Shoot the Messenger

So what if I’m a respected professor and an award-winning author (not to mention a grown-up)? When I talk about Texas history with seventh graders, I often feel as if I’m under siege at the Alamo. And they show me no mercy.

June 2006By Comments

I KNEW I WAS IN TROUBLE when the seventh graders started making me nervous. They shouldn’t have; they were, after all, only middle school kids forced to take a year of Texas history. A handful in the back played it cool, conspicuously unimpressed by the visiting history professor and disdaining the day’s special activity. But most were as innocently earnest as youth can be. Their faces shone while they shuffled their note cards, which held the questions they had been assigned to formulate. By outward appearance, they weren’t anyone’s idea of an intellectual hit squad.

But what did I know? I had never claimed to be an expert in Texas history, and writing a book about the Texas Revolution, Lone Star Nation, simply revealed to me the extent of my ignorance. It wasn’t even my idea; my New York publisher, in the flush of George W. Bush’s inauguration as president and amid his soaring public-approval ratings following September 11, 2001, thought America was ready for a book about Texas. I wasn’t so sure. I had never questioned the dramatic value of the events surrounding the Battle of the Alamo, and I thought if I did reasonable justice to the story, the book would sell well in Texas. But elsewhere? I had to be persuaded. An attractive advance did the trick, and I set to work.

I began having second thoughts when a preliminary piece, titled “The Alamo Should Never Have Happened,” appeared in this magazine in  March 2003. I suggested that the Texas defenders squandered manpower trying to protect a post that wouldn’t have done them any good had they held it and that Santa Anna lost time, troops, and moral standing by insisting on crushing the garrison there. I knew some people would be provoked, but I thought the fact that Sam Houston shared my view—he tried to have the Alamo evacuated before the siege began—would afford me some shelter. It didn’t. I was damned for an ignorant Yankee who knew nothing about Texas, history, or human nature.

I finished writing the book with understandable trepidation. If a five-page article could stir such passions, what would a five-hundred-page book do? Friends unfamiliar with Texas public higher education suggested a sabbatical to coincide with its release, to put a certain distance between me and the more irate readers. (The University of Texas at Austin, sadly, doesn’t provide sabbaticals for its tenured professors.) A few went so far as to recommend a writer’s version of a witness-protection program.

But to my surprise, the response was less vehement than I had expected. The comparative calm owed partly, I assumed, to the circumstance that the book allowed me the length to develop my arguments more fully. But it also reflected something I hadn’t anticipated at all. Many readers of history like their heroes to be heroes and their villains villains, with as little commingling as possible. I had assumed that my Texas readers might take offense at learning of the checkered—to put it mildly—backgrounds of such icons as William Barret Travis and James Bowie.

Instead, many readers positively reveled in the dastardly Travis, who abandoned a child and a pregnant wife to travel to Texas and who kept a scorecard of his romantic conquests, and Bowie, a slave smuggler and Enron-class business fraud. A central lesson of the Alamo was that humans can find redemption here below, by some brave and selfless act in the final moments of life. The sinner becomes a saint, and the graver the sin, the greater the glory.

The muted response to the book also had something to do with the circumstance that on the really incendiary issues, I tactfully waffled. I had envisioned prospective purchasers walking into bookstores, pulling my book from the shelf, and turning to the part where Davy Crockett dies. If my rendition of his death matched theirs, they might buy the book; if not, they would slam it down and storm off.

On this topic, there’s no safe side. To contend that Crockett was captured and executed after the battle, as José Enrique de la Peña’s eyewitness account of the campaign asserts, is to question Crockett’s courage and, by implication, the validity of the entire Alamo project. Having impugned the wisdom, if not the courage, of the defenders before, I saw no reason to repeat myself. But to reject de la Peña’s version is, in the minds of certain others, to deny the legitimacy of a Mexican perspective on the Texas war, with the ethnocentric and perhaps racist implications such denial entails.

So I did the only thing an honest historian could do under the circumstances: I hid behind my sources. The most-contemporary accounts of Crockett’s death contradict one another. Some have him dying in the battle; others execute him afterward. I laid out the dueling versions and let readers decide for themselves. I did allow myself a flippant footnote about why anyone would get so worked up about a matter of such little significance in the large scheme, but even that failed to provoke any but the really invested (on both sides of the issue). To a degree I hadn’t anticipated, most readers were willing to live with the uncertainty.

Not so the seventh graders. Some native Texans claim distinction on account of having been born here; the naturalized and resident aliens (from all countries, including the United States) are clumped into a lesser category. The most meaningful divide, however, isn’t between the native born and the immigrants but between those who were here at puberty—precisely, in September of their thirteenth year—and those who arrived later.

I don’t know enough of the history of Texas public education to be able to say whether the timing is deliberate, but it would be an odd accident if the teaching of Texas history to middle school students at just the moment of life when Christian children are being confirmed and Jewish kids bar (and bat) mitzvahed is simply a coincidence. The seventh-grade Texas history class is as much a rite of passage, an initiation into the culture and belief system of Texas, as those other ceremonies are to their respective cultures and mind-sets. In each case the timing is critical: The initiates are mature enough intellectually to absorb and retain a complex body of information but immature enough emotionally not to question it too closely.

