The Young Ted Cruz Claimed an Affinity with James Madison–Not So Fast

This article was originally published by the History News Network in 2012, under the title “Senator Cruz, You’re No James Madison.” The following version has been updated.

John Willingham is a regular contributor to the History News Network. He has an M.A. in American social/intellectual history from the University of Texas at Austin.

Ted Cruz speaking at the Value Voters Conference in Washington, DC. Credit: Gage Skidmore

Ted Cruz speaking at the Value Voters Conference in Washington, DC. Credit: Gage Skidmore

More than twenty years ago, by way of linking his work to the ideas of James Madison, Ted Cruz titled his senior thesis at Princeton “Clipping the Wings of Angels,” derived from a famous quote in Madison’s Federalist No. 51:

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Cruz’s 118-page thesis is interesting in part because it shows how little difference there is between the young Princetonian of 1992 and the Tea Party darling [and presidential candidate of today]. And, on its surface, the thesis might be taken to confirm an affinity between the freshman senator from Texas and the man who has been called the “midwife” of the Constitution.

The full title of the thesis is “Clipping the Wings of Angels: The History and Theory Behind the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.” Cruz has continued to use part of the title in recent comments, such as this op-ed arguing for a reinvigorated Tenth Amendment. But it is in his specific analyses of these amendments that Cruz shows how far he really is from the James Madison that historians describe, especially when Cruz tries to make Madison a champion of states’ rights.

Neither amendment is lengthy. The Ninth: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

The Tenth: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Both Bernard Bailyn [of Harvard] and his former student Jack Rakove, a professor at Stanford and an eminent Madison scholar, have argued that Madison and most of the Founders believed that the Bill of Rights was not an exhaustive list of rights, not for their own time and certainly not for all time. Madison was especially concerned that the listing of rights could be taken to mean that other rights not listed would be denied or unprotected as a result of their exclusion.

“Accordingly,” Rakove has written, “for Madison the language of the Ninth Amendment expressed a vital principle” that unlisted and even unanticipated fundamental rights must nevertheless be eligible for Constitutional protection, though the Constitution did not specify criteria for determining such rights.

Madison was long opposed to a bill of rights because of his concerns about the fate of unlisted rights, but after a lengthy correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, who was minister to France at the time, and after being challenged for a place in the new Congress by James Monroe, an ardent supporter of a separate bill of rights, Madison decided that a bill of rights was necessary, if for no other reason than to incorporate the wishes of Antifederalists who were against ratification of the Constitution without a bill of rights.

Thus it came to be that Madison rather quickly drafted and proposed his own list of rights for the Congress, hoping to avoid delays or challenges that would force a second Constitutional Convention, which would likely lead to a gutted version restoring too much power to the states. It was unthinkable to Madison for the nation to revert to state dominance. In fact, he had seen an earlier and very dear proposal of his own–to subject all state laws to Congressional veto–fail in the early days of the Constitutional Convention.

As Rakove and many other scholars have emphasized, Madison saw the states as a major impediment to the protection of minority rights because their sometimes “vicious” legislation too often reflected the influence of self-interested majorities within the relatively small jurisdictions of most states. After all, it was the self-serving and obstinate ways of the states under the Articles of Confederation that created the need for a new national Constitution.

Madison’s solution: give sufficient authority to the national government so that its much larger and more diverse majorities would be less vulnerable to foolish or parochial control. While Madison recognized that government on any scale was capable of abusing authority, he also thought that most if not all the mischief that might come from the national government could be limited by the separation of powers in the Constitution.

Madison’s inelegant, tentative draft of an amendment that included parts of what came to be the Ninth and Tenth Amendments became the basis in Cruz’s thesis for an argument that Madison viewed “the [unenumerated] rights retained by the people” (later, the Ninth Amendment) as actually their rights against the “illegitimate means” of the national government in carrying out its powers.

Therefore, Cruz would have Madison targeting the elastic (necessary and proper) clause by penning the Ninth Amendment, even though Madison wrote in Federalist No. 44 that the Constitution would be a “dead letter” without the clause. The actual Ninth Amendment text simply addresses the concern that the Bill of Rights itself does not exclude other rights.

[The Ninth Amendment did not emerge as a focal point in constitutional law until the Griswold decision in 1965. While not stating that definite additional rights can be identified in the Ninth Amendment, Justice Douglas, and more pointedly Justice Goldberg in a concurring opinion, did allow that some personal rights not specified in the Constitution should not be denied, as was the intent of the Ninth Amendment. The later Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 went further, finding a specific right to privacy regarding a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy, “whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the District Court determined, in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people…”]

And this brings us to the Tenth Amendment. In his thesis, Cruz is critical of the ruling in the 1976 National League of Cities v. Usery case, decided by the Burger court and generally viewed as a conservative ruling. Usery sought to balance federal and state interests with respect to the Fair Labor Standards Act. Cruz conceded that “the Court thought it was being true to the spirit of the [Tenth] Amendment…if tight requirements are met.” But by the mere consideration of the issue as something less than an absolute line between state and federal power, the Court had “already lost the idea of enumerated powers.”

Such a view falls just short of claiming that the Tenth Amendment limits the federal government to only those powers “expressly” listed in the Constitution. Having learned from their dismal experience with the Articles of Confederation that a national government without implied powers to implement its acts was ineffective, the Congress rejected attempts to limit the federal government to only those powers “expressly” delegated to it.

Madison himself strongly opposed the insertion of “expressly” into the text of the Tenth Amendment “because it was impossible to confine a Government to the exercise of express powers; there must necessarily be powers by implication, unless the Constitution descended to recount every minutia.”

Richard Brookhiser, an editor at the conservative National Review, is the author of a recent, insightful biography of the fourth president. Brookhiser captures the essence of Madison’s thought on the Constitution with this observation: “Extending the sphere was a remedy [for Madison] that applied to the government as well as the nation.”

What Brookhiser means is that when Madison helped bring about an extended government “sphere” that included the separation of powers as well as a bill of rights, and an extended national sphere that overcame the pernicious influence of state majorities, he did so believing that only such a delicate balancing act could serve both an effective national government and the individual rights of its people, whether enumerated or not.

These views are neither static nor deferential to the states. Recall that in the quote Cruz is so fond of using, Madison wrote that “you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Cruz emphasizes the second part virtually to the exclusion of the first.

No one can deny to Ted Cruz his own right to maintain a static and narrow view of the Constitution of the United States. He has made it literally his life’s work to champion his radically conservative position on the restricted role of the federal government and the relative importance of the states, and he is a man of undoubted ability. His recent actions are designed to draw attention to himself and eventually to his arguments, and he appears to be confident that he is the person who can, with enough attention, prevail. But in attempting to do so, he should respect James Madison for who he really was.

John Graves, Larry McMurtry, and the Nature of Goodbyes

This essay, by John Willingham, originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of the Southwest Review, a century-old literary quarterly published by Southern Methodist University.

John Graves, Larry McMurtry, and the Nature of Goodbyes sht_Page_01

I. John Graves

On its surface, the Brazos River today differs little from the murky, meandering, and unpredictable stream that it was in 1957 when John Graves and his dachshund companion canoed along its variable banks for 175 miles, from just below Possum Kingdom Dam to a point in Somervell County a little east of Glen Rose. Believing that the river as it had been would be erased by new dams, Graves set out to inhabit the stream, to retrieve and dwell in its history and lore, and to know it as one knows a person intimately over time. He saw it as inseparable from the stubborn, often violent people it encountered, and from the catfish, darting teal, and deadly water moccasins whose existence it supported. By investing the river with a long and vivid past, he honored its very endurance. The Brazos became like life itself—always changing, always there, vital regardless of appearance. Buried in the mud of the river today are the flint arrow points of tribes now departed, the spurs of cowboys drowned in the tricky currents, and the ruined tintypes of stoic settlers desperate for land. John Graves floated with and above these things, and the ghosts along its banks were a presence within him. About it all he wrote Goodbye to a River, a lament; the lament became a tribute; and the river survived.

There is much that is Faulknerian in Graves’s feeling for the past. It is never dead, it’s not even past, as Faulkner famously said. And like Faulkner, Graves admonished the present for presuming to ignore its origins and assuming that the future could do the same. Faulkner’s stream of consciousness style revealed the internal, emotional collisions of past, present, and future, with a keen awareness that the past, while not being past, is also not static: it carries forward and reaches back to itself simultaneously. To see it as static is not to see it at all but to dwell in its illusions. Where better than on an actual stream to get the feel of this process. The actual, the concrete, were important to John Graves and gave him his inspiration.John Graves, Larry McMurtry, and the Nature of Goodbyes sht_Page_04

Graves and another writer, Henry David Thoreau, had this in common: they both wrote about their trips down a river, and did so with elegance, insight, and precision. Graves resisted a too facile comparison of himself with “Saint Henry,” his nickname for Thoreau, and was not eager to become a fourth at the once prominent table of Texas writers Roy Bedichek, Walter Prescott Webb, and J. Frank Dobie. Graves recognized in Thoreau a man whose faith in the power and serenity of Nature grew out of “the certainty . . . that regardless of the race’s disasters the natural world would go on and on,” but Graves, more than fifty years ago, knew that “Saint Henry’s bottom comfort has been yanked from under us.” What was the path to transcendence for Saint Henry became the locus of deep concern for Graves. He wrote about Nature to warn of the dangers it faced, not to celebrate as a given its eternal regeneration.

