The Americanization of Texas

Has the independent Texan disappeared into the melting pot?

January 1975By Comments

Once there was an independent Texan. But no more—finding a truly independent Texan today is about as rare as hearing a real Texas accent in the Galleria or Northpark. The myth lives on, as myths do; the reality survives only among a few old coots, flaming radicals, or rugged individualists. There is an H. L. Hunt, a Ramsey Clark, a Howard Hughes, a Don Meredith, and a Sissy Farenthold, independent Texans all, and whether we damn them or praise them or would like to bury them, they evoke that haunting uneasiness and sense of loss that we have come to associate with endangered species.

There never were as many independent Texans as our folklore insists. But there were enough to make that folklore and to color our whole Texan consciousness: tall men who could die valiantly at the Alamo or San Jacinto but who took orders with poor grace; Rangers who rode alone like pala­dins; cattlemen who held their ranges against wire and writs as stubbornly as any baron facing the king’s cannon; farmers who took their families to scratched-out corn fields in the Post-Oak belt when it was Comanche country and lived by choice miles from every neighbor; statesmen like Sam Hous­ton who damned and dared the popular fury—heroes in he­roic times, who made and stood for an attitude, a frame of mind rich in Texan symbolism and mythology. The inde­pendent Texan was both a real person and a folk hero, part historical figure and part social invention, satisfying deep-seated longings in-the Anglo-Texan soul. The man is almost gone; the memory and the few scattered survivors remain.

Like so many things Texan, this folk hero was and is reac­tionary and futuristic at the same time. The oldtime cattle­man or the early wildcatter clings to this image. But the inde­pendent Texan had and has another image, or series of images, too: that uninhibited or unencumbered spirit who jeers at the hypocrisies and pretensions of over-organized society, Yankee or Texan, who speaks his or her mind in pungent, sometimes barnyard-flavored phrases, who ignores, outwits, or overcomes the absurdities and humiliations foist­ed on most of us by this modern mess of pottage, twentieth-century civilization. This hero can be a cowboy or cow king, a multi-millionaire or a jackleg without the proverbial pot. He can be right-wing or radical, a tycoon or football player, politico or country doctor. It doesn’t matter the view or style, just that the independent Texan has both and can thumb his nose at some part of the world and make it stick.

All of these manifestations are admired, though each more in some circles than in others. In Texas, even the words “in­dependent s.o.b.” are usually spoken in a tone of rueful admiration.

It is obviously harder to define what the independent Texan is than what he is not. The type would appear to some to be anti-social, but the independent Texan has always really been more asocial; that is, he is not against society in general and does not oppose it so long as society goes along with him, or leaves him alone. The independent Texan is distinctly not a revolutionary in the common modern meaning of the word; when he rebels it is not to reform or change society so much as to secure his own freedoms from or within it. The independent Texan has few desires to push his own prejudices or leanings on others, except in self-defense. Yet the independent Texan has never been a peaceful type, although with the possible exception of big-city bars the six-shooter era in Texas is over. An aura of tension, even vio­lence, surrounds this folk hero, which comes from the effort of getting and keeping his vital independence. He seems al­ways to be “agin” something or somebody—because inde­pendence is not a natural human condition. It is achieved with strain, and held only by isolation or effort. The inde­pendent Texan is not a dropout—he works at it. And the independent Texan is the antithesis of the “organization man” although he may and sometimes does own his own organization.

The type, of course, is not found only in Texas. Some have been exported to other states, and some have evolved elsewhere naturally. However, it is peculiarly prevalent historically in Texas, and is much rarer east of the Sabine and north of the Red River. Say “independent Ohioan” and noth­ing whatever comes to mind; say “independent Easterners” and there are visions of droves of angry voters all splitting ballots in exactly the same way. Independent Texans do not form droves, and they are basically incapable of leading one. This is why independent Texans, though they often get the urge, are usually fiascos in politics, whether they run in Texas or New York. Independence and the American political sys­tem, as the late Sam Rayburn said in slightly different words, are two different things. Nevertheless, the virtue—or curse, as some would put it—of independence is not exclusively Texan but American, frontier American, to the core. It still permeates Texan thinking so strongly because Texas is far closer in time and spirit and society to the frontier than is most of America.