The parallel isn’t perfect. Not even the Daughters of the Republic of Texas claim that the canonical texts of Lone Star history were divinely inspired (although Travis’s Victory or Death letter from the Alamo is plausibly accounted sublime. And Travis himself wasn’t so diffident. “The Lord is on our side,” he wrote in a postscript to this letter). The elaborate rituals of religious initiation are missing (although the Texas Pledge of Allegiance—“Honor the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one and indivisible”—fills some of the gap. That the pledge used to begin “Honor the Texas Flag of 1836” makes the historical connection even clearer).

Texas isn’t unique in teaching the history of the state. Every state’s schools include something of local interest in the curriculum. But no state devotes anywhere near so much attention to its origin myths. Texans can argue, with a certain justification, that their myths are more compelling than those of other states. Texas, the seventh graders are told, is the only state to have been an independent country. (On this point they’ll get an argument from proud Vermonters who recall the Green Mountain Republic and from California descendants of the rebels who proclaimed the Bear Flag Republic of 1846.) And then there are those six flags, two more than any other. (Whether, as with Liz Taylor, Larry King, and other serial matrimonialists, this signifies great appeal or an incapacity to sustain attachment is an open question.)

Such interpretive issues are lost on the seventh graders—these days, at any rate. In an earlier, more confident era, the tale of Texas was delivered to students not merely interpreted but predigested. Starting in the twenties, four decades of schoolchildren took their cues from a cartoon book called Texas History Movies, which was originally drawn as a comic strip by Jack Patton and captioned by John Rosenfeld Jr. and later distributed by the Magnolia Petroleum Company. Though lighthearted and often witty, the vignettes conveyed a definite interpretation of Texas history, in which the right (that is, the white) side won the Texas Revolution. Mexicans weren’t all evil, but enough were to color (literally, which was to say, pictorially) the actions and motives of the rest.

The Texas story grew more complicated as the Jim Crow system disintegrated and the schools integrated in the sixties and seventies. Textbook writers made room for a valid Mexican point of view on the secession of Texas from the Mexican republic. Mexicans began appearing in the bold-faced type reserved for memorable characters and concepts. Indians and African Americans entered the picture as other than savages and Sambos. Eventually, even Santa Anna was rehabilitated. Texas and Texans, a current textbook, characterizes his order to execute the 350 Texans at Goliad as eminently reasonable: “He feared that if he let the Texans go, they would join others in the rebellion. He also relied on the Mexican law that required the execution of those who took up arms against the government.” The heroes of the revolution didn’t become less heroic, exactly, but the villains grew decidedly less villainous, till there weren’t any villains at all.

With no one to blame for the war that wrested Texas from Mexico, the seventh graders focused on facts. Facts aren’t simply the building blocks of interpretation, the paving stones of theory, although they are certainly that. Facts are the neutral ground of history, the incontestable little history of which big history is made. (To those radical postmodernists who deny the existence of facts, claiming that even these are constructed by observers, Daniel Patrick Moynihan had the appropriate response: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions but not to his own facts.”) In the multiply inclusive, exquisitely sensitive world of modern public education, facts are comparatively safe. And in the chronically close contest for public education funding, they have the additional, inestimable value of being suited to multiple-choice, and hence inexpensive, testing.

The result of this confluence of culture, ideology, psychology, and economics is that Texas schools churn out armies of seventh graders, some 330,000 per year, who potentially know more facts about their state’s history than students anywhere else know of their states’ histories—and more than any but very specialized professional historians will ever know.

And when the most diligent of these students start peppering a particular nonspecialized historian with questions about the facts of Texas, things can get ugly. Their sweet faces turn suddenly serious; the note cards flash like sharks’ teeth rising hungrily from the depths. How long was Bowie’s famous knife? How many black beans were in that fatal jar? Was Sam Houston really born on Texas Independence Day? How large was the Indian army at Adobe Walls? Who was Angelina Eberly?

The historian retreats in the face of the onslaught. He ducks some of the questions (“Longer than anyone else’s knife”). He clouds the issue semantically (“The word ‘decimate’ comes from the Latin for ‘tenth’”). With a laugh, he tosses the issue back to the historical principals (“Ol’ Sam said he was, but Ol’ Sam said lots of things”). He pleads ongoing research (“Anthropologists are still digging”). He passes the buck, under the guise of professional courtesy (“That’s a question your teacher can probably answer better than I can. Coach Jones?”).

The bell rings, barely soon enough. Everyone has learned something valuable: the students that historians don’t know everything about history, the historian that whoever warned against messing with Texas wasn’t kidding around—not with the seventh graders on the case.

H. W. Brands is the Dickson Allen, Anderson Centennial Professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

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