Yet, personally, he received from the Nature whose passing he could see something of Thoreau’s transcendence. But for Graves, the idea that one’s bearing and place in the world grew out of the ground one knew best may have had its origins in the poems of Juan Ramón Jiménez, whose work Graves likely encountered during part of the 1950s when he was living in Spain.

“Foot in one’s accidental or elected homeland; heart, head in the world’s air,” Jiménez wrote. When Graves’s heart and head went skyward, he never lost his sense of the land, believing that the better he knew his own real ground, the higher that knowledge would take him. All the more reason to be so concerned about the manifold threats to that ground.

Graves’s affinity with Bedichek, Webb, and Dobie certainly extended to an abiding respect for the land, and for its creatures, history, folklore, and rhythms. Don B. Graham, a longtime professor at the University of Texas at Austin, sees Graves as the direct descendant of The Three: “The appeal of [Goodbye to a River] is threefold. It combines history, folklore, and nature, as though the triumvirate of Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, and Roy Bedichek were incarnated in one volume.”

Graham rightly characterizes Goodbye as “a philosophical narrative” based on Graves’s “ruminations” as he and his not so intrepid dachshund made their way down the river. At first, this might not appear to distinguish him from The Three: in Austin’s Zilker Park, near the banks of Barton Creek, is a sculpture known as Philosopher’s Rock. Depicted in bronze are The Three as they may have appeared during their frequent trips to the cold, spring-fed creek in the summertime, though Bedichek went there year round.

In that setting, and in their correspondence and other personal exchanges, The Three certainly traversed some philosophical terrain. While Graves argued for their continued relevance and recognized that he, like them, was a “nature head,” it is difficult to imagine the solitary Graves perched alongside The Three.

( scan from book jacket ) John Graves, author of "Myself and Strangers." Graves was born in Texas and educated at Rice and Columbia universities. He has published a number of books, chiefly nonfiction concerned with his home region. He currently lives with his wife on some four hundred acres of rough Texas hill country, which he described in "Hard Scrabble." Photo from book jacket cover. HOUCHRON CAPTION (05/23/2004): Texas writer John Graves, author of the classic ``Goodbye to a River,'' will read from ``Myself and Strangers,'' his memoir of becoming a writer, on Monday at Brazos Bookstore. BOOK EVENTS. HOUCHRON CAPTION (06/06/2004): Graves.

John Graves

Goodbye is more philosophical than anything they wrote. Steeped in Texas history and lore it is, but the deepest message of the river in Goodbye suggests a kinship with another writer, far from the Llano Estacado and the banks of the Brazos, but as rough-hewn and occasionally cantankerous as Graves himself: Robert Frost.

Where Graves, and Thoreau before him, floated and paddled down their respective streams, Frost at his most philosophical created one in a poem, “West-Running Brook.” In one of the best analyses of the poem, published in 1994 in the journal Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Walter Jost wrote that Frost had said that “the new thing with me has always included the old.” The central image in the poem is that of “the black stream, catching a sunken rock/Flung backward on itself in one white wave/And the white water rode the black forever.” Near the end of the poem are these lines:

It is this backward motion toward the source,
Against the stream, that most we see ourselves in,
The tribute of the current to the source.
It is from this in nature we are from. It is most us.

Two writers, two streams, one imagined as a metaphor for what is “most us” and the other a real stream, whose backward reach and tenuous existence come alive in Goodbye to a River.

II. Larry McMurtry

If John Graves believed that some essence of the past was necessarily joined to the future, Larry McMurtry has regretted the past’s distorted presence, feeling that what was real in it has truly passed us by. Far from paying tribute to the past, he laments its gauzy residue. Too many Texans are only “symbolic frontiersmen,” revering the tough individualism and expansive ambitions of ranchers Charlie Goodnight, Oliver Loving, and John S. Chisum, the absolutist stance of the Alamo’s defenders, and the exploits of the old Texas Rangers. The past for them is what they want to believe, and real history an inconvenience. In an increasingly urban Texas, the symbolic frontiersmen are self-aggrandizing, cartoonish, and restless. Their ties to “the land” are likewise symbolic: it is not to raise beef or grow crops that they make claims on the land; it is to put a crown on their attainments, to combine the solitary Randian tycoon with the John Wayne (or Ronald Reagan) in their minds. Others who cannot afford such grandiose displays do not typically begrudge them, finding their own swagger in big trucks with a herd of horses under the hood, in camouflage caps or cowboy hats, or in the gun or guns of their choice.

McMurtry feels that what has been lost, is lost. The horseman has passed by; young Lonnie has left Cheyenne; the last picture show has ended. Believing otherwise is to calcify the present and shroud it in illusion. But not only is McMurtry convinced of the loss, he has felt it deeply himself, and in him the residue is an uneasy compound of pain and contempt. Growing up precocious and bookish, he was the rural intellectual, set apart in a resolute ranching family that honored hard outdoor work and the authentic cowboy heritage. Like those before them, ranching was their life and gave little time for reflection. Once in the marrow, it was a life that refused to die, even in the midst of vanishing. McMurtry must have developed early a sense of dramatic irony: he could feel what lay ahead, perhaps because he was not encased in that life. He knew that their world could not be his, and that he had to leave it, knowing also that it could not be theirs much longer. That’s a lot of emotion for a young man to carry, enough that a powerful creative life was built around it, along with a need for reconciliation that would not go away. Neither a peripatetic life nor the narrow grave to which he consigned the past would leave it behind entirely. But about leaving the dying land he had no doubts.

His influential non-fiction book In a Narrow Grave, published in 1968 when McMurtry was thirty-two, yanked The Three from their rustic pantheon and deposited them in the grave they had supposedly dug. Having escaped it himself, McMurtry—then at “an easy age to be smart at,” as he wrote later—used that smartness like a young gunfighter whose draw was quicker than that of the old hands he took down.

The Three loved Nature too well, engrafting the lore of their rural pasts onto the land as they imagined it. “Bedichek, Webb, Dobie and their disciples revered Nature, studied Nature, hued [sic] to Nature,” McMurtry wrote. “At their worst they made a fetish of it; at their best they drew on it brilliantly for context and metaphor.”

McMurtry, in 1968, felt that for his generation and the “generations that follow” the reverse would be true: “I doubt we could scrape up enough nature-lore between us to organize a decent picnic. To the Presences, that could only be a damning remark. For them, Nature was the Real. Knowledge of it made a full man, and accord with it was the first essential of the Good Life.”

In making a fetish of Nature, The Three romanticized the land and the frontier life, prolonging its distorting and anachronistic impact on the urban and suburban present. As the most intellectual of The Three, Webb might have known better, and for The Great Frontier he does receive some credit. But in The Texas Rangers, “Webb was writing not as an historian of the frontier, but as a symbolic frontiersman. While it may be possible for a novelist to remain a symbolic frontiersman without impairing his art, the same will hardly hold for the historian.”

McMurtry saw in the present and future some hope of emancipation from a past whose reach was too long, too burdensome, and in modern terms, too unreal. Focused on the symbolic frontier as the carrier of unreality, he was relatively unconcerned about Nature in the largest sense, believing that The Three often conflated Nature with the alleged virtues of the rural life in “the country” and the good old days that were not so good. On the real frontier, men used up the land as though it were as limitless as it seemed, and killed or removed whatever got in their way. Civilization was an afterthought, or something to escape. They did what they had to do, or what they could do. “For better or worse, the country has been despoiled,” McMurtry wrote, granting despoliation a possible reprieve.

Larry McMurtry

Larry McMurtry

Known for writing his fiction with the end first in mind, typically the present of the narrative, McMurtry discovers and invents what precedes the ending. This, too, is a form of emancipation, not to be tied to origins but mindful always of the future of the story. One of the most prolific novelists of our time, he has extraordinary drive, always pushing his fiction toward that end. In him the work ethic of his forebears is profoundly evident, applied though it is toward much different ends. Years of tending cows and mending fences from predawn till after dusk wears on muscle and bone, but  no more than decades of writing five pages of fiction every day must wear on the creative spirit.

The purpose of the past he creates in his writing is not only to comport with endings; it also re-embodies a more realistic “frontier,” one peopled with characters so vivid and memorable that the West known through McMurtry has become ascendant. As the engaging ghosts of the symbolic past have refused to remain in their grave, his work has fought for and created a more authentic past, not in the writer’s own image but in accordance with the range of his vision. In his hands the frontier past has become more real and compelling, its disjunctions with the present seen now in sharper relief. But can these insights be expanded?