Across most of these United States, independence is some­thing celebrated each July 4th but which remains wishful thinking the rest of the year. For most Americans independence is still an unrealized ideal. Although the reality has van­ished, the word itself still has a fine sound to the American ear; it can hardly be given a bad connotation. It is, for mil­lions, about the last living heritage of the old frontier.

Most Americans do not act or think independently, wheth­er voting, buying, dressing, investing, or holding forth in in­tellectual circles. However, to be called or thought independ­ent at the polls, on Wall Street, in educational or intellectual circles, or in the entertainment world is a supreme compli­ment. Whether the truly independent thinker is tolerated in any circle, he or she is often praised. Financial independ­ence, rather than riches, is probably the most desired Ameri­can goal, which Merrill Lynch, land developers, and the Social Security administrators have all learned to exploit ex­pertly. Millions of Americans claim to be political Independ­ents, which makes thousands of office-seekers run as Inde­pendent Republicans or Democrats. The word still has magic for millions now submerged in a vast socio-economic-political system that in fact has made most forms of independence—other than financial—obsolete.

It is this still unsurrendered ideal that keeps some men slaving eighteen hours a day in gas stations or selling insur­ance on their own when they could make more at wages. It drives women lawyers to compete and sustains would-be en­trepreneurs. It hounds some families, from the rat race to cabins in Alaska, or more likely, from the polluted sidewalks of New York to the smogs of Houston or Denver. Most peo­ple would prefer to be their own man or woman, live their own lives, do work they enjoy, and be beholden to no one. Modern American social and economic organization has not allowed this for a long time; this is for most the impossible dream. A handful achieve it; others rush about, unhappy, afraid, suffering heart attacks and ending up in nursing homes on Social Security and Medicare.

What has happened in modern-day America, including Texas, is the development of irreconcilable imperatives. As Raymond Aron, perhaps the most astute foreign observer of the American scene since de Tocqueville, has said, Western civilization since the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century has fostered strong and splendid ideals of personal freedom, but at the same time has created industrial, eco­nomic, and social forms in which genuine liberty for the individual is severely limited. Here ‘‘capitalism” is not the villain, but the social organization required in a society in­creasingly geared to provide mass employment, production, and consumption. Under either a “capitalist” or “socialist” system, the modern roles—and education, status, and psy­chological problems—of file clerks, sanitary workers, pro­duction-line personnel, and rocket engineers remain the same. This is not a dichotomy peculiar to the modern in­dustrial world. Human history is scarred by the clash of opposing social imperatives. The Indian wars in Texas are a splendid case in point.

The conflict between whites and Indians was not a strug­gle between “right” and “wrong” although great wrongs were done and suffered by each side, but a fight for cultural life and death between two conflicting rights or cultural impera­tives. It was not possible to leave the land to the Comanches as a hunting preserve and still spread the Anglo-American brand of agrarian civilization across the continent. In this battle the stronger forces won; the Indians were killed, pushed out, or reduced to beggary on reservations.

But this was not the last struggle for cultural life or death on the plains. A battle has continued from the day the In­dians were removed within the conquering civilization itself. All Americans know the story, which forms both American history and legend: the Indians hunting grounds were appro­priated by free-range cattlemen, whose “rights” gave way, not without violence, to agrarian stock-raisers with barbed wire and windmills, who themselves fell to railroads and held on only with the greatest difficulty against hordes of incom­ing homesteaders. The cattle culture—that semi-feudal way of life that exploded Texas longhorns and the cowboy across half the continent—was vanquished like the Indian, replaced by a less colorful but more profitable cattle “business.” And the hoemen who destroyed the vast freedoms of the cattle kings and their riders were themselves oppressed and finally driven from the land by great impersonal forces beyond their individual or collective control, as despite all the Granges and Peoples’ Party protests the Texas farmer was reduced to debt and tenantry and finally forced from his way of life. Each successive fight for cultural life and death on the prai­ries left its mark upon the land and upon the American soul. These form the stuff of Western literature, that most peculiarly American of all art forms, in which for some single, in­dependent hero arrayed against vast odds it is always High Noon.

