Censoring Texas History

Image Source: This is a drawing of the Alamo Mission in San Antonio. It was first printed in 1854 in Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion and was reprinted in Frank Thompson’s 2005 “The Alamo” – Public Domain

Real History: The Cotton Gin

In late 18th-century America, the working assumption about slave labor in the cotton fields was that it was becoming too expensive. Here is the scenario: In the American South most slaves were used in cotton production. Yet, the use of slave labor was negatively impacting cotton’s profitability. The most labor-intensive aspect of the cotton process at this time, after planting and harvesting, was the extraction of cotton seeds from the raw cotton ball. If you ever get hold of a raw cotton ball, you can easily see why this would be so. The seeds are tightly entwined in a thick mass of cotton fibers. To increase production meant acquiring more slaves to perform this task of extraction. By the 1790s, the cost of additional slaves exceeded the expected profit from added production. Under these conditions U.S. cotton production was stagnant and losing markets to foreign production (such as in India). There was little incentive to expand American cotton production into new regions.

Then in 1793, Eli Whitney (1765–1825) invented the modern cotton gin or cotton engine. It automated the seed extraction process. Whitney’s was not the first cotton gin. Small, hand-cranked models had been in use in India since the 16th century and were introduced into the American south around the mid-18th century. However, their use was restricted to long-staple cotton and their production capacity was low. Whitney’s invention, on the other hand, simultaneously lowered a major cost of production of both long- and short- staple raw cotton, while increasing the volume yield. At this point American cotton production became more competitive and the incentive for expansion grew. Cotton producers looked westward for new land—such as the Mexican province of Texas.

Real History: Moving into Texas

The infiltration of north American citizens and their slaves into Texas went on for several decades before the Mexican authorities took note of the growing numbers and became concerned. There were several reasons for this alarm, but all of them had to do with racism.

First, the Mexicans had a long history of less than diplomatic relations with the Unite States, whose representatives were always trying to purchase adjacent Mexican territory while interfering in Mexican domestic affairs. All too often Americans had displayed a racially tinged sense of superiority and disregard for Mexican law and customs. This attitude would be enshrined for all Central and South America in the application of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823.

Second was the issue of slavery. Slavery was not a favored labor system in Mexico, probably because the Catholic Church began to turn against the institution on the 18th-century. In 1823, Mexico made the sale and purchase of slaves illegal. In 1827, the Mexican government forbade the importation of slaves into the country. Then, in 1829, slavery was officially abolished. Throughout this period slaves of American immigrants in Texas were periodically rebelling and running away in order to, among other things, join the Mexican army. Inevitably, all of this ratcheted up the tensions between the Mexican authorities and the American settlers who defied Mexican law.

A small American slaveholders’ rebellion occurred in 1831. This was triggered by the refusal of Mexican authorities to return runaway slaves. In other words, it was a protest against the Mexican insistence on enforcing their own laws. A larger and more seminal rebellion began in 1835. The thirteen-day siege of the Alamo (February 23 to March 6, 1836) was part of this latter conflict. The 1835 uprising led to the declaration of Texas independence in 1836. Immediately thereafter, slavery was officially made legal.

Then in 1836, perhaps to affirm white supremacy, Texas authorities under the leadership of Mirabeau Lamar began what he called an “exterminating war” against local Indian peoples. University of Houston historian Raul Ramos finds Lamar’s description accurate—he confirms that this effort amounted to “a state-sanctioned program of genocide.”

Slavery Inspires Texas Independence but Not Texas History

There may have been multiple reasons why U.S. immigrants chose to move into Mexican Texas, but there was only one reason—the desire to own slaves—for which these immigrants rose up in armed rebellion in 1835-1836 and subsequently declared independence. No white resident of Texas at that time would have denied this fact. Thus, it is noteworthy that today, in the early 21st century, the state’s most conservative and indeed reactionary citizens, seek to censor this history almost out of existence. To quote a New York Times (NYT) article of 26 November 2021, “political leaders in Texas are trying to … restrict how teachers discuss the role of slavery in the Texas revolution and target hundreds of books for potential removal from schools.” One should note that similar efforts are being made in close to a dozen other states, and they are all under the control of Republican legislatures.