III. The Nature of Goodbyes

Myths and religions have their gods, though many have departed, some now so distant that they are thought to have died. The elements in McMurtry’s writing that lean toward the mythic are more resonant with reality than the myths they replace, though there was a Cowboy God, as In a Narrow Grave makes clear. Who that god was emerges with the unfolding myth, although his gender is not in doubt. “The god who abandoned Antony was Hercules—what is the name of the god who now abandons Texas? Sometimes I see him as Old Man Goodnight, or Teddy Blue, or as my Uncle Johnny—all people the reader will meet if the reader reads on, but the one thing that is sure is that he was a horseman, and a god of the country. His home was the frontier, and his mythos celebrates those masculine ideals appropriate to the frontier.”

The god appeared early on, in Horseman Pass By, the first indication as well of his departure. Homer Bannon did not leave the land as he had come to it, but left it worse off, in the Snopes-like hands of Hud. Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show died at still one more remove from the land, in a dying rural town, so dismal and bereft of dreams that even the movie cowboys faded.

One scholar suggests that in Lonesome Dove the god has become Trinitarian. Whether or not one agrees with Ernestine Sewell that the cowboy trinity is Freudian, her idea that Woodrow Call, Augustus McCray, and Jake Spoon the fallen Ranger flesh out the Cowboy God—his severe code and restlessness, his hedonism and humor, his anomie and decline—aligns with the trajectory of the novel. Starting out as one, in search of the “Eden” of Montana, their quest inevitably fails, for in Nature there is no Eden, just as the symbolic frontier never was. The sole survivor is Woodrow Call, in whom the vestiges of the Cowboy God find no translation, not to his unacknowledged son, Newt, and not to the future that imagines the god’s existence. To Newt his remote father does give a watch. It tells nothing of the time it has seen, but only the time of the present.

In writing his way to this existential point, McMurtry seems to have found that even the cowboy and frontier past made almost whole has no solid bridge to the present, because of the past’s singularity or because of its invisibility to a nanosecond world. There was that past, and now there is a compelling sociological present: the urban life, the suburban stretch of that life to the perimeter. McMurtry does not see the past—at least the frontier past—as John Graves did, or as William Faulkner did before him. He is more like Yeats, who wrote in Nineteen Hundred Nineteen that

Man is in love and loves what vanishes / What more is there to say?

Like Yeats, McMurtry points us to the poignancy, inevitability, and finality of loss. His people—Uncle Johnny—along with his best fictional creations dwell now only in our emotions and only because McMurtry the literary artist put them there. If the Brazos River had carried them down its length, they would have disappeared entirely in the depths of the gulf. And if they had encountered a sunken rock on their way, as in Frost’s “West-Running Brook,” the instant of their being thrown upward and back on the current would have left nothing of them in that place. Although Frost writes that the stream is . . . time, strength, tone, light and love / And even substance lapsing unsubstantial; it is also

The universal cataract of death
That spends to nothingness—and unresisted,
Save by some strange resistance in itself,
Not just a swerving, but a throwing back,
As if regret were in it and were sacred.

Robert Frost wrote with one foot in the nineteenth century, when he was born, and the other in the twentieth century, when he lived most of his life. Like John Graves, Frost believed that “the new thing . . . has always included the old.” But from the modernist within him, Frost wrote too of the “universal cataract of death / That spends to nothingness.”

Also like Graves, he had a “foot in one’s accidental or elected homeland; heart, head in the world’s air,” along with what the critic M. L. Rosenthal described as a “lyrical and realistic repossession of the rural and ‘natural . . . ’.” For Frost, however, the touch of the foot is always tenuous, the retrieval vanishing as it occurs. The only real constant is “substance lapsing unsubstantial” in every moment of life. It is that in Nature that we are from.

Frost and the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead were contemporaries, and what Frost expressed poetically Whitehead presented in the philosophy of “process.” What most defines that process? “The many become one,” Whitehead wrote, “and are increased by one.” Though the process is never static, we can see how it is expressed in “West-Running Brook” by picturing the stream as being suspended for a moment. The contents of the black stream where it encounters the sunken rock constitute the “many”; the “one white wave” that arises upon contact with the sunken rock is the “one”; and the “white water” thus created, thrown back on itself and on the black water, too, “forever,” as it rejoins the stream, is the increase of the many “by one.”

Nor does the rock itself remain unchanged as the process continues. The only constant in the process, is the process itself, a function of Nature:

‘That wave’s been standing off this jut of shore
Ever since rivers, I was going to say,
Were made in heaven. It wasn’t waved to us.
‘It wasn’t, yet it was.’

(Whitehead, however, did not assert that the process “spends to nothingness.”)

In Goodbye to a River, John Graves reminds us that Nature is the fundament of our being, despite the process of change; it is that in Nature that we are from. Therefore, our relationship with Nature becomes increasingly perilous as we presume to abuse it. We do not “own” the stream, it is not ours, it “wasn’t waved to us,” it derives from Nature. Yet we are in it. If we say goodbye to the river, we are saying goodbye to ourselves. Graves retrieved what he felt was the flowing substance of Nature, which he believed the becoming “new thing” should include.

As he was the conservator, McMurtry is the modern, restless and searching, hurtling forward with the stream “lapsing unsubstantial,” feeling the loss acutely and skeptical of translations. Is he right that the frontier past, like its Cowboy God, can speak of nothing but loss, however profoundly? The man who brought books in the thousands to the intellectually arid Texas of his youth must have it within him to see Nature anew and what it portends for his home state now, regardless of rural, urban, or suburban setting. Could he not find more affinity with the state’s other great writer, the late John Graves? That the symbolic frontiersmen of today take their imagined heritage as an entitlement to say “goodbye” to Nature is evident in contemporary Texas. But it is they who now occupy the narrow grave. The Cowboy God has left them there.

Even back in 1968, Larry McMurtry did not consign John Graves to that same grave—the one McMurtry was set on escaping. While noting Graves’s kinship with The Three, he nevertheless set him apart. Driving across the state, restless as always, catching inspiration for In a Narrow Grave on the fly, McMurtry drove through Lampasas, and then

“ . . . picked up 281 again and followed it north, through Evant, Hamilton, Hico, Stephenville. The moon was high and white over the Brazos Valley . . . Soon I crossed the Brazos, its channels silvered by the moon. As always, crossing it there, I looked down, hoping to see John Graves pass underneath me in his canoe—for the Brazos is his river and one expects him there.”

John Nance Garner and the Paradox of Loyalty

“I have always done what I thought was best for my country, never varying unless I was advised that two-thirds of the Democrats were for a bill and then I voted for it.”–John Nance Garner

The man that FDR called “Mr. Common Sense” was also the quintessential party man for most of his political life, arriving in Congress in 1902 and then going along to get along until he became House Speaker in December, 1931. 

The above quote, probably delivered with tongue hidden in cheek, did nevertheless come close to summarizing his guiding principles: country first…so long as the Democratic Party was not harmed in the process.  For decades, his personal principles and those of the party were things he could reconcile.

Surely one of the most quotable of vice presidents, especially when discussing the office itself, “Cactus Jack” Garner was the House majority leader before he became speaker.  The late Twenties was a time when politicians could be fiercely loyal to their parties but still find common ground with members of the other party. 

Garner was a friend of Republican Speaker Nicholas Longworth, the dapper husband of famed Washington socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth.  The two of them held forth at the “Bureau of Education,” a boozy meeting place that followed Speaker Joe Cannon’s “Boar’s Head” example and later became the even more famous “Board of Education” presided over by Sam Rayburn. 

The loyalty that marked Jack Garner as minority leader was different from the uncompromising party loyalty of today.  He and Longworth, along with other key players, would hammer out bipartisan deals, and it was loyalty to those deals and not to narrow partisan positions that Garner would generate and enforce.  Party loyalty was less to exotic or extreme positions than it was to broad agreements; enforcing that kind of loyalty was in fact aimed at reducing the impact of extreme views.

But late in Herbert Hoover’s term, things changed.  The parties became sharply divided over the response to the Depression. Garner at first tried to work with the administration, but soon realized that, despite his distaste for government spending, more public works projects had to be forthcoming if the country were to recover.

Suddenly party discipline took on a different aspect.  Sam Rayburn remarked that the new Speaker Garner was determined to bind Democratic members to whatever consensus had been reached on relief legislation, and Garner himself said that “if they didn’t stay bound, I’d put ’em down in my book and they’d never get through paying for it.”

At this point, Garner believed that what was good for the country was also what the Democratic party wanted.  With growing Democratic strength, Garner’s prospects to remain House Speaker, a job that he loved, would be solid.

With no presidential ambitions himself, Garner nevertheless became the candidate of choice for the irrepressible William Randolph Hearst, along with those who wanted a “Democratic Coolidge,” a man who would not exercise the power of the office to the fullest.

