Drunk history

They have a point. It always astonishes me, saddens me, too, when people say history is dull, is nothing but lists of dates, etc., etc. Not so. History is STORIES. Once experience the endless fascination of it, you’re hooked for life. But, it’s all in how they’re told.

Via the History News Network sponsored by my alma mater, the history department of The George Washington University.


America’s Long Journey: Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

He was 61 when he assumed the presidency, and for all we know he may have thought that the presidency would be relatively peaceful. It wasn’t. Two of his major struggles – against the idea of nullification and against the Bank of the United States – were important enough to require separate sections. But to understand those events, it will help to have a sense of the man himself. In character, in firmness of intention, in unflinching nationalism, he was the strongest man to hold the presidency between Washington and Lincoln. The effects of his presidency, good and bad, were unmistakable and far-reaching.

The facts of Jackson’s life and times are easily found. Since we are working our way backwards, we have to touch on matters that happened earlier, but have not yet been discussed. Jackson, born in 1767, was orphaned at 14, and made his way in the world by his own strength of will. At 6 feet, 1 inch tall, and weighing only about 140 pounds, he was as slim and tough as the hickory tree he was often compared to. In his long turbulent frontier life, he raised himself to prosperity, became the hero of two wars, defied the empires of both England and Spain, and was the man primarily responsible for the U.S. acquisition of Florida from Spain. His marriage of more than 35 years was a happy one, but on this inauguration day, March 4, 1829, his wife Rachel was ten weeks in the grave, having died suddenly the previous December. When he died, in 1845, he left no children, but he adopted three sons, and acted as guardian for eight other children.

Jackson’s iron will held together a mass of contradictions. Count them. He was a man of the people who fought for democracy all his life; and he was a wealthy slaveholder. He believed in the small, limited federal government that the constitution prescribed; and he greatly strengthened the powers of the presidency. He was a proud Southerner, greatly loved in the South; and he promised that if certain politicians led South Carolina into secession, he would hang them higher than Haman.

Jackson was born in the western part of North or South Carolina (at a time when the boundary had not yet been adequately surveyed in those parts), less than two years after his parents came to America from Northern Ireland. His father died before he was born. He picked up a backwoods kind of education. During the American revolution, age thirteen, having been captured and held prisoner while serving as a courier for the local militia, he was ordered to clean a British officer’s boots, and got slashed with a sword when he refused. This left Jackson with scars on his head and his left hand, and an intense hatred for the British which intensified when his mother died of cholera the following year while nursing prisoners of war. It took 35 years, but he did get his revenge, as we shall see.

After the revolution, Jackson taught school, studied law, and in 1787 was admitted to the bar of North Carolina. He moved to what was then the Western District of the state, on what was then the frontier, practiced as a country lawyer, and moved into politics. In an active couple of years, he was elected as a delegate to the Tennessee constitutional convention in 1796, was elected as Tennessee’s first Representative, was elected U.S. Senator the following year, resigned within a year, and was appointed a judge of the Tennessee Supreme Court, where he served until 1804. At the same time, in his private life, he became a land-owner, a planter and slave-owner, growing cotton. He was also a major land speculator in West Tennessee and was one of the three original investors who founded Memphis.

In 1806, at 39, he acquired a reputation as a violent and vengeful man. He never lived the reputation down, and yet, was it a just accusation?

Here’s what happened.. After a man attacked him in print, Jackson issued a written challenge to a duel, even though the man was known to be an expert marksman. Jackson coolly – some thought cold-bloodedly — let his opponent fire first, hoping that the man would miss his aim through hurrying his shot. He did, but not by much. Jackson took a bullet in his lung that turned out to be too close to the heart to be safely removed. (He carried that bullet for the rest of his life. It left him subject to a hacking cough which sometimes brought up blood and made his whole body shake.) But Dickinson, having fired, then had to remain still as Jackson took aim and killed him. The “men of honor” of the state called the duel a cold-blooded killing, and it made Jackson a social outcast. One wonders: Did this treatment not confirm him in his distaste for aristocracies?

