military phase of the Texas Revolution began on October 2, 1835, with
the Battle of Gonzales,
but a meeting of Texas delegates known as the Consultation was the
true beginning of the political struggle. Gathering at San
Felipe de Austin on November 4, 1835, the delegates to the Consultation
were tasked with the mission of determining the future political course
of action that Texans would follow. Delegates who were members of
the war faction urged a vote for independence and a complete break
from the tyranny of Santa Anna, while members of the peace faction
insisted on remaining loyal to Mexico, providing that the government
was willing to return to the protections provided by the Mexican Constitution
of 1824. A vote was held on November 6, and the peace delegates carried
the day 33 to 15.
On the following day, the Consultation adopted the “Declaration of
the People of Texas in General Convention Assembled,” which stated
that the Texans were and would continue to be loyal citizens of Mexico.
The delegates also declared that they had fought only to protect themselves
and in support of the Constitution of 1824. Finally, the members of
the Consultation established a provisional government, with Henry
Smith as governor and requested that Stephen F. Austin, William Wharton,
and Branch T. Archer depart on a mission to the United States for
the purpose of raising troops and money. The Consultation then agreed
to meet again on March 1, 1836, where a final decision would be reached
on the question of Texas Independence.
Though the delegates were unaware of the situation, by the time they
reconvened at Washington-on-the-Brazos
on March 1, the desperate struggle at the Alamo
had already begun. Earlier, the members of the Consultation had wavered
on the question of independence, but the delegates to the Convention
of 1836 were, in the main, younger more recent arrivals to Texas
and thus much more likely to support the movement to a free and sovereign
state. In addition, Stephen F. Austin, a long-time proponent of peace,
had recently returned from more than a year of imprisonment in Mexico
with a different outlook on the situation. Austin, in ill health due
to his long internment, now urged all Texans to take action. “War
is our only recourse,” he declared. “There is no other remedy. We
must defend our rights, ourselves, and our country by force of arms.”
On the first day of the convention, forty-four delegates gathered
in near-freezing weather in an unfinished house owned by Noah Byars
and Peter Mercer. The house was so new that its fresh timber oozed
sap. A Virginia lawyer, William Fairfax Gray, who was visiting Texas
on business, recorded his impressions of the convention in his diary.
He described the building as “an unfinished house, without doors or
window glass. Cotton cloth was stretched across the windows, which
partially excluded the cold wind.” Gray went on to note that Washington-on-the-Brazos
was “a damp and dismal place to conduct such a meeting. The one street
was ankle-deep in mud, and the chilling rain left the delegates dispirited.”
| Replica of the
Building where the Convention of 1836 met, Washington-on-the-Brazos
eventually gathered at Washington-on-the-Brazos,
with the last delegate, Andrew Briscoe, not arriving until March
11. The members of the convention were natives of eleven states,
mostly from the south, and five foreign countries. Several of them
had political experience at either the state or national level.
F. Austin in the United States, only one delegate stirred the
imagination of the convention; former Governor of Tennessee, Sam
Houston. Gray wrote that Houston’s arrival “created more sensation
than that of any other man.” Weeks of hard travel and a severe bout
of malaria had worn Houston
down, and Gray wrote in his diary that he was “much broken in appearance
but has still a fine person and courtly manners.”
The first order of business was an examination of the delegates’
credentials and the election of officers. Next a resolution was
introduced for the appointment of a committee to draft a declaration
of independence. The newly elected convention president, Richard
Ellis, assigned the duty to George
C. Childress, James Gaines, Edward Conrad, Collin McKinney,
and Bailey Hardeman. Childress
was appointed chairman of the committee, and it is generally accepted
that he drafted the declaration with little help from the other
members. There is even evidence to suggest that Childress
came to the convention with a draft already prepared. This evidence
is substantiated by the fact that Childress
presented the completed document to the convention within 24 hours
of accepting the responsibility.
| When the delegates
reconvened the following day, Childress
reported and read a final draft of the Declaration of Independence.
