Mirabeau B. Lamar
A Vision of Greatness
Building the dream: Both Lamar's admirers and his critics agreed that he was a visionary. As Lamar took office, Texas was a lawless and bankrupt country whose legitimacy was not even acknowledged by most of the world. Lamar declared that Texas would become a great nation. He was determined that under his leadership, Texas would begin a march towards an empire that would stretch to the Pacific Ocean.
Lamar understood what it would take to lay the foundations for this greatness, though not the timeframe in which it would occur. Lamar called for the establishment of a public school system and a university. He also called for the establishment of clearly defined legal procedures, commercial treaties and a national bank to build the economy, and direct taxation to fund education and defense.
An independent Texas: Lamar had devoted much thought to Texas's military and foreign policy. He would no longer seek annexation to the United States. Instead, he would continue to try to win recognition from other countries of Texas's independence.
Most important to Texas survival was winning peace and recognition from Mexico. Lamar pursued diplomacy through the United States and Great Britain and through direct negotiation. The efforts came very near to success. On the eve of recognition, however, a revolution broke out in Mexico and completely derailed all the progress that had been made. Following the collapse of negotiations, Lamar formed an alliance with Mexican rebels in Yucatan, a story told in part in the exhibit Fortune Favors the Brave: The Story of the Texas Navy.
Indian expulsion: Upon taking office, Lamar instituted an immediate change in Indian policy. Like most white Texans, Lamar did not accept the idea of coexistence with Indian tribes within Texas. Instead of Sam Houston's policy of negotiation and conciliation, Lamar proposed to drive the Indians out of the areas of white settlement and to aggressively go after the Comanches.
The exhibit Indian Relations in Texas more fully tells the story of Lamar's policies towards the Cherokees, whom Lamar drove out of Texas in 1839, and the Comanches, with whom he waged a war costly in terms of both lives and money.
A new capital: Before his inauguration, Lamar joined some friends on a buffalo hunt near the Colorado River. On this trip, he found a beautiful hilly spot near the river that he thought would make an excellent site for a new capital city. Lamar wanted to make a statement by building his capital in the middle of Texas territory, showing that Texans would expand from the coast and conquer the west.
By June 1839, construction was underway of the new city of Austin. By October, Lamar, the government, and forty ox wagons of papers and furniture journeyed from Houston to take up residence. Standing amidst the collection of log shacks, Lamar proclaimed that the glory of Austin would soon "overshadow the ancient magnificence of Mexico."
Runaway spending: Lamar struggled in his efforts to put Texas on a more secure financial footing. Texas had a growing public debt and an almost valueless currency--the Texas redback was worth only twelve cents on the dollar by the end of his administration. Lamar's ambitious spending was part of the problem. To finance his ambitious schemes, he counted on loans from England and France that never came through. During his term of office, the Texas government collected about a million dollars in taxes and spent almost five million.
The Santa Fe Expedition: In June 1841, Lamar made another great leap of faith when he authorized the Santa Fe Expedition. A large group of volunteers would journey to what is now New Mexico to open a trade route and, Lamar hoped, persuade New Mexican leaders to sever their connection with Mexico and join forces with the Republic of Texas. Lamar had some reason to hope the plan would succeed. At the time, the central government in Mexico seemed to be tottering, and the people of Santa Fe were known to be in a rebellious mood. Sadly, the expedition was poorly thought-out and became an unmitigated fiasco (See Texas Treasures for details). The disaster and its dismal aftermath would taint Lamar's reputation for the rest of his life.
Father of Texas Education: Lamar left office under a cloud. But one aspect of his presidency that was overlooked at the time was to bear fruit many years later. Lamar believed that Texas greatness rested on the establishment of public education. Under Lamar's leadership, Texas began to set aside public lands that could be used as an endowment for an educational system. Nearly worthless at the time, the land would one day fund schools, colleges, and world-famous universities.