Far more important than any other matters was the acknowledgment of the independence of Texas; and in this, as well as in the troubles with Mexico which sprang from it, slavery again played a prominent part, altho not nearly so important at first as has commonly been represented. Doubtless the slaveholders worked hard to secure additional territory out of which to form new slave States; but Texas and California would have been in the end taken by us had there not been a single slave in the Mississippi Valley. The greed for the conquest of new lands which characterized the Western people had nothing whatever to do with the fact that some of them owned slaves. Long before there had been so much as the faintest foreshadowing of the importance which the slavery question was to assume, the West had been eagerly pressing on to territorial conquest, and had been chafing and fretting at the restraint put upon it, and at the limits set to its strivings by the treaties established with foreign powers. The first settlers beyond the Alleghanies, and their immediate successors, who moved down along the banks of the Ohio, the Cumberland, and the Tennessee, and thence out to the Mississippi itself, were not generally slaveholders; but they were all as anxious to wrest the Mississippi Valley from the control of the French as their descendants were to overrun the Spanish lands lying along the Rio Grande. In other words, slavery had very little to do with the Western aggressions on Mexican territory, however it might influence the views of Southern statesmen as to lending support to the Western schemes.
The territorial boundaries of all the great powers originally claiming the soil of the WestFrance, Spain, and the United Stateswere very ill-defined, there being no actual possession of the lands in dispute, and each power making a great showing on its own map. If the extreme views of any one were admitted, its adversary, for the time being, would have had nothing. Thus before the treaty of 1819 with Spain2 our nominal boundaries and those of the latter power in the West overlapped each other; and the extreme Western men persisted in saying that we had given up some of the territory which belonged to us because we had consented to adopt a middle line of division, and had not insisted upon being allowed the full extent of our claims.
Benton always took this view of it, insisting that we had given up our rights by the adoption of this treaty. Many Southerners improved on this idea, and spoke of the desirability of "reannexing" the territory we had surrenderedendeavoring by the use of this very inappropriate word to give a color of right to their proceedings. As a matter of fact it was inevitable, as well as in the highest degree desirable for the good of humanity at large, that the American people should ultimately crowd out the Mexicans from their sparsely populated northern provinces. But it was quite as desirable that this should not be done in the interests of slavery.
American settlers had begun to press into the outlying Spanish province of Texas before the treaty of 1819 was ratified. Their numbers went on increasing, and at first the Mexican Government,3 having achieved independence of Spain, encouraged their incoming. But it soon saw that their presence boded danger, and forbade further immigration; without effect, however, as the settlers and adventurers came thronging in as fast as ever. The Americans had brought their slaves with them, and when the Mexican government issued a decree liberating all slaves, they refused to be bound by it; and this decree was among the reasons alleged for their revolt. It has been represented as the chief if not the sole cause of the rebellion; but in reality it was not the cause at all; it was merely one of the occasions.
Long before slavery had been abolished in Mexico, and before it had become an exciting question in the United States, the infant colony of Texas, when but a few months old, had made an abortive attempt at insurrection. Any one who has ever been on the frontier, and who knows anything whatever of the domineering, masterful spirit and bitter race prejudices of the white frontiersmen, will acknowledge at once that it was out of the question that the Texans should long continue under Mexican rule; and it would have been a great misfortune if they had. It was out of the question to expect them to submit to the mastery of the weaker race, which they were supplanting. Whatever might be the pretexts alleged for revolt, the real reasons were to be found in the deeply-marked difference of race, and in the absolute unfitness of the Mexicans then to govern themselves, to say nothing of governing others. During the dozen years that the American colony in Texas formed part of Mexico, the government of the latter went through revolution after revolutionrepublic, empire, and military dictatorship following one another in bewildering succession. A state of things like this in the central government, especially when the latter belonged to a race alien in blood, language, religion, and habits of life, would warrant any community in determining to shift for itself. Such would probably have been the result even on people as sober and peaceable as the Texan settlers were waxlike, reckless, and overbearing.