We will look at his military exploits in the Creek War and the War of 1812 in due course. but this should be enough for the moment to give a sense of the man who would dominate American political life in the 1830s.

America’s Long Journey: Old man eloquent

Old man eloquent

It was a strange, improbable political afterlife.

President John Quincy Adams’s decisive defeat for re-election in 1828 by Andrew Jackson was the end of an era, as we shall see, but it wasn’t the end of Adams, even politically. In 1830 he was offered the nomination for his local Congressional seat, and won, and was re-elected, and re-elected several times after that. He served in Congress literally for the rest of his life, and in the course of his 17-year post-presidential political career, he became more than John Adams’ son, more than Federalist-turned-Republican, more than repudiated statesman, more than a somewhat chilly intellectual. He became a crusader against slavery, and in that crusade he found a voice.

As early as 1820, in his private journal, Adams said to himself that the slaveholders, “look down upon the simplicity of a Yankee’s manners, because he has no habits of overbearing like theirs and cannot treat negroes like dogs…. [W]hat can be more false and heartless than this doctrine which makes the first and holiest rights of humanity to depend upon the color of the skin?” But his four years as president (1825-1829) had not been marred by slavery-related controversies. The closest thing to it was the so-called Tariff of Abominations, which he signed in his final full year in office, which indirectly led to the Nullification Crisis in his successor’s term. But Adams, as Congressman, helped defuse the crisis by authoring a compromise alteration to the tariff, which Jackson used, together with the Force Bill, to bring the Southerners up short.

Adams was an active congressman, chairing the committees on Foreign Affairs, on Indian Affairs, and on Commerce and Manufactures. Among his achievements was that of preventing the legacy that set up the Smithsonian Institution from being diverted to other purposes. He opposed Texas annexation, and then the Mexican War, correctly predicting that the end result would be civil war. But as time went on, he focused more and more on the ills and dangers of slavery. Like everything Adams ever did, his post-presidential career proceeded from his principles. An anti-slavery man from an anti-slavery family, he answered the call of duty, and one thing led to another.

All through his political career he had spoken from prepared addresses. Now, in the House, he began to speak extemporaneously, and found to the surprise of himself and others, that he was far more powerful as a speaker than as a reader of prepared thoughts. His passionate arguments supported the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and universal education, and freedom of speech and especially liberty as against slavery. So effective was he as speaker that he became known as “Old Man Eloquent.”

To take things out of order, in February, 1841, he was asked by anti-slavery activists to argue the Amistad case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Amistad was a Spanish ship carrying captured Africans to Cuba to be sold as slaves. The Africans seized control, killed the officers, and were trying to bring the ship back to Africa when it was captured by the US Navy. The Van Buren administration wanted to deport them for having mutinied. Adams argued that they should neither be extradited nor deported into slavery in Cuba, because they were not slaves and had only killed in resisting the slave trade, which had been illegal since 1808 in the United States. Adams won the case, and did not charge for his services. His defense of the Amistad rebels, like his father’s defense of the British troops involved in the Boston Massacre of 1770, was pure Adams – action taken on principle that could not conceivably do him any good and could easily do irreparable political harm. Probably the risk combined with the appeal to principle made the action irresistible (in both cases).

But the Amistad case came in the middle of his longest-running fight, against the gag rule. What was called the gag rule was adopted as one of the rules of the House in 1836, and was not overturned until 1844. It immediately and automatically tabled petitions concerning slavery, thus preventing any Congressional discussion of the subject. Adams had been presenting anti-slavery petitions on the floor of the House since he was first elected to the Congress. But as abolitionist tracts and publications were barred from the mails throughout the South, the number of petitions brought to the house floor concerning the matter skyrocketed. A representative from South Carolina – it would be a South Carolinian – persuaded the House to eliminate any discussion of the issue from the House floor. Adams challenged not only the specific rule itself but the principle of the House’s adoption of any rule that would limit debate. He used his formal legal training and his formidable intellect to mount an attack against the gag rule. It was an attack that would continue for eight years.