These efforts are linked to Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission Report released in January 2021. Essentially, the report promoted the notion that “the primary duties of schools” are twofold: (1) teach students “practical wisdom—the basic skills needed to function in society, such as reading, writing, and mathematics,” or in other words, education should prepare the student for the job market; and (2) the passing on of “transcendent knowledge,” that is, “educators must convey a sense of enlightened patriotism that equips each generation with a knowledge of America’s founding principles, a deep reverence for their liberties, and a profound love of their country,” or in other words, shape the nation’s history so that it promotes national loyalty.

Actually, these two ends are among the original goals of public education, and not just in the United States. However, over time the second one has been tempered by historical writing that compares “transcendent knowledge” with facts based on evidence. For instance, if you want to teach about Jefferson’s 1776 statement that “all men are created equal,” shouldn’t you also teach that this ideal was not real in any practiced way when Jefferson penned the words, and that since that time a major struggle within U.S. society has been waged to overcome the racial and economic roadblocks to that goal? For commission members the answer is that the sentiment is more important than the facts. For these folks, and also those they have inspired in Texas and elsewhere, if you concentrate on the facts to the point where you call the sentiment into question, you become one of the “petty tyrants in every sphere who demand that we speak only of America’s sins while denying her greatness.” It never seems to occur to these people that “transcendent knowledge” cannot be a basis for “greatness” unless it is put into practice.

Nonetheless, in defense of its mythology, Texas has produced simpleminded Trump-style personalities and soundbites. For instance, there are the pronouncements of Brandon Burkhart, the gun-toting president of the “This is Freedom Texas Force.” Burkhart lauds the message that Texas was founded with the ideal of freedom front and center. And anyone who wants “to bring up that it was about slavery, or say that the Alamo defenders were racist, or anything like that, they need to take their rear ends over the state border and get the hell out of Texas.”

The Myth of the Alamo

At the center of the Texas effort to censor the facts of its own past is what the Washington Post calls “the myth of the Alamo”—the myth that this small mission/church building in San Antonio, which receives roughly 1.5 million visitors a year, is the “cradle of Texas liberty.” It was here, in 1836, that about 180 Americans, including Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, faced a much larger force of Mexican soldiers as part of a defiant struggle for Texas independence. Nowhere in the official state version of this tale is the causal role of slavery mentioned. This “creation myth” has been maintained for over one hundred years by, among other means, a protection racket run by the Texas state government. According to the three authors of a recent book, Forget the Alamo, “the state government … made clear to the University of Texas faculty and to the faculty of other state-funded universities that it only wants one type of Texas history taught … and that if you get outside those boundaries, you’re going to hear about it from the Legislature.”

Who Runs the Thought Collective

All groups, from the smallest, like a family or a club, to the largest, such as a multi-regional religion or a nation-state, seek to create a unifying  “thought collective.” By a thought collective I mean a way of thinking and seeing that expresses and adheres to the established beliefs and aims of the collective. The results are always approximate but the group elite, assisted by cultural pressures, is always making an effort to shape the thought and perceptions of members/citizens.

At a national level one can understand the importance of public history to this process. Where there are ongoing disagreements about what should be the content and direction of the thought collective, such history and its interpretation will always be a political battleground. Ideally such disagreements should be settled through debate and respect for facts. However, the average citizen is not wholly rational and logical nor is he or she particularly good judges of historical truth.

This leaves a lot of room for the use of propaganda, plain old lying, and the machinations of authoritarian personalities in the struggle to direct the thought collective’s themes and messages. The present members and leaders of the Republican Party fit this description well.

Authoritarians, and those that enthusiastically follow them, are not interested in fact checking, reason and logic. They are most comfortable with simpleminded storylines that provide soundbite answers to questions. Their goal is for the favored storyline to monopolize the thinking of the collective. And the truth? Well, the truth is what that storyline says it is.

We see this process playing itself out in Texas over the story of its independence. The favored storyline of the authoritarian Republicans is an exclusive one of pure-hearted men seeking freedom. This story has no room or tolerance for evidentiary truths, such as the role of slavery, that complicate the fairy tale script. Take note: this is how would-be dictators deal with the mind.

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.