Giants of Texas History
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Anson Jones and the Annexation of Texas
Anson Jones was born in Massachusetts in 1798. When he was 22, he was licensed as a physician. Throughout his life, Jones retained the plain, modest manner of a country doctor. But his life would take him in a far different direction. He would be known to history as the "Architect of Annexation." But his actual contribution to Texas statehood is more complex, and his life far more troubled, than the nickname would indicate.
Jones was a restless young man, spending time at Harper's Ferry, Philadelphia, and Venezuela, never making much of a success anywhere. In 1832 he gave up medicine and tried his hand as a commission merchant in New Orleans, where he went broke within a year. Jones next drifted to Texas, where he finally found success as a physician in Brazoria. At first, Jones resisted becoming involved in the tensions between Texas and Mexico, but eventually he became a supporter of Texas independence. When the revolution came, Jones served as judge advocate and surgeon in the San Jacinto campaign.
As Texas struggled to form a republic, Jones found himself drawn to politics. He was elected to the Texas Congress, where he served as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations. It was in this role that Jones first became involved with the question of the annexation of Texas to the United States.
The question of Texas annexation had been around since the days of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. At that time, Thomas Jefferson himself had asserted that the true southern limit of Louisiana was the Rio Grande, and many Americans agreed. Naturally, the Spanish objected to this interpretation. In 1819, the United States and Spain signed the Adams-Onís Treaty, in which Spain relinquished Florida to the U.S. in exchange for the U.S. giving up claim to Texas.
With the Texas Revolution, the question arose again. After San Jacinto, Texas formally proposed annexation to the United States, and many Texans expected it to follow within a matter of months. Sam Houston was a protégé and close friend of President Andrew Jackson, who was known to favor the annexation to secure and expand the western border of the United States. Business interests in the United States also wanted to move in and develop Texas commercially. And powerful senators from slave states saw the chance to extend the reach of slavery across thousands of miles of additional territory.
But there was heated opposition to annexation as well. First, Mexico did not recognize Texas independence, meaning Texas was still at war with Mexico. To annex Texas would be to commit the United States to that war, with the possibility that England might enter the war on the side of the Mexicans. Secondly, the annexation of Texas would breach the 1819 treaty with Mexico. And most importantly, northern states and anti-slavery advocates objected strongly, warning that the annexation could lead to civil war. Opposition to annexation in the North was so overwhelming that the measure had no chance of passing.
In Congress, Jones advocated a withdrawal of the offer of annexation. In 1838, Sam Houston appointed Jones as Texas minister to the United States, and authorized him to formally withdraw the offer. Instead of pursuing annexation, Jones would work to stimulate recognition and trade with Europe to the extent that one of two things would happen: either the U.S. would change its mind and decide to annex Texas, or Texas would become strong enough to remain independent. Jones served as minister until the following year, when Mirabeau B. Lamar became president. Jones returned to Texas, was elected to the Senate, and became a harsh critic of Lamar's foreign policy.
Sam Houston won the presidency again in 1841. This time, he chose Jones as his secretary of state. The foreign policy pursued by Houston and Jones was complex and at times devious. In Washington, they instructed Texas chargé d'affairs Isaac Van Zandt to labor for renewed interest in annexation. At the same time, they entered into serious negotiations with Britain and France to pursue a European alliance.
Britain in particular was enormously influential in Texas at that time. The British ran most of the important businesses and operated most trading vessels in the Gulf. The British proposed to broker a peace deal between Texas and Mexico that would offer Texas recognition of its independence in return for moving the border to the Nueces River and emancipating the slaves. In return, Britain could use the territory between the Nueces and the Rio Grande as a staging ground for its own designs on California.
Jones and Houston vacillated between the two policies. Houston was genuinely torn between his desire for annexation and the dream of an independent Texas. Jones believed that the prospects for annexation were dim, and that independence as part a British-French alliance offered the best prospects for peace with Mexico and prosperity for Texas.
Neither the annexation proposal in Washington nor the peace negotiations in Mexico had borne fruit by 1844, a U.S. presidential election year. President John Tyler was an unpopular figure in search of an issue that could bolster his claim to another term. The country was in an expansionist mood, and Tyler decided to tap into the sentiment by moving forward aggressively on the annexation question. The Tyler administration entered into secret negotiations with Houston and Jones.
