The Legacy of T.R. Fehrenbach

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Texas historian T. R. Fehrenbach, who died on Sunday at the age of 88, leaves behind an impressive legacy of work about his native state, most notably his epic history of Texas, Lone Star, which was published in 1968. It is a sweeping, mythic version of the Texas story, telling how the Texians subdued an alien land and alien peoples. Fehrenbach sees Texas history as a repeating clash of races and cultures, and he made the argument that the Anglo culture was superior to its rivals.

Here is an excerpt from Lone Star that offers a glimpse into Fehrenbach’s insight into the cultural differences that separated the two nations on either side of the Rio Grande:

[Stephen F.] Austin had no notion — not for many years — of taking the land away from Mexico. Somewhere along the line, Austin lost interest in his personal fortune and developed an obsession to redeem Texas from its wilderness state by means of the plow alone, in spreading over it North American population, enterprise, and intelligence. What his Mexican colleagues, totally lacking in such instincts, could never comprehend was his sincere and boundless joy at the destruction of the wilderness. Each crashing tree along the Brazos gave Austin pleasure; each mud-paved town hammered together in the middle of nowhere instilled in him a sense of destiny fulfilled.

As told by Fehrenbach, Texas history was all about the conflict of cultures — Indian, Spanish, Mexican, and Texian — that raged, and still rages. Fehrenbach left little doubt as to which he believed was superior. He quotes a history of Texas used in the schools in the 1800s:

The strongest cause in bringing the Texas revolution, however, was the lack of sympathy between the Mexican people and the Anglo-Saxon colonists. They [the Mexicans] could not understand our methods of government and we could not endure their idea of a Republic.

Readers encountering Lone Star for the first time, in all of its 700 pages, may find it disturbing in its assessment of the cultures that fought for supremacy in Texas. A typical Fehrenbach passage:

To say that neither Americans nor Mexicans really understood the psychology of the other would be an understatement. The leadership of each nation operated on a different plane of thought. Americans always made two basic assumptions: (1) the American nation was more vigorous and certainly superior to the Mexican; and (2) that the western lands were useless to Mexico, which had been unable to settle them. Americans expected Mexicans to accept both assumptions reasonably. But in reverse, the American assumption of superiority lacerated the immense Latin pride of the Mexicans, and the fact that their empire north of the Rio Grande was vulnerable suffused Mexicans with such fear and suspicion that it almost became almost phobia among the upper classes. No matter what the United States proposed, it was assumed to be part of a Yanqui plot.

The real, underlying cause of the Texas Revolution was extreme ethnic difference between two sets of men, neither of whom, because of different ideas of government, religion, and society, had any respect for the other.

I have spent the last several days since Fehrenbach’s passing reading some of his most famous observations. One of the most dramatic of these is in the chapter on secession,  about the coming of the War between the States. Fehrenbach makes clear its folly, particularly in his remarks about Sam Houston:

Sam Houston chose both the American nation and Texas. He refused to violate his oath or to serve the Confederacy; he also refused to do anything to shed Texas blood.

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What makes Fehrenbach a great historian? The answer is that he is a great writer. He has a story to tell. Lone Star is indeed an epic. It is a work that covers not just chapters but centuries. On its pages we encounter generations of men who came to Texas to subdue a harsh land. Some succeeded; others could not take the measure of the land, and it ended up taking the measure of them. That is the message of Lone Star, that life in Texas is a struggle, and it is the struggle that makes life in Texas worthwhile.

The next-to-last chapter of Lone Star bears the title, “The Lights of San Antonio.” The chapter is almost entirely about race; specifically, race relations in San Antonio. He was not sanguine about the future: “It was found almost impossible to induce the Mexican to surrender Spanish, as Italian-Americans consciously gave up Italian or German-Americans soon forgot the ancestral tongue.” Spanish was the language of friendship, race, family, home. Fehrenbach addressed the gulf between two values systems, quoting an effort by one Maria Elena Landazuri who sought to explain to Anglo Americans why Hispanic Americans are different:

We have a different mental or perhaps spiritual reaction to the world . . . . Other peoples, perhaps, desire the means to live, money to build, to do good, to spend. They want to impress themselves upon the world; our treasure is time. We must think, we must chat, we most see, we must enjoy ourselves, we must be.

The final chapter of Lone Star is “The Americans.” I find that Fehrenbach strikes a consistent note of contempt for Mexicans throughout the chapter. He writes: “The Mexicans were lacking in both independence and entreprenuerism, and until the stubborn Anglos had tamed the country, their colonization failed.” Such sweeping generalizations make me uncomfortable. A lot has changed since the initial publication of Lone Star, and some of Fehrenbach’s views of the races, and race relations, seems troubling by modern standards. Lone Star is a tale well told, but it is also a tale told from a perspective that seems increasingly dated.

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