Stephen F. Austin
by Eugene C. Barker
[This article, which was published in The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, June, 1918, was reprinted in The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, XXII, 1-17. It gives a brief account of Austin's problems in settling Texas and affords an insight into his character, For a detailed history of Austin, see Barker, The Life of Stephen F. Austin and The Austin Papers (4 volumes), published by the Government Printing Office, Washington, and the University of Texas Press, Austin.]
Considering the difficulties of his task, the completeness of his responsibility for its accomplishment, and its far-reaching results, Stephen F. Austin has claims to being the greatest colonial proprietary in American history. He was born in Wythe County, Virginia, November 3, 1793, moved to Missouri at the age of five, spent four years (1804-1808) at different Connecticut schools and two at Transylvania University, and then, at the age of seventeen, returned to Missouri, with schooling complete, to plunge into his father's complex business, a part of which he took over in 1817. In 1813 he was elected to the territorial legislature of Missouri, and by successive re-elections served until 1819; in 1815 Governor Clark gave him an adjutant's commission in the Missouri militia; in 1818 he became a director in the ill-fated Bank of St. Louis; two years later Governor Miller appointed him judge of the federal circuit of Arkansas; and at the beginning of 1821 he was editing a newspaper at New Orleans. With training and experience of such breadth and versatility and with his intimate knowledge of frontier life, Austin at twenty-eight was well prepared to be the founder and patriarchal ruler of a wilderness commonwealth. He embarked with his father somewhat dubiously upon the colonization of Texas, and it was partly in obedience to his father's dying wish that he determined to continue the undertaking alone.
[Moses Austin to Stephen F. Austin, May 22, 1821, Austin Papers, University of Texas: "I can now go forward with confidence and I hope and pray you will discharge your doubts as to the Enterprise." Austin to Wharton, April 24, 1829, Austin Papers: "I myself believed that the probabilities of failure or success were almost equal." Mary Austin (mother of Stephen) to Stephen F. Austin, June 8, 1821, Austin Papers: "he called me to his bedside and with much distress and difficulty of speech beged me to tell you to take his place and if god in his wisdom thought best to disappoint him in the accomplishment of his wishes and plans formed, he prayed him to extend his goodness to you and enable you to go on with the business in the same way he would have done."]
But having begun, he spent himself in singular devotion to the healthy growth of Texas and the welfare of the colonists whom his influence brought to the country and for whose prosperity he felt a personal responsibility. In moments of despondency, when particularly harassed by public duties and anxieties, he longed for "a small farm, a moderate independence, and a wife," but for the most part he had no time for thoughts of self. His conception of his task extended farther' than the mere planting of a number of families in an uninhabited waste; it was to create there a high-toned, intelligent, prosperous, and happy society.
Ten years of retrospect no doubt helped him to formulate this statement of his purpose, but it is perfectly clear that his aim was in mind from the beginning. To another correspondent he wrote:
In some ways the time was ripe for his undertaking in 1821. The westward movement had crossed the Mississippi and reached the borders of Texas, and the panic of 1819 and the reorganization of the land system of the United States in 1820 cooperated to stimulate emigration to lands that combined the attractions of princely abundance, accessibility, fertility, and cheapness that amounted in effect to a free gift. Austin's greatness, therefore, consists not in having overcome difficulties of transportation and communication to induce reluctant colonists to reclaim a distant and inhospitable land, but in the tact with which, on the one hand, he governed his independent western frontiersmen, curbing their intolerance of the "foreigner" and their disgust at his political ineptitude, while, on the other, he won and held the confidence of Mexican statesmen, soothing their fear of the disloyalty of the colonists and the ultimate absorption of Texas by the United States. Austin stated his problem in a very few words in a letter of 1829:
