It is the contention of ignorant twits that slavery was the primary reason for the Texas Revolution. You usually hear it stated in an effort to discredit the Texas Revolution and the men who fought Santa Anna.
When I correct them and explain why that was not the case, I’m called an apologist for slavery. I don’t take it personally. That’s just cognitive dissonance protecting a worldview that has been shattered by the facts.
But for the record, let me state that I am no defender of slavery. I believe holding another person as property is evil.
When writing about the institution as it existed in Texas, I try to avoid the emotionalism so many historians and journalists are prone to engage in. Instead, I follow the lead of the Professor Justin H. Smith, who wrote in the foreword of his excellent 1911 volume, The Annexation of Texas:
“For us… the institution of slavery is neither an interest to be defended nor an outrage to be denounced, but merely a bygone state of things, through which – as through many another unfortunate conditions of society – the evolution of the human race has carried it; and we can therefore devote ourselves to the investigation of the subject with no prejudice except in favor of historic truth.”
If you wish to gain a true understanding of what happened and why, there is no other way.
So allow me to present the historic truth regarding the status of slavery in Mexico from the time of the first Texas colonization contracts to the Texas Revolution.
1821 – When Moses Austin secured his empresario contract, Texas was the possession of Spain, and slavery was legal under Spanish law. The contract made clear that property rights of future colonists would be protected, including their right to hold slaves.
1823 – The Iturbide government of newly independent Mexico reaffirmed Moses Austin’s contract, with Stephen F. Austin as his heir. This secured the permission of the Mexican national government to bring in colonists and their slaves.
1824 – The new Mexican constitution was silent on slavery, leaving the question to the individual states. The Law of July 13 prohibited the importation of slaves into the country. The law was somewhat vague and was interpreted by Mexican legal minds as only prohibiting the importation of slaves for resale. Colonists in Texas, as well as planters in southern Mexico, continued to bring in slaves for their own use and the federal government made no attempt to interfere.
1827 – The newly adopted constitution of the State of Coahuila and Texas allowed for the importation of slaves from the U.S. for six months after its ratification. It became illegal to bring slaves into Texas in September of that year.
1828 – In May, the Congress of Coahuila and Texas passed a law which made indentured servant contracts signed in foreign countries valid within the state. This provided a means to bring slaves into Texas by making them indentured servants for life. The distaste of many Mexican citizens and politicians for slavery was not due to a principled stand against the idea of servitude. It was the hereditary nature of slavery which was abhorrent to them. This law merely brought black servitude in Texas in line with the Mexican norm of debt peonage.
1829 – An attempt to ban slavery failed in the Mexican Congress. President Guerrero was granted sweeping powers to thwart Spain’s attempt to retake the country. Jose Maria Tornel, the equivalent of the U.S. Speaker of the House, persuaded President Guerrero to use those emergency powers to abolish slavery in Mexico. A little over two months later, the Governor of Coahuila and Texas. Jose Maria Viesca, convinced the president to exempt Texas. It should be noted that even if the ban had taken effect in Texas, it would not have freed those held under indentured servant contracts.
1831 – Eighteen months after Guerrero issued his decree banning slavery, it was annulled by the National Congress, along with most of the late president’s emergency decrees. Slavery was once again legal in all of Mexico. It remain so until 1837, when the National Congress passed an emancipation bill nearly a year after Texas had won independence.
1832 – The Legislature of Coahuila and Texas limited indenture contracts to ten years, but those living under these contracts still accumulated debt for food, clothing, housing, and medical care. This fact converted them into debt peons at the end of their indenture terms. That meant they would remain in service to their masters until those debts were paid, which was nearly impossible. This was the system of servitude practiced throughout Mexico, where some wealthy land owners had thousands of peons in their service. Their treatment was much the same as slaves on American plantations. The children of peons also accrued debts for their care while they were minors, making peonage functionally hereditary..
And that was the state of African bondage in Texas until independence was declared in 1836. It was not a major issue in the Revolution. The Texas Declaration of Independence, which lists all grievances with the Mexican government, never mentions slavery.
Santa Anna did not march north to free the slaves, as one U.T. history professor has recently said. His intent was to put down Federalist resistance to his Centralist dictatorship in all the northern Mexican states, of which Coahuila and Texas was just one.
The rebellion in those states had nothing to do with slavery and everything to do Santa Anna tearing up the Constitution of 1824 and abolishing the state governments.
In fact, the majority of Texas slaveholders were members of the Peace Party who stood against independence until Santa Anna made clear his intent to run them out of Texas along the hot-heads of the War Party.
Areas that rebelled against Santa Anna and Centralist Rule
Santa Anna was able to crush the rebellion in the rest of the Mexican states. Not so in Texas. When you understand the facts, it is plain the men who fought Santa Anna had reasons other than slavery for taking up arms.
“The reasons for a partial toleration of this evil have now ceased; and the true prosperity and happiness of Texas require that an everlasting bar should be interposed to the further introduction of slaves… I am of the opinion that Texas will never become a slave state or country. I will be candid with you on this point, and say I hope it never may.”
Stephen F. Austin
in a letter to potential immigrants to Texas from Alabama, June, 1830