T.R. Fehrenbach Is History

His classic book Lone Star has reigned supreme for nearly forty years, but two new challengers are hoping to ascend the throne.

July 2006By Comments

“THE GREAT DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TEXAS and every other American state in the twentieth century was that Texas had a history.” So wrote T. R. Fehrenbach in Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, first published in 1968 and now widely regarded as the canonical version of our state’s singular history. At more than seven hundred pages, Fehrenbach’s classic tome has nearly the heft of the Old Testament, along with the equal certainty that it describes the travails and triumphs of a chosen people.

For decades, academic historians have blasted away at the scriptural authority of Lone Star. But these “revisionists” (read “heretics” if you’re a Texas history traditionalist) have scarcely dented Fehrenbach’s appeal to readers outside the ivory tower, and for more than a generation, no writer even attempted a similarly panoramic, popular treatment. Only in the new century have challengers arisen, first with Randolph B. Campbell’s Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State, written in 2003 by an esteemed scholar but with sufficient narrative drive to engage casual readers. Aimed even more directly at a general audience is Passionate Nation: The Epic History of Texas, which was published in April by novelist and award-winning biographer James L. Haley. Now looking like a trend after years of unopposed Fehrenbachian orthodoxy, these two books suggest how we’re thinking about Texas—and how we’re going to have to rethink Texas—in the twenty-first century.

The way we were, or think we were, has a formidable champion in Fehrenbach, who has also produced authoritative histories of the Korean War (in which he fought) and Mexico; at age 81, he still writes a feisty, erudite political column for the San Antonio Express-News. Fehrenbach fashioned Lone Star in the tradition of a long lineage of historians who saw Texas first, last, and always as a frontier culture, from George Pierce Garrison in the early 1900’s to Walter Prescott Webb, whose theories held sway long after his death, in 1963. These historians constructed a secular theology—the national faith of Texas—in which the promised land was the forbidding landscape west of the Balcones Escarpment (now defined by Interstate 35), and the tribe providentially selected to conquer it was the pluckiest, manliest, most devilishly clever bunch of European white males God ever placed on this earth.

As a literary achievement, Fehrenbach’s celebration of the chosen people, whom he dubbed the Anglo-Celts, may never be challenged. In paragraphs as architecturally elegant and idea ornamented as Edward Gibbon’s in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—along with passages almost Homerically poetic—Fehrenbach’s Anglo-Celts stream out of their homeland in Scotland and Ireland, hopscotch across the American South, and bring to a bloody but merciful end three centuries of desultory Hispanic suzerainty over the promised land. The Anglo-Celts don’t stop at the lush coastal plain—any wimp could make it there—but push on inexorably, summoning a courage and ingenuity unprecedented in Western civilization to vanquish the most savage foe of all, the Comanche, on their own arid West Texas turf, which then becomes the quasi-mythical Cattle Kingdom. Reconstruction does throw the Anglo-Celts for a lengthy racist loop, but that’s mostly the fault of Yankee carpetbaggers. By the end of Lone Star, the twentieth-century Texan “had little difficulty in remaining a nineteenth-century man,” and our state was evidently none the worse for it.

Nobody has ever had more insight into the Texas psyche than Fehrenbach; he tosses out lines like “The Texas system threw up men who instinctively could make the correct political decision, but only rarely a great moral decision.” But Fehrenbach’s ambitious tale of Anglo-Celtic racial destiny eventually can’t keep up with the advance of civilization; once the frontier peters out, so does the story. Even in his updated 2000 edition, Fehrenbach devotes less than a hundred of his pages to the transforming twentieth century, and for the most part he mails it in, noting in the foreword that “Texas, through the last half of the twentieth century, has suffered little ‘history.’ There has been enormous growth and . . . economic development, which are not the same thing.” Instead we are stuck with the “Texan mystique . . . created by the chemistry of the frontier in the crucible of history and forged into an enduring state of heart and mind. This may not be an entirely rational state . . .”

Word for word, paragraph for paragraph, or even idea for idea, Fehrenbach’s stirring, old-school (in his case, Princeton) eloquence isn’t eclipsed in Passionate Nation. But Haley’s new book did pick up a coveted starred review from Publishers Weekly, and the frequently irreverent contemporary narrative makes up in snappy storytelling what it lacks in showy self-importance. The title is the giveaway; derived from John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, it’s a wry reminder that today’s Texas historians must often dig for inconvenient truths beneath a heavy sediment of cherished myths. “Like most passionate nations,” Steinbeck wrote, “Texas has its own private history based on, but not limited by, facts.”

The thumbnail biographical portraits at which Haley excels are hardly mini-hagiographies—Stephen F. Austin’s letters “revealed relentless self-pity”—and he isn’t afraid to characterize some leaders of the Texas Revolution as “self-interested military amateurs with delusions of grandeur” and their followers as “frontier yahoos.” Haley also immortalizes unlikely players such as Wright Mooar, a nineteen-year-old woodcutter from Vermont, who discovered the market for buffalo hides in 1870. By exterminating their food supply, Mooar probably did more to sweep the Comanche from the Texas plains than all those valiant Anglo-Celt Indian fighters combined.

