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Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

The First Election
in Texas

by C. F. Eckhardt
In March, 1836, a convention met at Washington-on-the-Brazos for the purpose of framing a constitution for the fledgling Republic of Texas. The Republic really didn’t exist yet, since San Jacinto was not yet fought. The constitution provided for a presidential election to take place in the fall of 1836. In the meantime, a temporary government with David G. Burnet as interim president directed the affairs of the Republic.

Initially there were two candidates for the Republic’s first presidency, Henry Smith and Stephen F. Austin. There was also a groundswell urging Sam Houston to run for president. Houston, however, insisted he wasn’t interested. It seems very likely the ‘groundswell’ was engineered by Houston himself, through his most trusted associates. He continued to insist that he wasn’t interested in the presidency until just thirteen days before the election was held.

At the time Texas had fewer than 6,000 people eligible to vote. Houston received 4,374 votes. Smith got 743 votes, Austin 578. Houston immediately appointed Austin as his Secretary of State and Smith as his Secretary of the Treasury. The first Congress of the Republic of Texas met at Columbia on October 3, 1836. A date was selected—October 22—for the inauguration of the Republic’s first President.

On the morning of October 22 interim President David G. Burnet resigned the office. At 4 PM Houston was inaugurated. According to legend, he had just four hours in order to prepare an inaugural address, but considering what we know of Houston now, you may be sure he had his inaugural address written and likely memorized even before he announced he would be a candidate.

Houston’s inaugural address touched heavily on the subject of annexation to the United States. This was a matter of some debate, a lot of it acrimonious, in the new Republic. While a lot of people—mostly former US citizens—wanted annexation, there were quite a lot of immigrants from other nations who weren’t all that excited about it. There were also the Tejanos, who were not particularly enthusiastic about annexing Texas to the US.

In his speech, Houston left no doubt that, as President of the Republic, he would work toward annexing Texas to the US. In his own words, “In our recent election the important subject of annexation to the United States of America was submitted to the consideration of the people. They expressed their feelings and their wishes on that momentous subject. They have, with a unanimity unparalleled, declared that they will be reunited to the great republican family of the north. This appeal is made by a willing people. Will our friends disregard it?”

The catch is, there wasn’t, in 1836, a groundswell of enthusiasm in Texas for annexation—and there was even less of a groundswell in the US. Texas had been settled, largely, from the American South. While Mexico had declared slavery illegal—in the province of Tejas alone, it was perfectly legal in the rest of Mexico—it had accepted completely the fiction of indentured servitude. Those Southerners who brought slaves to Texas with them ‘freed’ the slaves with a stroke of a pen—and with a second stroke ‘indentured’ them for a term of 99 years. Even in 1836 the agitation of abolitionists to free all slaves was making itself felt all over the South. The former Southerners who owned slaves in the new Republic didn’t want to find themselves back in a country where abolitionism was growing.

Mexico had, at the time, the largest standing army in the Western Hemisphere. The US had one of the smallest. The US really couldn’t afford to antagonize Mexico—that is, the dictator of Mexico, Santa Anna—any more than it already had. In addition, if Texas came into the US, it would come in as a slave state, which would upset the very delicate balance of power between slave states and free states in the US Congress. Most of the free states opposed the idea of annexing Texas .

As a result, Texas remained an independent Republic for almost ten years.

One of the usually-un-thought-of—and occasionally ignored--results of that is the fact that the Texas state flag is the only state flag that can be flown at the same height as the national colors. Because it was once the flag of an independent republic, as part of the treaty of annexation the Republic’s flag, which became the state’s flag, the Texas flag can fly at the same height as the national flag. Every other state flag has to be flown at a lesser height.

© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas" July 9, 2011 column

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