Sunday, June 05, 2011

Tejanos and the Elusive Goal of Whiteness, Part III

Like Mexicans, Anglo-Americans were also divided by class, race, region and gender, but by the 1830s a powerful racial myth of an Anglo-Saxon past had developed that would reconcile the principals of liberty enshrined in the Declaration of Independence with the institution of slavery and justify a war of aggression against Mexico.

Anglos in the United States divided over the Texas Revolution, the annexation of Texas, and then the Mexican-American War due to the effects this U.S. expansion into the Southwest borderland would have on the extension of slavery. But almost all Anglo elites, North and South, abolitionist and pro-slavery, agreed on the basic premise of Anglo superiority and the inferiority of Africans, Indians and Mexicans.

Reginald Horseman, in his powerful "Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Anglo-Saxonism," traces how white elites in America constructed a unifying racial myth that would eventually encompass racialized immigrants such as German- and Irish-Americans. A spurious scholarship developed that claimed the Anglo-Saxons, from their days in the German forests to their conquest of England, as the inventors and evangelists of democracy.

The Anglo-Saxons, this myth claimed, had their origin among the Aryan people of India and had brought civilization wherever they migrated. Their life as so-called “barbarians” in the German forests, these scholars claimed, had in fact been a beau ideal of democracy based on manhood suffrage. These Anglo-Saxons of myth elected their chiefs and developed a sophisticated system of justice. They brought these institutions to England after the fall of the Roman Empire and created a free land. This was destroyed, the Anglo-Saxon school would claim, with the Norman invasion of 1066. These Gallic Catholic invaders imposed absolute monarchy and corrupted the world’s first truly democratic society. This justified the Puritan Revolt of the seventeenth century, a process of purification consummated with the American Revolution. By conquest, the Anglo-Saxons could bring the blessings of liberty to the rest of the world.

In this ideology, democracy was a racial trait. The Anglo-Saxon was the culmination of history, these scholars would argue. From the beginning of time, civilization had moved from East to West, beginning with the Egyptians, then the Greeks, then the Romans, the British, and finally the United States of America, which, by logic was destined to take the Western half of North America from backwards Indians and inferior Mexicans. Once the conquest of the West was complete, civilization was fated to close the circle with an Anglo Saxon invasion of the Asian Pacific. Such was the Manifest Destiny of “Anglo Saxon” Americans.

The ideology of Anglo-Saxonism provided an ideological excuse for the attack on Mexico, and also drove the American decision as to where to draw the new United States-Mexico border. The Anglos absorbed the thinly-populated northern provinces but left those areas with a large mestizo population to Mexico. Large numbers of dark-skinned Mexicans were unsuitable for the “white republic.”

Anglo-Saxonism was the first construction of whiteness in the United States, and it was also the most exclusive one. Whites were, of course, considered superior to people of other colors. But it was exclusively the Anglo-Saxon who sat on top of the racial heap. Latinate people - the French, the Spanish, the descendants of the ancient Romans as well as the Greeks - lacked the capacity for invention and democracy of the Anglo Saxons and had created imperfect religions and societies. Of course, it was as absurd for any descendent of the oft-invaded British Isles to claim a pure “Anglo-Saxon” heritage as it was for the Spanish to claim limpieza de sangre. It would be impossible to trace with what groups the “Indo-Iranians” (from which the people of Western Europe sprang) interbred.

In any case, the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain in the fifth century certainly miscegenated with the native Celts and transplanted descendants of Roman invaders and were, in turn, blended with Viking and Norman invaders. How any “white” resident of the United States, a society that had already seen a wide immigration of non-Anglo Saxon Germans, Northern Europeans and the Irish, was supposed to trace a “pure” Anglo-Saxon heritage was left to the imagination. As a matter of practicality, the Anglo-Saxonists broadened their vision to incorporate Americans descended of other Western and Northern European ethnicities, minus dark-skinned Spaniards.