Garner began to gain a little ground at the 1932 Democratic Convention in Chicago as successive ballots were counted.  FDR then realized that in order to break the deadlock between him and Al Smith he would need Garner’s delegates, especially those from Mississippi.  Roosevelt loyalist Jim Farley met with Sam Rayburn, Garner’s representative at the convention, in the hotel room of one of the senators from Mississippi.

Offered the vice presidency, Garner feared that without his assent the convention would end up with a tepid compromise candidate who would lead the party to another defeat, the fate of Democratic nominee John W. Davis in 1928.

WARM SPIT?

Already on record as saying “I don’t want to spend the next four years counting the buttons on another man’s coattails,” Garner still accepted.  At one point he also mused that the job might be “a nice way to taper off my career.”  (Late in life, he also said that accepting the vice presidency was “the only demotion I ever had.”)

Despite his own misgivings about the office, his election was wildly popular. On inauguration day, some 400 House members and another 150 members-elect escorted him to the senate chambers, including many Republicans.

The famous quote attributed to him about the office–that it “wasn’t worth a bucket of warm spit”– first appeared, in somewhat different form, in a 1968 book by former FDR braintruster R. G. Tugwell.  Tugwell was one among several of FDR’s intellectual advisers who looked down on Garner, much as John F. Kennedy’s family and advisers did on Lyndon Johnson.  To him, Garner was “shrewd, narrow, vulgar, and philistine.” 

The feelings were mutual.  “I have more honest affection for him [FDR] in my little finger than they have in their whole bodies,” Garner said.  In this, he was unlike LBJ.

In any case, Tugwell wrote that he “could still hear the guffaw” of FDR when the new president heard what Cactus Jack said about the “worth” of the vice presidency.

The late Texas Congressman O.C. Fisher, who wrote a biography of Garner (no easy task, see author’s note), claimed that Garner told him that he did not say “warm spit,” but instead said “warm piss.”  According to Fisher, Garner said the “pantywaists” who wrote about the issue didn’t have the guts to relate it the way he said it.

Cactus Jack had even more to say about the vice presidency.  It was, for example, “the spare tire of government.”  But perhaps the greatest story of all about his view of the office was reported in the Houston Post in 1967.  Meeting up with a circus clown at the site of political rally, Garner said, “I am vice president of the United States.  You’d better stick around for a while–you might pick up some new ideas.”

Loyalty, the First Term, and Huey Long

As a conservative Democrat, Garner didn’t personally support all of the New Deal proposals during the famous Hundred Days, but his official position was that it was both “good politics and good patriotism” to support the president. “Sometimes conditions in a country justify temporary violations of deep principles of government,” he said, and “if ever there was such a time, it is now.”

But there were limits, even in the first term.  Garner wouldn’t make speeches, travel to other countries, or disrupt his home life and privacy with the glad-handing duties of the job. He refused protection from the secret service, saying, in words that seem so anachronistic in our day: “I don’t want those constables protecting me.  There isn’t anybody crazy enough to shoot the vice president.”

He was a significant force in managing relations with congress, however, and continued to chair the Bureau of Education meetings in a room near the Senate floor.  One observer later said, “the whiskey vapor would come flowing into the chamber from the formal office, along with the laughter.”

Garner disliked demagogues as much as he despised disloyalty, and Senator Huey Long of Louisiana hit both nerves.

When Long was filibustering FDR’s National Recovery Act, he told Garner, presiding over the senate, that he wanted Garner to make all the other senators stay and listen to Long’s rantings.

In the first place, the senator from Louisiana should not ask that,” Garner said. “In the second place, it would be cruel and unusual punishment.”

To his friend Will Rogers, Garner said, “Will, sometimes I think the hearing in my right ear and the vision in my right eye aren’t as good as they used to be…Long sits on my right…I may not be able to hear or see Huey this morning.”

But the best was yet to come.  One day, Long stood up in the senate chamber and said: “Mr. President, I rise to make a parliamentary inquiry.  How should a senator who is half in favor of this bill and half against it cast his vote?”

Garner’s last nerve having been reached, he answered sharply: “Get a saw and saw yourself in two.  That’s what you ought to do anyway.”

Loyalty Divided–the Second Term

Garner told friends that he and the president made a deal on inauguration day in 1937, the beginning of their second terms in office: they both would serve out the term and then retire.  Some disagreements had occurred between them, but Cactus Jack was still on the team.

On February 5, 1937, the president stunned Garner and other top advisers when he announced his plan to introduce legislation that would expand the Supreme Court to as many as 15 judges.  It is interesting to note that Garner was less disturbed about FDR trying to seize too much power than he was about the president’s high-handed way of presenting such a controversial bill without reaching a prior consensus with party leaders, including the vice president.

(As to the merits of the court packing scheme, Garner said, “no president can control that Court.”)

When the bill came to the senate for a vote, Garner was seen to hold his nose and then give a vigorous thumbs down at the announcement of the bill.  Then he went home to Uvalde.   Roosevelt was angry, as one would expect.

Contacted at home in Texas, Garner placidly told reporters that his departure was no protest.  “I asked the boss,” he said, “and he told me it was all right for me to go fishing.”

An even more serious break happened when FDR decided to purge rebellious conservative Democrats by personally campaigning for their opponents during the primary elections of 1938.  Not only were many of these men personal friends of Garner, but, as he told FDR, “you can’t defeat the Southern Democrats and if you defeat the Democrats in the North you will get Republicans instead.”

Garner was right.  The party lost 81 seats in the House and eight in the Senate. Much of FDR’s agenda died in the Congress of 1939.

“The Worst Mistake I Ever Made”

As the election of 1940 approached, Garner was increasingly uneasy with the president’s consolidation of power. FDR had already paved the way to make the choice of a VP rest with him rather than with convention power brokers–a deal that he might not have been able to make if Garner had not been the incumbent.

In 1939, Garner made history by becoming the first sitting vice president to announce his own candidacy against the president whom he had served.  Garner had had enough.  The loyalty that had abetted his ascent to the speakership and then to the vice presidency had now turned inward, to his own principles.  Surely some of his motivation also came because of his alienation from the president and those now closest to him, a situation to which Garner himself had contributed.

This change did not serve Garner well politically.  After Hitler invaded the low countries and then France, the country did not want a different president.  Garner, who never blamed FDR personally but rather “the boss’s” increasingly liberal inner circle, retired to Uvalde, vowing never to return to Washington.  He never did.

Accepting the vice presidency out of loyalty to the party was “the worst mistake I ever made,” he said later.  Had he been speaker during FDR’s presidency, Garner reflected, “I think I could have talked him out of a lot of things…I would have had no desire to dictate his decisions, but there would have been times when I would have told him what he could not do.”

Author’s Note:  Biographies of Garner are few.  He burned all of his official papers in Uvalde, in 1947.  I have relied heavily on the following articles on John Nance Garner:

John Nance Garner–32nd Vice President, the Senate Historical Office

John Nance Garner and the Vice Presidency: In Search of the Proverbial Bucket, by Patrick Cox, Ph.D.



Roy Orbison: A Texan Not So Lonely

Though not so dark and lonely as his songs made him seem, Roy Kelton Orbison had a lot of pain in his life.  He absorbed that pain and transformed it with dramatic lyrics and a three-octave voice, a one-two punch of emotion and sound that hit teenagers of the early Sixties right where they lived.

He sang about the “Pretty Womanand lots of other women besides, many of them variations of his first, tragic love—Claudette, whose name he also used in one of his earliest songs.  That was in 1958, and the Everly Brothers recorded “Claudette” as the flipside to “All I Have to Do Is Dream.”  

But Roy was no pretty man.  Needing coke-bottle glasses by the tender age of four, the young kid from Vernon, and later the big town of Wink, also took to dying his hair coal black while still in his teens to cover up the early onset of gray.  And then there were the ears, which could have been switched with LBJ’s without leaving anyone the wiser.

Beginning in 1956, Roy recorded four songs for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records—thanks to a good word from Johnny Cash.  The original man in black had heard Roy when they had appeared on the same local TV show in West Texas. Roy’s first song for Sun made a brief appearance on the charts, rising to number 59. “Ooby-Dooby” was not a taste of what was to come.  But it was the only success he had at Sun Records.

It was the heyday of Sun: Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash all signed with Sam Phillips.  Roy couldn’t match their success.  Phillips thought Roy was a good enough guitar player, but wasn’t that impressed with his voice.  And then there were the looks.  Up against Elvis, Fabian, and the other pretty boys of the Fifties, the young man from Wink, pale-skinned and shy, seemed to have little chance. 

Roy had already seen one pretty boy make good, back in college.  At what was then North Texas State College in Denton, he saw the young man who made a career out of sweetness and light make it to the big time.  While Roy was out working in the oil field and playing occasional gigs with his band The Teen Kings, a smiling, soft-voiced Pat Boone got the record contract. With failing grades in his geology classes, Roy dropped out of school.

