The Southern Slave Conspiracy to Annex Texas
A Tale of Two Intrigues
It has been suggested that the movement to annex Texas was part of a conspiracy by the slave power of the United States to extend and perpetuate the institution of slavery. That the Southern interests had a definite interest in the admission of Texas to the Union is obvious, and that this interest was inherently tied to slavery, the predominate economic asset of the region in the Nineteenth Century, is also painfully obvious. Of greater concern here is the question of the extent to which the slave interest, and the political leaders who represented it, put their ambitions for Texas into action. How far did back did this movement go? Who was involved? How did the advocates of annexation manipulate events to achieve their ends? What about Mexico? Was war with that nation deliberately provoked in the interests of perpetuating human slavery?
The connection of Texas with the United States dates at least as far back as 1803, when the Jefferson Administration purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. From the beginning, many Americans laid claim to Texas as part of the Louisiana Purchase, based on French claims to the territory going back to La Salle. In fact, Louisiana may have included the far northern section of the present state south of the Red River and including the Panhandle. Officially, all U.S. claims to Texas were given up in 1819 with the Adams-Onis Treaty between the U.S. and Spain, but American settlers had been settling northeastern Texas illicitly for years, and the resolution of the dispute did nothing to prevent this incursion of mostly Southern citizens (along with their slaves) into the region. Mexican Independence, and the opening of Texas to colonization, increased the level of American immigration from a trickle to a flood. Ultimately, this influx concerned the Mexican government, particularly as most of the new settlers were southern slaveholders, and Mexican law prohibited slavery. On April 6, 1830, the government passed a series of immigration restrictions, including one prohibiting the introduction of slaves into Mexican territory.
The Law of April 6 set off a firestorm of protest, and within a few years Mexico had acceded to pressure to excuse Texas from the most controversial parts. The law gave advocates of separation from Mexico, both in Texas and in the United States, the opportunity they had been waiting for. Meanwhile, immigration continued, along with signs of open conflict and rebellion, leading up to the Texas Revolution of 1835-36.
Here comes the first opportunity to explore the question of a conspiracy among Southern Americans to acquire Texas for the purpose of slavery expansion. A proposal to offer to purchase Texas from Mexico had actually been advanced in 1827 by then Secretary of State Henry Clay of Kentucky, but it did not go very far. Andrew Jackson, of Tennessee had long supported a movement to "reacquire" Texas, as he called it; he had long championed the idea that the province had been a part of the Louisiana Purchase. This claim, spurious though it might have been, is the main source of speculation that Jackson might have been a leader of this slave power conspiracy, especially after he became President in 1829. Certainly the man he defeated, John Quincy Adams (who had been the Secretary of State who negotiated the 1819 treaty with Spain) thought so, and said so in his diary of 1832. And Mexico might have been prepared to believe a conspiracy existed, as most of the spirit of rebellion in Texas was led by emigres from the slaveholding South.
Was there a conspiracy? Maybe, but as with most conspiracy theories, there is really no evidence other than circumstantial to back it up. The influx of Southerners into Texas makes sense, given the proximity of the region to the Southern states and its suitability for agricultural pursuits. Naturally, Southerners and their political spokesmen were anxious to preserve their peculiar institution, which they claimed, dubiously, to be the main source of their prosperity; this hardly stands out as evidence of a conspiracy to take Texas. The main focus of any conspiracy theory is the idea that its sponsors, led by the Jackson Administration, actively encouraged emigration into Texas in order to foment rebellion; emigrants certainly had no need to wait for encouragement from Washington to move into the area however, and most Americans came for the land grants that Mexico still offered generously, not for the blatantly political motives a conspiracy theory suggests.
Moreover, conspiracy theorists have to contend with the mysterious lack of interest in Texas displayed by Jackson and his cronies. That they desired the province is clear; but Jackson and his successor, Martin Van Buren, were more concerned with protecting the the Democratic Party they had created from the division that would inevitably result from any open moves to expand slavery. Jackson's biggest opportunity to aid the rebellion was in 1836, when the Southwest Division of the Army under Gen. Edmund Pendleton Gaines (whose brother James ran a ferry service across the Sabine River into Texas) was stationed just over the border in Louisiana; they were under orders, however, to do no more than prevent Americans from crossing over to fight, and in the case of the Sixth Infantry at Fort Jessup, to keep the Indians from interfering. Jackson dithered on Texas until March 1837, on the eve of his retirement, when he finally recognized Texas independence. President Van Buren did even less to help those favoring annexation. Meanwhile, in Texas, President Sam Houston, who supported joining the Union, was replaced by annexation opponent Mirabeau B. Lamar, which put the issue on the back burner for the next three years.
So if there was a Southern conspiracy in the 1830s, it failed for lack of leadership to achieve its goals. The evidence for such a movement at that time, however, is inconclusive. There was, however, a conspiracy that took place later, under different leadership--two leaders, in fact, working separately but ultimately for the same ends. This conspiracy involved deception and diplomatic intrigue, and although it failed in its initial objective, it ultimately succeeded in the final goal of Texas annexation.
In 1841, John Tyler succeeded President William Henry Harrison, who had died after only a month in Washington. In Texas, meanwhile, Sam Houston began another term as President. Both men shared the same goal of annexation for Texas, though perhaps for different reasons--Tyler, a determined defender of slavery, dreamed of an expanded slave empire for the South as well as a stronger political position for himself; Houston's primary interest was the future of Texas, which had tottered on the brink of extinction as a republic thanks to the Mexican threat and the disastrous policies of the Lamar Administration. Houston, however, was doubtful at this time that Texas would ever join the United States, because the forces against it were as strong as ever, and the movement for annexation was being led by a politician, President Tyler, who was basically despised by both major parties. Houston decided to pursue an alternate course, one he hoped would lead to success on the annexation front: He began negotiations with Great Britain for a commercial treaty between that country and Texas.
This news alarmed annexationists in the United States, and led to fears that what Britain really wanted was to annex Texas herself, possibly as a haven for freed slaves. Britain had recently emancipated the slaves in her West Indian colonies, a move which must have set Southerners and their political leaders on edge. In fact, there is evidence that Britain was trying to persuade Texas to abolish slavery in exchange for a trade treaty, and its entirely possible that Houston, eager to promote the interests of the Republic in case efforts to enter the Union failed, would have said yes to Britain. Tyler and the Southern slave interests were, naturally, determined to prevent this.
The Tyler Administration began secret negotiations with Houston on an annexation treaty in 1843. Secrecy was needed, Tyler reasoned, because he needed to present the U.S. Senate with a finished treaty in order to keep politics from sidetracking the overall objective; in fact, he knew his unpopularity in Congress would keep him from any progress on annexation unless he could present the body with a fait accompli. The treaty was finally presented to the Senate on April 22, 1844. It was here that Tyler used deception to trick Senators into voting for annexation. Playing on the fears brought on by news of Houston's trade negotiations with Britain, he claimed to have evidence that Britain was in fact negotiating to acquire Texas as a colony, after which she would abolish slavery there and open it up as a sanctuary for escaped slaves from the southern states. He was joined in this effort by his last two Secretaries of State. Abel Upshur and John C. Calhoun, both defenders of the pro-slavery ideology championed by Tyler.
In the end, this second conspiracy also failed, at least temporarily. The Senate rejected the annexation treaty by a large margin. This put an end to illicit efforts to admit the Republic. The issue, however, did not die, and in fact influenced and was moved forward by the Presidential election of 1844.