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The Annexation of Texas
How Politics Influenced the Admission of Texas to the Union
The debate throughout the 1830s and 1840s on whether or not to annex Texas was heavily influenced, and exercised to small amount of influence on, the political atmosphere of the day. At the top of the discussion was the unpleasant fact of slavery and its possible expansion, but other factors, such as Mexico and its persistent claims on Texas, were also pertinent. Ultimately, the outcome of a Presidential election turned on the debate, and this outcome also played a part in how the issue of annexation was settled.
Political jockeying on the Texas issue began almost as soon as it gained independence from Mexico in 1836. The Administrations of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, though privately sympathetic to annexation, did almost nothing publicly to promote it, which left Congress. An early attempt to pass an annexation bill was made in 1838, but it was killed in the House of Representatives in a 22-day filibuster led by former President John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts. The issue was controversial on several points, but the top two concerns expressed on Capitol Hill were over the expansion of slavery and worries that U.S. annexation of Texas would provoke a war with Mexico, whose government never recognized General Santa Anna's surrender of its former province.
Until the early 1840s, the issue remained stalled. A severe economic depression from 1837 until 1842 made territorial acquisition unpalatable, in the U.S. at least; in Texas, which was continuously wracked by economic troubles, the prospect of rescue through annexation was always attractive to some. The most important obstacle, however, was lack of leadership on the pro-annexation side. The Van Buren Administration, while sympathetic, had its own reasons for not coming out fully in support; while Texas President Sam Houston in 1838 withdrew any annexation offers on the table, and his successor Mirabeau B. Lamar promoted ambitions to make Texas a strong independent Republic, plans which ultimately ruined its economy and placed it in an even more vulnerable position. In 1841, however, the leadership in both countries changed--Van Buren was defeated by Whig candidate William Henry Harrison, whose death after only a month in office put the dedicated pro-slavery expansionist John Tyler in office; while Sam Houston came back into power again in the Lone Star Republic. Together with their respective secretaries of state, these two men slowly but surely moved Texas closer to becoming part of the Union.
Houston took a circuitous route in his policy with regard to annexation this time. First, he sent a chargé d'affairs, Isaac Van Zandt, to Washington to express new interest in joining the Union. Simultaneously, he and his Secretary of State, Anson Jones (Houston's minister to the U.S. in his first term) began negotiating with Britain and France for a trade alliance. The British government, which had separate designs on California, began trying to broker a peace treaty between Texas and Mexico; this offer involved Mexico recognizing Texas independence in return for Texas abolishing slavery and moving its southern border from the Rio Grande to the Nueces River--the latter part of which would give Britain a springboard to California. This program of dual diplomacy failed to achieve results by 1844; Jones, who would go on to succeed Houston as President this year, had begun to lose hopes of annexation and to encourage the European alliances and independence as the best course.
Texas had had an important ally in Washington, Tyler's Secretary of State, Abel P. Upshur. Under orders from Tyler, he and Van Zandt had worked out a treaty for annexation in secret negotiations--the annexation being such a politically explosive issue, in an election year, that Tyler, who craved a second term, opted on a gamble that the Senate would be compelled to accept a treaty presented to them as a fait accompli. In February of 1844, however, Upshur was killed on board the warship USS Princeton while participating in a demonstration of a cannon that exploded. Upshur's replacement, John C. Calhoun, an ardent expansionist, agreed to support the secret treaty, and he and President Tyler signed it on April 12 along with the Texas dignitaries Van Zandt and James P. Henderson; the treaty was presented to the U.S. Senate on April 22.
Calhoun, hoping to turn this issue in such a way as to influence the U.S. Presidential election that year, wrote a letter to British Foreign Secretary Lord Aberdeen. Calhoun spoke of his desire to make Texas a part of a great Southern cotton kingdom based on slavery. He threatened that if the treaty were rejected, the rest of the South would secede from the Union and, along with Texas, unite to form that kingdom; that fears of the Republic's being taken over by England would make this unavoidable. Instead of scaring opponents into swinging over to support the treaty in order to avoid disunion, this letter, once it became public, only intensified the debate and hardened the opponents attitudes--in effect, it strengthened them by giving them a cause worthy to defeat the treaty.
In Texas, Houston sat, dismayed at the turn events had taken. He had hoped to secure guarantees from the Union of military protection. Calhoun could offer only to send troops to the frontier to be ready in case they were needed. Seeing that the treaty would relegate Texas to territorial status, Houston and Jones were skeptical of the whole project, and had decided that remaining independent under British protection was far better. Unfortunately, time constraints had prevented Van Zandt and Henderson from waiting for instructions from Houston, and they went ahead and signed the treaty, leaving their government to wait and hope for the best.
Opposition quickly formed in the U.S. Senate to the treaty, and it might have been taken as a bad sign that it was led by a Southern member who was also an expansionist, Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. Benton was angered by the illicit behaviour of President Tyler and Secretary of State Calhoun. His arguments ran the gamut from objections to assuming Texas debts to Mexico's threat of war. Ultimately, Benton's arguments won a majority of the Southern Senators to his side, and they helped defeat the treaty by a large margin on June 8; even a last minute appeal by former President Jackson couldn't save it.
TO BE CONTINUED