Fortunately, though it seemed to him ruinously unfortunate at the time, the revolution and the political upheaval incident to the establishment of Mexican independence carried Austin to Mexico in the spring of 1822, after many of his colonists had already arrived, and kept him there for a year securing confirmation of his grant, which had been made by the Spanish regime. There, during the brief space of eleven months, he saw the executive government go through the stages of a regency, an empire, and a military triumvirate. Iturbide elevating himself to the imperial throne by Napoleonic methods and being himself overthrown by Santa Anna posing as a liberal while the legislature traveled through a provisional junta gubernativa, a sovereign elected congress, a rump (the junta nacional instituyente), and back again, after the fall of Iturbide, to the congress. With little money, and reduced at last to the extremity of selling his watch, Austin possessed his soul in such patience as he could and gently nagged a national colonization law through Iturbide's rump parliament, only to have it annulled by the return of the legitimate congress and its sweeping decree repealing all acts of the empire. He had won his case, however, and congress instructed the executive to confirm his contract in the terms of the imperial law. Incidentally he had learned the language, gained the confidence and esteem of such men as Anastacio Bustamante, Lorenzo de Zavala, Ramos Arispe, and Lucas Alaman, and obtained an insight into Mexican personal and official character that was the key to his future success. For a foreigner he had exercised a remarkable influence upon the shifting committees of the various legislative bodies. He was largely responsible for the passage of the colonization law, tried his hand at drafting an imperial constitution which combined some of the features of the Constitution of the United States with the Spanish constitution of 1812, and, on his departure, left with Ramos Arispe a document which probably in considerable degree shaped the acta constitutiva, the provisional constitution which bridged the transition from empire to federal republic.
Austin returned to Texas with extraordinary powers. The governor had already invested him with general authority to govern the colony until the regular state administration could be extended to it, and now, by decree of the national government, this power was more specifically defined and enlarged. He was supreme judge, save that in capital cases he must submit his decision to the commandant general of the Eastern Interior Provinces before execution; he could issue regulations for the government of the settlements when the national laws did not apply; he was commander of the militia, which it was his duty to keep in efficient state of organization, with the title of lieutenant colonel, and with authority to wage offensive and defensive war on the Indians; he had sole power to admit immigrants to or exclude them from his colony, which covered an area larger than Massachusetts; and, acting with a commissioner appointed by the governor, he could give title to married men for 4,600 acres of land, subject to improvement in two years, and could greatly augment that amount to men with large families, or who established gins, sawmills, or other public conveniences.
Most of this power Austin retained for seven years. The legislature, it is true, was organized in 1824, when Texas was united with Coahuila to the south, but, aside from passing the state colonization law, its attention until 1827 was centered on the formation of the constitution, so that there was very little legislation for Texas. A local ayuntamiento or municipal government was established in 1828, but for several years this took little of the burden of administration from Austin, because, though he steadily refused to accept office in the ayuntamiento, the members of that body looked to him for guidance and both state and federal authorities showed a disposition to hold him responsible for the smooth working of the local government, while of the land system he retained direction throughout the colonial period. From inclination as well as from necessity, he followed democratic methods of administration, dividing the colony into districts and allowing the inhabitants to elect alcaldes, or justices of the peace, and militia officers, himself hearing appeals from the former and directing the latter. But in the matter of legislation he acted alone, promulgating, with the approval of the political chief at San Antonio, a brief civil and criminal code which was in operation for five years. In his management of the lands of the colony he followed from the beginning the practice of issuing titles only on official surveys and of recording in permanent form all papers connected with the title, including the surveyor's plot of the land. The government made no allowance for the expenses of administration, and in the early days taxation was impossible, so that, except for fees of alcaldes and constables, the cost of government fell heavily upon Austin. This was particularly true of his management of the land business, while he was at constant expense also in entertaining travelers and prospectors, sending expresses, giving presents to Indians, and often furnishing munitions and supplies for Indian campaigns.
