By James M. Decker
(Editor’s note: this essay was originally published on Facebook on Texas Independence Day and has been revised and adapted for this space.)
On February 28, 1836, Texas settlers were revolting against Mexico and had engaged in skirmishes and battles across Texas for five months. Around 185 men, led by William B. Travis and James Bowie, were under siege at the Alamo in San Antonio. Forty-one delegates arrived at Washington-on-the-Brazos (near present-day Brenham) for a convention to discuss Texas’ independence.
On March 1, the convention came to order and a committee was appointed to draft a Declaration of Independence. The U.S. Declaration of Independence, signed in 1776, had been a laborious effort. The Continental Congress had been in session for months and debated the details of the declaration throughout May and June, finally appointing a drafting committee on June 11, 1776. Thomas Jefferson wrote a draft over several weeks and drafts were reviewed, edited, and edited some more, before approval on July 4. In Texas, it was a different story. The convention opened on March 1 and a drafting committee produced a document literally overnight. George Childress, leader of the committee, may have arrived at the convention with a pre-written rough draft, to make this speed possible.
On March 2, 1836, the convention adopted a declaration and declared Texas’ independence (the matter of actual independence would not be settled, of course, until Texas defeated Santa Anna’s army at San Jacinto on April 21). If you’ve never read the Texas Declaration, I encourage you to do so. For a 183-year old document, it’s very readable in a modern sense. It’s clearly inspired by the U.S. Declaration, but is unique in itself. The Declaration specifies numerous complaints against the Mexican government, from the general to the very specific, some of which were rarely discussed in the province before the revolution.
Among other things, the declaration complains that the Mexican government “has failed to establish any public system of education.” In a violent frontier province, schools had not been a major priority up until that point. As such, some historians view this part of the Declaration as a laundry list of dubious grievances, beefing up a case for independence. I see it as more forward thinking. Childress and the other delegates listed what Texas would need if it was to grow and develop as a free society. They knew that Santa Anna was unlikely to cooperate on those matters, leaving independence as the best recourse. As we see public education debated in the Texas Legislature this year, this is particularly striking. Our revolutionary heroes saw public education, financed by “the public domain,” as a cornerstone of an ideal society, and something worth fighting and dying for, right along with national security, freedom of arms, absolute freedom of religion, and trial by jury.
60 delegates signed on to the Texas Declaration of Independence. Three of those men, Lorenzo de Zavala, Jose Antonio Navarro, and Jose Francisco Ruiz, were native born within the borders of Texas. The rest were immigrants. Interestingly, well over half of the signatories (some estimates place the number as high as 50) had been in Texas less than 6 years. This means they arrived after the infamous Law of April 6, 1830, which barred immigration of Anglos into Texas. So technically speaking, a large number of the signatories were illegal immigrants under the laws of Mexico.
The personal stories of the men who signed the Texas Declaration of Independence, and our other revolutionary heroes, are complicated. Many had checkered pasts, either in Texas or wherever they came from. Some would have inglorious futures. Several would die soon. Others would fail in business or were beset by bankruptcy, personal problems, or controversy. But this is the real world, not a Disney movie (as I wrote last week). Heroes are complicated humans, just like you and me, but that makes them heroes no less. In fact, I would argue that a complicated, flawed hero makes heroism seem more attainable to those who might one day have to answer the call themselves, rather than making heroism seem like a task limited to the flawless.
From 1836 to 2019, the story of Texas was, is, and will be beautiful, ugly, complicated, and contradicting, full of noble-minded people with noble-minded ideals, often struggling to live up to those ideals. We may not always succeed, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying.
Happy Texas Independence Day. May God bless Texas.
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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.