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The Convention at Old Washington, March 1, 1836

[Washington-on-the-Brazos]

 

 By:  Sam Houston Dixon 

 

Review of Events leading up to Texas Independence – Committee Reports – Organization of Government Ad Interim – Election of Officers – Facsimile of the Declaration of Independence

 

            The instrument proclaiming Texas independent of Mexico was the Magna Charta of the Texas Republic.  Excepting the Declaration of Independence proclaimed by the American colonies at Philadelphia, July 4, 1776, no instrument recorded in the annals of history has had more potential influence over the destinies of the people of the United States.

            The events which led up to the convention at Old Washington, which declared Texas free from Mexico, were momentous in driving the Texas colonies to resistance.  They had for years patiently borne with Mexican duplicity and intrigue.  They recognized the supremacy of Mexican rule and law and were sincere in their desire to obey them.  As late as November, 1835, the Texans declared in convention that “they will continue faithful to the Mexican Government as long as that nation is governed by the constitution and laws that were formed for the government of the political associates.”  When Santa Anna and the other military chieftains overthrew the federal constitution of Mexico and dissolved the social compact which existed between Texas and other members of the Mexican Confederacy, the Texans declared that “they were no longer morally or politically bound by the compact of the union * * * yet they offered their support and assistance to such members of the Mexican Confederacy as will take up arms against military despotism.”

            For years the leaders among the colonists had advised patience and forbearance, hoping that a peaceful solution of the troubles arising could be reached without resorting to war.  But the intolerable exactions of the Mexican rulers finally swept aside every desire they had to remain a dependence of that country.  It was then they grew impatient and rose in revolt.

            The Consultation that met at San Felipe in November, 1835, was the first time the colonists had publicly expressed a spirit of rebellion against Mexican despotism.  And even then there were those among the delegates to this convention who were hopeful that a permanent separation from Mexico might be averted, and contented themselves by having the convention to declare that “they hold it to be right, during the disorganization of the Federal System and the reign of despotism, to withdraw from the Union and establish an independent government or adopt such measures as they may deem best calculated to protect their rights and liberties.”

            As an indication that the leaders in that convention believed it still possible to avoid a permanent separation from Mexico, a proposition to at once adopt a declaration of independence was voted down, and they organized a provisional State Government and elected a Governor, Lieutenant-Governor and Legislative Council.  This was but carrying out the plan of 1833, to establish Texas as a separate State from Coahuila.  The General Council was given power to call a convention with plenary powers.  This convention was called to meet at Old Washington, March 1, 1836.  When it met it was clear that the hope for a settlement of the differences had forever dissipated and the convention was unanimous for a permanent separation and a declaration of the independence.

            It will be recalled that in 1832, and again in 1833, the colonists held conventions in which they united in presenting to Santa Anna their grievances arising from the passage of laws and decrees during the brief reign of Bustamante.  Texas and Coahuila were consolidated into one state in 1827.  This, the Texans claimed, was only a temporary arrangement, and in their convention in 1833 they memorialized the Mexican government to give Texas a separate state government, setting out that the Constitution of 1824 guaranteed to Texas the right of having a state government whenever she may be in a condition to ask for the same, referring to the language of the Constitution which read: “As soon as Texas shall be in condition to figure as a state of itself, it shall inform Congress thereof.”

            The Convention of 1833 adopted a Constitution for the Sate and elected Stephen F. Austin, Dr. John B. Miller and Erasmo Seguin, commissioners to present the memorial and constitution to the Government at the City of Mexico and ask for the ratification of the State constitution.  They were also instructed to request a modification of the decree prohibiting further immigration to Texas from the United States.  Austin was the only one of the Commissioners to go to the City of Mexico.  He was unable to see Santa Anna, but he laid the memorial and Sate Constitution before Vice-president Farias.  He succeeded in having the decree prohibiting further immigration from the United States modified, but failed to secure the ratification of the State Constitution.  Austin left the City of Mexico, December 10, 1834 and started back to Texas, but he was later arrested and thrown into prison.  Here he remained until the following July.  In the meantime Santa Anna had overthrown the Constitutional Government of Mexico and declared himself dictator.  When Austin reached home he found the colonists organizing for defense, and recommended the calling of a general consultation to outline a course of procedure.  While this convention was in session the first battle of the Texas Revolution was fought near Gonzales.  This battle was closely followed by the Texans driving General Cos and his troops out of San Antonio.  Cos was a kinsman of Santa Anna, and when he learned of Cos’ defeat he fell into a rage and threatened revenge.

