Questions and Answers
Q: How did slavery affect Texas’s future?
A: Texas was wholly Southern in its attitude towards slavery. Technically, slavery had been illegal under Mexican law. However, the Mexicans were never effective in preventing American slave owners from bringing slaves to Texas, and slave smuggling was a lucrative business along the Texas coast.
In 1836, about 5000 African-American slaves lived in Texas. The Constitution of the Republic of Texas protected slavery, and the institution spread rapidly, especially in east Texas where the land was suited to the plantation system.
Great Britain had played a key role in the slave trade since the 1600s, at one time bringing as many as 50,000 Africans a year to its colonies in America and the Caribbean to produce cotton, tobacco, sugar, and coffee to be shipped back to Britain at enormous profits. But in the 1780s, British Quakers began the abolitionist movement to educate people on the evils of slavery. Their campaign was successful; in 1807, Britain ended its participation in the slave trade, and in 1833, slavery was ended in Britain’s West Indian colonies.
With public opinion in Britain now dead set against slavery, the British were increasingly squeamish about their dependence on the American South for cotton. Because they didn’t have to pay their workers, Southern growers could undercut any price in the world. For many years, the British were willing to hold their noses to get cheap American cotton. But in the late 1830s, relations between Britain and the U.S. became strained. A financial panic in the U.S. had made the American market less important for Britain’s finished goods, and some Americans were also aiding revolutionaries in Quebec. For Britain, it seemed like a good time to find an alternative to American cotton.
The Republic of Texas seemed like the answer—if Texas would free its slaves. Britain was so serious about forging a cotton alliance with Texas that at one point the British charge d’affaires in Texas, Charles Elliott, went to Sam Houston and offered a large British loan that would enable the Texas government to emancipate all the slaves and compensate their owners for the loss. Houston and the other leading men of Texas were willing to consider the idea.
A free Texas under British domination was the worst nightmare of the American South. Such an alliance would wreck the Southern cotton trade and threaten the very existence of plantation culture. As the British became more intent on their courtship of Texas, it would be Southern planters who would bring the annexation debate back to the forefront of American politics.