Part 4: A Treaty of Annexation
The Annexation Treaty
Once a penniless immigrant from Tennessee, Isaac Van Zandt shepherded the annexation treaty past doubters in his own government. Prints and Photographs Collection, 1/102-573.
Van Zandt immediately wrote home to Texas Secretary of State Anson Jones, telling him that Upshur had proposed annexation. Van Zandt felt strongly in favor of making a treaty and continued to speak informally with Upshur while awaiting instructions from Jones. When the reply came, its coldness shocked him. Jones wrote dismissively that the choice for Texas was stark: peace with Britain or U.S. annexation and war with Mexico.
Van Zandt was so sure that annexation was the right course for Texas that he did not reveal the harsh nature of the letter to Upshur. Instead, he continued to talk with the U.S. secretary of state. In the meantime, he boldly wrote home again to Jones, proposing in stronger terms that Texas pursue the golden opportunity for annexation. It might never come again.
Most people back in Texas agreed with Van Zandt. It is estimated that some 90 percent of Texans still favored annexation to the United States. Despite some recent immigration by Europeans, especially Germans, the majority of Texans were American Southerners by birth. They hadn’t come to Texas to become part of the British Empire; most were particularly incensed by the British insistence on emancipation of the slaves. Responding to public sentiment, the Texas Senate demanded that President Houston give them a full accounting of his dealings with Great Britain.
U.S. Secretary of State Abel Upshur was one of a new generation of activists determined to promote the cause of the slave-holding South above all other concerns. He saw Texas annexation as essential to the preservation of the Southern way of life. Courtesy Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C.
Houston still believed that annexation was a pipe dream that would never pass the U.S. Senate. But he was also a politician. He realized that if he did not appease the annexation supporters, the Texas Congress would lay the question directly before the people in an election. In such a vote, Houston knew he would lose badly. To stave off political disaster, Houston turned to James Pinckney Henderson, the highly respected attorney and diplomat who had successfully negotiated trade deals and diplomatic recognition with Britain and France. Henderson, a vocal advocate of annexation, was sent to join Van Zandt in Washington to represent Texas at the annexation treaty negotiations.
Henderson was a tough negotiator by nature, and he also bore specific instructions on what Texas wanted out of the annexation negotiations. Besides securing a guarantee that Texas would be defended against Mexican attack, Henderson and Van Zandt were to insist that Texas enter the United States as a state, not a territory, and that Texas be allowed to retain slavery. In addition, the United States must agree to assume the debts of the Republic of Texas; the diplomats were authorized to bargain away Texas’s public lands in exchange for this guarantee.
In the meantime, Houston still hoped that Britain might negotiate a peace settlement with Mexico. But when Henderson’s appointment became known, Mexico had the perfect excuse to leave the talks and resume talk of an invasion. Henderson’s appointment also mobilized the opposition in the U.S. Congress; opponents of annexation realized that Texas would not be sending such a high-powered diplomat to Washington unless an annexation treaty was in the works.
Robert J. Walker of Mississippi introduced the resolution for Texas annexation and relentlessly managed the bill during the contentious Senate debate. Courtesy Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress.
President Tyler was not leaving the treaty’s fate in the Senate to chance. To manage the political side of the annexation issue, he had chosen Senator Robert J. Walker of Mississippi, a close ally and tireless advocate of American territorial expansion. Walker, a small, stooped man who made up for his lack of stature in energy and shrewdness, was one of the most effective backroom politicians of his own or any era. In February 1844, Walker launched a public relations campaign to bring citizen opinion in on the side of Texas annexation. His “Letter to the Citizens of Carroll County, Kentucky" setting out the arguments in favor of annexation sold over 50,000 copies.
A few weeks later, the prospects for annexation almost went up in smoke—literally. While waiting for Henderson to arrive in Washington, Upshur and Van Zandt had continued to work out a draft treaty of annexation that provided for Texas to be admitted as a territory. Then, on February 28, 1844, both men took time out to join President Tyler and most of the rest of official Washington on a cruise in the Potomac on the USS Princeton, a new U.S. warship. The ceremony was to include a demonstration of the Peacemaker, then the world’s largest naval cannon.
Only by chance was Tyler below decks when the cannon exploded, killing Upshur, along with the Secretary of the Navy and six others. Many others were hurt and maimed; the scene was one of chaos, panic, and dreadful carnage. Tyler himself, weeping at the sight of his dead colleagues, rescued a young woman whose father was among the dead; she would shortly become his second wife, making him the first president to marry while in the White House. Van Zandt witnessed the terrible scene but fortunately escaped injury. The Princeton disaster was the worst peacetime accident ever suffered by the young United States military.
Once Henderson arrived in a Washington still in shock from the disaster, the two Texans could do little but wait while the government regrouped. At the end of March, the president appointed a new Secretary of State, John C. Calhoun, probably the most forceful and controversial politician in America. A former vice-president, senator, and cabinet officer, Calhoun was considered a radical on the subject of states’ rights and slavery. Years before, the calculating and relentless South Carolinian had made an enemy of young Sam Houston. But now, Calhoun saw Sam Houston’s republic as a means of furthering the interests of the plantation culture he loved. He was eager to take a leading role in the annexation of Texas.
With very few changes, Calhoun accepted the treaty that Van Zandt and Upshur had worked out. But there was one sticking point. Legally, Calhoun could not make the guarantee of military protection that the Texans had been instructed to secure. He could only offer a letter with a vague promise that troops and naval forces would be dispatched “near the frontier” to meet any emergencies. Henderson and Van Zandt feared that writing home for instructions would cause so much delay that the treaty’s slim chances in the Senate would be sunk. On April 12, 1844, they took the responsibility on their own shoulders and signed the treaty of annexation on behalf of the Republic of Texas.
Upon getting the news back in Texas, Secretary of State Jones wrote to the diplomats that he and President Houston felt “great mortification and disappointment” about the treaty. To them, an independent Texas under British protection seemed far better than hoping for territorial status under a government too timid even to guarantee protection for a country it claimed to want. But if they complained privately, they made the best of things publicly. Their envoys had signed the treaty, and there was nothing to do now but watch the U.S. Senate and see how it all came out.