Anticipating some of these expenses, and wishing also, naturally, compensation for his industry and enterprise, Austin had, before planting a single colonist, arranged, with the knowledge of Governor Martinez, to collect 12 1/2 cents an acre for the land in his grant, assuming himself the cost of surveying land and of issuing and recording titles. He advertised this in plain and unambiguous terms, and the original settlers accepted it gladly, because elsewhere in Texas they had no right to settle or acquire land at all. The imperial colonization law of 1823, in accordance with whose terms, after its repeal, Austin's grant was confirmed, greatly enlarged the headrights which he had planned to allow settlers and provided that he himself should receive as compensation for his labors some 65,000 acres for each two hundred families that he introduced. Whether this was intended to annul the 12 1/2 cent agreement is open to question. Austin thought not, and so explained on his return from Mexico in the summer of 1823. Where each settler could have 4,600 acres for the asking, the empresario's 65,000 acres were not likely to yield much ready money for current expenses. Nevertheless, some of the colonists now objected to the payment and carried their complaint to the political chief, who had replaced the governor at San Antonio, and he ruled against Austin's right to charge for the lands. Instead, he fixed a scale of fees for the surveyor, the land commissioner, and the state, which Austin thought had no warrant in law. He contented himself, however, with making a straightforward defense of his reasons for charging the fee, pointing out the risks, hardships, sacrifices, and expenses he had suffered, and asking plainly if he had not given in labor and responsibility the equivalent of the 12 1/2 cents an acre which the colonists had agreed to pay him, or whether they could or would have obtained anything, except through his exertions. Many considered themselves in equity bound by their contracts, one declaring that no candid man in the colony denied the obligation, but Austin relinquished them all and made an arrangement with Bastrop for a division of the fee which the political chief had prescribed for the latter as commissioner. It yielded much less than his contracts with the colonists would have done, but it avoided friction between them and the political chief. The colonization law which the legislature passed in 1825 recognized the justice of Austin's position and authorized empresarios to collect a fee from their settlers in addition to the generous premium of land allowed by the state.
A few of the colonists were already grumbling because they saw Austin granting three, four, and five leagues to some while he allowed them only a paltry 4,600 acres. They were ignorant of Spanish and knew nothing of his powers except what he or his secretary and the commissioner Bastrop told them. Might he not be imposing upon them and exploiting them for his own advantage? Had he any authority either to grant land or govern the colony? The political chief's interference in the matter of the fees helped to strengthen their suspicion, and uneasy whispers increased to a respectable rumble of discontent. The political chief assured them that Austin's authority was ample in every respect, but the excitement subsided slowly and did not disappear until Austin convinced the leaders of his power by arresting them and threatening to send them to San Antonio for trial. The threat and a heart to heart talk were sufficient, and they soon became his staunch supporters. Austin ascribed much of his trouble to the colonists' ignorance of the language, their exercise of the sacred American right to abuse a public official, and the absence of definite laws.
With the readiness of the colonists to "growl" and "grumble" and "mutter," "without knowing why, or without being able to explain why," he was not, however, disposed to quarrel.
Another duty that brought Austin some enemies and much annoyance was that of keeping criminals and men of bad character out of the colony. He required certificates of character from all who obtained land, and though, in the nature of things, these certificates could be hardly more than formal statements of "parties unknown," he made remarkably few mistakes. He banished several from the colony in 1823 and 1824 under threat of severe corporal punishment, and in one case applied the lash. Some of the exiles took refuge in the neighboring colony of the Mexican empresario De Leon and avenged themselves by making false reports about Austin to the government, and others settled in the no man's land on the borders of Louisiana and Arkansas and deterred honest emigrants from proceeding to Texas by tales of violence and anarchy. To an inquirer alarmed by such stories in 1829 Austin wrote, "in proportion to our numbers, we are as enlightened, as moral, as good, and as 'law-abiding' men, as can be found in any part of the United States, and greatly more so than ever settled a frontier"---an opinion whose substantial accuracy the historian must confirm. For, besides the supervision of immigrants which good policy as well as law required, the great majority, especially of the earlier colonists, were men of family, seeking homes, not speculators or adventurers. The state colonization law of 1825 put a premium on marriage by allowing married men four times as much land as unmarried men, while Austin had previously required ten single men to unite into a "family" to obtain a league, the headright of a married man.