He argued that the right to petition was a universal right, granted by God, and he questioned why the House would limit its own ability to debate and resolve questions internally. Later, when he led a committee to reform the House rules, he tried to repeal the gag rule, but narrowly lost, due to the opposition of some northerners who worked hand in glove with southerners.

Finally, Adams pushed his opponents far enough that they moved to censure him. That was fine with him – was what he was hoping for, in fact. Since he was threatened by censure, he had the right to defend himself on the floor. And, having the floor, he changed the focus from himself to the actions of the defenders of slavery, and thus was able to attack the slave trade, and slavery itself. When his opponents realized what he was up to, they tried to bury the censure motion, but he didn’t let them. For two weeks, he held the House’s attention on the subject the slavers most wanted kept off the floor, condemning slavery as immoral and citing chapter and verse as to why — and in the end, the censure motion failed anyway. (Had it succeeded, he intended to resign and run for re-election.) His personal victory did not end the gag rule. But his actions, and the actions of others trying to silence him, brought into greater prominence the questions of the right to petition, and the right to legislative debate, and the morality of slavery.

On February 21, 1848, Adams, in the minority as so often, stood up in his place, answered a question put forth by the Speaker of the House, and collapsed of a cerebral hemorrhage. It was a suitably dramatic exit, active and combative to the last. On the day he died, the House, and the country, united for the moment in honoring his lifelong service, and his greatness of intellect and heart.

John Quincy Adams’ last words were, “This is the last of earth. I am content.” One hopes that the Almighty was adequately prepared to defend His actions from Adams’ searching criticisms.



America’s Long Journey: Jackson and nullification

On the last day of his two terms as president, Andrew Jackson is reported to have said that he had but two regrets, one of which was that he hadn’t hanged John C. Calhoun. It is a great pity that he didn’t. Calhoun was far more responsible for the attempt to destroy the Union than Jefferson Davis ever was. Even though he was nearly eleven years in his grave by the time the Civil War began, he bore perhaps graver responsibility for that tragedy than any other man. He laid the powder trail that led to the cannon.

The thing to remember about Calhoun is that he was a nationalist only as long as he saw the nation’s interests as being compatible with the interests of his section, or, more specifically, his State, or, more specifically, the slave-owning class that dominated his state. As soon as those interests diverged, or whenever he thought they diverged, he had no interest whatever in preserving the Union. Thus, he was one of the pre-eminent War Hawks who got us into the nearly fatal War of 1812, as we shall see. But when Congress passed a tariff that favored Northern interests over Southern, he had no ear for arguments that it was in the national interest to protect manufacturing until it could compete with English trade on even terms. In all his long career from 1812 to 1850, he never once put the national interest above the interests of the South, nor those above the interests of South Carolina, nor those of the state in general above the interests of the slave-owning class.

The nullification crisis of 1832 was an example of Calhoun at his worst.

Years before the panic of 1837, in the 1820s, the economy of South Carolina suffered a economic downturn, and its politicians blamed the policy of high tariffs against foreign goods, which had been adopted (after the War of 1812 showed the nation’s economic vulnerability) to encourage American manufacturing by making competing European goods more expensive.

In 1832, South Carolina passed an ordinance maintaining that the federal tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were unconstitutional, hence null and void within state limits. Why unconstitutional? Because their purpose was not only to provide revenue for the federal government, but to protect domestic manufacturing interests. South Carolina had no manufacturing interests, and so received no direct benefit from high tariffs, but it had to pay higher prices for manufactured goods. This, its representatives argued, was discriminatory in effect, if not in intent, and the state would interpose its power to protect its citizens. In this, they were following Calhoun’s arguments made four years earlier. About half of the southerners in Congress had supported the tariff, but a South Carolina state convention declared that the tariffs, being unconstitutional, would not be enforced in the state after February 1, 1833. Calhoun supported the idea. He had argued that a state could veto any law it considered unconstitutional, or could secede from the Union if it saw fit, an argument rejected by no less a Southern statesman than former president James Madison, the chief architect of the constitution.