But in 1960, Roy collaborated with his friend Joe Melson on a song.  The Everly Brothers turned it down.  Roy knew Elvis well by then and went by Graceland to pitch the song to the King.  Elvis was asleep and Roy decided to give the song a try himself. RCA gave Roy a chance to record it.  Only the Lonely” not only brought the shy singer to light but it did so in a way that introduced the world to the range of his voice.

The next year was even bigger: “Running Scared”; “Love Hurts,” later covered magnificently by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris; “Crying,” with k.d. laing; and “Candy Man.”  Now Roy had a number 1 song in “Running Scared,” and a pair of number 2 songs with “Only the Lonely” and “Crying.”

Then came “Dream Baby” in 1962; “In Dreams” in 1963; and, finally, “Pretty Woman” in 1964.  Roy was 28 and hitting the big time in both the U.S. and the U.K., where he became known as the “Big O.”  He had all the money he needed, enough to fill a warehouse with cars he bought on a whim, sometimes following a car he saw and liked and making the driver a generous cash offer on the spot.

In 1963, his fame in the U.K. resulted in his being the headliner on a tour, along with a young group of kids from Liverpool. Roy got to England and saw all the press the Beatles were receiving.  “What’s a Beatle?” he asked, evidently within hearing of John Lennon.  Lennon tapped Roy on the shoulder and said, “I am.”

They soon got along well, with Roy becoming good friends with Lennon and a close friend of George Harrison.  But the Beatles persuaded Roy to go on first, letting them become the headline act. 

When Roy opened the next performance, the audience shouted for 14 encores, leaving the Fab Four standing impatiently offstage.  After the 14th encore, the boys restrained Roy from going back on stage.

Roy had left his thick glasses on a plane in Alabama before taking off for England.  The only other pair he had were black-rimmed Waverly sunglasses.  He put them on, and people began to wonder if he was blind when they saw him perform.  He saw well enough, but he kept the shades as part of his act, finding in them and in his black clothing a persona that seemed to compensate for his lack of good looks.  And it didn’t hurt that the shades gave a shy man a way to hide his eyes.

When Roy met Claudette Frady in Odessa, Texas, she was only 16 and he was 21.  A beautiful high-school dropout, Claudette was a source of both pain and inspiration for Roy.   When “Pretty Woman” came out in 1964, Claudette, lonely and restless in Hendersonville, Tennessee, while Roy was on the road, had an affair with a contractor who was working on their home outside of Nashville.

According to an excellent magazine piece,  Roy Orbison: The Big “O”, Roy was seriously depressed by the affair and the subsequent divorce in Novemer. “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t communicate and I certainly couldn’t write a song,” he said.

Roy and Claudette reconciled while he was recuperating from an illness, and they remarried in 1966.  By then, the boys from England had an edgier counterpart in the Rolling Stones; Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and other voices of protest took over the charts. 

It was a time when Roy and Claudette could spend more time together, and he no doubt needed her badly as his career began to fade.  One day, about two months after they had remarried, they were out for a ride on the motorcycles they both loved.  A truck smashed into Claudette and knocked her off the bike and onto the side of the road.  Roy was riding a couple of blocks ahead.  He heard the sirens, looked back, and didn’t see Claudette.  When he reached the scene, she was dead.

“After Claudette’s death, Orbison was immobilized by grief,” the magazine story says. “‘It was a dark period,’ he recounted later. ‘All I was doing was surviving, trying to work my way out of the turmoil.’ After her funeral, he struggled to pen a hit and, as the years went by, his ballads fell out of step with the promiscuous, swinging ’60s. ‘The thrust of the war and drug-related songs, I didn’t relate to that at all,’ he reflected.”

Two years later, using his work as a way to fight his grief, Roy was touring once again in England, where his previous fame was less obscured by the songs of protest.  There, he received a phone call.  His father, Orbie, was taking care of the Hendersonville house and Roy’s three sons.  The boys were playing in the basement.  Some gasoline in one of Roy’s vintage cars ignited, and the house burned down.  Only Roy’s father and one son, three-year-old Wesley, survived.

And so here was the slug of pain that some of Roy’s earlier songs seemed to anticipate.  He was only 32, but his wife and two of his sons had died violently.  This time, he determined to get on with his life.  He remarried—a German girl of 17 he had met on tour—and built a new home in Tennessee.

In 1980, two years after Roy’s first heart attack at age 44, he and Emmylou Harris released the duet “That Lovin’ You Feeling Again,” and Roy was back on the charts—for a little while.  He also received his only Grammy during his lifetime.  The same year, Don McLean covered “Crying” and went up high in the charts.  In 1987, Roy made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The strangest turn in Roy’s career came in 1987 when David Leach’s disturbing noir classic, Blue Velvet, appeared in theaters across the country.  A do-wop song from the Fifties gave the film its title, but the tone of film itself was as far from the voice of a young Bobby Vinton as…as Wink is from London.

The use of his song In Dreams in the film, during two grotesque scenes, at first annoyed Roy.   The second of the scenes shows a deranged and Dennis Hopper viciously beating a young character played by Kyle MacLachlan, while the opening lines of Roy’s song are playing in the background:

A candy-colored clown they call the sandman

Tiptoes to my room every night

Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper:

“Go to sleep, everything is all right”

But, in truth, the actual song ends with lines that show “everything is all right” only in dreams. The song was used to bring home the brutal disillusionment of the young man in the movie, for what could be less like the sandman our mothers told us about than a crazed Dennis Hopper? Roy came to see the use of the song as artistically appropriate.  Regardless, the film helped boost Roy’s name into the consciousness of an America that had become enthralled by stories of lust, violence, and greed.  Roy was “in” again.

In 1988, he and his musical friends performed in a highly successful TV special based on his music.  Roy, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne then recorded The Traveling Wilburys, Volume One.  The album had reached number 10 on the charts when Roy died of his second heart attack on December 6, ten years after he had given up chain smoking.

Roy’s life, despite the pain, is a testament to more affirming dreams than the ones in his famous song.  “My life,” Roy said not long before his death, “is a never-ending dream. I take one day at a time and never look too far into the future.” 

The man in the Waverly shades, wearing black clothes, and singing songs of longing, was, in the end, much more in tune with his soaring voice than with the dark persona he had assumed.

His second wife, Barbara Jakob Orbison, said Roy “was born sunny-side up.”  She died at age 60 on the 23rd anniversary of his death.

Born April 23, 1936, in Vernon, Texas; died December 8, 1988, in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Here is Roy Orbison singing happy birthday to his son, Roy Jr. The accompanying photos are from Roy’s own birthday celebrations.

 

 

Remembering Sam Houston and San Jacinto

Post-San Jacinto: Gratification, ire for Houston

Revolution’s leader saw Texas’ statehood, then disaster.
By John Willingham / Special to the San Antonio Express-News
Published 12:02 a.m., Thursday, April 21, 2011

  • Gen. Sam Houston’s (1793-1863) defeat of Mexico’s army in Texas in 1836 led to eventual statehood.

    Photo: San Antonio Conservation Society / SA

    Gen. Sam Houston’s (1793-1863) defeat of Mexico’s army in…

Sam Houston’s improbable victory at San Jacinto 175 years ago, on April 21, 1836, opened the way for emigrants from the South to pour into the new Republic of Texas. Although not yet a state of the Union, Texas was another vast territory beckoning settlers who were eager for land, a natural extension of the Louisiana Purchase of 1804.

Like his mentor Andrew Jackson, Houston knew that the influx of U.S. citizens into Texas would lead to statehood. Both hoped the annexation of Texas would work to strengthen the Union rather than weaken it.

One great irony for Sam Houston was that the 1845 annexation of his beloved Texas, made possible by the earlier victory at San Jacinto, re-ignited the sectional argument over slavery that had been dormant since the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Annexation led to war with Mexico only four months later. That brought more territory into the Union, much of it south of the Missouri Compromise line and therefore open to slavery.

A young congressman named David Wilmot, D-Pa., proposed in 1846 that any new territory acquired as a result of the Mexican War not be open to slavery.

Houston, in the U.S. Senate after annexation, found himself arguing against the Wilmot Proviso, ironically in the same camp with his great enemy John C. Calhoun, D-S.C., the famous nullifier who had already opposed the nationalism of Jackson.

Debate over the Wilmot Proviso ran into 1848 when the Mexican War ended. Houston opposed it for a variety of reasons, but Calhoun used the issue to rally Southern Democrats to the cause of slavery, which he had already called a “positive good.”

Did the old Unionist Sam Houston believe that the flames of sectional enmity, having been fed by Calhoun and other radicals on both sides, could still be reduced by wise and skillful moderates? Never intimidated by Calhoun’s brilliance, Houston as a senator was capable of besting the Senate giant in debate.

If so, he must have been heartened by passage of the Compromise of 1850, which gave the Union a reprieve. Houston argued against Calhoun — and against Southern interests — when he supported the compromise in a famous speech. In words that Abraham Lincoln would use a decade later, Houston told the Senate that “a nation divided against itself cannot stand.”