This culmination in the West was and is inherent in the whole Anglo-American experience in America. The origin of the independent Texan in both reality and myth lies in that experience, and the type was formed long before the first Anglo-Texan colonists crossed the Sabine.

The frontier people who spilled over the Appalachians into the dark, and bloody battleground of Kentucky were men and women determined to make their own destiny. This colonial advance violated British treaties with the Indians, and each further advance was to break or abrogate treaties of the American government with Indians for a hundred years. Government could not and did not control this restless tide of individual humanity. The frontier had its own impera­tives, which were the hopes and dreams for opportunity and independence of millions of pioneer families. The advancing frontier did not take society and government and organized religion with it into the wilderness; it sucked them after it, something not always seen. And the frontier soon found a voice in this rough and ready male democracy. It learned to exploit the powers of government, while usually avoiding its direction or control.

The frontiersmen set their own goals and carried them out in their own way, but they demanded services from govern­ment: protection, roads, bridges and other communications, and the removal of the Indians. Here grew up a pattern that foreign historians have noted: a government that did not plan or direct society and in fact had almost no control over it, but which was forced to be respon­sive to its wants and demands.

The frontier was atomistic. Families were often separated by many miles as they carved out homesteads and farms, banding together only in times of ex­treme danger such as Indian uprisings. Each family was enormously self-suffi­cient, growing or making almost every­thing it needed and used except for nails, firearms, and ammunition. It was a brutally hard existence for most on this hardscrabble frontier, but it was free and enterprising, and perhaps the very hardness and freeness of life made a society of enormous strength and vigor. Many who went West failed: they died, remained indigent, or sometimes had to retreat back in defeat. A major­ity, probably, lacked the skills, endurance, or sheer luck to make it there. These failures became the poor “white trash,” the slovenly farmers, the hired hands or tenants of more successful men. But enough succeeded not only to keep the dream alive generation after generation from the Alleghenies to the Pacific but to shape the American con­sciousness in powerful ways. Restless, rootless until they found what they came for, ruthless to whatever opposed them, these pioneers lived by a code sometimes called “rugged individual­ism.” Their mottos were asocial and showed a certain appalling ruthlessness: Root, hog, or die; God helps them who help themselves; the Devil take the hind­most.

This people poured over the conti­nent, the despair of Indians, Mexicans, and European powers who distrusted the rise of an American colossus. It was this sort of people who formed the Anglo-American vanguard into Texas, seeking an opportunity that was then and later defined in terms of land.

The advertisements of Stephen F. Austin and other empresarios created a vision of empire in Texas which lasted. Texas soil was for all practical pur­poses free, thousands of acres for each family head for the asking if he could develop it. Anglo-American history in Texas began with a land rush, which was to continue through revolution and war throughout the century. The Mexi­can government, desperate to colonize Texas as a buffer against both the Comanches and the United States, made generous land grants to all qualified ap­plicants, but also other vast concessions, such as freedom from tithes and taxes and customs duties as well as virtual freedom, for many years, from govern­ment itself. Mexican-Texas became the frontier paradise of America. Thou­sands of substantial Americans changed citizenship to become Texans, showing, perhaps, how little the early American frontier was conscious of government. In Austin’s colony, and in many others, every immigrant acquired land he was permitted to develop according to his abilities and inclinations. Families could expect little assistance from anyone; there was no credit, virtually no money, and what little commerce there was was carried out by barter. Early Texas had neither banks nor jails, nor any real need for either. All that was asked of a colonist was that he mind his business and interfere in no one else’s. A few people who could not live by these rules, troublemakers or idlers, were ejected from Austin’s colony, sometimes with a whipping for emphasis.

Texas was the antithesis of an organ­ic or corporately organized society. Each family head was a peer among equals; there was no hierarchy or web of social obligations beyond the family. Inevitably, some men, more capable or energetic, gained more prosperity, and like Jared Groce or the McNeels, ac­quired prestige or leadership. But the notion of a basic social, not economic, equality was very strong on the Ameri­can frontier and went hand in hand with the insistence upon individual independ­ence.

This was a frontier paradise that could not last. The Anglo-American presence by its very energy and activity inevitably sucked in Mexican govern­ment, which came in forms strange and distasteful to this free population. And, as a British minister to Mexico had warned, in 1836 the American frontiers­men in Texas repeated against the Mex­icans what their forefathers had wrought against the British Crown 60 years before.

