“Texas Must Be Ours”

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A little later Jackson mentioned his conversation with Santa Anna to William Wharton, recently arrived in Washington to represent Texas. Wharton protested: Texan independence was an accomplished fact achieved through her own military power, and Mexico had no right to make a treaty that in any way bound her. What the United States must do, insisted Wharton, was to recognize Texan independence; then the nation could move on to the question of possible annexation.

Jackson grimaced. Perhaps, suggested the President to Wharton, as a way of quieting the sectional rivalry that recognition was sure to provoke, Texas might claim California in order to “paralyze” Northern opposition to annexation. Acquisition of California along with Texas meant the continuation of representational balance in the Senate between free and slave states. The suggestion did not elicit much enthusiasm from Wharton. Texas could never legitimately claim California or undertake a war to assert its claim. California was simply not on the negotiating table.

Congress, however, responded to the wishes of the “Texians” without grappling with the sectional consequences and, during the final days of Jackson’s administration, recognized the independence of the Texas Republic. The President quickly appointed Alcée Louis La Branche of Louisiana as chargé d’affaires to Texas, and the Senate confirmed the nomination only hours before the final adjournment of Congress. Around midnight, when word came that La Branche had been confirmed, Jackson met with Wharton and a few others to celebrate. They lifted their glasses in a single toast: Texas!

But Jackson returned home defeated in his one great effort to reach the Rio Grande. He rightly feared his failure might jeopardize the integrity and tranquillity of the Union.

The more he thought about it, as he sat in his study at the Hermitage reading the reports that arrived daily from Washington, the more he convinced himself that the security of the United States demanded the acquisition of Texas. Never mind the machinations of abolitionists. They were nothing compared with the danger posed by foreign enemies: Great Britain, for example.

If Britain should decide to reenter the continent through Texas and attempt a linkup with Canada, then war would be inevitable. “The safety of the republic being the supreme law, and Texas having offered us the key to the safety of our country from all foreign intrigues and diplomacy,” Jackson wrote, “I say accept the key…and bolt the door at once.” If England concluded an alliance with the “Texians”—which seemed under way at that very moment—then she would most likely move “an army from canady, along our western frontier,” march through Arkansas and Louisiana, seize New Orleans, “excite the negroes to insurrection,” “arouse the Indians on our west to war,” and “throw our whole west into flames that would cost oceans of blood & hundreds of millions of money to quench, & reclaim....” As he wrote these words, Jackson worked himself into a passion. “Texas must be ours,” he raged. “Our safety requires it.” Later he repeated his demand with a little less passion but with the same determination. We must have Texas, “peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must.”

Despite strong Northern pressure, the new President, John Tyler, obtained a treaty of annexation signed by representatives of Texas and the United States in April 1844 and submitted it to the Senate for ratification. It was accompanied by an extraordinary letter to the British minister to Washington, Richard Pakenham, written by the secretary of state, John C. Calhoun. In it Calhoun contended that the treaty had been signed for the express purpose of protecting American slavery from British attempts to bring about universal emancipation. The extension of the American slave interests into Texas, he said, would nullify that “reprehensible” goal.

Friends of annexation groaned when they read copies of Calhoun’s provocative letter. The secretary had placed annexation “ exclusively upon the ground of protection of Slavery in the Southern States !” and the senators from the nonslaveholding states who favored annexation were furious because “it would be death to them, politically, if they were to vote for the Treaty based on such principles.”

Why had Calhoun done it? Why had he jeopardized the treaty by the gratuitous mention of slavery? Maj. William B. Lewis, one of Jackson’s oldest friends, claimed to know. The secretary of state meant to kill the treaty, he wrote, in order to “drive off every Northern man from the reannexation” and thereby give him a “pretext to unite the whole South upon himself as the Champion of its cause.” Put simply, he meant to divide the Union, create a Southern confederacy, and make himself the “great man of this fragment which he expects to tear from the embrace of our glorious Govt.” Like abolitionists, Lewis added, Southern hotheads were determined to disrupt the Union to achieve their own selfish objectives. Unfortunately, Texas had become a pawn in the fatal game of personal ambition. As far as Jackson was concerned, between “that arch fiend, J. Q. Adams” and that “ Cateline,” John C. Calhoun, they were tearing the Union apart.