Houston won the Battle of San Jacinto, dreaming Texas would soon be a crown jewel of the Union he loved. The ultimate irony was that, when he died, this champion of both Texas glory and national greatness had been cast aside by most Texans as they disdained further compromise and rushed headlong to the doomed Southern cause.

Houston didn’t live to see the full fruits of his victories on and off the field of battle or to enjoy the vindication of being right about the Union. But he did leave much for us to honor in his name.

John Willingham is author of “The Edge of Freedom,” a novel about the Texas Revolution. He divides his time between Portland, Ore., and Austin.

Read more: http://www.mysanantonio.com/default/article/By-John-Willingham-1345868.php#ixzz1KAXsESz6

 

 

Waco–The City Where “Waco” Didn’t Happen

Note: This article originally appeared on April 19, 2013, on the History News Network HNN.us, under the title:

Waco–The City Where the “Waco” Siege Didn’t Actually Happen

April 19, 2013, is the twentieth anniversary of the bloody end to the “Waco” Siege at the Branch Davidian’s Mount Carmel compound–a forlorn place that is, in fact, 13.8 miles east of the city of Waco.

I do not know who the first person was to assign the name of “Waco” to the terrible events that took place 20 years ago. What I do know is that he or she did a great disservice to Waco, often pronounced “Wacko,” as I have heard repeatedly whenever I tell someone that I was born and raised in the city.

Let me be quick to own that Waco has had its share of problems, one of them a so-called act of God, a 1953 tornado that killed more than 100 people and blew away much of downtown. As a young boy, I watched from the picture window of my father’s real estate office about one and a half miles from the eye of the storm. The day turned completely dark, almost black, and downtown was never the same.

Then the feds closed a big Air Force base and a tactical fighter wing, and the people and the real estate market went, if not altogether south, then off to Austin, Houston, or Dallas.

And speaking of the South, Waco was the farthest extension of the Old South, sending soldiers off to the lost Confederate cause, including several generals. As an approximate end point for the reach of slavery, the city has had its share of tragic relapses to the harshness of Reconstruction, but now struggles more conventionally with the issue of race.

Waco is also associated with the Baptist denomination, mainly because Baylor University is located in the city. Baylor can be the butt of jokes, a few of them earned, but the university and its religion department are actually a significant moderating influence, in Texas and worldwide. Baylor also has excellent academic programs in business and law, and recently, engineering. 

Ann Richards was a Baylor grad, along with four other Texas governors, three U.S. Senators, about a dozen congressmen, and a U.S. ambassador.

I did not attend Baylor (one of my daughters did), and I do not live in Waco. Yet this business of referring to the city as the site of the siege and its fiery climax has bothered me for years, particularly since President George W. Bush decided to buy a ranch near Crawford, Texas.

Now Crawford, Texas, is a town of about 800 located exactly 24.4 miles west of the city of Waco. How many news datelines have begun something like this, “Crawford–We are at President Bush’s ranch near Crawford, Texas, where he just announced…”?

As I see it, the net geographical difference between being identified with a president versus becoming the name for a national tragedy is about 10.6 miles–the difference between the distances of Mount Carmel and Crawford from Waco. For otherwise, wouldn’t we have seen datelines saying, “Waco–President Bush announced from his ranch near here today that…”?

The closest town to Mount Carmel is Elk, a tiny hamlet of about 150 souls. Also nearby is the town of Hallsburg with a population of about 800. Depending on where one might be standing in these towns, the distance to Mount Carmel would be around 3 or 4 miles, or even less.

Now this is not an argument that the so-called “Waco Siege” now be referred to as the “Elk Siege” or the “Hallsburg Siege.” But there are, in truth, striking examples of how tragedies are not named for the towns near which (or even in) the cities where they occurred.

Thus we have the “Columbine” massacre, even though the high school has an address in Littleton, Colorado.  There are the “Aurora” theater shootings, referring to the Denver suburb less than nine miles out of town.

Columbine, in naming an awful event for the school in which it occurred, both narrows the location to an actual structure and reminds us that it was tragedy of the most terrible kind, one in which children were killed.  Yet naming an event for its exact location would seem to suggest a more logical name for the “Waco” siege: Mount Carmel.  For that is where the Davidian compound was located.  Not in Waco, Texas.

Instead of a Frontline documentary on “Waco–the Inside Story,” or the award-winning “Waco: the Rules of Engagement,” we would have “Mount Carmel: the Tragic Siege.”  But then we could have a dispute over naming a tragedy after the mountain where the prophet Elijah challenged each false, contending deity to make a sacrifice and then cause it to blaze; the one who succeeded could claim to be the true god.  The deities failed, but the sacrificial altar erupted in flames, destroying the altar, sacrifices, wood and stone.  The Bible says it was a real act of God.

(Note: On April 17, a fertilizer plant exploded in West, Texas, about 18 miles north of Waco.)

April 19, 2013, is the twentieth anniversary of the bloody end to the “Waco” Siege at the Branch Davidian’s Mount Carmel compound–a forlorn place that is, in fact, 13.8 miles east of the city of Waco.

I do not know who was the first person to assign the name of “Waco” to the terrible events that took place 20 years ago. What I do know is that he or she did a great disservice to Waco, often pronounced “Wacko,” as I have heard repeatedly whenever I tell someone that I was born and raised in the city.

Let me be quick to own that Waco has had its share of problems, one of them a so-called act of God, a 1953 tornado that killed more than 100 people and blew away much of downtown. As a young boy, I watched from the picture window of my father’s real estate office about one and a half miles from the eye of the storm. The day turned completely dark, almost black, and downtown was never the same.

Then the feds closed a big Air Force base and a tactical fighter wing, and the people and the real estate market went, if not altogether south, then off to Austin, Houston, or Dallas.

And speaking of the South, Waco was the farthest extension of the Old South, sending soldiers off to the lost Confederate cause, including several generals. As an approximate end point for the reach of slavery, the city has had its share of tragic relapses to the harshness of Reconstruction, but now struggles more conventionally with the issue of race.

Waco is also associated with the Baptist denomination, mainly because Baylor University is located in the city. Baylor can be the butt of jokes, a few of them earned, but the university and its religion department are actually a significant moderating influence, in Texas and worldwide. Baylor also has excellent academic programs in business and law, and recently, engineering. 

Ann Richards was a Baylor grad, along with four other Texas governors, three U.S. Senators, and about a dozen congressmen.

I did not attend Baylor (one of my daughters did), and I do not live in Waco. Yet this business of referring to the city as the site of the siege and its fiery climax has bothered me for years, particularly since President George W. Bush decided to buy a ranch near Crawford, Texas.

Now Crawford, Texas, is a town of about 800 located exactly 24.4 miles west of the city of Waco. How many news datelines have begun something like this, “Crawford–We are at President Bush’s ranch near Crawford, Texas, where he just announced…”?

As I see it, the net geographical difference between being identified with a president versus becoming the name for a national tragedy is about 10.6 miles–the difference between the distances of Mount Carmel and Crawford from Waco. For otherwise, wouldn’t we have seen datelines saying, “Waco–President Bush announced from his ranch near here today that…”?

The closest town to Mount Carmel is Elk, a tiny hamlet of about 150 souls. Also nearby is the town of Hallsburg with a population of about 800. Depending on where one might be standing in these towns, the distance to Mount Carmel would be around 3 or 4 miles, or even less.

Now this is not an argument that the so-called “Waco Siege” now be referred to as the “Elk Siege” or the “Hallsburg Siege.” But there are, in truth, striking examples of how tragedies are not named for the towns near which (or even in) the cities where they occurred.

Thus we have the “Columbine” massacre, even though the high school has an address in Littleton, Colorado.  There are the “Aurora” theater shootings, referring to the Denver suburb less than nine miles out of town.

Columbine, in naming an awful event for the school in which it occurred, both narrows the location to an actual structure and reminds us that it was tragedy of the most terrible kind, one in which children were killed.  Yet naming an event for its exact location would seem to suggest a more logical name for the “Waco” siege: Mount Carmel.  For that is where the Davidian compound was located.  Not in Waco, Texas.

Instead of a Frontline documentary on “Waco–the Inside Story,” or the award-winning “Waco: the Rules of Engagement,” we would have “Mount Carmel: the Tragic Siege.”  But then we could have a dispute over naming a tragedy after the mountain where the prophet Elijah challenged each false, contending deity to make a sacrifice and then cause it to blaze; the one who succeeded could claim to be the true god.  The deities failed, but the sacrificial altar erupted in flames, destroying the altar, sacrifices, wood and stone.  The Bible says it was a real act of God.

(Note: On April 17, a fertilizer plant exploded in West, Texas, about 18 miles north of Waco.)

The Cowboy Strike of 1883 and the Demise of Old Tascosa

A cowboy strike, in Texas?  In a state now known for its right to work laws and general hostility toward unions?  And cowboys–well, let’s just say that they are not often associated with the words “collective” and “bargaining.”

