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"A Glimpse of Texas Past"

The Birth of a Republic

by Jeffery Robenalt
Jeffery Robenalt
The military phase of the Texas Revolution began on October 2, 1835, with the Battle of Gonzales, but a meeting of Texas delegates known as the Consultation was the true beginning of the political struggle. Gathering at San Felipe de Austin on November 4, 1835, the delegates to the Consultation were tasked with the mission of determining the future political course of action that Texans would follow. Delegates who were members of the war faction urged a vote for independence and a complete break from the tyranny of Santa Anna, while members of the peace faction insisted on remaining loyal to Mexico, providing that the government was willing to return to the protections provided by the Mexican Constitution of 1824. A vote was held on November 6, and the peace delegates carried the day 33 to 15.

On the following day, the Consultation adopted the “Declaration of the People of Texas in General Convention Assembled,” which stated that the Texans were and would continue to be loyal citizens of Mexico. The delegates also declared that they had fought only to protect themselves and in support of the Constitution of 1824. Finally, the members of the Consultation established a provisional government, with Henry Smith as governor and requested that Stephen F. Austin, William Wharton, and Branch T. Archer depart on a mission to the United States for the purpose of raising troops and money. The Consultation then agreed to meet again on March 1, 1836, where a final decision would be reached on the question of Texas Independence.

Though the delegates were unaware of the situation, by the time they reconvened at Washington-on-the-Brazos on March 1, the desperate struggle at the Alamo had already begun. Earlier, the members of the Consultation had wavered on the question of independence, but the delegates to the Convention of 1836 were, in the main, younger more recent arrivals to Texas and thus much more likely to support the movement to a free and sovereign state. In addition, Stephen F. Austin, a long-time proponent of peace, had recently returned from more than a year of imprisonment in Mexico with a different outlook on the situation. Austin, in ill health due to his long internment, now urged all Texans to take action. “War is our only recourse,” he declared. “There is no other remedy. We must defend our rights, ourselves, and our country by force of arms.”

On the first day of the convention, forty-four delegates gathered in near-freezing weather in an unfinished house owned by Noah Byars and Peter Mercer. The house was so new that its fresh timber oozed sap. A Virginia lawyer, William Fairfax Gray, who was visiting Texas on business, recorded his impressions of the convention in his diary. He described the building as “an unfinished house, without doors or window glass. Cotton cloth was stretched across the windows, which partially excluded the cold wind.” Gray went on to note that Washington-on-the-Brazos was “a damp and dismal place to conduct such a meeting. The one street was ankle-deep in mud, and the chilling rain left the delegates dispirited.”
1836 Convention building replica in Washinton-on-the-Brazos
Replica of the Building where the Convention of 1836 met, Washington-on-the-Brazos State Park
Wikimedia Commons

Fifty-nine delegates eventually gathered at Washington-on-the-Brazos, with the last delegate, Andrew Briscoe, not arriving until March 11. The members of the convention were natives of eleven states, mostly from the south, and five foreign countries. Several of them had political experience at either the state or national level. With Stephen F. Austin in the United States, only one delegate stirred the imagination of the convention; former Governor of Tennessee, Sam Houston. Gray wrote that Houston’s arrival “created more sensation than that of any other man.” Weeks of hard travel and a severe bout of malaria had worn Houston down, and Gray wrote in his diary that he was “much broken in appearance but has still a fine person and courtly manners.”

The first order of business was an examination of the delegates’ credentials and the election of officers. Next a resolution was introduced for the appointment of a committee to draft a declaration of independence. The newly elected convention president, Richard Ellis, assigned the duty to George C. Childress, James Gaines, Edward Conrad, Collin McKinney, and Bailey Hardeman. Childress was appointed chairman of the committee, and it is generally accepted that he drafted the declaration with little help from the other members. There is even evidence to suggest that Childress came to the convention with a draft already prepared. This evidence is substantiated by the fact that Childress presented the completed document to the convention within 24 hours of accepting the responsibility.