The pattern, and the society, of Tex­as was very similar to the American ex­perience of 1775-1789. All Texas colo­nists resisted incorporation and control by Mexican authority, though they did not oppose Mexican sovereignty. The majority of substantial settlers, such as Austin’s Old Three Hundred, were re­luctant rebels, remaining loyal to Mex­ico until events finally forced their hand. The prime agitators of Texan in­dependence were largely lawyers, late­comers, and adventurers from the Unit­ed States who had small stake in the old scheme of things. The Texas Revolu­tion, like the American, left society basically unchanged, but with families now entirely free to pursue their indi­vidual goals without fear of distant au­thority.

The founders of the Republic of Texas consciously attempted to create a society of freeholding citizens. This con­cept underlay the Republic’s and the later State’s constitutions. The Texas government granted large acreages free­ly to its citizens and to all new immi­grants who applied for land. The domi­nant theory in Texas, so far as theory meant anything, was of Jeffersonian de­mocracy. It was believed that only a so­ciety in which most citizens owned real property—income-producing property, not a house and car with mortgage—could practice the true democracy of an independent citizenry.

The major pressure for annexation by the United States came from the sub­stantial property owners in East Texas, who saw little future in a raw nation of 23-odd counties too poor to build a road or issue sound currency and who, like the founding fathers of the United States, wanted a government strong enough to protect the social order and private property. The small-farmer frontier, then moving through the post-oak belts of central Texas and being rapidly swelled by constant immigration from the southern and border states, was less interested in annexation or even what was happening “back East” in Houston. The westerners’ main con­cerns were the Indian and Mexican dan­gers, and the Republic, primarily be­cause of financial difficulties, was never able to solve the frontier problems. Eco­nomic and strategic necessity, more than any call of “blood to blood,” was the big factor in the Texans’ decision to join the American Union in 1845. The cotton-exporting East understood the advantages of entering the Ameri­can common market and customs un­ion; the western and southern border re­gions expected federal troops to handle the ever-threatening Mexicans and con­stantly rampaging Comanche Indians. It is certain that Texans believed that en­try into the Union was an act somewhat like the entry of European nations into the European Common Market and NATO. They expected enormous bene­fits but without any real loss of inde­pendence or sovereignty over their local affairs.

Significantly, quarrels arose almost at once, although the annexation settle­ment, granting the State title to its pub­lic lands, paying its existing debts, and even allowing for the formation of four more states from Texan territory [see page 50], was extremely for cash. The majority of Texans raised corn and cows and hogs and beans on hardscrabble farms, trading for necessi­ties. But most Texans, whether in plan­tation houses or frontier dog-run cabins or even in the few towns, owned land—which held promise if few immediate benefits. This fact caused the emergence of a genuine landowner ethos through­out the population.

Owners and property interests domi­nated society and politics. Property meant not only independence but status. Every Texan who had a piece of prop­erty saw himself as a petty emperor on his mini-empire; he was jealous of both the independence of his “country”—as some West Texans still call their ranches—and his property lines. Land acquired symbolic as well as economic value, powerfully affecting attitudes and law.

The larger owners always understood the essentially colonial nature of the Texan economy, exporting raw materi­als and agricultural products against money or manufactured goods, and consequently they were never very strong for “territorial” sovereignty. In 1860 few great planters, slaveholders all, really wanted Secession; if they hated Abolitionists and Black Republi­cans, they feared disorder more. Again, lawyers and politicians and the vocifer­ous small-holder frontier forced the is­sue. This time the larger landowners lost everything, and the State of Texas lost whatever pretensions to sovereignty within the Union it had retained upon annexation, at least through our time.

