaning, it was perhaps difficult to watch from the sidelines as cheerleaders. A Spanish filibuster was a way to be a part of the great crusade for republicanism. It was also a way to live up to the example of the American revolutionary generation and embrace that laurel-covered tradition. These men lived daily in the shadow of this greatest generation, whom they saw as patterns of emulation, as Cogswell’s Fourth of July oration demonstrates. A historian of the later Texas Revolution would cite such hero-worship in that contest as a strong motivation. “Far from serving as a form of rhetorical window-dressing, their frequent allusions to the past reveal a fundamental connection between the political crisis in Texas and the American revolutionary experience,” asserts Sam W. Haynes.[1] As strong as this impulse was in that third generation of 1836, it was as powerful if not more so in the second generation of 1812, for whom the American revolutionary generation were not mythical heroes, but beloved parents, mentors, and in a few cases comrades-in-arms. At least four members of the expedition were veterans of the American Revolution, although there are others who may have been as well. Benjamin Allen, as we have seen, fought in the revolution. Peter Sides was born in 1750 in North Carolina. He served in that state’s regiment as an ensign before moving west to Tennessee after the war, then south to New Orleans. He was killed at the Battle of Medina. Edmund Quirk also fought in the war, serving in the Virginia militia. Bernard D’Ortolon, a French Louisianan, fought in the war as a French ally, and remained in Louisiana afterwards.[2] Far more of the participants had fathers, uncles, or other close relatives who fought in the American Revolution, including Augustus Magee’s privateer father James.
The drive to live up to the legacy of the founders and spread democracy was not incompatible with serving and settling in a foreign nation. Westerners very easily and naturally embraced the change in citizenship because in an era when few had contact with their government on a daily basis, the nation itself was a nebulous concept. Changing allegiance was rarely objectionable, as long as the new nation to which allegiance was given was still democratic. In a New York newspaper in 1798, a writer suggested a sentiment not uncommon, especially among those farthest from America’s very small governmental power. “When one deliberately quits a society, without having transgressed its laws, his subjugation to them ceases and his connection with, in the aggregate, is dissolved.” This concept is nothing less than the Declaration of Independence on a personal level.[3] This sentiment was still alive and well 35 years later, even after attachment to America had ostensibly grown among its people. As later Mexican Texas resident Asa Brigham wrote a relative in 1832, “You may ask why we leave the United States of America, for that of the United States of Mexico – in answer, I can only say, that it was through choice, with a view of bettering my fortune.”[4] Historian Erich Schlereth, in an essay entitled Voluntary Mexicans, notes that among Americans who moved to Mexico before 1836, this attitude was common. There is no reason to suggest that such transitory nationalism was new. The men of the frontier in 1812 were, in the words of their hero Wilkinson, free to move wherever their own notion of patriotism took them, and that did not require them to “remain fixed like a vegetable.” Mexico was merely fresh territory for an every-migrating class of frontiersmen.[5]
But even for participants who felt more attached to America, fighting for Mexico was not inconsistent with that goal. If nothing else came from the fight, a sister republic was a good thing. McLanahan’s letter quoting Madison is a case in point. The collapse of the Spanish Empire would roll back the Old World’s hold on the new, Madison was saying, and McLanahan felt it patriotic to speed up the process. As the older Bullard, writing his anonymous history of Texas, would recall, many westerners were motivated by the belief that Texas, like West Florida was part of the Louisiana Purchase, and rightfully American. Imperial Spain, which had stymied America at every chance in Louisiana and Florida, would never give it up. An impoverished and dependent Mexico might do so, or at least would negotiate “honorably”, which most understood to mean Mexico would accept the presumed clear case for the American claims on its border. This might have encompassed Texas to the Trinity, Nueces or Colorado rivers, any of which was preferable to the Arroyo Hondo or Sabine. And if Mexico could not agree on the border, certainly the new impoverished nation would sell, as Napoleon had. Alternatively, if the revolution failed in Mexico proper, but succeeded in its northern provinces, these would be incapable of standing on their own, and might sue for America to annex them, as Gutiérrez actually did when failure seemed likely without American government aid at La Bahía.

[1] Sam W. Haynes, “‘Imitating the Example of Our Forefathers’: The Texas Revolution as Historical Reenactment,” in Sam W. Haynes and Gerald D. Saxon, eds., Contested Empire: Rethinking the Texas Revolution (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2015), 44.
[2] “American Revolutionary War Patriots Buried in Texas,” Texas Society Sons of the American Revolution, (accessed Sep. 29, 2016).
[3] Eric R. Schlereth, “Voluntary Mexicans: Allegiance and the Origins of the Texas Revolution,” in Sam W. Haynes and Gerald D. Saxon, 13.
[4] Ibid., 11.
[5] Schlereth, 15.

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