This ideology laid the perfect ideological groundwork for the Anglo invasion of Texas and the subsequent conquest of half of Mexico’s territory in the 1846-1848 War. The vast, thinly settled lands of the Southwest were being “wasted” by lazy, incompetent Mexicans and their close Indian relatives, the Anglo Saxonists argued. Anglo Saxon America owed it to the world to “civilize” area and bring the blessings of progress to an “empty” wasteland. Violence in the name of civilization could be reconciled with American ideas of “liberty” as had slavery.

Numerically, Anglos had overwhelmed the Texas territory by the time of the 1836 conquest, with some 30,000 Anglo-Americans residing in the territory as opposed to 5,000 “Mexicans.” The Anglo settlers, of course, had agreed to assimilate into Mexican society, to become Catholics and to take an oath of allegiance to the Mexican government. As historian Rodolfo Acuña points out, in spite of their agreements, the Anglo colonists became resentful when Mexico tried to enforce these and its import and anti-slavery laws. Mexican attempts to restrict slaveholding agitated Anglo leader Stephen F. Austin as much as the tax issue, according to Acuña. Anglos not only wanted to extend slavery into Mexican territory but were agents of American aggression.

“North Americans fought the Texas War - that is, U.S. dollars financed it, U.S. arms were used on Mexican soil and Euroamericans almost exclusively profited from it,” Acuña writes. “President Andrew Jackson approved of the war and ignored North American neutrality laws. The so-called Republic held Texas in trusteeship until 1844 when the United States annexed it. This act amounted to a declaration of war on Mexico. When Mexico responded by breaking off diplomatic relations, the North Americans used this excuse to manufacture the war.”

Lust for land and dreams of expanding the slaveholding South make poor materials for a national myth. Alleged Mexican deficiencies of character became the key to transforming a tale of aggression to one of heroism. In this myth, slaveholders became freedom fighters. Anglo newcomers to the state became defenders of their homeland (only a half-dozen defenders of the Alamo had been in the state for more than six years.)

The resident Mexicans became the invaders, the Anglos the native “Texans” defending against an alien force. This rationalizing myth centered on the image of Anglo crusaders waging an uneven battle against a “tyrannical or, at best, incompetent Mexican government that was antithetical to the ideals of democracy and justice.” Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna became the perfect cartoon villain in the creation of this myth, the very embodiment of the venal, dark-skinned enemy of virtuous Anglo-Saxonism. “He is European culture gone bad, dripping and rotting with excess, which becomes the perversion of culture,” anthropologist Holly Beachley Brear writes of the Mexican dictator’s role in the Alamo racial allegory.

In fact, Anglos had agitated for conquest of what would become Mexican territory long before the establishment of Santa Ana’s dictatorship. The United States had agitated for expansion into the Mexican territory even before both nations had become independent. As early as 1767, Ben Franklin advocated Anglo expansion into Texas and Cuba. In 1824, just three years after the establishment of the Mexican independence, President John Quincy Adams began putting pressure on Mexico to cede Texas. Hayden Edwards led a filibuster in the town of Nacogdoches in 1826. Anglo disgust at “Mexican inferiority” underlies this long effort to absorb Mexican territory from the days of Franklin to the final Anglo victory in Mexico City in 1848. Abiel Abbott Livermore, in his 1850 work "The War with Mexico Reviewed," argued that belief in Anglo superiority had fueled the conquest of the Mexico’s northern frontiers.

“Again, the pride of race has swollen to still greater insolence the pride of country, always quite active enough for the due observance of the claims of universal brotherhood. The Anglo-Saxons have been apparently persuaded to think themselves the chosen people, anointed race of the Lord, commissioned to drive out the heathen, and plant their religion and institutions in every Canaan they could subjugate . . . Our treatment of the red man and the black man has habituated us to feel our power and forget right.”