But the “War,” as it is still called along the Brazos, was not really the downfall of the old independent Texan. The Union victory, once the traumatic Reconstruction was done with, restored very much the old state of affairs. The Texas government continued to sell off lands to incoming settlers, and Texas farmers and ranchers dominated the writing of the state constitution of 1876. Nothing could have been more apparent in this document than that the old, thorny self-determination of the fron­tier folk remained intact. Texans rejected all efforts to give the state a gov­ernment along the lines of the Northern states, with strong governors, longterm office holders, and laws that facilitated railroads, banks, and other corporate interests. Texans were resentful of government, including their own. Land­holders saw banks and business corpo­rations as class enemies. The 1876 constitution thus went a long way toward preventing Texas from becoming a ma­jor industrial state like Michigan or Illinois; it hamstrung central authority, harassed corporations of all kinds, and halted the formation of most large fi­nancial institutions. These stubborn farm and ranch types have been much criticized, above all by those who came to see the Texan future in further in­dustrialization. But perhaps they saw something that Toynbee had expressed in 1929: that the democratic revolution and the industrial revolution were not complementary, but really hostile.

Texan society had begun to proceed now along quite divergent lines from that of most Eastern or Northern states. Something approaching a genuine “Tex­as character” was being formed. In most states the frontier was ephemeral, lasting a decade at most. The Texan frontier—a bloody, embattled frontier both in the West and along the Rio Grande—lasted some three generations. While the great majority of Americans who peopled the rising urban complexes of the North from New York to Milwaukee to Omaha were nineteenth- century immigrants who completely by­passed the old trans-Appalachian fron­tier experience, Texas was populated overwhelmingly by Old Americans, who had buried their grandparents on native soil. Texans had created a sense of peoplehood, or blood and soil, common in the Old World, rare in the restless Unit­ed States. Texans had fought for their land on their land, and since there was very little immigration from Europe or anywhere else into the state after 1875 until the middle of the twentieth century, the feeling for the land and people was preserved.

The early Texas towns were formed largely by certain types of immigrants, usually mercantilists and professional people, both European and American. The Texas cities—San Antonio remained the largest until the 1930s—were trading and distribution centers, nothing more. They remained relatively small well into the twentieth century. In 1880, Washington County was the richest and most populous in the state, and Washington County had no towns or cities then worthy of the name. And finally, when the vast trend of urbanization began, the first waves of migrants to the Texas cities were Texans from the surrounding countryside—former farmers and other rural residents who rarely migrated more than 200 miles. Thus well into this century the outlooks and mores of a nineteenth-century fron­tier ethos (which had vanished in the Northern urban melting pots) survived in Texas.

But the Texan independence, if not quite the Texan sense of time and blood and place, was in this same period inex­orably destroyed. While railroads and wire and windmills made settlement of the entire state possible, concurrent eco­nomic and social developments within the nation—high rail rates, falling com­modity prices, hard money, and tight credit—rapidly made it impossible for the great majority of independent landowners to survive on the land. Two sta­tistics tell a story of heartbreak that all the Populist tides and tirades could not stem: in 1860 80 per cent of all white Texans were freeholders and self-em­ployed; by 1915 more than 50 per cent of all Texans—white, black, and brown—had become share croppers or tenant farmers on the soil. The next step was the vast flight to the cities, two-thirds of all Texas counties losing population decade after decade while the refugees found employment in a developing in­dustrial society with firms like Republic Insurance or Texaco.

It was the second cycle of the indus­trial revolution in America, beginning about 1875, that made the independent Texan an endangered species.

Industrialism created huge abun­dance, supported large populations, and fueled the rise of an enormously power­ful American nation state. But it also required the formation of vast, imper­sonal pools of capital and called forth new disciplines, social organizations, and social hierarchies. The gods give bad things with the good.

The tendency of American business enterprise (which invariably began from a powerful entrepreneurial thrust and ethos) to reorganize itself into large pri­vate bureaucracies had profound influ­ence. The eventual social product—for enterprise affected every aspect of soci­ety and government—was the so-called industrial society, organized for mass production and consumption, affluent but marked by its tendency to reduce men and women to role-playing func­tions rather than primary productive work, or to professional service within interconnected and mutually supporting private and public bureaucracies. These bureaucracies, whether General Motors or Exxon, government or education, are increasingly the same in their inter­nal organization and direction and con­trol. Society has become “managerial,” with a loss of individual independence that no high salaries and permission to wear exotic dress or hair styles or pur­sue esoteric sex lives can quite replace.