Calhoun now helped form the Nullifier Party within South Carolina.

President Jackson supported states’ rights, and sympathized with the South in the tariff debate, but he believed in the protection of the domestic manufacture of goods necessary for the military. Nor did he want to reduce the tariff until the national debt was fully paid off (which, in 1835, briefly, it was). Besides, he could see that if any state could unilaterally opt out of any federal measure it disapproved, the Union could not survive, and all his life he vigorously supported a strong union. He said that, “To say that any State may at pleasure secede from the Union is to say that the United States is not a nation,” which presages Lincoln’s later argument that the right of unilateral secession would make the Union “a rope of sand.”

After Jackson’s re-election, Congress passed a Force Bill, empowering the president to use military power to force states to obey all federal laws – and no one who knew Jackson doubted that he would use force if need be. He sent warships to Charleston harbor, and talked of hanging Calhoun.

South Carolina then nullified the Force Bill!

The situation might have gotten uglier, but for the Compromise Tariff of 1833, which let South Carolina claim victory and climb off the limb before Jackson sawed it off. Its Nullification Ordinance was repealed in the following month.

After the immediate crisis was over, Jackson wrote that “the tariff was only a pretext, and disunion and southern confederacy the real object. The next pretext will be the negro, or slavery question.” And, of course, that is exactly what happened. From then on, Southern politicians assumed that all they needed to do, to get their own way, was to threaten to secede from the Union. They almost did it in 1850, as we have seen.

Plotting to destroy the government under which you live is revolution only if it succeeds. Otherwise, it is treason. If Jackson had hanged Calhoun during the nullification crisis, perhaps the South Carolinian would have been as discredited as Aaron Burr. Perhaps Southern politics wouldn’t have been reshaped on sectional lines. Perhaps, just perhaps, we would have found a way to avoid civil war a generation later. Instead, Calhoun’s insane baleful influence continued to spread, even after his death in 1850. The issues over which the Civil War was fought – the balance of power between federal and state governments, and the existence of slavery – were difficult and perhaps could never have been solved peacefully. But Calhoun and his influence helped make peaceful, reasonable solutions impossible The Union, and the South particularly, paid dearly for one man’s monomania.

Jackson could have saved his country a lot of trouble if he had been able to nullify Calhoun.

America’s Long Journey: The Panic of 1837

The Panic of 1837

Brace yourself: This entry is about economics. But actually it is neither as dull nor as dismal a subject as you might expect. It is curious that the Great Depression of the 1930s, which was the nation’s worst financial crisis ever (at least, so far), was mirrored a century before by the nation’s first.

The business cycle consists of alternating expansions and contractions of credit, that is, loosening or tightening of the conditions under which banks will lend money. A sudden contraction of credit, leading to business slowdowns, used to be called a “panic,” perhaps because of its connection with bank failures.

The Panic of 1837 was the first contraction of credit since the country began to industrialize, and it touched off the nation’s first major recession. In the new economic and social conditions, the panic’s effects manifested in unfamiliar ways. Nobody quite knew what was going on, and so everybody blamed it on somebody else’s villainy or stupidity. (Where was the Internet when it was really needed?) Vindictive and fearful know-it-alls spread conspiracy theories with their usual certainty, although not at electronic speed, and it helped poison the body politic.

Today, we know some of the factors that helped cause it.

As usual, the financial crisis was the result of a previous period of expansion, in which the prices of land, cotton, and slaves had risen sharply. Abundant amounts of silver were coming into the United States from Mexico and China. Land sales and tariffs were generating substantial federal revenues. Cotton exports and the marketing of state-backed bonds in British money markets attracted significant capital investment from Great Britain, which financed railroads and canals and industrial growth.

Then, in 1836, directors of the Bank of England raised interest rates in order to rebuild its financial reserves, for reasons that had little or nothing to do with the United States. But Great Britain in those days was what New York is today, and the British Pound Sterling was the world’s reserve currency. When British banks said “frog,” American banks in the United States had to say, “how high?”

