GEORGIA O’KEEFFE WOULD HAVE BEEN A TEXAN. Santa Fe and Taos would make Texas art known to the world. Texas would be famous for World Cup skiing in Aspen and Vail. The mention of Tex-Mex food would call to mind blue-corn enchiladas instead of No. 1 dinners. French separatists might be agitating for independence in the Hill Country. Wyoming’s Medicine Bow Mountains would be our northern frontier. Even California might be part of Texas—as it once was, at least according to Texas law. This could have been Texas’ destiny, had it remained a sovereign nation instead of joining the United States. A hundred and fifty years ago this month—February 19, 1846, to be exact—Texas president Anson Jones lowered the Lone Star flag for the last time, saying, “The final act in this great drama is now performed. The Republic of Texas is no more.” It’s too late to change history, but it’s never too late to wonder if we made a mistake.
How might the map of North America look today if Texas had kept the territory it claimed as a republic? Texas’ shape would resemble the profile of a buffalo, with Big Bend as the beard, a massive head covering the eastern half of New Mexico, a horn sticking up through Colorado into Wyoming, and the rest of Texas as its shoulders and forelegs. The western boundary would follow the Rio Grande to its source in the San Juan Mountains east of Durango, Colorado, and then run north to the forty-second parallel. The east side of this new Texas Panhandle would follow the Arkansas River to its source and likewise continue north into Wyoming. Carlsbad Caverns would be in Texas, and so would the Great Sand Dunes of southern Colorado. The Oklahoma Panhandle would be obliterated, and Liberal, Kansas, would be known as Conservative, Texas. In 1842 the Congress of the republic extended Texas’ western boundary to the Pacific, incorporating all of present-day Utah, Nevada, California, Arizona, and New Mexico, as well as Baja California and part of northern Mexico. It was fanciful, of course—a year earlier an expedition to evict the Mexican authorities from Santa Fe ended disastrously—but certainly Texas had a better claim to the land than the United States. Had Texas remained independent, the U.S. would not have fought the war with Mexico that enabled it to take control of the American Southwest.
From our vantage point, the joining of Texas and the United States seems inevitable. But it wasn’t, even though a referendum in 1836, the year of San Jacinto, on whether to seek statehood passed, 3,277-91. Nine years later, when Texans—or, as most citizens of the day preferred to say, Texians—approved the annexation, the vote was almost as overwhelming—4,254-257. Yet, for most of the time in between, statehood was an unlikely prospect. The United States didn’t want us. In 1837 a resolution to recognize Texas as a nation survived defeat by one vote in the U.S. Senate. A year later, a bill of annexation died in the House. Spurned, Texas formally withdrew its offer, and Mirabeau B. Lamar, succeeding Sam Houston as president of the republic, said in his inaugural address, “I cannot regard the annexation of Texas to the American Union in any other light than as the grave of all her hopes of happiness and greatness.” By 1844 Sam Houston had regained the presidency and was pursuing annexation again, but this time the U.S. Senate voted down the treaty that had been negotiated. Northerners opposed Texas for three reasons: slavery (“All who would sympathise with that pseudo-republic hate liberty and would dethrone God,” said the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison), fear of provoking a war with Mexico, and a general feeling that Texas was populated by land speculators, deadbeats, and criminals.
The reason most Texans wanted annexation was that Texas had no money, no industry, and no secure borders to the south or the west. It couldn’t afford to pay an army, but without one, it couldn’t repel a Mexican invasion or defend the frontier against the Comanche. To recruit manpower, the republic offered free land to immigrants. The economy operated almost entirely by barter, since the treasury was always in debt. Meanwhile, the government was finding nationhood to be expensive: The cost of representatives in foreign cities was a third of the entire budget.
Even so, the situation was far from hopeless. The lure of free land caused the population to quadruple during the life span of the republic. In Europe Texas cotton brought higher prices than cotton grown in the southern U.S. And just as the U.S. had survived its early years with the military and financial assistance of France, Texas too benefited from diplomacy. French and British envoys saw the continued independence of Texas as a way to inhibit the growth of the United States as a great power. They managed to convince Santa Anna that a weak Texas was a more desirable neighbor than a strong United States, and Mexico backed away from threats of invasion. A French diplomat proposed to lend Texas $5 million and build twenty forts on the frontier in return for three million acres of land, on which eight thousand French immigrants would settle. Sam Houston backed the plan and so did the Texas House, but the Senate defeated it.
Texas’ negotiations with European powers helped change American public opinion about annexation. “If ladies are justified in making use of coquetry in securing their annexation to good and agreeable husbands,” Houston said, “you must excuse me for making use of the same means to annex Texas to Uncle Sam.” Annexation was the major issue in the American presidential campaign of 1844, and its champion, James K. Polk, won. This time the U.S. was the suitor and the terms of the treaty were generous: Texas entered the Union with its Rio Grande and Arkansas River boundaries intact, retained its public lands, and the U.S. paid $5 million of Texas’ debt.
In the first years of statehood, however, Texas was twice betrayed by its new protector. After the United States occupied New Mexico during the Mexican war, the military authorities ignored Texas’ claim to the land and appointed a local merchant to run the civil government. Back in Austin, a legislative committee recommended, “Let us show to the world that the blood of the Alamo has not been shed in vain! . . . that we will never yield one inch of soil on this side of the Rio Grande.” But the U.S. Army sided with the local population, which wanted nothing to do with Texas, and in 1850 the dispute reached Congress. Congress offered Texas $10 million in bonds to renounce all lands west of the Pecos—about 125,000 square miles. In Austin there was actually talk of going to war, but in the end Texas settled for the $10 million and keeping 33,000 square miles of disputed land, which we now call the Trans-Pecos.
You know the rest of the story. The stupidity of secession (and a brief flirtation with becoming a nation once more instead of joining the Confederacy). The defeat of the Comanche by the U.S. Army, which made Texas safe at last. The economic benefits of statehood: military bases, the Houston Ship Channel, NASA. Oil, ushering in a new national resentment of Texas. LBJ’s accent. Federal price controls keeping down the price of Texas natural gas. A federal windfall-profits tax on Texas oil. The S&L scandal and still more resentment of Texas. Texas has gained a lot from annexation, but it has paid a price too. Call it even. And reflect for a moment on the words of a state representative named Guy Bryan, who during the Santa Fe fight of 1850 expressed a hostility toward Washington that is still alive: “Let a dark line be drawn between the State and the Republic of Texas; all the splendors which encircle the Lone Star belong to the past; nothing will be left to the present but dishonor and shame and base submission.”