Yet these allegedly lonesome men on horseback, working from “can see” until “can’t see” in heat and dust, lightning storms, and northers cold enough to freeze them to their saddles, did rise up against big cattle syndicates back in  March of 1883.  And they fought the brief but good fight to regain the rights they had lost to greedy or inept corporate ranchers who had taken over the open range that fit the cowboy soul like a well-worn glove.

Before the syndicates moved in there was a sense of community on the smaller spreads. The best ranches brought together tough, hard-working, essentially decent and practical men who respected one another and shared not only the elements and the endless plains but a heritage of frontier cooperation born of necessity: In 1883, the Comanche threat was less than a decade in the past.

A cowboy then, on one of the smaller ranches, could take some calves in lieu of pay and combine them with mavericks he had “gathered” on the open range to form his own small herd, good for sales or to supplement whatever victuals he usually had from his own fire or from one communal cast-iron pot.  The longer he stayed with a ranch, the more likely he was to have two or more horses to use, and the horses he was dealt improved with his tenure.  This was a real life with a stake.

The syndicates came in, understanding the business world but often very little of the ranching life on the plains.  Profits tended to be as low as their ignorance and speculative fever were high; so, as their heirs might do today, they blamed the people who actually did the work for the problem.  They cut wages, disallowed horses for personal use, stopped the gathering of mavericks, and offered no more calves for pay.  Then…they forbade drinking and gambling.  This was not much of a life, with no stake.

Tom Harris was a seasoned and respected hand at the LS Ranch and decided he had seen enough.  He rounded up some men from the LIT, the LX, the LE and the T Anchor, and made out a list of demands:

 

We, the undersigned cowboys of Canadian River, do by these presents agree to bind ourselves into the following obligations, viz:

First: that we will not work for less than $50 per mo. And we furthermore agree no one shall work for less than $50 per mo. after 31st of Mch.

Second: Good cooks shall also receive $50 per month.

Third: Any one running an outfit shall not work for less than $75 per mo.

Any one violating the above obligations shall suffer the consequences. Those not having funds to pay board after March 31 will be provided for for 30 days at Tascosa.

No one specified what made a good cook, or how much a bad cook should receive. Not much, probably.

Twenty-four cowboys signed the proclamation.  The number of cowboys who supported it thereafter was as variable as the disappearing mavericks along the Canadian.  Maybe upwards of three hundred had some ties to the strike.  The LE and T Anchor fired the strikers right away; more cunning by far were the LS and LIT.  They offered piddling increases to cowboys who stayed, and then they fired the rest. Then they picked up the leavings from the other outfits by paying the marginally higher wages, at least for a while.

The out of work cowboys drifted into Tascosa, as famous as Dodge City in its time as a stopping place for the big drives headed north.

The cattlemen would pause and water their herds along the Canadian, leaving the beeves under the disgruntled watch of the few hands who were not allowed to go into Tascosa for recreation.  Here is what state historian Bill O’Neal tells us about Tascosa at the time:

“A cluster of dives a quarter of a mile east of Main Street was dubbed Hogtown, partially because of the presence of such less than glamorous ‘sporting women’ as Homely Ann, Gizzard Lip, Rowdy Kate, Box Car Jane, Panhandle Nan, Slippery Sue, Canadian Lily, and Frog Lip Sadie. In 1878, Billy the Kid and four other fugitives from New Mexico’s Lincoln County War arrived with 150 stolen horses, enjoying Tascosa’s bawdy pleasures for several weeks. During the 1880s there was so much rustling in the area that Pat Garrett was hired to lead a band of ‘Home Rangers.'”

In the midst of such gentility, the strikers claimed that they would be peaceful.  Most probably were.  Newspapers covered the strike and reported gossip likely planted by the syndicates that the strikers were plotting to kill the owners, burn down fences, and kill syndicate cattle at random.  None of this happened.

On the other hand, a disturbing number of cows began to disappear from the syndicate herds.

Only two months after the strike began on March 31, 1883, it was over.  The efforts of Tom Harris and his comrades did not so much as delay the May roundup.  If they did nothing else, though, they gave the late, great Elmer Kelton a subject and title for his novel The Day the Cowboys Quit.  In those pages find the real dust of the plains.

As for Tascosa, whether from Hogtown or the few respectable precincts, some remained optimistic.  The railroad would come to town, finding its way past buffalo bones and through the attenuated grass. The syndicates would pour cattle into waiting trains, which would blow out steam and sound their whistles in their urgency to depart.  Surely some of the money would come back to the plains.

There are two books on Tascosa.  In reviewing John L. McCarty’s Maverick Town, in 1947, Walter Prescott Webb was characteristically direct regarding the fate of Tascosa: “It is useless to look on a modern map for Tascosa because the town is not there.  It died so long ago that the map makers have forgotten it.”

The Rock Island railroad had bypassed Tascosa in favor of Amarillo.  The Oldham County seat moved to Vega.  In the end, years later, only the former prostitute Frenchy McCormick remained in Tascosa, her husband and tavern-keeper, Mickey, having gone to his reward twenty-nine years before her death in 1941.  She had continued to live alone in their crumbling adobe home, without electricity and running water, insisting that Tascosa would come back to life.

Before Tascosa died, a volatile brew of syndicate hired guns, disgruntled ranch hands, and the insalubrious atmosphere of Hogtown erupted in a gunfight in 1886 at the Jenkins Saloon. Unlike the “ambush” of Billy The Kid, Webb says, this “was a real fight between the cowboys [gunmen] of the big LS outfit and the little men of Tascosa.  Three LS cowboys were killed, along with an innocent and too-curious ‘poverty-laden’ immigrant named Jess Sheets.” 

A great review of the more recent book on the town, Frederick Nolan’s Tascosa: Its Life and Gaudy Times, came from Bill Neal in 2008: “Tascosa was located in a land beyond the law, a fact that many frontiersmen found appealing….Pioneer cowman Charles Goodnight pronounced Tascosa ‘the most lawless place on the continent.'”  It was said that one resident, perhaps Bill Gatlin, “used to kill men just to see if his pistol was loaded.”

Reading Neal’s review, I came across the name of Cape (Caleb Berg) Willingham, and was reminded that some of my relatives hailed from western Oklahoma and West Texas.  Cape Willingham had a solid reputation as a lawman and rancher, indicating that he actually knew how to do some practical things.  I therefore dismissed him as a possible ancestor until I found out he had also run a saloon.

Said to have been the first sheriff of Tascosa, he carried the true standard weapon of lawmen in those days, a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun.  One day, while relaxing in the Equity Saloon, one of the town’s few “respectable ladies” burst in and screamed that a man outside had just killed her duck.  Perhaps intrigued that, for once, a killing had not involved a human, the sheriff went outside to investigate.  His concern was also enhanced because he had instituted what may have been one of the state’s earliest gun-control measures–he had banned firearms from Tascosa.

Clay Coppedge of the Country World’s Texas Trails tells the story:

“The duck killer turned out to be Fred Leigh, foreman of the LS Ranch, who had a habit of taking his guns to town in defiance of Willingham’s ban. The sheriff notified Leigh that he was now indebted to the woman for the fair market value of a duck and he might have been trying to figure out an exact sum when Leigh did something a lot dumber than shooting a duck — he went for his pistol. Willingham blew him out of the saddle with his shotgun, which ended the negotiations.”

Now, there remains in me a trace of the boy from Waco, Texas, who played cowboys and Indians, and “Army,” and watched westerns on TV, and that would get a kick out of claiming Cape Willingham as an ancestor.  And the duck story almost pushes me to the point of prevarication.  But, alas, Cape’s branch of the clan came west from Virginia through Georgia, and mine through Tennessee, so any connection is remote.

Cape Willingham, Charles Goodnight, the good hand Tom Harris, and the woman with the dead duck– all would be amazed to know that in 1939, not far from Boot Hill in old Tascosa, Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch was born.  Frenchy McCormick was still around by then to see it, and no doubt feisty at age 87.  And that, my friends, one-ups the duck.

W.C. Brann, the “Iconoclast,” Was Killed in Waco in April 1898

Loved, hated, admired and reviled, the journalist William Cowper Brann was shot and killed on a Waco street on April 1, 1898. His death ended a long feud with supporters of Baylor University–an institution that he had accused of producing “ministers and Magdalenes,” based on the alleged corruption of a Brazilian maid by an official at the Baptist institution.  Here is an excerpt about Brann from the Handbook of Texas, written by the late Waco historian Roger Conger:

“Brann took obvious relish in directing his stinging attacks upon institutions and persons he considered to be hypocritical or overly sanctimonious. He by no means confined his distaste to Baptists, but directed it generously to Episcopalians, anything British, women, and, perhaps with the greatest harshness, blacks. Among his targets was Baylor University, a Baptist institution that he scourged as ‘that great storm-center of misinformation.’ On October 2, 1897, Brann was kidnapped by student-society members and taken to the Baylor campus, where he was asked to retract his statements about the university. On October 6, having failed to leave town, he was beaten by a Baptist judge and two other men.