On May 10, 1837, banks in New York City announced that they would no longer redeem commercial paper in specie (coin) at full face value. They scaled back on lending, and raised interest rates, which forced down the price of American securities. The demand for cotton fell by 25% in two months, and the price per bale followed the drop in demand. This was disaster in itself, as the country depended heavily on stable cotton prices to balance its trade deficit and procure foreign exchange earnings, but its effects down South were just catastrophic. The sharp decline in cotton prices led to over-extended plantations being foreclosed, and banks (from whom they had borrowed money on future expectations) collapsing.

This rippled through the economy, and the reduced availability of capital led to the collapse of the contemporary land bubble. Over the next seven years, banks collapsed, businesses failed, prices declined, and thousands lost their jobs. (You might think that declining prices are a good thing, but they aren’t so good if you are a producer, or if you are a consumer who loses his job because the producer he worked for has to reduce his outgoes, or goes out of business.)

Virtually the whole nation felt the effects of the panic. Of 850 banks in the United States, nearly half either closed entirely (343) or failed partially (62). In the absence of deposit insurance, runs on banks were common, bringing down even banks that were healthy, or at least forcing them to call in loans and demand payment from their borrowers, which further restricted the circulation of money in the economy, and made things worse.

In some places in the cities of the East, unemployment was later estimated to have been as high as 25 percent, as in the Great Depression of the 1930s. The agricultural states of the Midwest (then referred to as the West) were unaffected until 1839, when crop prices fell, and then they joined their compatriots in economic misery.

The cotton states of the South got the worst of it. Many southern planters speculated in land, cotton, and slaves, taking out loans from banks under the assumption that cotton prices would continue to rise. When cotton prices dropped, and the planters could not repay their loans, many of their banks were jeopardized.

Many individual states defaulted on their bonds, which hurt British creditors, who had long memories. It made it harder to obtain international finance to help build future railroad and other infrastructure. In fact, the United States withdrew from international money markets until the late 1840s.

None of this was particularly the fault of President Martin Van Buren. He was in office only five weeks when the panic began. But, like Herbert Hoover nearly a century later, he was blamed for being the heir of the policies of his popular predecessor, and for not finding a way to fix what was broken. As happened to Hoover in the 20th century, Van Buren’s opponents maintained that the damage and duration of the panic had been worsened by his refusal to respond with government intervention. Perhaps so. In any case, the panic and its consequences shook the nation’s confidence as never before.

America’s Long Journey: Tippecanoe and Tyler Too

Tippecanoe and Tyler Too

President Martin Van Buren’s bid for re-election was severely hampered by the fact that his administration was blamed for the long economic downturn that followed the Panic of 1837, in the same way that Herbert Hoover would be blamed for the Depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929. This is a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” for of course any politician will take credit for anything good that happens, and they can hardly expect to escape being blamed for the bad.

The Whig Party, nominating by national convention for the first time, met in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in December, 1839. The nomination went to former senator William Henry Harrison over Army General Winfield Scott and Henry Clay, former Speaker of the House of Representatives and congressional leader of the Whigs. To balance Harrison, who, though born in Virginia, was considered a Northerner (as an Ohio resident), the Whigs chose Clay supporter (and former Senator) John Tyler of Virginia. Harrison, 69 years old, was a hero of the Indian war of 1811, was an ex-governor of Indiana Territory (which comprised far more than present-day Indiana) and the most successful of Van Buren’s opponents in 1836.

In May, 1840, the Democracy re-nominated president Van Buren, but – bad omen! — was unable to agree upon a running mate, which left Van Buren running alone, the only man ever to do so..

The newly formed Liberty Party, whose only plank was abolition, chose Kentucky politician and slaveholder-turned-abolitions James G. Birney as its nominee. He thought so little of his chances that he went off to England during the election. (He was nominated again in 1844, and may have won enough votes to swing the election. After 1848, the Liberty Party disappeared, subsumed into the more vigorous Free Soil Party, whose members soon found their way into the Republican Party.)

