The Successes of the Failed State of Texas

Erik Loomis picks up on something hidden in plain sight: the terrible war record of the Republic of Texas. Loomis’s post quotes from a War is Boring post that asks how a country with as pitiful a war record as the Republic of Texas could survive.

Lets get things straight: Robert Beckhusen, the War is Boring writer, is absolutely right. Heres how I describe Texas’s war for independence in my (current draft of my) dissertation:

The case begins with two shocks: the independence of the Republic of Texas and U.S. President Andrew Jacksons refusal to allow its bid for annexation to proceed. Anglo-American settlers had colonized parts of the sparsely inhabited Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas, first at the invitation of the Mexican government and then illegally after Mexico City, worried about U.S. influence, sought to halt colonization. Political turmoil within Mexico led to a revolt among the Anglo-Texans. The Texans victory was unexpected, since they were a population of a few tens of thousands without an effective government fighting a Mexican government that (at least nominally) ruled a country of several millions. The Texans war was mostly disastrous, marked by military calamities such as the defeat at the Alamo, until a decisive victory at San Jacinto on April 2, 1836, that left only a handful of Texans dead but the bulk of the Mexican expeditionary force killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Among the prisoners was Santa Anna, who signed a treaty granting the breakaway republic independence.

Wading through oceans of Texas historiography, I quickly discovered that most people who have written about Texas–and almost everyone who reads about it–wants to give Texas a glamorous past. To the extent that anyones encountered Texas history, then, they’ve come up against the most sanitized, and boring, version of the tale.

Yet simply rejecting the sanitized version of the history is misguided. The real question is, knowing how badly off the Texans were, how was it that they managed to win, and maintain, the country’s independence? As ever, focusing on only one side of the question–Texas’s manifest incompetence–gives an incomplete answer. The real story is the fact that Mexico was even worse off. In other words, the Texans were terrible at war, but the Mexicans were even worse. After all, the Mexicans couldn’t even defeat the Texans. Why?

Lets get our perspectives right. From the vantage point of the United States, the history of territorial expansion is rather boring, even foreordained. The U.S. got rich; it attracted immigrants; and it expanded into lands occupied by Indians and weakly held by the Mexicans after a short and relatively forgettable war. But this omits practically everything interesting in the case. In my dissertation, I focus on the domestic politics of expansion, in particular why the U.S. congress was so loath for so long to support presidents like John Tyler in their expansionist policies. (Theres an even more interesting question about why a great many people–including almost all Northern Whigs–resisted most or almost all expansionist schemes, but thats a post for another day.) In putting that case together, however, I had to learn something about Mexico. And when we look at the history of North American geopolitics from the standpoint of the other post-colonial federal state on the continent, the history looks rather different.

Mexico emerged from Spanish rule a substantial and potentially wealthy state. D.W. Meinig makes the point in a widely-quoted passage in his 1993 The Shaping of America:

At the outset [the United States and the United States of Mexico] were very nearly identical in size: the United States of America c. 1.8 million square miles (not including any territorial claims on the Pacific Slope), Mexico 1.7 million square miles; and they were not grossly unequal in population: the United States 9.6 million (1820 census), Mexico c. 6.2-6.5 million (various estimates). Such comparisons underscore how immense were the charges of the next thirty years. By annexation, conquest, and purchase the United States of America took over one million square miles of Mexican territory (and made serious attempts to obtain considerably more). Such an enormous addition to the one state (larger than the Louisiana Purchase) and subtraction from the other (more than half of its national area) must have profound effects upon their relative positions and potentials on the continent. And even though the area transferred contained but a very small proportion of Mexicos population, the marked differences in demographic growth over those thirty years had given the United States three times the population (more than 23 million in 1850) of Mexico (estimated 7.5 8 million). Clearly there had been an enormous shift in the balance of forces in North America.

This map gives an idea:

If we think of the real story of the nineteenth century as the disintegration of Mexico and consequent opportunistic predation by the United States, we are now a little closer to the truth. But still, actually, not quite there. Mexico did disintegrate, and the United States did engage in opportunistic predation. But the story isn’t quite as simple as a nefarious U.S. government deciding to aggrandize its country at the expense of Mexico. The causal chain begins with internal Mexican strife, which led to the Anglo-Texans decision to secede. The initial Texan victory was surprising. Its altogether possible that a slightly luckier Mexican general, or a rather less competent Texan general, would have resulted in a rout of the Texan army and the removal of the American settlers from Coahuila.

The Texas government was brittle, bankrupt, and disordered. But it wasnt the only potential breakaway republic. The Republic of the Rio Grande and the Yucatan were equally interested in secession and independence. Yet the Republic of the Rio Grande was defeated and the Yucatan eventually reconciled to Mexican rule. Why did Mexico fail to retake Texas? We might think the answer is military. Its militia proved capable of competent defensive operations. But its real defenses against Mexico were diplomatic (the shadow of U.S. intervention and the increasing interest of London and Paris in preserving a bulwark against U.S. expansion) and, even more, the failure of the Mexican federation to create a durable state capable of sustaining popular operations.

Texas was pretty weak militarily. But that only heightens our interest in why it survived. Part of that answer is the bilateral balance with Mexico. Another part is in the advantage of its limited, defensive goals. Texas only had to sustain its independence; Mexico had to subjugate a growing and increasingly prosperous country at the very end of its supply lines. But a final part has to do with the fact that the Texans were good enough at diplomacy to cultivate alliances that ultimately made reconquest an unprofitable decision for Mexico.

The Texas example also reminds us that international recognition matters. (So do economic factors: much of Londons leverage over Mexico City came from its substantial investments in the Mexican economy.) This perspective matters when we consider contemporary puzzles, like why the United States military power cant deter Russian adventurism in its neighborhood, or why the Obama administration has turned to targeted sanctions and normative measures to combat Russia’s annexation of a co-ethnic enclave in another fissiparous state. To put it another way: Focusing only on military win-loss records or the number of men under arms is to take account of only one part of power.