So, the Jefferson Davis statue has been removed from the South Mall of the University of Texas. Good riddance—the man had precious little to do with Texas and was the president of a failed slave-ocracy. And now the Houston Independent School District is finalizing plans to change the names of six high schools that honor former Confederate leaders: middle schools named after Dick Dowling, Stonewall Jackson, and Albert Sidney Johnston, and high schools named after Robert E. Lee, John Reagan, and the aforementioned Davis.
But where will this all end? And how do we decide who gets to stay and who has to go? Is fighting for the Confederacy our only, or best, yardstick for measuring historical hatred? That’s what has bugged me most about this ongoing process of damnatio memoriae of Confederate figures, and Confederate figures alone—slavery or racism don’t seem to be the impetus behind stripping the names of Lee, Jackson, and Dowling off schools, or whisking their statues away from the public eye.
Increasingly it seems to matter only whether or not you took up arms against the federal government. We are punishing rebellion that, yes, was fomented to preserve slavery, which is undeniably awful. But left out of the scrubbing of our history of hatred are those who practiced that way of life, just not through insurrection.
Though he owned twelve slaves at the time of his death, there is no groundswell to topple the hulking Sam Houston statue outside of Huntsville or rename my hometown, apparently because his allegiance to the Union trumped his slaveholding in the grand scheme of historical evils. Meanwhile, William Barrett Travis famously brought his slave Jim with him to the Alamo, Jim Bowie was an illegal slave trader, and the writings that went out under the Davy Crockett brand (with his approval) read like today’s particularly nasty racist message board rants. Oh, and James Fannin? Another slave trader, and one who engaged in smuggling human chattel long after it became a capital crime to do so.
And yet all of them remain immune, apparently simply because none of these men chose to or lived long enough to serve the Confederacy.
Neither did Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, though he almost certainly would have donned the gray had he not keeled over in 1859. Texas’s bombastic and grandiose second president is now the namesake of a university and at least a dozen lesser Texas schools, a principal Austin thoroughfare, and a northeast Texas county. Nobody is clamoring to change any of those names, despite the fact that he was a slaveholder, a fire-eating states’ rights advocate, and an ardent practitioner of ethnic cleansing.
Whether you judge it through hindsight or by the standards of his own times, Lamar’s Texas presidency was a miserable failure, much of it thanks to his extreme racism and ethnocentrism.
Anyway, some bullet points on why public facilities should not be named after Lamar:
He Valued States’ Rights … To Own Slaves and Remove Native Americans
Before coming to Texas, he connived with his mentor, Georgia governor George Troup, to swindle the Creek Indians out of their ancestral Peach State lands. Later he became an extreme states’ rights activist and, along with my distant kinsman John C. Calhoun, helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War by espousing, both as a newspaper editor and a Georgia state senator, the right of states to nullify federal laws. In Lamar’s case, the federal laws and Supreme Court rulings he wanted to nullify concerned slavery and Native American removal, two practices Lamar valued above all else, and both of which are abhorrent today.
His Racism Wasn’t Just a Product of the Times
He was even more racist than the average white man of his time. Under the terms of the Texas Constitution of 1836, “No free person of African descent, either in whole or in part [was] permitted to reside permanently in the Republic of Texas without the consent of Congress.” Ugly. Hideous. Shameful. But that didn’t go far enough for Lamar. In 1840, he signed “An Act Concerning Free Persons of Color,” which gave all free blacks then living in Texas two years to get out or face being sold into slavery, and mandating that any free black entering Texas would be enslaved for one year. At the end of that year, if that free person of color could not post bond, they became a slave for life. Lamar could not envision black and white people living together on anything like equal terms. He could not imagine Anglos and Native Americans living together on any terms whatsoever.
He Systematically Removed Native Americans From Texas
In one of his first acts in office, Lamar reversed his predecessor Sam Houston’s policy of appeasement toward Native Americans in Texas. Immediately upon taking office Lamar launched his self-described “prosecution of an exterminating war” upon people he described as “tigers and hyenas” and “wild cannibals of the woods.” He succeeded against relatively peaceful tribes in East Texas, either killing or driving out all but the Alabama-Coushatta, but his ham-handed, ultimately blood-soaked efforts at Comanche diplomacy at the Council House in San Antonio led directly first to the death by torture of more than a dozen Texan captives, and then to the Linnville raid, which saw vengeful Comanches sacking not one but two Texas towns. Yes, Lamar’s forces got revenge at the Battle of Plum Creek, but the president’s campaign of trickery and total war against all Native American tribes was both morally bankrupt and fiscally irresponsible. (Not to mention the fact that the Comanches were hardly pacified by the time he left office, Plum Creek or not.)