Harrison was the first president to actively campaign for office. He couldn’t very well campaign on the issues, given that the Whigs were a coalition with little in common except a desire to win. So he ran as a war hero and man of the people, his supporters using a log cabin as his symbol.

In actual fact, this common man was the scion of a wealthy and influential Virginia family. Van Buren, portrayed as a rich snob, was much poorer and had always been a working man. But politics uses facts the way artists use canvases – as raw material, not as the end product. The Whigs cried “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” (Tippecanoe referred to a military victory in 1811 over some Shawnee Indians at a river by that name in Indiana) and carried model log cabins in torchlight parades, and the log cabin campaign succeeded. Harrison won easily in the electoral college (234 to 60) though more narrowly in popular vote (53% to 47%).

At that, the joke was on the Whigs. They got “Tyler, too” with a vengeance! Harrison died after exactly one month in office, which meant that the man soon named “his accidency” served out nearly the entire term, and managed in that time to do a tremendous amount of damage to the Whig Party, being officially read out of the party before the first year was up. In the next election, James K. Polk brought the Democracy back into the White House, and brought on the war that produced another Whig war hero candidate. But the Zachary Taylor/Millard Fillmore administration of 1849-53 was the Whigs’ swan song.

The Whigs elected two war-hero presidents, and both died in office and were succeeded by less popular vice presidents. But that isn’t why the Whigs disappeared. The 1840 election, like Jackson’s, demonstrated political power continuing to shift toward the common man of the frontier, and away from the old Eastern elite. The Whigs rode that shift in 1840, but soon enough westerners gravitated more and more toward the Democracy, and the shifting sands suffocated the Whigs. The divisive slavery issue merely hastened their demise.


America’s Long Journey: The Republic of Texas

The Republic of Texas

We all know, or think we know, the story of the founding of the Republic of Texas. Rah-rah patriots think it is the story of freedom-loving Americans beating a tinhorn dictator at his own game. Add a racist component, and it becomes white efficient modern American Protestants overthrowing mixed-race backward superstitious Mexican Catholics. Anti-slavery Northerners at the time tended to think it was an example of Southern aggression in order to obtain new slave territory. The Mexican government, and modern anti-imperialists, think it was a simple case of larceny. But it isn’t as simple as any of those stories.

Late in 1820 and 1821, a banker from Missouri named Moses Austin obtained a contract from the Spanish government (which had ruled Mexico for 300 years) to settle three hundred families in Spanish Texas. He died before he could begin to execute his plans, so his son Stephen travelled to San Antonio de Bexar and received confirmation that he, as his father’s heir, could carry out the contract. The Spanish government, and Austin himself, insisted that any colonists be of reputable character and must be loyal to the government and religion of Spain. But in 1821, Mexico finally won its eleven-year struggle for independence from Spain, so Austin’s contract was now with the new Mexican government. The Mexicans honored the contract, and what followed has been called the most successful colonization movement in American history.

The Mexican government wanted the English-speaking settlers as a buffer against marauding Indians, but the colonists naturally preferred to settle where there was decent farmland and trade connections with American Louisiana. Austin found rich river bottom land between the Brazos and Colorado Rivers, and his settlers began to transform an unsettled wilderness. He advertised in newspapers along America’s western frontier, more or less the Mississippi, offering land at one-tenth the cost of public land in the United States. Immigrants came. In 1825, Texas had a population of only approximately 3,500, mostly of Mexican descent. By 1829, English-speaking immigrants outnumbered native Spanish speakers.

The immigrants came, and they prospered. They found the Texas soil unbelievably fertile, and they found the plains filled with herds of wild horses and cattle, the descendants of Spanish livestock lost over the years. Merging Mexican ranching practices with their own Southern practices of livestock management, they invented a form of cattle ranching that, in the next half century, spread throughout the American West. By 1834, of a total Texas population of 38,000, fewer than 8,000 were of Mexican descent.