            The convention at Old Washington was the fourth convention held by the Texas colonists represented by regularly elected delegates from the people.  This was the only medium through which they could present to the Mexican Government their views, desires and ambitions.  Many things had transpired in Mexico having a direct bearing on Texas, previous to 1830, when the Decree of Bustamante had startled the world.  While this decree was objectionable to the Texans throughout, Article Eleven was particularly disquieting. It read as follows:

            “Art. 11.  In accordance with the right reserved by the General Congress in the 7th article of the law of August 18, 1824, it is prohibited that immigrants from nations bordering on this republic shall settle in the states or territory adjacent to their own nation.  Consequently, all contracts not already completed and not in harmony with this law are suspended.”

When this decree was promulgated it created great alarm among the Texans, as it was violative of the Constitution of 1824 and was known to be aimed directly at the peace and quiet of the colonists.  Soon after this infamous decree had reached Texas and its provisions became known, the Texans espoused the cause of Santa Anna who was leading a revolution against Bustamante.  A convention was called to meet at San Felipe, October 1, 1832, for the purpose of enabling the colonists to present to the Mexican Government certain conditions which had greatly disturbed the quiet of the colonists.  The officers calling this convention had no thought of rebellion.  The object was to lay before Santa Anna their grievances against certain acts of a government he was struggling to overthrow.  The Texans naturally imagined that this course would be pleasing to Santa Anna.

The convention met at San Felipe, October 1, 1832, and fifty six delegates took their seats.  Stephen F. Austin was elected president and Francis W. Johnson, Secretary.

During the first day’s session a committee was appointed to prepare a memorial to the general government of Mexico, praying for the repeal of article eleven of the law passed April 6, 1830, known as Bustamante’s Decree.  This committee was also instructed to set out a record of toils, difficulties and dangers encountered by the Texas colonists and their respect and attachment to the constitution and laws of Mexico.  Committees were also appointed to draft a memorial praying for the reduction of duties on articles of necessity imported into Texas; to consider the land business east of the San Jacinto river; to inquire into Indian affairs and to report on the best mode of regulating customs houses, etc.  A committee was also appointed to prepare a petition to the government of Coahuila and Texas praying for donation of land for the purpose of creating a fund for the establishment of primary schools.  This was the first time in Texas when the question for primary schools was considered.  On the third day of the convention a resolution was adopted by a vote 36 to 12 for the appointment of a committee to prepare a petition to the general government to establish a state government for Texas, independent and separate from Coahuila.

Nothing in the proceedings of the convention showed resistance or rebellion against the Mexican government.  All of its proceedings show that the delegates recognized the authority of the general government and in no sense were they rebellious as was claimed by a few Mexican residents of San Antonio, who refused to participate in the convention.

All the memorials adopted by the convention were forwarded to the general government, and William Wharton and Don Rafael Manchola, were appointed commissioners to Saltillo and Mexico City, to urge the state government and general government to give consideration to the memorials.  But nothing ever came of these petitions.  The ignoring of them did not dishearten the Texans.  So early in the year of 1833, the permanent Advisory Committee, created by the convention of 1832, called a second convention at San Felipe in April, 1833.  This convention was composed likewise of fifty-six delegates.  Sam Houston appeared as a delegate to this convention, being his first appearance before a state-wide meeting of Texans.

