- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 20, 2004


By H.W. Brands

Doubleday, $29.95, 563 pages, illus.


One reason writers keep writing about, and filmmakers keep filming, the story of Texas’

1836 fight for independence from Mexico is the story’s inspirational qualities: the heroism, the sacrifice, which resonate even in — maybe especially in — the age of Al Sharpton and Alec Baldwin.

H.W. Brands suggests an additional reason: the sheer Americanness of the thing. Hardly had William Barret Travis, James Bowie, Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, and Stephen F. Austin (every one with a Texas town or county named for him) come into a big, dangerous new land than, lo, they carved out a place for liberty and self-expression.

It is what Americans do — or did before TV cameras and investigative reporters sprouted all along the road to adventure, ready to ensnare those unduly careless of procedural niceties.

“The events culminating in the Texas revolution,” writes Mr. Brands, an accomplished historian and biographer, “transcended morality in the ordinary sense … Sensitive souls — the John Quincy Adamses of the era — complained that [the Texans] were stealing land from Mexico.

“And maybe they were. But these were Americans, a people who were in the process of taking far more land from the native peoples of North America than the Texans took from Mexico (which, itself, was trying to take Texas back from the Indians).”

The New York Times wouldn’t bestow warm accolades on events and occasions like these, which is why one might want to look all the more closely at Mr. Brands’ judgment on those events that transcend morality. Not infrequently, heroism and hell-raising slouch down the street together, arms intertwined. You sometimes can’t pry them apart.

In the prying apart of Texas and Mexico, Mr. Brands acknowledges readily enough, opportunism was a factor. Take Bowie, who, “having swindled himself into a corner in Louisiana, crossed the Sabine to continue his swindling on Mexican soil.”

Yet such men were not “merely opportunists. They believed in liberty, as they understood the term. They believed in the rule of law and the right of people to govern themselves.

“Their victory was a victory for democracy, in the dawning age of democracy. If it was also a victory for slavery, this aspect of the triumphproved passingwhen democracy defeated slavery in the Civil War.” It all worked out somehow.

That it might not have worked out, save for courage, sacrifice, and some luck, is the consideration that carries this immensely readable narrative, whose author is a professor of history at Texas A&M; University.

Mr. Brands’ story begins with the commercial exploits of Moses Austin, father of the “Father of Texas,” Stephen F. Austin. It ends with Sam Houston’s death, two years after the state he had helped create defied his now-inarguable arguments against joining the Confederacy.

The Civil War is background noise, nor in truth does Mr. Brands make much of the Republic of Texas (1836-45) or the Mexican War. The tale is chiefly of those Americans who, in essentially half a decade’s time, vastly extended their country’s reach.

In Mr. Brands’ telling the pivotal story of the Alamo loses nothing of its David and Goliath aura. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna commands 5,000 Mexican soldiers; the garrison consists of fewer than 200. Bravery refutes the power of numbers.

The somewhat erratic William B. Travis takes on stature before and during the 13-day siege; the ailing Bowie shrinks as a presence; Davy Crockett, as an inspiration to the men, fills a large part of the landscape.

How Crockett met his death (battlefield casualty or execution victim) is a matter that excites many Alamo buffs, but not Mr. Brands, who declines to attempt settlement of the question.

“Wherever Crockett — or any of the others — died,” he writes, “they proved their point. Texas wouldn’t be taken easily … On a different plane, the glorious demise of the Alamo garrison gave the Texans a rallying cry that lifted their political struggle against Santa Anna to the moral realm.”

In death, the heroes “transcended their flaws; absolved of their sins, they entered the pantheon of American heroes.”

Santa Anna had blundered seriously. In the moral struggle he commenced at the Alamo, there was no chance of victory. He had poked the proverbial hornets’ nest (more viciously still, with the massacre at Goliad of 400 Texans who had surrendered to him).

When Houston’s army receded toward Louisiana, their leader looking to draw nearby American forces into the conflict, the men grew angrier almost by the day. It was a democratic army, a force more than willing to “reason why.” The Texans railed at Houston for his entirely prudent refusal to give battle before he could expect victory.

When he could no longer stave off their demands — and when he found Santa Anna, with a portion of his force, detached from the van — he let them have at it. Revenge ensued. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but then neither had the massacres at the Alamo and Goliad been pretty.

The outcome of the Battle of San Jacinto — liberty for Texas — bulks larger in any decent narrative than the means used for its accomplishment. “Lone Star Nation” is more than decent. It is vibrant, energetic, and masterful.

William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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