Sam Houston moved
for immediate adoption of the proposed document, which passed by an
overwhelming majority. The declaration was then approved by unanimous
vote and signed by all members present. Like the United States Declaration
of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson 60 years earlier, the
Texas declaration had three main sections. The first section declared
the right of revolution. The Texas declaration begins with the words
“When a government has ceased to protect the lives, liberty, and property
of the people, from whom its legitimate powers are derived...”
|The second section
of the declaration listed the colonists’ grievances against the Mexican
government. The initial grievance stated that General Santa Anna had
usurped the Constitution of 1824 and replaced it with “a consolidated
central military despotism.” Another grievance complained that the
Mexican government had “invited and induced the Anglo-American population
of Texas to colonize its wilderness under the pledged faith of a written
constitution” but then reneged on the promise. Other grievances listed
by the delegates included “sacrificing our welfare to the state of
Coahuila,” the arrest of Stephen F. Austin, failure to establish a
public education system, military occupation, and the denial of such
rights as trial by jury and freedom of religion. Section three of
the document proclaimed Texas independence and pledged the support
of all the delegates who had signed the document.
After the declaration was signed, five copies were dispatched to the
designated Texas towns of Bexar,
Felipe de Austin. Robert Potter then put forward a resolution
to form a committee for the purpose of drafting a Constitution, and
the committee immediately set to work. That evening a dispatch from
William Barrett Travis arrived from the Alamo
reporting a minor skirmish with Mexican troops. At first, the message
caused consternation among the delegates; however Gray later wrote
in his diary that “Colonel James Fannin is reported to be on the march
with 350 men for the aid of Travis. It is believed the Alamo
on their experience as citizens of both the United States and Mexico,
the members of the committee created a republican form of government.
The new nation became known as the Republic of Texas. In drafting
the constitution, the ever-present threat of an attack by Mexican
cavalry made the necessity of haste imperative, therefore, the delegates
naturally leaned heavily on the United States Constitution as a model
to ease their burden. This produced a document that embodied features
familiar to Americans. Like its United States counterpart, the Republic’s
constitution was brief in the extreme, with less than 6,500 words,
and also granted the chief executive a wide range of powers.
Other familiarities with the U.S. Constitution included a brief preamble;
separation of government power into legislative, judicial and executive
branches which provided for checks and balances; a bill of rights;
male suffrage; slavery; citizenship, with “Africans, the descendents
of Africans, and Indians excepted”; and a means of amendment. In concert
with the U. S. Congress, the Texas legislature was bicameral, with
a Senate and a House of Representatives, and the executive was also
similar to the U. S. Presidency in most respects. The judicial system
created by the committee was four-tiered, with a Supreme Court supported
by justice, county, and district courts.
A few of the Constitution’s provisions were atypical to the U. S.
Constitution and reflected Jacksonian theories of government like
declaring ministers and priests ineligible to hold public office,
abolishing imprisonment for debt, and prohibiting monopolies, primogeniture,
and entailment. Other provisions unfamiliar to the U. S. Constitution
were adopted from Spanish and Mexican law, to include community property,
homestead exemptions, and debtor relief. The process of amending the
constitution was also made much more complex and burdensome, perhaps
intentionally so. Amendments proposed in one session of Congress had
to be referred to the next session for a second approval and then
submitted to a popular vote.
March 4, Sam Houston
was elected Commander-in-Chief of both the regular and volunteer Texas
armies. On the following Sunday, William Gray wrote in his diary,
“A dispatch was received from Travis, dated Alamo, March 3, 1836.
Members of the Convention and many citizens of Washington-on-the-Brazos
assembled to hear the latest news.” The message from Travis was a
desperate plea. “We have contended for ten days against an enemy whose
numbers are variously estimated from fifteen hundred to six thousand
men. I hope your honorable body will hasten on reinforcements, ammunitions
and provisions to our aid as soon as possible. . . God and Texas ?
Victory or Death.”