The Mexican government got nervous and tried to tighten its control. It prohibited slavery, reinstated a property tax, and increased tariffs on U.S. goods. The settlers (and many Mexican businessmen) rejected the demands, especially the attempt to shut down trade with the States. Mexico tried (ineffectively) to close Texas to immigration, and passed a few more unpopular laws. All this raised tensions, which might have blown over, but in 1834, General Antonio López de Santa Anna made himself dictator and began to centralize power in his own person. When he threatened to quash semi-independent Texas, Austin called the Texans to arms.

So, points to remember as we come to the revolution: The Americans came to Texas originally with the welcome of the Mexican government, which had its own reasons for wanting them. The country they settled was fertile but largely uninhabited. As settlers, they obeyed the law of the land, and prospered, until suddenly, instead of living in a country of laws, they were living in a country run by a strong man.

In the final months of 1835, armed clashes between settlers and government defeated all Mexican troops in the region. The Texans elected delegates and created a provisional government, and on March 2, 1836 (Sam Houston’s 43rd birthday, as it happened) they declared their independence from Mexico.

In San Antonio de Bexar, there was an old mission called the Alamo, which had been turned into a makeshift fort. It extended across 3 acres, and the walls surrounding the complex were nearly three feet thick and were between nine and twelve feet high in different places. But Houston couldn’t spare enough men to mount a successful defense. Instead, he sent Colonel Jim Bowie and 30 men to remove the Alamo’s artillery and destroy the complex.

Bowie couldn’t remove the artillery, for lack of draft animals, and he became convinced that the Alamo was a vital strategic outpost. He wrote to the provisional government, asking for reinforcements. He received a pitiful few – on February 3, William Travis with 30 men, and on February 8, another a small group of volunteers that included the famous frontiersman and former U.S. Congressman David Crockett. That gave the defenders somewhere between 100 and 200 men. On the 23rd, Santa Anna marched into San Antonio de Bexar with an army of 1,500. His Army of Operations in Texas comprised mostly raw recruits, a large number of whom were conscripts. Still, there were 1,500 of them.

For the next 10 days the two armies engaged in skirmishes, while Travis wrote letters pleading for more men and supplies, but early on March 6, the Mexicans captured the Alamo in three attacks, in the process losing about 600 killed or wounded, or one-third of those involved in the final assault. Mexican soldiers took no prisoners, bayoneting anybody that moved. They stacked and burned the Texan corpses.

Santa Anna reportedly said that the battle “was but a small affair,” at which another officer said, “with another such victory as this, we’ll go to the devil.”

They did, but not right away. The Mexican army in Texas still outnumbered the Texan army by almost six to one. Santa Anna sent several Texan noncombatants (women and children) to Gonzalez, hoping to spread panic. It did. The panic (which Texans called “The Runaway Scrape”) sent the army, the new government, and most of the settlers fleeing from the advancing Mexican Army. But it also fueled a rush to join the Texan army.

Santa Anna divided his surviving troops into three separate groups, sending 1,000 men to restore order in the towns and villages to the south. and another 800 men to the north, to cut off Houston’s army from retreat eastward. Then, with 700 men and artillery, he moved north. But on the afternoon of April 21, only six weeks after the fall of the Alamo, Houston took him by surprise and in 18 minutes won the Battle of San Jacinto, with Texan soldiers yelling, “Remember the Alamo!” Santa Anna was captured the following day, and was forced to order his troops out of Texas, and sign the Treaties of Velasco, recognizing the independence of Texas.

The war was over. But the Treaties of Velasco, which recognized the Rio Grande as the boundary of the Republic of Texas, were repudiated by the Mexican government, which promised to reclaim the lost territories. In 1842, Mexico launched two small expeditions into Texas , and twice captured San Antonio, but Mexico left no occupying force in Texas. This inability to defend itself against superior numbers played a large part in Texas’s determination to join the United States. Neither Mexico nor the Republic of Texas had the military strength to effectively assert its territorial claim to the huge, largely unsettled area between the Nueces and the Rio Grande. As we saw, within a decade that disputed territory helped lead to war between Mexico and the United States.