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“Texas Must Be Ours”
On the 150th anniversary of Texan independence, we trace the fierce negotiations that brought the republic into the Union after ten turbulent years
February/March 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 2
From the moment he entered the White House in March 1829, Andrew Jackson of Tennessee turned a cold and calculating eye on Texas. Sitting in his study on the second floor of the mansion, maps strewn around the room, the white-haired, sharp-featured, cadaverous President breathed a passion for Texas that was soon shared by other Americans.
Old Hickory always believed—or so he said—that Texas had been acquired by the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and then had been recklessly thrown away when “that old scamp J. Q. Adams” negotiated the Florida treaty with Spain in 1819 and agreed to the Sabine River as the western boundary of the country. The claim was questionable at the very least, but many Southerners, outraged by Northern reaction to the slavery issue during the debates over the admission of Missouri and chagrined over the institution’s prohibition in the Louisiana Territory north of 36° 30’, decided to press it anyway.
The loss of Texas by virtue of the Florida treaty dismayed some Americans. It infuriated Jackson. “How infatuated must have been our councils who gave up the rich country of Texas,” he wrote. Such action, in his mind, verged on treason. And why had it happened? “It surely must have been with the view to keep the political ascendence in the North, and east,” he fumed, “& cripple the rising greatness of the West.” No matter. He would attend to it at the first opportunity. And indeed he did—or tried to. “I have long since been aware of the importance of Texas to the United States,” he wrote a friend just a few months after taking office as President, “and of the real necessity of extending our boundary west of the Sabine.... I shall keep my eye on this object & the first propitious moment make the attempt to regain the Territory as far south & west as the great Desert.”
All his attempts at acquiring Texas proved feeble, however, mostly because he had assigned a freewheeling, fast-talking, double-dealing incompetent to represent the United States in Mexico. Col. Anthony Butler made numerous “diplomatic” efforts to purchase Texas from Mexico, and when those failed, he turned to bribery. “I have just had a very singular conversation with a Mexican,” he wrote Jackson in October of 1833, and this Mexican “has much influence with the Presidt. Genl. St. Anna.” The Mexican had bluntly asked Butler, “Have you command of Money?”
“Yes, I have money,” Butler responded.
The price would be high, said the Mexican, in excess of half a million dollars. The Mexican himself required two or three hundred thousand, and Butler allowed that “there are others amongst whom it may become necessary to distribute 3 or 4 Hundred thousand more.”
“Can you command that Sum?” the Mexican demanded.
“Yes,” Butler assured him.
He was wrong. “I have read your confidential letter with care, and astonishment,” a furious Jackson replied, ”...astonishment that you would entrust such a letter, without being in cypher, to the mail.” Moreover, wrote Jackson, he was astounded by Butler’s presumption that “my instructions authorized you to apply to corruption, when nothing could be farther from my intention than to convey such an idea.”
At length Jackson had to recall Butler. The President was discouraged not only by the diplomatic failure and the shady operations of his minister but also by the resistance of the Mexicans to his assurance that a “natural boundary” at the Rio Grande River would work to the mutual benefit of both nations. Such a boundary, Jackson insisted, would eliminate “collisions” that two peoples of “conflicting laws, habits and interests” were bound to have. Moreover, it would provide the Mexicans with needed cash to bolster their economy: the President was willing to go as high as five million dollars to purchase the territory. Failure of the sale was sure to encourage the many Americans who had moved to Texas over the previous ten years to establish an independent republic. And such a turn of events, the President feared, would sever the “bonds of amity and good understanding” between the United States and Mexico.
Since the early 182Os, Americans had been migrating to Texas, particularly from the South and West. Motivated to a large extent by the hard times generated by the Panic of 1819, they sought relief in Texas because the Mexicans encouraged them to settle there. Led by Moses Austin and his son Stephen E, they established an American colony in Texas and accepted Mexican authority. Slave owners from Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee were particularly attracted to this haven. By 1830 over twelve thousand Americans had emigrated to Texas, and Mexico, alarmed, eventually prohibited all immigration from the north.
Many Texans desired immediate annexation by the United States, especially after 1829, when slavery was forbidden throughout Mexican territory. The blatant and hostile intentions of these Texans naturally provoked the Mexicans, and Jackson’s fumbling efforts to purchase the territory only exacerbated an already worsening situation. Despite his passion for Texas, the President wanted neither war with Mexico nor domestic strife over the wisdom of adding what might become another slave state. Still, he would not abandon his dream of territorial expansion. “The boundary between the U.States and Mexico,” he jotted into his private memorandum book, ”...must be altered.”