The chief executive officers of major corporations in Texas like to think of themselves as entrepreneurs and demand entrepreneurial rewards—but the word no longer has meaning in most of America. Few presidents have ever met a payroll from their own resources; they have advanced as role-playing bureau­crats, only risking their careers, by ma­neuvers resembling those in the Army or Department of State. Below the high executive ranks what was once an American middle class—bankers, mer­chants, professional people, manufactur­ers, farmers—has become a New Class of hired hands, salaried, but hired hands all the same. They find the same frag­mentation of emotion and intellect in their work, which is rarely productive and at which they are judged less by results than the approval of superiors and peers. No part of life, from the uni­versity to the highway department, has escaped this profound reorganization, as the old drive to frontier independence based on self-reliance became, and had to become, a newer discipline of con­formity. Even professionals, with the precious privilege of defining their own jobs, have succumbed to a new-guilding in which their true independence has been surrendered to peer group stric­tures, poor reward for relief from pres­sures from the outside.

The basic struggle of the independent Texan—man or woman, rancher, wild­catter, small businessman, writer, or jackleg insurance peddler—has been against incorporation within this social tide. It is a struggle more deeply felt than articulated. And because the industrial society has come late to Texas, and in fact has only made large beachheads in certain areas—Houston-Baytown, Dallas-Arlington come to mind—the image of the independent Texan still has force. The resistance is fierce, and prob­ably hopeless. Already many Texans, with others, have retreated into refuge, like the street people of Austin, who are not so much people who have preserved their independence against a world they hate, but people who survive almost by beggary on the fringes of society.

However, the independent Texan may survive. The old society of Texas still lingers in many ways. Texas is still basically a colonial economy, exporting beef and cotton and wool, sulphur and petroleum—a giant agrarian and mining complex, with a social outlook to match. The “owner” is still the most important and respected figure in Texan society, never the “manager” or the pro­fessional, who unless he is a prince in his own right is still regarded in most Texas circles as a hired hand. Here arises a continual confusion in the mind of the recent immigrant from the true industrial society of the North, where managers at various levels direct things, and have become accustomed to re­spect. They are not yet awarded such status in Texas, where a symphony con­ductor in Dallas, while recognized as a skilled professional, remains something of a hired hand who must answer to the owner’s beck and call.

There is still an instinctive clinging to a sense of uniqueness, however battered by a national insistence upon total plu­ralism. There is still a deep attachment to the soil—almost every Texan would like to have a place, call it ranch or lake cabin, of his own. There is a sense of time and place—of history, lost in other cities and states. This is what Tex­ans mean when they say they are proud to be Texans, thereby baffling newcom­ers who have shown their own pride and attachment to the places of their birth by their alacrity to leave it for­ever.

There is also a national turning in­ward now, following a lead Texans have long shown. There is a rising concern with personal goals and local interests, clashing with the purely technical de­mands for more and more outside coer­cion, direction, and cooperation. Emotional needs for true independence, not just territorial but personal, may grow stronger in this watershed world of 1975. Within our now interdependent civilization, this may be either a splen­did or a destructive force. It should be remembered that social systems and civ­ilizations rarely collapse from outside pressures, but because their denizens, either out of disgust or weariness, no longer sustain them.

If the independent Texan lives—crusty old coot, or flaming radical call­ing into question all the conventional wisdom of mass man—his survival may be the harbinger of the rise of a genuine Texan-American civilization. In the final analysis a few people, not masses, create high civilizations. Frontier Texas culture was aborted by modern American civilization, just as white culture destroyed the Indians—but historians, searching for the origin of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie who rose in the debacle of the European Dark Ages, making a new scheme of things and creating our Western culture on the bones of the Roman civilization, have found the no­bles and proud burgers among small minorities who refused to be over­whelmed. The family that kept its vital independence on the land while all around it sank into comfortable serf­dom emerged as chivalry. A few refu­gees from territorial or spiritual lords forged vital town communities—not drop-out places, but spots where things got done in new and splendid ways by independent souls who had new visions.

There are still a few independent Tex­ans, in dubious battle against a suspi­cious, even hostile world. If enough of them remain great-hearted and optimis­tic, retaining above all else that quality that makes them special in our state and culture, they may prevail, not only for themselves but for all of us. 

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