Haley doesn’t devote significantly more words to the twentieth century than does the updated Lone Star, but the march to modernity represents a considerably greater fraction of his trimmed-down 560 pages—and his heart is clearly in it. Almost without precedent in a Texas history, Haley evocatively weaves culture into the tales of political shenanigans and oil booms, sketching out figures as disparate as expatriate author Katherine Anne Porter, actor “Fatty” Arbuckle, and counterculture icon Janis Joplin. He can be as unsparing of our collective failures as he is of individual foibles, as in this analysis of immediate post—World War II affairs: “The ferocity with which the Texas establishment fought to maintain mastery of the economy and the political landscape seemed continually tied, either directly or tenuously, to race. Even when not debated openly, it was the elephant in the parlor of every political discussion.” In the end, however, Haley is careful to distance himself from the “political correctness” of many revisionists, and the critical defect of Passionate Nation may turn out be its biggest selling point with its intended audience: It undermines the Texas myth more by subtle nudges than direct challenge.

That’s not the case with Campbell, the driest stylist of the bunch but without peer at lucidly presenting real history in the harsh light of inescapable facts. A professor at the University of North Texas, in Denton, and a heavyweight among academic historians, Campbell is distinguished by having personally done a lot of the groundbreaking scholarly spadework on which Gone to Texas is based.

Campbell hits the twentieth century less than three quarters of the way through his 471-page text, and his chronicle of the economic and political changes that dramatically transformed Texas into the place we live in today is the most thorough of the trio. But Campbell is also the preeminent authority on antebellum and Reconstruction-era Texas, and those epochs are the foundation of his reconstructed Texas narrative. While he flatly dismisses the notion that the Texas Revolution was a Southern conspiracy to expand slavery, Campbell convincingly establishes the centrality of the peculiar institution to a fledgling state that had made itself, by the eve of the Civil War, the “Empire State of the South.” By 1860 cotton dominated Texas’s economy and political life, and slaves composed 30 percent of the state’s population. But only Campbell offers a peek into the lives of human chattel who were worked, in the words of one, “from can see to can’t see.” Fehrenbach, who never quite comes to grips with why, in his words, “human slavery was firmly embedded across one of the most egalitarian areas of earth,” frequently complains that Northerners were no more morally scrupulous on the issue than Southern Anglo-Celts. However, as Campbell notes, at least one large group of antebellum Texans, despite being denied access to formal education, could see all too well that slavery diminished the moral capital of those who profited from it. “I reckon that old Tim,” said one slave whom Campbell cites, speaking of her master, “wasn’t no worse than other white folks that owned slaves.”

Campbell also takes on the long-held conviction that venal Northern carpetbaggers, intent on filling their pockets and settling scores, hijacked a benign rebuilding effort led by ex-Confederates after the Civil War. He argues that the federal crackdown in Texas was prompted by unrepentant, often violent Southern partisans (almost a thousand freedmen and white Union loyalists were reported to have been murdered in the three years after the war) and that the six-year period of radical Reconstruction that followed was implemented by state officials who were predominantly homegrown scalawags, far outnumbering freed blacks and Northern transplants. Yet the unprovoked victimization of Texas by Yankees became, in Campbell’s words, an “article of faith” far into the twentieth century. Fehrenbach himself echoes this venerable, popular mythology by blaming a relative handful of Northerners, who were here for only a few years, for generations of Jim Crow laws and lynchings: “What happened to the Negro was inevitable, once the North muddied the waters, then beat a strategic retreat.”

With our increasingly multiethnic demographics, Texas is, by both choice and necessity, steadily shedding its racist past. But the political legacy of Reconstruction continues almost unabated in our present state constitution, written in 1875 (and ratified in 1876) by a convention packed with ex-Confederate Redeemers who believed they were saving the state not only from “Sambo” and his Yankee sponsors but also from big business and, most important, government itself. This virulent antipathy toward government was registered with crippling restrictions of its powers: a legislature that still meets for four months every two years and a governor who remains less powerful than the lieutenant governor. “The constitution of 1876 was in spirit and letter an instrument of the older, agrarian South, not that of an emerging industrial state,” concedes Fehrenbach. “The emergence of Texas into the modern world was presided over by farmers, and not by businessmen.”

As our recent school finance spectacle illustrates, twenty-first-century Texas is hoping to educate its future scientists and entrepreneurs via a political apparatus intentionally designed to fail by a bunch of reactionary rubes who were already behind the times considerably more than a century ago. But that’s just one example of why Texas history really does matter—and why it matters that we get it right. The frontier mythology and Lost Cause romanticizing that remain at the heart of old-school Texas history will provide few answers to the problems of this century; as Haley observes, “Texas is an urban colossus facing significant challenges for which its history may not have prepared it.” We will be challenged to fill up our city centers, not spread people out across an endless horizon; to make heroes out of teachers and urban planners instead of trail drivers and Indian fighters; to tell a startling new story in which the chosen people will be Hispanics, again becoming the dominant population after a two-century hiatus. To move forward, we’ll have to accept that our history, however sacred and deeply embedded in our culture (most of us drink the Kool-Aid in seventh-grade Texas history), really isn’t inerrant scripture after all; our perspective on the past changes with time, cultural and political maturity, and new information. Gibbon, for all his brilliance, wasn’t the last word on the fall of Rome, and it’s a good sign of our continued ascendance that Fehrenbach’s literary classic is no longer the last word on the rise of Texas.

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