But the majority of those who fought for Texan independence were not men who had already settled in that territory, but, on the contrary, were adventurers from the States, who had come to help their kinsmen and to win for themselves, by their own prowess, homes on what was then Mexican soil. It may as well be frankly admitted that the conduct of the American frontiersmen all through this contest can be justified on no possible plea of international morality or law. Still, we can not judge them by the same standard we should apply to the dealings between highly civilized powers of approximately the same grade of virtue and intelligence. Two nations may be contemporaneous so far as mere years go, and yet, for all that, may be existing among surroundings which practically are centuries apart. The nineteenth century on the banks of the Thames, the Seine, and the Rhine, or even of the Hudson and the Potomac, was one thing; the nineteenth century in the valley of the Rio Grande was another and quite a different thing.
The conquest of Texas should properly be classed with conquests like those of the Norse sea-rovers. The virtues and faults alike of the Texans were those of a barbaric age. They were restless, brave, and eager for adventure, excitement, and plunder; they were warlike, resolute, and enterprising; they had all the marks of a young and hardy race, flushed with the pride of strength and self-confidence. On the other hand, they showed again and again the barbaric vices of boastfulness, ignorance, and cruelty; and they were utterly careless of the rights of others, looking upon the possessions of all weaker races as simply their natural prey.
A band of settlers entering Texas was troubled by no greater scruples of conscience than, a thousand years before, a ship-load of Knut's followers might have felt at landing in England; and when they were engaged in warfare with the Mexicans. they could count with certainty upon assistance from their kinsfolk who had been left behind, and for the same reasons that had enabled Rolf's Norsemen on the seacoast of France to rely confidently on Scandinavian help in their quarrels with their Karling over-lords. The great Texan hero, Houston,4 who drank hard and fought hard, who was mighty in battle and crafty in council, with his reckless, boastful courage, and his thirst for changes and risks of all kinds, his propensity for private brawling, and his queerly blended impulses for good and evil, might, with very superficial alterations of character, stand as the type of an oldworld Vikingplus the virtue of a deep and earnestly patriotic attachment to his whole country. Indeed, his career was as picturesque and romantic as that of Harold Hardraada5 himself, and, to boot, was much more important in its results.
Thus, the Texan struggle for independence stirred up the greatest sympathy and enthusiasm in the United States. The administration remained nominally neutral, but obviously sympathized with the Texans, permitting arms and men to be sent to their help, without hindrance, and indeed doing not a little discreditable bullying in the diplomatic dealing with Mexico, which that unfortunate community had her hands too full to resent. Still we did not commit a more flagrant breach of neutrality than, for instance, England was at the same time engaged in committing in reference to the civil wars in Spain. The victory of San Jacinto, in which Houston literally annihilated a Mexican force twice the strength of his own, virtually decided the contest; and the Senate at once passed a resolution recognizing the independence of Texas. Calhoun wished that body to go farther, and forthwith admit Texas as a State into the Union; but Benton and his colleagues were not prepared to take such a step at so early a date, altho intending, of course, that in the end she should be admitted. There was little opposition to the recognition of Texan independence, altho a few members of the Lower House, headed by Adams, voted against it. While a cabinet officer, and afterward as President, Adams had done all that he could to procure by purchase or treaty the very land which was afterward the cause of our troubles with Mexico.
1 From Roosevelt's "Life of Thomas H. Benton." By permission of, and by arrangement with, the authorized publishers, Houghton, Mifflin Company. Copyright 1886.
2 This treaty was negotiated in Washington in February, 1819, and was a treaty of amity, pertaining to settlements and territorial limits. By it, we acquired Florida.
3 Mexico for three hundred years from the time of Cortez in 1519 had been a colony of Spain; but revolutions began in 1810, partially supprest in 1815, followed by guerrilla warfare until 1821, when, under Iturbide, the last Spanish viceroy was deposed, and Mexico became independent.
4 Samuel, or "Sam," Houston.
5 King of Norway from 1046 to 1086. He had previously been in military service at Constantinople as commander of the Imperial Roman Guard, and defeated the Saracens in eighteen battles in North Africa. After he became King of Norway, Harold invaded England, where he was defeated in battle at Stamford Bridge by King Harold II of England, who three weeks later was defeated and killed at Hastings by William the Conqueror.