Part 3: An International Matter
Britain Makes Its Move
In February 1843, Santa Anna released Judge James W. Robinson, one of the prisoners-of-war seized in the September 1842 raid of San Antonio and held since in the notorious Perote Prison. The Mexican dictator sent the judge home to Texas with an astonishing proposal for Sam Houston: if Texas agreed to accept Mexican sovereignty, she would be allowed to return to the Mexican union with control over her own internal affairs.
|Why didn't Mexico recognize Texas independence?|
Minister to England and France from 1842-45, Dr. Ashbel Smith went on to become Texas Secretary of State. Smith was a remarkably personable and cultured individual. Aside from diplomacy, he was the leading physician in early Texas and devoted much of his later life to establishing the University of Texas.
The Medical Story of Early Texas. Texas State Library and Archives.
President Houston was not the only audience for Santa Anna’s message. The message was intended to be shared with the British diplomats already working to mediate a peace deal between Texas and Mexico. Santa Anna knew that Britain’s true aim was to extend her political and economic domination over both Mexico and Texas. The idea of placing the two republics back under one government would have great appeal to the British. And as for the Texans, they were known to be desperate. If they declined to negotiate, Santa Anna could always invade Texas again and conquer it by force.
As Santa Anna had anticipated, the British jumped at the proposal. The British minister to Mexico, Richard Packenham, had already written home that Texas was so weak that the peace negotiations were futile; Texas was bound to fall back under Mexican rule no matter what happened. To the British, Santa Anna’s proposal seemed a reasonable alternative to the senseless bloodshed of a war.
Britain’s chargé d'affaires in Texas, Charles Elliot, urged Houston to accept Santa Anna’s terms, promising that Britain would facilitate a settlement that was “honorable and durable.” He also pressed the president on the subject of slavery, making it clear that abolition would be a condition of any peace.
Under pressure to respond, Houston dictated a confidential reply that was sent as a letter from Judge Robinson. Houston was noncommittal on the proposed reunification and silent on the subject of abolition, but he did suggest an armistice during which the two sides could come to the bargaining table.
Mexico must restore us our murdered thousands before we can ever entertain the proposition of being reincorporated with that Government.
—Anson Jones, Texas Secretary of State, 1843
In even exploring the option, Houston was going against the grain of the vast majority of Texans. Texas was a dangerous land and it attracted a daring breed of men and women. Many Texas pioneers had been frontiersmen since childhood, weaned on old stories about Mexico’s fabled riches and American rebels like Aaron Burr who dreamed of seizing the golden cities for themselves. More recently, Santa Anna’s atrocities of 1836 were fresh in the minds of all Texans. In spite of the failed military expeditions of 1842, most Texans were still, in the words of British minister Packenham, “unscrupulous, fearless, and enterprising”—and ready to go to war no matter what the odds.
George Hamilton-Gordon, the Fourth Earl of Aberdeen, was British Foreign Secretary during the annexation crisis. Aberdeen did not envision Texas as a colony of Britain, but rather an independent trading partner under British protection. Courtesy Wikipediia.
War was a risk Sam Houston wasn’t willing to take. In June of 1843, he unilaterally declared a truce with Mexico, which was accepted the following month. Later in the year, he sent two commissioners, George Hockley and Samuel M. Williams, to represent the Texas government at British-sponsored negotiations in Matamoros. The negotiations were something of a farce; obviously Houston would never accept a return to Mexican rule, and Santa Anna was still threatening Texas with raids and invasion even as his representatives sat down at the bargaining table. The talks represented a chance to cool off but little more.
Though none of the parties—Britain, Texas, and Mexico—expected much from the negotiations themselves, each came looking to promote their own goals. The British government wanted to protect their investments in Mexico, develop Texas as a cotton supplier, and abolish slavery. Santa Anna’s government wanted to buy time; until it could settle a revolution in the rebellious state of Yucatán, it was not in a position to invade Texas. President Houston’s government wanted to preserve Texas independence and was prepared to throw itself into the arms of Great Britain to secure it. Houston even allowed (or perhaps encouraged) an abolition movement to begin in Galveston.
Where was the United States while Mexico prepared for war and Texas and Great Britain engaged in their risky courtship dance? In March, the U.S. Senate rejected a commercial treaty with Texas because of the instability along the Texas border. With even the possibility of enhanced trade gone, Houston ordered the Texas chargé d’affaires in Washington, Isaac Van Zandt, to drop any further efforts to secure American aid or reopen the annexation issue. In a powerful speech in November 1843, Houston even went so far as to refer to the United States as an “enemy” and Great Britain as a “friend.”
As 1843 drew to a close, Van Zandt received a surprising approach from the U.S. Secretary of State, Abel Upshur. It seemed that Upshur had noticed some of the recent developments in the Republic of Texas. Was it true, Upshur wanted to know, that Texas and England were reaching a meeting of the minds on the emancipation of the slaves? And was Texas seriously considering going under the dominion of Great Britain—America’s distrusted old enemy?
Yes, Van Zandt assured the secretary—he’d heard correctly. Upshur told him that he and President Tyler had spoken about the matter and they wanted to open negotiations with Texas for a treaty—a treaty of annexation.