George C. Childress
George C. Childress
Wikimedia Commons
When the delegates reconvened the following day, Childress reported and read a final draft of the Declaration of Independence. Sam Houston moved for immediate adoption of the proposed document, which passed by an overwhelming majority. The declaration was then approved by unanimous vote and signed by all members present. Like the United States Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson 60 years earlier, the Texas declaration had three main sections. The first section declared the right of revolution. The Texas declaration begins with the words “When a government has ceased to protect the lives, liberty, and property of the people, from whom its legitimate powers are derived...”
Childress statue, Star of Republic Museum
The dramatic statue of Childress (by Raoul Josset) in Washington-on-the-Brazos State Park.
TE photo, November 2002
The second section of the declaration listed the colonists’ grievances against the Mexican government. The initial grievance stated that General Santa Anna had usurped the Constitution of 1824 and replaced it with “a consolidated central military despotism.” Another grievance complained that the Mexican government had “invited and induced the Anglo-American population of Texas to colonize its wilderness under the pledged faith of a written constitution” but then reneged on the promise. Other grievances listed by the delegates included “sacrificing our welfare to the state of Coahuila,” the arrest of Stephen F. Austin, failure to establish a public education system, military occupation, and the denial of such rights as trial by jury and freedom of religion. Section three of the document proclaimed Texas independence and pledged the support of all the delegates who had signed the document.

After the declaration was signed, five copies were dispatched to the designated Texas towns of Bexar, Goliad, Nacogdoches, Brazoria, and San Felipe de Austin. Robert Potter then put forward a resolution to form a committee for the purpose of drafting a Constitution, and the committee immediately set to work. That evening a dispatch from William Barrett Travis arrived from the Alamo reporting a minor skirmish with Mexican troops. At first, the message caused consternation among the delegates; however Gray later wrote in his diary that “Colonel James Fannin is reported to be on the march from Goliad with 350 men for the aid of Travis. It is believed the Alamo is safe.”

Drawing on their experience as citizens of both the United States and Mexico, the members of the committee created a republican form of government. The new nation became known as the Republic of Texas. In drafting the constitution, the ever-present threat of an attack by Mexican cavalry made the necessity of haste imperative, therefore, the delegates naturally leaned heavily on the United States Constitution as a model to ease their burden. This produced a document that embodied features familiar to Americans. Like its United States counterpart, the Republic’s constitution was brief in the extreme, with less than 6,500 words, and also granted the chief executive a wide range of powers.

Other familiarities with the U.S. Constitution included a brief preamble; separation of government power into legislative, judicial and executive branches which provided for checks and balances; a bill of rights; male suffrage; slavery; citizenship, with “Africans, the descendents of Africans, and Indians excepted”; and a means of amendment. In concert with the U. S. Congress, the Texas legislature was bicameral, with a Senate and a House of Representatives, and the executive was also similar to the U. S. Presidency in most respects. The judicial system created by the committee was four-tiered, with a Supreme Court supported by justice, county, and district courts.

A few of the Constitution’s provisions were atypical to the U. S. Constitution and reflected Jacksonian theories of government like declaring ministers and priests ineligible to hold public office, abolishing imprisonment for debt, and prohibiting monopolies, primogeniture, and entailment. Other provisions unfamiliar to the U. S. Constitution were adopted from Spanish and Mexican law, to include community property, homestead exemptions, and debtor relief. The process of amending the constitution was also made much more complex and burdensome, perhaps intentionally so. Amendments proposed in one session of Congress had to be referred to the next session for a second approval and then submitted to a popular vote.

On March 4, Sam Houston was elected Commander-in-Chief of both the regular and volunteer Texas armies. On the following Sunday, William Gray wrote in his diary, “A dispatch was received from Travis, dated Alamo, March 3, 1836. Members of the Convention and many citizens of Washington-on-the-Brazos assembled to hear the latest news.” The message from Travis was a desperate plea. “We have contended for ten days against an enemy whose numbers are variously estimated from fifteen hundred to six thousand men. I hope your honorable body will hasten on reinforcements, ammunitions and provisions to our aid as soon as possible. . . God and Texas ? Victory or Death.”