The convention was organized by electing Wm. H. Wharton President, and Thomas Hastings Secretary.  The main object of this convention was to prepare a constitution for Texas to be offered the government at Mexico for approval.  This constitution was framed by the following committee: Sam Houston, Chairman; Nestor Clay, R.M. Williamson, James Kerr, Oliver Jones, Luke Leassier and Henry Smith. The work of this convention was largely a duplication of the convention of 1832, with the exception of the actual framing of a Sate Constitution for Texas.  Stephen F. Austin, James B. Miller and Erasmo Seguin were appointed Commissioners to present the proposed constitution to the authorities at the City of Mexico and to urge its ratification.  Mr. Austin, however, was the only commissioner to go to the City of Mexico.  The government refused to consider the proposed constitution but agreed to a modification of the decree prohibiting immigrants from the United Sates into Texas.

Mr. Austin was later thrown into prison where he was held until the summer of 1835.  The imprisonment of Mr. Austin greatly aroused the people of Texas, and when he reached Texas he found the colonists ready for revolution.  Mr. Austin had long urged them to be patient, feeling that they would at last receive fair and just treatment from the Mexican government.  But his detention in Mexico caused him to realize that his hopes were baseless and he agreed with the leaders of the Sate that a general consultation should be called to consider the proper course to pursue and, if need be, to prepare for war.  He realized that Santa Anna was determined to bring the Texans in subjection and to ignore the constitution of 1824, which he had pledged to defend and uphold.

Mr. Austin’s return to Texas was hailed as the beginning of a new era, as he was at once elected Chairman of the San Felipe Committee of Safety.  He acknowledged himself to be in full sympathy with the people in their determination to organize for defense.

A consultation of all the people was called to meet at San Felipe, October 16, 1835.  A quorum of delegates did not appear in San Felipe, however, until November 3rd.  Dr. Branch T. Archer, was elected President and Peter B. Baxter Secretary.  On taking the chair Dr. Archer arraigned the Mexican government in the strongest terms.  This was the keynote speech and prepared the minds of the delegates for the work mapped out for them.  This convention did not follow the tactful course of those of 1832 and 1833.  There were no memorials to the Mexican government, no pledge of loyalty to the Mexican government.  But in defiance of Mexico it set out to perfect the organization of a government independent of Mexico.  A declaration was adopted setting forth the causes which impelled them to take up arms against Mexico, and offered no apology for so doing.  The convention adopted a plan for organization of a provisional government.  It was adopted as the organic decree.  It contained twenty-one articles.  A provision was also made for the organization of an army for military defense.

On November 12th the convention proceeded to the election of officers under the organic law.  Henry Smith was elected Governor and James W. Robinson, Lieutenant-Governor.  It also elected members of the General Legislative Council, composed of one member from each municipality of the state.  Sam Houston was elected Major-General, to be Commander-in-chief of all the forces in Texas.  All the officers took the oath of office.  Branch T. Archer, Wm. H. Wharton and Stephen F. Austin, were appointed agents to the United States.  Thus a new government was born, and entered at once upon its duties, enacting such laws and decrees as seemed necessary to bring order out of chaos.  Having finished its work the convention adjourned leaving the affairs of the government in the hands of the Governor and Council.

The provisional government began to function at once.  The Council passed many laws for the government of the state, all of which ignored Mexican authority in toto.  The Texans had thrown down the gauntlet to Santa Anna, and his anger grew to fever heat.  He hurried his plans to invade the state and crush the spirit of rebellion which everywhere grew more defiant.

In the meantime the Executive Council transcended its authority and passed ordinances which met executive disapproval. Confusion became ripe.  They disorganized what little military authority that had been established, and issued military commissions promiscuously.  The breach between the executive and legislative department was complete, and discord and confusion followed.  Fortunately before the break between the Governor and Council had reached a stage where it could not be welded an ordinance calling a convention to meet at Old Washington [Washington-on-the Brazos], March 1, 1836, was passed and approved.  This convention was to be composed of delegates having plenary powers.  IT SAVED TEXAS.

This convention was the fourth to be held by the colonists and because of its nature was by far the most important of them all.

The convention met promptly on the date fixed in the call and proceeded at once to organize and entered upon its mission with enthusiasm.  Richard Ellis, was elected President.  The other officers elected were: H.S. Kimble, Secretary; E. M. Pease, Assistant Secretary; Isom Palmer, Sergeant-at-arms; John A. Hizer, Doorkeeper and M. Saul, Engrossing Clerk.  The organization of the convention having been perfected, the chair announced the convention ready for business.

For a short time profound silence reigned.  It was a terrible moment. Each delegate seemed to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the work they were about to undertake.  But there was no one in that assembly of patriots afraid.  There was no one who doubted that the moment had arisen when a decisive blow to tyranny should be struck.  “Just how to proceed,” said Mr. Pease, “was the only element of doubt in the minds of some of the delegates.  But his did not long disturb them.  There were those among the delegates who had long experience in matters of a kindred nature and they blazed the way for action.”

Every delegate present was aware of the disorganized condition prevailing in the army, of the refusal of men commissioned by the Council to obey the orders of the Chief Military Commander.  They knew that Fannin and Johsnson and Grant had commands in the field and recognized no superior officer.  They appreciated that with this condition confronting them their task was a difficult one.  But they soon became engrossed in other matters of grave concern, forgetting for the moment the menacing situation, and became submerged in the work they were called to do.

On the first day of the convention [March 1, 1836], Mr. George C. Childress, introduced a resolution which was adopted without debate, providing for the appointment of a committee of five delegates to draft a declaration of independence from Mexico.  President Ellis forthwith appointed the following on the committee:  George C. Childress, chairman, James Gaines, Edwin Conrad, Collin McKinney and Bailey Hardeman.

In discussing the action of this committee with Mr. Pease, a number of years before his death he said: “It was generally understood that Mr. Childress brought the draft of the Declaration of Independence with him to the convention.  There is little doubt, but that this is correct because very soon after the committee met it was rumored that a declaration of independence had been agreed upon.”

On March 2nd, Mr. Childress, chairman of the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, presented his report to the convention.  Its reading created great enthusiasm.  On the motion of Sam Houston, the Declaration of Independence was adopted.  It was then enrolled and signed by each delegate.

On the second day, March 2nd, Robert Potter, introduced a resolution providing for the appointment of a committee consisting of one member from each municipality represented, to prepare a constitution for the Republic of Texas.  The resolution was adopted and the following were appointed on the committee: Martin Parmer, San Augustine, Chairman; Robert Potter, Nacogdoches; Charles B. Stewart, San Felipe; Edwin Waller, Brazoria; Jesse Grimes, Washington; Robert Coleman, Mina; John Fisher, Gonzales; John W. Bunton, Bastrop; James Gaines, Sabine; Lorenzo de Zavala, Harrisburg; S. H. Everett, Jasper; Bailey Hardeman, Matagorda; Elijah Stapp, Jackson; W. Carroll Crawford, Shelby; Clairborne West, Jefferson; Jose Antonio Navarro, Bexar; Collin McKinney, Red River; William Menefee Colorado; William Mottley, Goliad; Michael B. Menard, Liberty.

On the following day, March 3rd, the following were added to the committee:  Sam Houston, Refugio; Robert Hamilton, Red River; James Collingsworth, Brazoria and David Thomas, Refugio.

After the adoption and signing of the Declaration of Independence, and while waiting for the report of the committee on the constitution for the Republic, the convention disposed of several important matters.  On March 3rd, it adopted a resolution closing the land office and forbade commissioners from issuing titles to lands and authorizing the organization of a regiment of rangers.  On March 4th, it elected Sam Houston, “Commander-in-Chief of all the land forces of the Texas army, regular, volunteer and military, while in active service.”

On the 7th, the convention passed a resolution declaring all male inhabitants of Texas between the ages of seventeen and fifty, subject to military duty, and providing for the immediate organization of a military force.

On March 14th, land bounties were increased.  Those who should serve throughout the war were to receive 1280 acres and corresponding amounts were to be allowed those who served for a shorter time.

The constitution was reported on the 17th.  It was adopted without much delay.  The convention then took up the question of establishing a government Ad Interim in conformity to the provisions of the constitution.  David Burnet, was elected President; Lorenzo de Zavala, Vice President; Samuel P. Carson, Secretary of State; Bailey Hardeman, Secretary of the Treasury; Thos. J. Rusk, Secretary of War; Robert Potter, Secretary of the Navy, and David Thomas, Attorney General.

Just before the convention met Santa Anna crossed the Rio Grande with his armies.  He put to the sword the brave defenders of the Alamo and committed other most heinous crimes, and was preparing to invade and destroy the whole territory east.  When the convention adjourned many of the members joined the army of defense, or took part in giving aid to families who were fleeing before Santa Anna’s invading armies.

Coming back to the events which brought Texas to resist the Mexican government, these observations may not be out of place.  The breach between the Americans and Mexicans continued to widen primarily because the Mexicans mistrusted the Texans and the Texans mistrusted the Mexicans. This condition was not calculated to maintain permanent peace.  The Mexicans could not forget the Fredonian revolt [Fredonian Rebellion], the incident of driving Bradburn from Anahuac, the Capture of Fort Velasco and the humiliation heaped upon Piedras at Nacogdoches.  The Texans were justified in the course they pursued and it should have pleased Santa Anna as the revolt was against Bustamante whose reign Santa Anna was attempting to cut short.

When the news of Edwards’ revolt [Fredonian Rebellion] reached Mexico the Mexicans were aroused and began preparations to invade Texas both by land and sea, as they imagined that the whole province of Texas was afire with the spirit of rebellion and that Edwards’ course was upheld by the United States.  They soon learned, however that Edwards’ rebellion was a local one and that he was not upheld by the Texans of the other colonies.  While this had the appearance of satisfying the Mexicans the memory of the revolt could not be erased from their minds.

Another thing which kept the Mexicans at fever heat of excitement was the action of the United States Minister to Mexico in his effort to secure Texas from the Mexican government, by fair or foul means.  He made all kinds of propositions to the Mexican officials regarding the purchase of the province of Texas, and this constant agitation kept the Mexicans in a bad humor.

The crowning event of all, to fan the flame of Mexican mistrust, was the visit to Texas of General Teran, in 1827-1828.  His report of the conditions in Texas was unfavorable to peace between Texas and the general government of Mexico.  After a lengthy discussion of conditions as he found them in Texas, he indicated plainly that he foresaw the loss of Texas to the Mexican government, and recommended the strengthening of the Mexican colonies in Texas.  Teran was the Comandante General of the Eastern Province of Mexico, which included Texas, and he kept a watch on Texas and her colonies.  He made many recommendations, the most of which were enacted into law by Bustamante’s congress.  Among these was the establishment of military posts in Texas for the ostensible purpose of protecting the country against Indians, but in fact to prevent a Texan revolt which he predicted would occur as soon as the Texans felt strong enough.  It was the carrying out of his programme that took form in the Decree of Bustamante in 1830, and which was the hammer to drive the wedge of division and discord further.

Many events of a thrilling nature occurred in Texas between the dates of the meeting of the Consultation, November, 1835, and the Convention at Old Washington, March 1, 1836, which declared Texas independent of Mexico, adopted a government Ad Interim by electing a President, Vice President and other officers.

The preamble to the Declaration of Independence sets out in forceful language the causes which drove the Texans to revolt.  It is a masterly presentation of their grievances and presents a vivid picture of the wrongs they had endured, with patience for many years.

The following is a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence, that wonderful document, that epoch making instrument that changed the map of the North American continent and freed the Texas colonies from Mexican tyranny. 

Click here to see the Texas Declaration of Independence with a complete transcription.

Text from The Men Who Made Texas Free, Sam Houston Dixon, 1924, Texas Historical Publishing Company, Houston, pp. 19-30.