Part 2: On Our Own
Houston Keeps His Options Open
Sam Houston circa 1837-38.
Prints and Photographs Collection,
The new president was anything but a political neophyte. While the people of Texas might have thought the United States was waiting to embrace them with open arms, Sam Houston understood exactly what obstacles faced Texas in Washington. To represent his government there, he chose the energetic and persistent William Wharton, a veteran of the earlier commission. Wharton would be assisted by two other commissioners, Fairfax Catlett and Memucan Hunt.
Wharton was instructed to seek recognition and explore the possibility of annexation. But Houston told Wharton not to be too eager to jump at an offer of annexation. The president was far from convinced that U.S. annexation was the only possible future for Texas. Under the right circumstances, Houston believed, Texas could maintain its independence and eventually develop as a great nation.
Undoubtedly Houston was aware of the reliable reports circulating out of Mexico that the Mexican government was unable to mount a new military campaign to retake Texas but was anxious to keep it out of the hands of the United States. To this end, Mexico had opened negotiations to sell their rebellious northern province to the British.
Though the sale went nowhere, the idea of allying with Britain excited Houston. Britain was heavily invested in Mexican silver mining and wielded enormous influence there. If Houston played his cards right, Texas could escape the clutches of Mexico and become a British protectorate, with significant advantages over U.S. annexation. With British help, Texas could gain peace with Mexico, develop Galveston as a major port for British importers wanting to avoid steep U.S. duties in New York and New Orleans, and become a major cotton supplier to the booming British textile industry. To explore an alliance with Britain, Houston needed time. A U.S. Congress that wanted to dilly-dally on the annexation issue was just fine with him.
Memucan Hunt succeeded in helping gain U.S. recognition of Texas, but fell short of persuading the U.S. to commit to annexation. Prints and Photographs Collection, 1-102/305.
At first, Wharton met with a discouraging reception in Washington. President Jackson made public the report of his secret agent in Texas, revealed to be Henry Morfit of Virginia, and the news wasn’t good. Morfit reported that Texas was extremely unstable and that her survival depended more on the “weakness and imbecility of her enemy than upon her own strength.” It looked as if Jackson, once thought to be the great friend of Texas, might leave office without even granting recognition to the struggling republic.
Wharton lobbied Congress hard, stressing the possibility that Texas was pursuing a move into the British orbit. Finally, in March 1837, an act recognizing the Republic of Texas passed the U.S. Senate. In one of his last acts as president, Jackson signed the measure and appointed Alcée La Branche, a calm and highly competent Louisiana planter and politician, as America’s first charge d’affaires to the new republic.
Jackson’s term of office expired in March, and he was replaced by his vice-president, Martin Van Buren. There was no real possibility of the “Red Fox of Kinderhook” championing Texas annexation—not unless he wanted to preside over the breakup of the Democratic party, As Wharton wrote, extreme rhetoric from Southerners had alienated the Northerners from Texas: “The North must choose between the Union with Texas added—or no Union. Texas will be added and then forever farewell abolitionism and northern influence. Threats and denunciations like these will goad the North into a determined opposition and if Texas is annexed at all it will not be until after the question has convulsed this nation for several sessions.”
Wharton’s prediction proved prescient. To keep his party together, Van Buren kept the Texas issue on the back burner. Before he left office at the end of 1838, Houston formally withdrew Texas’s request for annexation, certain that it would never occur. As far as anyone knew, the abolitionists had won.
In the meantime, Houston continued to pursue diplomatic options with Britain and other European nations. But for the rest of Houston’s term, Britain refused to grant Texas even recognition, let alone a treaty of friendship or commerce. The reason wasn’t lack of interest. The reason was the same stumbling block that had ruined Texas’s chance for annexation: slavery.
|How Did Slavery Affect Texas's Future?|