The delegates had no way of knowing that the defenders of the Alamo were already dead, and Travis’ message came close to being the death knell of the Convention. Most delegates were determined to abandon their efforts and rush to the defense of the Alamo. In fact, one delegate moved that the convention “do immediately adjourn, arm and march to the relief of the Alamo.” Gray noted in his diary that “A great many persons are preparing to start to the scenes of fighting.” Thankfully, Sam Houston, the delegate with the greatest influence due to his extensive military and political experience, knew that such a move would lead to disaster. The one overriding priority had to be the establishment of a legitimate Texas government.

When Houston came to his feet in the midst of the near hysteria that hung like a dark storm cloud over the stifling confines of the crowded Convention room, the calm, measured tones of his voice held the delegates in respectful silence. He began by stating that it was of utmost importance that the delegates complete their task of forming the government. Without a legitimate government to present to the world, there would be no chance of recognition by the United States, let alone other foreign governments, and the Texas Revolution would be doomed from the start. Houston went on to state that, as Commander-in-Chief, he would immediately depart for Gonzales and rally a force to come to the aid of the Alamo. With that, he strode from the room, mounted his horse and galloped out of town accompanied by his aide, Colonel George W. Hockley.

Though eventually pressured by word that the Alamo had fallen and that Santa Anna’s army would soon be on the march east, the delegates to the Convention of 1836 continued at their sacred task and finished the new Republic’s constitution at midnight on March 16. Since the outcome of the Texas Revolution was still in serious doubt, the final task of the delegates was to establish an ad interim government until such time as formal elections could be held.
David G. Burnet
David G. Burnet
Wikimedia Commons
David G. Burnet was elected to the office of provisional President. A dark and grim man without humor, who carried a pistol in one pocket of his tight black coat and a bible in the other, the 47-year-old Burnet was from New Jersey and had traveled the world before arriving in Texas in 1826 to start his own colony. Like his good friend, Stephen F. Austin, Burnet strongly disapproved of liquor and profanity, and also like Austin, he despised the hard-drinking and hard-swearing Sam Houston. Houston returned the favor by nicknaming the stern little man “Wetumpka,” which Sam laughingly said was Cherokee for hog thief.
Lorenzo de Zavala
Lorenzo de Zavala
Courtesy Phillpott collection
Lorenzo de Zavala, selected as the new Republic’s ad interim Vice President, was born in the Yucatan peninsula and helped to write the Mexican Constitution of 1824. Zavala remained a loyal Mexican citizen until he fled to Texas and championed the Texan cause when Santa Anna declared himself dictator of Mexico. Other ad interim officers were Secretary of State, Samuel P. Carson, Attorney General David Thomas, Secretary of War Thomas J. Rusk, who ultimately served as the liaison between Houston’s army and the new government and Secretary of the Navy Robert Potter.
Thomas Jefferson Rusk
Thomas Jefferson Rusk
Wikimedia Commons
Statue of Thomas J. Rusk in Henderson, Texas
Wikimedia Commons
President Burnet and the other provisional officers had barely assumed their government offices when a report reached Washington-on-the-Brazos that Mexican troops occupied Bastrop, only 60 miles distant. The news spread panic among the delegates as it already had in the population at large. The infamous “Runaway Scrape” was well underway. President Burnet and his provisional government immediately fled 70 miles eastward to the settlement of Harrisburg on Buffalo Bayou. Although it could not be said that all was well in the newly established Republic of Texas, the efforts of the delegates at the Convention of 1836 had truly given birth to a new nation.


© Jeffery Robenalt
"A Glimpse of Texas Past"
July 1, 2013 Column
jeffrobenalt@yahoo.com
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References for "The Birth of a Republic"

  • Brown, John Henry, History of Texas, 1685 to 1982 (2 Volumes, St. Louis: Daniell, 1893).
  • Davis, William C., Lone Star Rising: The Revolutionary Birth of the Texas Republic, (Free Press 2004).
  • Fehrenbach, T. R., Lone Star: a history of Texas and the Texans, (Da Capo Press, 2000).
  • Lack, Paul D., The Texas Revolutionary Experience: A Political and Social History 1835-1836, College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, (1992).
  • Nance, Joseph Milton, “Republic of Texas,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/mzr02), accessed May 25, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
  • Siegel, Stanley, A Political History of the Texas Republic, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press (1956).
  • Steen, Ralph W., “Convention of 1836,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/mjc12), accessed May 25, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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