It would be impossible to exaggerate Austin's labors in the early years of the colony. A letter to the political chief in 1826 gives a clue to their character and variety. He had left San Felipe on April 4 to point out some land recently conceded to one of the state officials and had been detained by excessive rains and swollen streams until the 29th. On May 1 he had begun the trial of an important case that had lasted seven days; at the same time he had had to entertain a delegation of the Tonkaway Indians, and make preparations for a campaign against another tribe; to talk to and answer questions of many "foreigners," who had come to look at the country, explaining and translating the federal constitution and some of the laws for them; to receive and pass upon applications for land, hear reports and issue instructions to surveyors; and to correspond with superior civil and military officers. This, the 8th, his first free day since returning, was mail day, and he had received two communications and dispatched five. Too much of his time, he once complained, was consumed in settling "neighborhood disputes about cows and calves," but it was the patience with which he devoted himself to the minutiae of the colony as well as his intelligence and ability in more important things that accounts for his success. During these years he gathered by painstaking surveys and personal observations data for a map of Texas, published by Tanner in 1829; charted Galveston Bay and the several harbors and navigable rivers of the state; promoted trade with the United States and kept a stream of immigrants flowing into the colony; encouraged the erection of gins and sawmills and the establishment of schools; and exercised throughout a most remarkable influence over the legislature at Saltillo in matters affecting the interest of the colony. To mention but a few instances of this, he was responsible in considerable degree for the liberal terms of the colonization law, his arguments prevented the constitutional abolition of slavery in 1827 and secured the labor law of the next year permitting the continued introduction of slaves in the form of indented servants, and in 1829 his desire to protect the colonists against suit for debts contracted before coming to the country found expression in what we should now consider a sweeping homestead law. He himself was a member of the legislature in 1831-1832, and was re-elected in 1834 but was prevented from serving by his detention in Mexico.
Burdened as he was with the affairs of his own colony, he found time to answer the calls of others. He repeatedly exerted himself to obtain titles for families who had drifted in and settled on the eastern border of the province before the passage of the colonization law; and he was always ready to give other empresarios the benefit of his knowledge and experience. DeWitt was deeply indebted to him for such success as he enjoyed, Burnet drew heavily upon him, and Edwards received advice that ought to have saved him from the folly of the Fredonian rebellion. He perceived very clearly the mutual interest of all in the peaceful and rapid development of Texas, and, with the field so vast and the laborers so few, he welcomed every additional effort in the promotion of that end. Some of his fellow empresarios, however, without his vision and interest in the permanent growth of the country, doubted his sincerity and blamed him for embarrassments and failures due to their own impatience, greed, and unwillingness to adapt themselves to Mexican racial characteristics and sensibilities. What was needed in Texas he said
He did not, of course, as we have seen, escape misconstruction by his own colonists, but this he philosophically recognized as inevitable, and even necessary, in a way to the success of the colony.
He was conservative in declaring that the "reflecting and worthy part of the settlers" adhered to him, and they were always a vast majority. They brought him their personal troubles and perplexities, and surrendered completely to his guidance in every crisis through which the colony passed. This was true in 1826, when he led them against Edwards's rebellious "frontier republicans" at Nacogdoches; in 1829, when he obtained the exemption of Texas from President Guerrero's emancipation decree; in 1830, when he reconciled them to the federal decree limiting immigration from the United States, while taking steps to secure its suspension; in 1832, when, after the expulsion of Bustamante's garrisons from Texas during his absence, he convinced Colonel Mexia of their loyalty to the liberal party of Santa Anna; in 1833, when they petitioned for the separation of Texas and Coahuila and sent him to Mexico to urge its approval; and, finally, in 1835, when they resisted Santa Anna's encroachments on republican government, for without his advice and organizing influence very few would have been ready then to take up arms. The revolution once begun, he was called to the command of the army, much as Washington went to Cambridge, to quiet the claims of rival aspirants, and when order was established and the campaign under way they sent him to the United States to find money and munitions to maintain it.
His control of the settlers in every essential movement as they increased from a few hundred in 1821 to many thousands in 1835 proves him a great leader. The confidence of Mexican officials, despite their innate fear of Anglo-American expansion, which was constantly stimulated by the efforts of the United States to acquire Texas, proves him a diplomat of no mean ability. With both, his success was due to his absolute honesty and fearless candor. His one purpose was the advancement of Texas.
He sincerely believed until the beginning of 1836 that the best interest of Texas lay in its loyalty to Mexico, that the colonists and the government had, therefore, a common interest in its development, and he was the efficient apostle of that faith. He felt some fear of the outcome of republican government in Mexico, he knew that the people were not fitted for it, but hoped they might stumble along until education and experience prepared them for it. At the same time, as a prudent man would in his position, he sometimes contemplated a condition of anarchy or oppression that would render continued loyalty impossible. In such a contingency, though he shrank from it, he favored independence; never, until shortly before his death, annexation to the United States.
On his attitude toward annexation there is an abundance of material from 1830 to 1835, and there can be no doubt of his sincerity. This conclusion does not rest alone on an interpretation of Austin's own statements, for in 1834 Anthony Butler attributed to him his failure to buy Texas. Two reasons for opposing annexation Austin gives, the land system of the United States and slavery.
This he wrote to his brother-in-law in 1830. A few months later he wrote that he should "oppose a union with the United States without some guarantees, amongst them I should insist on the perpetual exclusion of slavery from this country." No doubt the tariff figured in his consideration, and it is evident, too, that he believed that a strong population in Texas would ultimately wield such an influence with the government as to be freer under Mexico than under the United States.
Austin's views on slavery, despite the quotation just read, and a number of other expressions equally unequivocal, require explanation. He successfully opposed constitutional emancipation in 1827, urged in vain at the same time that immigrants be permitted to continue bringing slaves from the United States, obtained the withdrawal of Guerrero's emancipation decree in 1829, and declared in 1835 that Texas must be a slave state. The contradiction is more apparent than real, but when all is said some inconsistency remains. The truth seems to be that he did deplore slavery, but that he recognized its economic necessity in the development of Texas. Most of his colonists were naturally to be expected from the neighboring slaves states, but slave owners would not come if forbidden to bring their slaves, and others who did come would be greatly hampered by the lack of free labor. About the time of this letter he seems to have felt that a satisfactory compromise might be reached by the labor law of 1828, which, in effect, established the peonage system of Mexico. He wrote in 1831:
In 1832 the labor law was modified, limiting contracts thereafter to ten years, hence, perhaps, his declaration for slavery in 1835. His defense of existing slavery in 1826-1827, it should be added, was based on what he considered guaranteed vested right, his original contract with the Spanish government, under which his first families were introduced, having recognized slavery by augmenting a settler's headright in proportion to the number of slaves he owned.
I have tried to present in this short paper something of the personality of Austin as he revealed himself in his work. He was a grave, gentle, kindly man, charitable, tolerant, affectionate and loyal, naturally impulsive but restrained by habit, sensitive, lonely, and given too much, perhaps, to introspection. He enjoyed social companionship, but his position set him apart from the colonists and made close friendships with them difficult and rare. He smoked, danced now and then, loved music (he played the flute in his younger days), and his bills show occasional charges for whiskey, brandy, and wine. He was well educated, widely read for his opportunities, and a clear thinker. His letters in their straightforward precision and naturalness remind one of Franklin. He worked incessantly, unselfishly, and generally most patiently. In short, he appears to me a lovable human character, with many charming qualities.
On returning from his mission to the United States in the summer of 1836 he was persuaded to be a candidate for the presidency. He consented with indifference and took his defeat by Houston with equanimity. He had been absent from the country for the better part of three years on public business, part of the time in a Mexican prison; his personal affairs were greatly neglected, and he welcomed the prospect of leisure to put them in order. However, when his victorious rival asked him to be secretary of state, he consented, in the belief that he could be useful in bringing the infant republic to the favorable notice of older governments. As usual, he immersed himself in public duties to the utter neglect of self, and died from overwork and exposure on December 27, 1836. For fifteen years he had held the destiny of Texas in the hollow of his hand, and characteristically his last conscious thought was of its welfare. He waked from a dream thinking that the United States had recognized its independence, and died in that belief. His death, thus, at the age of only forty-three, on the eve of the fruition of all his labors, with the country redeemed from the wilderness and others assuming the burden of responsibility that had deprived him of home, wife, and family, was one of fate's grim ironies---a distressing personal tragedy.