The defeat of the Anglos at the Alamo, transformed by myth into a massacre of a small force by an overwhelming army of bullies, added to the mass murder of military prisoners at Goliad, (where 400 Anglo prisoners of war were shot, their bodies stripped and burned) would further sanctify Anglo violence against Mexicans. Racist sentiment led to wartime atrocities on the part of American soldiers as they thrust more deeply into Mexico in the 1846-1848 war, slaughtering civilians to the cries of “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” A diary of one American solider, Samuel E. Chamberlain’s (published in 1956 as My Confessions) details the sadism of American troops near one cave:

“On reaching the place we found a ‘greaser’ shot and scalped, but still breathing; the poor fellow held in his hands a Rosary and a medal of the ‘Virgin of Guadalupe,’ only his feeble motions keeping the fierce harpies from falling on him while yet alive. A Sabre thrust was given him in mercy, and on we went at a run. Soon shouts and curses, cries of women and children reached our ears, coming apparently from a cave at the end of the ravine.

"Climbing over the rocks, we reached the entrance, and as soon as we could see in the comparative darkness a horrid sight was before us. The cave was full of our volunteers yelling like fiends, while on the rocky floor lay over twenty Mexicans, dead and dying in pools of blood. Women and children were clinging to the knees of the murderers shrieking for mercy . . . Most of the butchered Mexicans had been scalped; only three were found unharmed. A rough crucifix was fastened to a rock, and some irreverent wretch had crowned the image with a bloody scalp. A sickening smell filled the place. The surviving women and children sent up loud screams on seeing us, thinking we had returned to finish the work! . . . No one was punished for the outrage.”

A young officer, Ulysses S. Grant, later to be commander of the Northern troops in the American Civil War, wrote to his future wife Julia Dent from his post Matamoros. “Some of the volunteers and about all of the Texans seem to think it perfectly right to impose on the people of a conquered city to any extent, and even to murder them where the act can be covered by dark!” one letter laments. “And how much they seem to enjoy acts of violence too! I would not pretend to guess the number of murders that have been committed upon the persons of poor Mexicans . . . but the number would startle you.”

The American historical myth of the Anglo invasion would conveniently omit atrocities committed by United States troops in Mexico and dramatically highlight Mexican excesses at Goliad and the Alamo during the Texas Revolution. American bravery would be set against Mexican cowardice, incompetence and cruelty. Tales from the Anglo invasion would be retold every generation in cities like Dallas, rationalizing Anglo exploitation of Mexican-American labor and violence against Mexican-American residents.

Central to this racial project was the mythology surrounding the Battle of the Alamo. ‘Within the broad framework of what actually happened - 187 filibusters barricading themselves in the Alamo in defiance of Santa Anna’s force, which, according to Mexican sources numbered 1,400, and the eventual triumph of the Mexicans - there has been major distortion,” Acuña writes.

According to both Acuña and historian Walter Lord, the Alamo was the best-protected fort west of the Mississippi, possessing 21 cannons to the Mexicans eight to 10. “They [the Anglos] were expert shooters with rifles with a range of 200 yards, while the Mexicans were inadequately trained and armed with smooth-bore muskets with a range of only 70 yards,” Acuña says. “The Anglos were protected by walls and had clear shots, while the Mexicans advanced in the open and fired at concealed targets.”

Santa Anna’s entire army, portrayed as professional and well-organized in the myth, consisted of about 6,000 conscripts who had been forced into enlistment, poorly fed and then marched across hot, dry desert terrain before they reached San Antonio. Many of the troops were Maya and could not understand their Spanish-speaking commanders. The portion of the army sent to combat the Anglos in San Antonio were sick and unprepared for battle.

In the mythic re-telling of the battle, the number of Mexican soldiers engaged in the battle is dramatically inflated to around 4,000. Almost entirely mythic stories are concocted to erase any advantages the Anglos may have had at the Alamo and to underscore their bravery.