He Made Bad Calls Because of His Racism
Upon Santa Anna’s surrender, Texas claimed not just the lands within its current boundaries, but also parts of Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and about half of New Mexico, Santa Fe included. Houston, who sought annexation to the United States, cast his eye east during his presidency. Lamar, who saw Texas as a grand independent slave empire stretching from the Gulf to the Pacific, looked west, first toward Santa Fe and all of New Mexico. But Santa Fe was the key transshipment point for Mexican wagon trains to American trading centers in Missouri. Lamar desperately wanted control over that Santa Fe Trail. And so, based on flimsy intelligence, Lamar chose to believe that the Mexican citizens of the capital of the province of Nuevo Mexico would welcome an invading Texan army as liberators. And if they didn’t? Well, a few tough Texans made short work of Santa Anna’s superior force at San Jacinto. Why would this go any differently? At any rate, his proposal to seize control of Santa Fe was rejected by the Texas Congress. So Lamar repurposed the trip as a “trade mission.” And to be fair, he did send a few merchants and 21 oxcarts with $200,000 worth of goods, but those were joined by five companies of red-assed Texan volunteer infantry and another of artillery, comprising a total of 321 men hungry for glory, booty, and conquest, most believing that should there be a fight, they would easily carry the day.
The expedition set off on June 19, armed with little more direction than to “head northwest until you hit Santa Fe.” It didn’t end well:
The land was rugged and often impassable by the wagons. The expedition was forced to detour again and again, and to hack trails by hand through thick undergrowth. At other points, the travelers entered the desert, with no vegetation and no water for man or animals. Indians harrassed the wagon train, killing seven and stampeding many of the cattle. The expedition even became lost for a time, following the Wichita River instead of the Red River. After a journey of 1300 miles, the starving pioneers limped into New Mexico in October, expecting to be welcomed with open arms. Instead they found themselves immediately taken as prisoners of war by a newly-resurgent Mexican military. On October 16, the Santa Fe expedition began a forced march to Mexico City. Several men died along the way. Others died while in prison.
Lamar’s two-year term had ended by the time reliable news of this catastrophic foray reached Texas, but more than a few Texans did not want to let the president simply ride away from this catastrophe. One newspaper published an anonymous letter demanding that Lamar be swapped to the Mexican authorities for the volunteers he dispatched across hell and into captivity. Lamar came close to fighting two duels over the matter, but neither came to pass, and he was allowed to retire to his slave plantation, his oil painting, and his unreadable poetry. (His enemies would say he was a better poet than politician; talk about damning someone with faint praise.)
And the bulk of them were caused by his simple inability to comprehend that white men like himself could be bested by Mexicans or Comanches, that his way was not the only way, that the Comanche could and would seek vengeance for what they saw as perfidious treachery, and that the Mexican citizens and soldiers in Santa Fe might not leap at the chance to join his baldly racist would-be empire.
One last word on his incompetence in office: All of Lamar’s grandiose visions were expensive. The deficit for his two-year administration was $3.8 million dollars, a staggering amount by today’s standards and for a Republic with a free population of maybe 100,000 people. (By that time, after Houston’s administration, Texas was $7 million in the hole. Granted, Lamar inherited a mess, but his schemes only exacerbated it.) And the bulk of them were caused by his simple inability to comprehend that white men like himself could be bested by Mexicans or Comanches, that his way was not the only way, that the Comanche could and would seek vengeance for what they saw as perfidious treachery, and that the Mexican citizens and soldiers in Santa Fe might not leap at the chance to join his baldly racist would-be empire.
He Wasn’t a Confederate Because He Never Had The Chance
Once out of office, Lamar turned his attention to maintaining slavery at all costs. Sometime around 1844 Lamar did an about-face on the annexation issue, and as usual, it was for all the wrong reasons. Dreading that the independent Texas he helped bankrupt would soon fall under the auspices of abolitionist Great Britain, he believed that joining Uncle Sam was the best way to ensure the safety of his beloved slave plantation. His devotion to the Union lasted for only about five years, when a threat to his slaves came from D.C. instead of London. In the wake of the Compromise of 1850, Lamar began advocating Texas secession, just as he had been hot for Georgia nullification as a young man, 25 years before.
In 1859, Lamar died of a heart attack at his slave plantation in Richmond in 1859, a couple of years shy of Fort Sumter. Had he lived and had his wits about him, Texas would have had no hotter-headed partisan for the Confederacy, and we would be talking about pulling his name off schools and street signs from Arlington to Austin to Houston. But he didn’t and we aren’t, and I just wonder why not?