Like many others I have spent all too many hours recently gazing at CNN, willing those voting numbers to change, and remove President Trump from the White House. In the process I have learned a great deal about the geography, sociology and politics of the United States, thanks to their excellent and informative coverage. This has led to musing on the interesting position of Texas, the only state ever to have been an independent country before becoming a state within the US.
It was on 2 March 1836 that 59 representatives came together at the Town of Washington (now Washington-on-the Brazos) and dared to dream of independence as they signed their Declaration of Independence (very much a cut-and-paste job from the US Declaration, if truth be told).
The circumstances were not propitious. The Town of Washington was described thus by one of the attendees:
“It is laid out in the woods, about a dozen wretched cabins or shanties constitute the city; not one decent house in it, and only one well-defined street, which consists of an opening cut out of the woods. The stumps still standing. A rare place to hold a national convention in. They will have to leave it promptly to avoid starvation.”
The convention met in an unfinished building without doors or windows, the delegates shivering in blankets while a freezing wind from the north howled through the hall.
Worse still, even as they signed their declaration, the guns of the Mexican dictator Santa Anna (legally their head of state) were thundering against the walls of the Alamo, which would fall four days later, leaving Texans fleeing for the Louisiana border. The whole thing seemed foolish to the point of madness.
How did they come to this?
Until 1634, the state we now know as Texas was inhabited by various native American tribes, including the Comanche and Apache familiar to us from Westerns. It was first ‘discovered’ by Spain, and both the French and Spanish spent some time trying to colonize it, with varying degrees of success. In 1819 Texas was given to Spain, but only a couple of years later it became part of the newly-independent (from Spain) Mexico. Native Americans, understandably concerned at the invasion of their land, made it difficult for the settlers to live safely, and so immigrants were invited from the neighbouring United States to help swell the population, these people settling mainly in the north-east. But very quickly the governor, Santa Anna, declared himself a dictator. This angered the new settlers, who had come from a young republic and were aghast to find themselves once more largely without political clout.
Thus was born the new Republic of Texas. Although the new republic established itself fairly quickly, through the defeat and capture of Santa Anna at the battle of San Jacinto, the problems of its people were far from over. To the south, they still had a powerful neighbour – Mexico – casting its eyes on land it considered Mexican. To the north were the still-new United States, keen to acquire more territory for themselves but reluctant to consider Texas as an applicant state, as Texas supported slavery: its accession would upset the balance of slave and non-slave states, which would make federal politics more difficult.
Texas itself was also split between those who were determined it should be an independent country, and those who felt that their security and prosperity would be best assured if Texas were a member of the USA. In the end the decision was driven very much by finance. The war of independence was, like all wars, expensive, especially to a young country seeking to establish itself. Texas needed to be able to defend itself in the future both from the Mexicans and from native Americans. A mixture of financial mismanagement and the cost of war ran up the then-unconscionable debt of $10m. After a mere nine years of independence, Texas became a state within the USA.
In an alternative universe, could the Republic of Texas have survived? It is, after all, the second largest of the states (after Alaska) and the second richest (after California). Such independence is not unthinkable. It has a coastline, enabling it to trade easily with the rest of the world. As was later discovered, it has oil, which has contributed much to its wealth. It has a land area 2.5 times that of the UK, although with about 40 per cent of the population. It is certainly larger and better-positioned than many small European countries.
Yet it is hard to imagine an independent country, monitoring about half of the northern Mexico border, competing with the vast and powerful United States to its north and west. What arrangements, what compromises, would it have had to reach with its giant neighbour? What power and influence would it wield in the world at large? We shall, of course, never know the answers to these questions – they must remain a matter of curiosity and speculation.
The dream, though, has never quite died. Texas has always considered itself special – different from the other states because it joined the US of its own free will as an independent republic. It is also the only state that, as part of its founding, may have the ability to split itself into up to five small states – without the permission of Congress (although the legality of this is disputed). Down the years, there have been various proposals to do this, but none has come to maturity. As late as 2012 there was a fear that the “dangerous socialist” Barack Obama would cause the disintegration of the United States. A petition was raised that the State of Texas should be allowed to withdraw from the United States and form its own independent government. It was signed by 125,000 people.
Texas, like all countries and all governments, has had to make difficult choices and uncomfortable compromises. There is no country in the world that can simply do as it chooses without reference to its geography, its economy and its neighbours. North Korea has attempted this, but has formed a poor, isolated, stunted and unhappy country. East Germany, even as part of the USSR, suffered a not-dissimilar fate, where opportunities were stifled and creativity and innovation dropped.
The UK is now making those choices for itself. The country is divided over the degree of self-determination it wants. The EU has not collapsed with our departure, as envisioned by many who promoted leaving. Rather, we are a small island trying to work out our relationship with a much larger and more powerful neighbour. And, since the recent US election, we are sandwiched between two large and successful federations who are much more interested in talking to each other than they are in talking to the UK. The time for pragmatism is here: will we have the common sense to grasp it?