Tyler assured the Texans that he had the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate to approve a treaty of annexation. Houston and Jones were dubious of Tyler's claim, and concerned about the continuing border raids and threats of all-out war from Mexico. Since annexation would torpedo the peace negotiations, what guarantees could Tyler provide for protecting Texas from Mexican invasion? And if the treaty failed to win approval, would the United States still stand by Texas and guarantee its independence?
Tyler was willing to go for broke. He sent the U.S. Navy to the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. Army to the Southwest to protect the Texas border. On April 12, 1844, the negotiations were completed and Texas signed an annexation treaty with the U.S. Ten days later, Tyler submitted the treaty to the Senate, along with hundreds of pages of supporting documents explaining the commercial and pro-slavery benefits of the move.
The proposed annexation set off an election-year political firestorm. And as Jones had privately feared, Tyler had badly overplayed his hand. The treaty was rejected by a large margin. Predictably, northern senators voted against it. Worse, fifteen southern senators also voted the treaty down, denouncing Tyler's actions as unconstitutional and an election-year stunt.
Jones was disgusted, saying Texas had been "shabbily used." With renewed vigor, he and Houston turned back to the idea of European protection. If all went well, Texas could end up as an independent nation, at peace with Mexico and poised to build a prosperous economy based on trade with Britain, France, and the United States too. Jones was set to succeed Houston as Texas president later in the year. He played a dangerous game, giving private assurances to both the Europeans and the Americans that he was really on their side.
For despite Tyler's bungling, the annexation issue was far from dead in the United States. The Democrats had seized upon annexation as a campaign issue, nominating James K. Polk on a pro-Texas platform. Henry Clay headed up the Whig ticket, opposing annexation unless it could be accomplished without war. In one of the closest elections in U.S. history, Polk was victorious. Texas had a new champion.
Events in the United States now moved quickly. Congress again took up the matter of annexing Texas. This time, advocates introduced not a treaty, which required a two-thirds vote in the Senate, but a joint resolution, which required a simple majority in both houses of Congress. The resolution passed the Senate by a narrow margin on February 27, 1845. The next day, it passed the House of Representatives by an overwhelming margin.
The offer of annexation reached Texas too late for the new Texas president, Anson Jones. In a mistake that would prove fatal to his political career, Jones had already agreed to a British and French proposal to delay the meeting of the Texas Congress by 90 days, in order to give the Europeans time to negotiate a final peace treaty and independence from Mexico.
For years, Jones had promised to lay before Texans a stark choice: annexation or independence, and could not turn away from the possibility. But his years in the diplomatic world had left him grossly out of touch with public sentiment among ordinary Texans. As President Polk's envoy Charles Wickliffe observed, news of Jones's negotiations with Mexico came upon Texas "like a peal of thunder in a clear skie."
Texans recognized that Jones's actions could derail the annexation, and few Texans had any faith in the goodwill of the European powers or the Mexican government. Jones became wildly unpopular, to the point of being burned in effigy and threatened with lynching. Jones's attempts to backpedaling only added to the scorn and contempt heaped upon him by the newspapers and ordinary Texans.
In June 1845, Jones finally achieved his long-sought offer of recognition and peace from Mexico, and called the Texas Congress into session to consider the choice. In short order, Congress quickly rejected the Mexican offer, accepted annexation, and voted to censure Jones. The next month, a special convention wrote a state constitution. The Texas constitution was approved by the U.S. Congress, and on December 29, 1845, President Polk made it official, signing the annexation resolution that admitted Texas as one of the United States of America.
The last official act of Anson Jones as president was to attend the ceremony on February 19, 1846, in which the American flag was raised over the Texas Capitol. In Jones's words, "The Republic of Texas is no more."
As predicted, Mexico regarded the annexation as an act of war and moved to retake Texas. Polk declared that Mexico had invaded American soil and would pay the price for it. The U.S.-Mexican war that followed was bloody, costly, and as controversial as the annexation itself.
As for Jones, he went home to Barrington, his home on Washington-on-the-Brazos. He became a prosperous planter and amassed a great estate, but brooded constantly over his rejection by the people. In 1849, Jones fell from a horse and incurred a painful injury that caused his left arm to become disabled. Over the next few years, Jones' mental state deteriorated along with his physical health. He nursed an obsessive hatred of Sam Houston and a misguided belief that he would someday return to public office and be recognized for his contributions to Texas annexation. Sadly, he committed suicide in 1858.
Portrait of Anson Jones. Prints and Photographs Collection, Texas State Library and Archives Commission. #1993/31-21.