Part 5: The Final Showdown
Andrew Jackson Donelson was the nephew of former President Jackson and had served as his uncle's private secretary during the White House years. After overseeing the negotiations with Texas, he would serve as U.S. envoy in Prussia. Courtesy The Hermitage.
After the defeat of the treaty, Tyler and Calhoun tried to pick up the pieces. The first order of business was to explain to Sam Houston and Anson Jones what had happened and persuade them that the setback was only temporary. The previous chargé d'affaires to Texas, William Murphy, had been recalled after the defeat of the treaty. As he put it, “The tail went with the hide.” Murphy died of yellow fever before he could leave Texas. To replace him, Calhoun appointed Tilghman Howard, an old friend of Sam Houston’s. Howard arrived in Texas only to contract yellow fever himself and die shortly after his arrival—the fourth U.S. minister to die in Texas since 1840.
Despite the evident pestilential nature of the post, Andrew Jackson Donelson accepted the appointment to replace Howard. Donelson was probably the best person who could possibly have been selected. The nephew of Andrew Jackson, he shared deep personal affection and political ties with Sam Houston. But the 45-year-old Donelson was much more than a crony. He was clever, intelligent, cool in a crisis, and possessed of a plainspoken good sense.
Donelson arrived to find Houston disgusted with the annexation negotiations and still favoring an independent course if Texas could somehow obtain Mexican recognition. Donelson assured Houston that the Texas question was far from dead; in fact, it had become the central issue of the ongoing presidential campaign. A movement was afoot in Congress to annex Texas by joint resolution, rather than by treaty; this meant that annexation would need to pass only by a simple majority rather than by a two-thirds vote of the Senate. If Polk were elected, the resolution would be sure to pass.
We shall have to be as sharp-sighted as lynxes and as wary as foxes. —Sam Houston to Anson Jones, July 8, 1844
Houston was noncommittal, but in truth he was running out of options. England, now working with the help of France, had worked for months to bring about recognition from Mexico. The so-called “Diplomatic Act” provided that Great Britain and France would guarantee the peace at the Rio Grande. The British had gone so far as to promise they would go to any extreme—even war—to prevent U.S. annexation, if Mexico would concede to the independence of Texas.
Through Mexico’s minister in Washington, Juan Almonte, Santa Anna had followed the Senate debate on Texas. Some of the more extreme rhetoric struck his fancy, especially predictions that annexation would cause the Northern states to secede and the Southern slaves to overthrow their masters and flock to Mexico to join his cause. Santa Anna also believed that because of heavy British investment in Mexico, he had nothing to lose by defying the expectations of the British diplomats. Instead of accepting the peace deal, he bragged (falsely) that Britain had secretly promised to help him reconquer Texas.
Standing at the fork in the road between peace and war, Santa Anna boldly chose the latter. In the summer of 1844, Mexico broke off all negotiations with Texas, and Mexican general Adrian Woll, on instructions from Santa Anna, sent Sam Houston a formal declaration of war.
Santa Anna had vastly overplayed his hand. Ever the realists, the British diplomats realized that they had fought the good fight—and lost. While they would have loved to gain Texas through diplomacy, they could not afford to become involved in a war for a territory that had nothing but potential. Even the British investments in Mexico, while large, were nothing compared to the enormous British trade with the United States. Britain, already heavily committed in Ireland and other parts of the Empire, had no stomach for a nasty border war in Texas that might lose them the U.S. market and stimulate Americans to develop their own manufacturing instead of importing British goods.
For Britain, it was time to walk away. In October 1844, the British government notified Mexico that Britain was washing its hands of any further mediation efforts. Mexico was on its own.
And so was Texas.