Three Texas Myths That Won’t Die

In my travels around the state I run into people now and then who have deeply held convictions about Texas that are simply untrue. They hold to myths that have been nurtured by well-intentioned souls since San Jacinto days, and it breaks my heart to tell them they are mistaken, but not for long. I soon realize, you see, that they are not saddened by their error, but by mine. As one man told me, “Son, you need to get out more. Try reading a book or two.”

With that caveat staring me icily in the face like Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone, I will forge ahead and tell you about three such myths that just won’t die.

First up is the widely held belief that Texas is the only state in the union that was its own country first. This is not so. Four years before California became a state it was the California Republic, for about 3 weeks. True, there was no armed revolution—no Alamo—no grand battle, like San Jacinto, where they defeated a maniacal dictator, but nonetheless, it was a bonafide republic for an ever so brief time. It didn’t have a constitution, but it did have a flag, and according to Eddie Izzard’s law of nation building, the flag is more important. The flag showed a grizzly bear and a lone red star, influenced by the white lone star on the Texas flag. The Republic didn’t survive, but the flag did. It became the basis of California’s modern state flag.

Hawaii was both a kingdom and a republic before becoming a state, though Hawaiians were not as enthusiastic about statehood as were Texans and Californians. For four years, Florida was an independent country called Muskogee, and Vermont, for 14 years, was an independent republic as well, beating Texas’ record by four years.

Another widespread myth is that Texas can, by law, divorce herself from the U.S. anytime she wants. Many insist that this is in the Texas Constitution or in what some call the “Treaty of Annexation” papers. But it’s not there. I’ve looked, with a magnifying glass and searched the marginalia of both documents. I’ve searched for the smallest of print. It’s not there. No hint of such an idea. But, we can divide ourselves into up to five states if we wish. We would get ten senators that way. Wonder what we’d name those five states were we to do it? Probably just North, South, East, West, and Central Texas. Though we could get creative? I’m against doing it, but I’ll take hypothetical suggestions?

A third myth I hear about quite often is that Texas should have kept her wealth and remained an independent country. Well, it’s a romantic idea that I’ve often longed for myself, but it wasn’t practical. First, in the 1840s, we were poor, dirt poor—better known as land poor. Sure we had oil and gas, but nobody knew about that yet and there was no market for it anyway. All we had was vast amounts of land to manage—300 thousand square miles—and a population of 50,000 people to try to protect it. No money, no treasury, no military to speak of. The Republic could barely pay the Texas Rangers, and was often quite late in paying them. Mexico regularly sent armies into the state to rattle their sabers and terrorize the citizens, making them feel that Mexico could retake Texas at any moment. The Comanches and Apaches were often on the warpath across the Western frontier. Texans wanted security and investment and jobs and capital. The fastest way to get it was to join the United States. So they did, with 94 percent of Texans voting in favor of it. Ultimately, we became rich by virtue of joining the union. And so did the U.S.

One other widely held belief is that a real Texan doesn’t put beans in chili. This one is actually absolutely correct. You can put beans in chili if you want to, but you cannot then legitimately call it Texas chili. You don’t mess with Texas and you don’t mess with Texas chili.

The Republic of Texas is No More

Later this year, way later this year, we’ll mark the 175th year of Texas statehood. That will be on December 29th. That’s the day in 1845 that Texas officially joined The United States of America, or, as the proudest of Texans say – the day the U.S. was allowed to join Texas.

Though the 29th was the day that President Polk signed the joint resolution that made Texas a state, there was some confusion as to the official moment that the Republic of Texas passed into history and statehood status began. Then President of Texas, Anson Jones, said that February 19th, 1846 was the actual day. He presided over a ceremony in Austin where the Republic of Texas flag was lowered for the last time and the U.S. flag was raised in its place.

As you might surmise, the almost two months difference in official transfer of power led to problems. For instance, who should you pay import duties to, Texas or the U.S.? Lawsuits followed. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually weighed in on the matter and the official date of statehood was established as December the 29th, 1845. Make your checks payable to the U.S. Treasury, please.

You might see the discrepancy in statehood as the difference in marriage dates between a couple marrying first at the courthouse and later in church. One is legal and official and the other is ceremonial and spiritual.

Texas couldn’t just let President Polk’s signing of a document 1500 miles away be all there was to the moment. They couldn’t allow the Republic so many had died for to pass into history without memorializing the moment in some proper way. So President Anson arranged a ceremony in front of the Texas Capitol, really just a house, that would turn out to both mourn the passing of the Republic and celebrate Texas as the newest state in the union.

What was needed here was what linguists call a speech act, a moment in time where something is made real by virtue of pronouncement. Speech acts are generally used by people of authority who have the power to make the words true by just saying them. “I pronounce you man and wife” or “I sentence you to twenty years in prison.” Anson Jones began with “I, as President of the Republic. . . am now present to surrender into the hands of those whom the people of chosen, the power and authority we have some time held.”

Here is what transpired in that brief ceremony. Noah Smithwick, a blacksmith in attendance, remembered the moment the Texas flag came down.

“Many a head was bowed, many a broad chest heaved, and many a manly cheek was wet with tears when that broad field of blue in the center of which, like a signal light, glowed the lone star, emblem of the sovereignty of Texas, was furled and laid away among the relics of the dead republic.”

The United States flag was raised and the mood changed dramatically. Noah wrote:

“We were most of us natives of the United States, and when the stars and stripes, the flag of our fathers, was run up and catching the breeze unrolled its heaven born colors to the light, cheer after cheer rent the air” — the people celebrated statehood.

I like that Noah tended already toward that creature still common in Texas—the exceptionally proud Texan. He said that he thought “the star in the lower left corner [of the U.S. flag] should have been especially dedicated to Texas.” It’s as if he wanted it framed and separated in some way. How Texan of him.

So the flag raising complete, President Anson Jones announced, “The Republic of Texas is no more”—making it politically true, but never absolute, because the residual influence of the Republic resides in the minds of many Texans today who still think of her as their country, their nation.

No doubt it was a bittersweet day, but 94% of Texans did vote for statehood, a level of agreement we haven’t enjoyed since. There was great happiness on the whole. Tyler, Texas, was founded that same year, in gratitude to U.S. President John Tyler, who started the movement for Texas annexation.

For a more in-depth look at this day, see:
When Was the Republic of Texas No More?: Revisiting the Annexation of Texas by Keith J. Volanto & Gene B. Preuss, Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 123, Number 1, July 2019, pp. 30-59

Texas Standard: October 20, 2017

Until now, president Trump’s wall has been more of a symbol than anything else: now something far more concrete emerges at the border, we’ll have details. Also, cities across Texas racing to annex land before December 1st. What’s pushing the land rush, and the pushback from homeowners: it’s starting to get ugly. And sleepless over Seattle, anyone? The bids for Amazon’s second headquarters are in and some in Seattle say the losers in this contest could turn out to be the real winners, we’ll explore. And do you really need a car anymore? A Texas team does the math and shows why more Texans may want to reconsider. Those stories and so much more today on the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: May 18, 2017

Special prosecutor. While the country is abuzz over an investigation in Washington a case involving a lawmaker in Texas is also moving forward, we’ll explore. Plus there are still almost two weeks left in the Texas Legislative Session but talks of the double-S word: “Special Session”, are looking serious. We’ll tell you why. And one big issue before lawmakers has been changes to the Texas Foster Care System. Where those proposals stand now, it’s part of our ongoing exploration of the system’s challenges. Those stories and so much more today on the Texas Standard: