Postcards from Texas Part I

In the battle of the Alamo during the Texas Revolution against Mexico, which was led by the dictator Santa Anna, 185 Texans repelled an army of 1,800 Mexican soldiers for 13 days. In the end, every fighting man died. Later, at the battle of San Jacinto in which Texas won its independence, the Texas battle cry would be “Remember the Alamo”. This battle cry has passed through the collective memory of generations of Texans, immortalized as one of the most famous last stands in American history—and some Texans to this day will say the battle of the Alamo was fought for state sovereignty, not independence.

My grandfather, a fifth generation Texan, told tales about the battles that led to the state’s creation. “There were a hundred-eighty bodies lying with Travis and Crockett and Bowie at the battle of the Alamo, and up above them flew a Mexican flag, with 1824 printed on it. They died for the Constitution of 1824,” he would say. The spark that ignited the Texas Revolution was General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s suspension of the federalist Constitution of 1824 in Mexico, a document that relegated power to the states of Mexico, not the central government. The suspension of the Constitution sparked rebellions throughout Mexico, and Texas quickly jumped into the fray. As the war continued, the desire to restore the constitutional balance of power between the states and the government of Mexico transitioned to a bid for Texas independence. However, as old-timers often remind me, the revolution began as an effort to restore the constitution, and to restore state sovereignty to the provinces of Coahuila and Texas.  The story of the 1824 Flag is not strictly true; by the time the siege of the Alamo began, Texans had long moved towards independence as their primary goal and likely didn’t fly the 1824 flag during the battle. This is a popular Texas myth—that a Texan Thermopylae was fought for federalism.

Federalism looms large in the history and culture of Texas and still resonates with many in the state. Texas’ status as the 11th state to call for a Convention of States to rein in the federal government and reinforce the 10th amendment, a measure which Governor Greg Abbott has long advocated, is just the latest example of this inclination. In an opinion piece in the Dallas Morning News, Abbott, author of Broken But Unbowed which posits restoring the constitutional balance of power between the federal government and the states as a solution to much of what ails this nation, said “To dismiss the solutions the founders gave us in Article V would ignore the Constitution they authored and would disregard our historical rooting in liberty,” and that “Together, states can do what the founders intended us to do.”

But do ordinary Texans know and care about state sovereignty, or do they just like to complain about “big government?” This article kicks off a series looking at the relationship between Texans and federalism. An eloquent defense of federalism came from a cantankerous central Texas boot maker and insurance adjuster, who said:

My concern isn’t necessarily federal overreach—it was my understanding that the states were supposed to be microcosms and test cases for the rest of the country. Texas handles things differently from Oklahoma, and if you don’t like policies in Oklahoma and can’t change them, move to Texas. All the states are different until the federal government hands down laws that make them all the same. I don’t have a problem with the federal government keeping states from infringing on each other’s rights. But it isn’t right for the government to mandate healthcare in all the states. If you want Romneycare, go to Massachusetts. If it is successful, other states will do it too. All politics is—or should be—local. These states are supposed to be their own entities, with individual identities, politics and characteristics, only loosely controlled by the national government. We are supposed to be a union of different states.

That man’s wife, a fellow insurance adjuster and a barrel racer, chimed in after that to add, “The federal government is big, overarching and it should just focus on big things. The feds can’t handle the smaller, localized things. The federal government has tried to stick its finger in every small issue that crops up. Texas knows what is best for Texas.”

Clearly, Texans have inherited the traditions of their forefathers: a healthy respect for state sovereignty (particularly their own state’s sovereignty), and an independent streak a mile wide. Though this pair would, later in the conversation, grumble about “big government” (especially those “thieving politicians” in Washington DC) their disdain for tight central control over individuals and states is ordered and enlightened by a deep understanding of the tradition and necessity of state sovereignty.

A senior majoring in political science at Texas A&M University, Joseph “Cy” Tongate is a Policy and Research Intern at ALEC on the International Relations and Federalism Task Force and a seventh generation Texan. At Texas A&M, he is an officer in the Model United Nations and frequents the Aggie Agora, a non-partisan lecture series on current political issues. Cy is a native of Early, Texas and the son of a fifth generation rancher.

In Depth: Federalism

Genuine accountability to hardworking taxpayers results when state and local legislators work with members of the community to determine a plan of action that is right for each individual state, city or town. Real solutions to America’s challenges can be found in the states – America’s fifty laboratories of democracy…

+ Federalism In Depth