In the most famous painting of the battle, by Anglo Texan Robert Onderdonk, an aging Davey Crockett is depicted fighting proudly before the Alamo, out of ammunition and bravely swinging his rifle butt against a swarm of dark and crouching Mexicans. The rifle is “Old Betsy,” a cherished firearm of Crockett’s, which had actually been left behind in his native Tennessee. In fact, Crockett did not die swinging his rifle but was one of seven Alamo defenders to surrender. He was later executed.

In another Alamo tale, William Barrett Travis grimly informs the Alamo defenders that they faced hopeless odds. Travis draws a line in the sand, saying that all who crossed it would be electing to remain and fight to the death. Only one man fails to cross, according to the legend, Louis (Moses) Rose, a Jew who scales the Alamo wall and sneaks away from the fort under cover of night.

“Rose is the old order, being both Jewish and European,” Brear notes in her analysis of Alamo mythology. “ . . . [H]e us similar to Judas in the Gospels who, though initially part of Christ’s inner circle, abandons Christ and his disciples in their darkest hour.” Others who remained at the Alamo were Jewish, as documented by Natalie Ornish’s Pioneer Jewish Texans: Their Impact on Texas and American History for Four Hundred Years, 1590-1990. But the ethnicity of the Jewish “defenders” of the Alamo is neglected. Only Rose’s Judaism was an issue for later tellers of the tale. The Texas creation myth, as Brear puts it, is thus a synthesis of anti-Mexican, anti-black, and anti-Semitic sentiment.

The Mexican victory at the Alamo is attributed to ruthlessness. The Anglo victory at the Texas Revolution’s climactic Battle of San Jacinto is credited to Mexican ineptitude. Mexicans thus lose, no matter the outcome of a particular battle, in Texas mythology. At San Jacinto, the tale goes, Santa Anna looses when his sleeping troops are surprised by Sam Houston’s forces.

“ . . . [T]he transition to a new order is due in part to a fatal flaw within the old culture: siesta in the middle of the day,” Brear writes. “The Mexican soldiers have stacked their arms when they should be ready to use them. This cultural deficiency stands in contrast to the high productivity of the Texans expressed in the number of Mexicans they kill. Several versions of the Texas creation myth state with pride the number of Mexicans killed versus the number of Texans killed. This juxtaposing of the war dead creates a scoring technique which allows the Texans to ‘win’ both at the Alamo and at San Jacinto.”

The myth of the Alamo was already in full flower by the time of the Battle of San Jacinto and resulted in a bloodbath. “Few Mexican prisoners were taken at the battle of San Jacinto,” Acuña writes. “Those who surrendered ‘were clubbed and stabbed, some on their knees. The slaughter . . . became methodical; the Texan riflemen knelt and poured a steady fire into the packed, jostling ranks.’ They shot the ‘Meskins’ down as they fled. The final count showed 630 Mexicans dead versus 2 Texans.”

" In Texas mythology, Anglo excesses at San Jacinto are justified by the bloodshed at Goliad and the Alamo. “In the depictions of this battle,” Brear writes, “the concept of righting wrongs serves to justify the killing of so many unarmed Mexican soldiers.” The retelling of the Texas Revolution and the Mexican-American War would also justify anti-Mexican racial violence, labor oppression and segregation in the 150 years to follow.

Thrust into an Anglo society before a Mexican identity had been formed, Latinos in Texas struggled to climb up the racial hierarchy, or at least to escape the bottom rung. Where once the crillos and mestizos could compare themselves favorably to the Indio, these caste distinctions made little difference to the now-dominant Anglos. Indians would soon cease to be demographically significant in Texas. “Mexicans” and blacks would compete for the lowest-paying jobs and would face similar discrimination in housing and schooling. But subtle differences in racial practices would split a potential alliance between African Americans and Latinos. In Dallas, some Latinos would find the escape from the bottom rung involved climbing over the backs of blacks.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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