The delegates had no way of knowing that the defenders of the Alamo
were already dead, and Travis’ message came close to being the death
knell of the Convention. Most delegates were determined to abandon
their efforts and rush to the defense of the Alamo.
In fact, one delegate moved that the convention “do immediately adjourn,
arm and march to the relief of the Alamo.”
Gray noted in his diary that “A great many persons are preparing to
start to the scenes of fighting.” Thankfully, Sam
Houston, the delegate with the greatest influence due to his extensive
military and political experience, knew that such a move would lead
to disaster. The one overriding priority had to be the establishment
of a legitimate Texas government.
When Houston came
to his feet in the midst of the near hysteria that hung like a dark
storm cloud over the stifling confines of the crowded Convention room,
the calm, measured tones of his voice held the delegates in respectful
silence. He began by stating that it was of utmost importance that
the delegates complete their task of forming the government. Without
a legitimate government to present to the world, there would be no
chance of recognition by the United States, let alone other foreign
governments, and the Texas Revolution would be doomed from the start.
Houston went on
to state that, as Commander-in-Chief, he would immediately depart
for Gonzales and
rally a force to come to the aid of the Alamo.
With that, he strode from the room, mounted his horse and galloped
out of town accompanied by his aide, Colonel George W. Hockley.
Though eventually pressured by word that the Alamo
had fallen and that Santa Anna’s army would soon be on the march east,
the delegates to the Convention of 1836 continued at their sacred
task and finished the new Republic’s constitution at midnight on March
16. Since the outcome of the Texas Revolution was still in serious
doubt, the final task of the delegates was to establish an ad interim
government until such time as formal elections could be held.
David G. Burnet
|David G. Burnet
was elected to the office of provisional President. A dark and grim
man without humor, who carried a pistol in one pocket of his tight
black coat and a bible in the other, the 47-year-old Burnet was from
New Jersey and had traveled the world before arriving in Texas in
1826 to start his own colony. Like his good friend, Stephen F. Austin,
Burnet strongly disapproved of liquor and profanity, and also like
Austin, he despised the hard-drinking and hard-swearing Sam
Houston. Houston returned the favor by nicknaming the stern little
man “Wetumpka,” which Sam
laughingly said was Cherokee for hog thief.
Courtesy Phillpott collection
|Lorenzo de Zavala,
selected as the new Republic’s ad interim Vice President, was
born in the Yucatan peninsula and helped to write the Mexican Constitution
of 1824. Zavala remained a loyal Mexican citizen until he fled to
Texas and championed the Texan cause when Santa Anna declared himself
dictator of Mexico. Other ad interim officers were Secretary
of State, Samuel P. Carson, Attorney General David Thomas, Secretary
of War Thomas J. Rusk, who ultimately served as the liaison between
and the new government and Secretary of the Navy Robert Potter.
Burnet and the other provisional officers had barely assumed their
government offices when a report reached Washington-on-the-Brazos
that Mexican troops occupied Bastrop,
only 60 miles distant. The news spread panic among the delegates as
it already had in the population at large. The infamous “Runaway
Scrape” was well underway. President Burnet and his provisional
government immediately fled 70 miles eastward to the settlement of
Harrisburg on Buffalo Bayou.
Although it could not be said that all was well in the newly established
Republic of Texas, the efforts of the delegates at the Convention
of 1836 had truly given birth to a new nation.
"A Glimpse of Texas Past"
July 1, 2013 Column
for "The Birth of a Republic"
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C., Lone Star Rising: The Revolutionary Birth of the Texas Republic,
(Free Press 2004).
T. R., Lone Star: a history of Texas and the Texans, (Da
Capo Press, 2000).
D., The Texas Revolutionary Experience: A Political and Social
History 1835-1836, College Station, TX: Texas A&M University
Milton, “Republic of Texas,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/mzr02),
accessed May 25, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
A Political History of the Texas Republic, Austin, TX: University
of Texas Press (1956).
W., “Convention of 1836,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/mjc12),
accessed May 25, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.