“In November 1897 occurred a street gunfight between one of Brann’s supporters, McLennan county judge G. B. Gerald, and the pro-Baylor editor of the Waco Times-Herald, J. W. Harris, and his brother W. A. Harris. Both Harrises died, and the judge lost an arm. On April 1, 1898, on one of Waco’s main streets, Brann was shot in the back by a brooding supporter of Baylor University named Tom E. Davis. Before the editor died he was able to draw his own pistol and kill his assailant.”

As a young Wacoan, I read Charles Carver’s Brann and the Iconoclast, shortly after the University of Texas Press released it in 1957.  (My mother had unwittingly paid for the book; good Baptist that she was, I am certain that she was unaware of its contents.) The book was fascinating, though perhaps for the wrong reasons. Looking back on it now, I see it as a precursor for my interest in some of William Faulkner’s writing, for Waco in 1898 was a lot like Faulkner’s fictional city of Jefferson, a place where violence was a virtue for men who defended the honor of their women, or their own reputations. It is noteworthy that the man who killed Brann had a daughter attending Baylor; he took the reference to “Magdalenes” (i.e., prostitutes) personally. Violence in the name of honor has deep roots in the South, and of course in Texas.

Brann was an associate of William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry, who purchased Brann’s original Iconoclast in Austin but probably never produced any issues. Brann bounced around Texas as an editor or columnist for several major papers–San Antonio, Galveston, Houston–before going to work for the old Waco Daily News.  Soon after, he revived the Iconoclast, in February 1895, and eventually won a worldwide circulation of almost 100,000, an amazing figure for the time.

Part of the success was due to Brann’s flamboyant style and astounding facility with words, given that he ran away from home at the age of 13. But as a journalist in need of money, Brann knew that the best way to boost circulation was to choose controversial topics, and what topics were more controversial in his day than women and religion? This was specially the case when the topic was women and their desire, or lack of same, for sexual activity. As for religion, Brann saw himself as Jeffersonian, mostly deistic with a preference for a remote God who wielded the instruments of a grand architect while creating a universe without dogma.

Of the Bible, he said: “He that accepts it in its entirety–gulps it down like an anaconda absorbing an unwashed goat; who makes no attempt to separate the essential from the accidental…may, like the ass which Balaam rode, open its mouth and speak; but he never saw the Angel of the Lord; he utters the words of emptiness and ignorance.”

There are Brann devotees to this day, but for me, even though the racism he embraced was prevalent in Waco and the South, his own expressions of it are so revolting that there is no giving him the benefit of acting under the influence of his times.

In an article titled “The Buck Negro,” Brann opens with these words:

“I once severely shocked the pseudo-philanthropists by suggesting that if the South is ever to rid herself of the negro rape-fiend she must take a day off and kill every member of the accursed race that declines to leave the country. I am not wedded to my plan; but, like the Populists, I do insist that those who object to it are in duty bound to offer something better.”

He continues:

“Drive out the ” n . . . [ a racist term for African Americans] young and old, male and female – or drive him into the earth! It may be urged that the ‘good negro’ would suffer with the bad. It is impossible to distinguish the one from the other until it is too late. It were better that a thousand ‘good negroes’ -if so many there be- should suffer death or banishment than that one good white woman should be debauched. We must consider ourselves first, others afterwards. The rights of the white man are paramount, and if we do not maintain them at any cost we deserve only dishonor.”

That this type of vile racism, grounded in the alleged protection of white women, would later erupt in a terrible lynching in my hometown a few decades later, is all the more disturbing. The Klan was strong in Waco in the Twenties, and the story is that they would meet on a hill near what is now North Twenty-Fifth Street. Were they the ignorant gap-toothed followers that we mostly see today, along with a little skinhead seasoning?

I found an answer to this question that struck home, truly, back when I was still living in Waco in the late 1980s.  My sainted grandmother had just died, after living out the last eight years of her life with me and my family. After her death, we found in our garage, folded neatly in a long, white cardboard box, a robe, or costume if you like, that had belonged to my grandfather. And so, wearing these detestable garments of the Klan, my grandfather might have been among those standing on that hill all those years ago, screaming out hatred from the basest and smallest part of himself.  A respected businessman who worked downtown, he might also have been at the lynching that took place not far from his store. Now, I can only hope that he was not.

“Mr. Sam” Rayburn Sworn in as Speaker, April 1913

On April 7, 1913, Sam Rayburn officially began his congressional career that would not end until more than 48 years later. Following the summary immediately below, there is a longer post on Mr. Sam. Here is the Texas State Historical Association summary of the event and Sam Rayburn’s life:

“On this day in 1913, Sam Rayburn took the oath of office as a member of the United States House of Representatives. He became majority leader in 1937 and was elected speaker of the House in 1940, a post he held in Democratically controlled legislatures until his death in 1961. Rayburn helped negotiate the Roosevelt-Garner ticket in 1932 and loyally supported the New Deal. As chairman of the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee in the 1930s he oversaw legislation that established the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission. During World War II he helped ensure the legislative base and financial support for the war effort, and in the 1950s he worked closely with Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson. Rayburn served in the House for more than forty-eight years.”

Born in Tennessee in 1882, Sam Rayburn came to Texas with his family at the age of five, and with grit and hard work made his way from a small cotton farm to the campus of what is now Texas A&M–Commerce.  From there, after teaching school, he was elected to the Texas House in 1906, and by the beginning of his third and last term, in 1910, he was chosen by his peers as speaker, at the age of 28.  He managed to attend the UT School of Law between legislative sessions, became a member of the bar, and then won election to congress in 1912, heading off to Washington amid the hopes that the new president, Woodrow Wilson, would take the country in a new direction.

From 1912 until his retirement from the House in 1961, Mr. Sam never had a Republican opponent, and he might as well have had no opponents at all. The reason: Sam Rayburn was headed for greatness, not the kind of greatness that presidents often attain, with their world-changing decisions, but greatness as both a person and political leader. Who in American history has managed to join fairness, honesty, and integrity to the hard business of politics as well as Sam Rayburn, to such good effect? Washington, Lincoln–and then who else?  And the remarkable fact about Rayburn is that he earned his reputation, like the two presidents above, in the midst of grave national challenges: depression, world war, the cold war, and the first wave of desegregation.

Rayburn and his protege, Lyndon Johnson, both refused to sign the “Southern Manifesto” in 1956 that called for total opposition to the integration of public places. Johnson’s desire to be president (and likely his beliefs) provided sufficient motivation. Mr. Sam, near the end of his career, a hard-scrabble boy with a Deep South heritage, simply did what he always did–what was right. He went on all of one political “junket” during his whole career, a trip to Africa, and then paid for it out of his own pocket. When he died, he had about $15,000 to his name, the result of his determination since his Texas House days never to take any money when there was the slightest appearance of a conflict of interest, no matter that he often could have done so legally.

It is this level of integrity that sets Mr. Sam off from just about every political leader one can name.  Lyndon Johnson certainly did not have it. Worse, according to LBJ biographer Robert Caro, Johnson allegedly betrayed his mentor Rayburn when FDR was looking for someone to take over the allocation of New Deal funding in Texas, in the wake of FDR’s rift with John Nance Garner. Caro writes that Johnson schemed to form the impression in FDR’s mind that Rayburn was not in fact a loyal supporter of the New Deal–despite the constant and effective efforts by Mr. Sam to pass New Deal legislation. Johnson became FDR’s man in Texas. Yet Sam Rayburn stood by Johnson later on, when he sought the presidency in 1960. It must have been that Mr. Sam still believed Lyndon was the man who could do the most for the nation, the one criterion that Rayburn put above others.

Sadly, looking back on Rayburn’s life and career brings to the mind how much has been lost more than it links the values of the great man to any modern inheritor. Turn this way or that way, search anywhere you like; how many Sam Rayburns do you see?

 

The Complex Legacy of the Texas Revolution

Several decades ago, the great British historian J.H. Plumb, in his famous book The Death of the Past, not only described the distinction between the past and history, but predicted that the increasingly rationalistic west would soon throw off the illusions of the past, with its often manipulative distortions, and begin to operate on the more realistic plane of history.

What some Texans have called “the history wars” is essentially a conflict between the past as illusion or myth, and its nemesis, history. For most of the 180 years since the Texas Revolution, the past has dominated.  It is not hard to see why.

Think of the state’s early defining events—the Revolution, and later independence as a republic, making Texas the only state ever to have existed as a nation. But it was the Revolution, especially the battle of the Alamo, which made the Texas past the proud and stubborn thing that it is, still defiant and assertive against the forces of history, and of modernity, but no longer unchallenged.

The Power of the Alamo

The enduring power of the Alamo in myth and memory derives from its celebrated and absolutist essence: Victory or Death. Freedom or Tyranny. Good or Evil. Right or Wrong. As David Crockett said, “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” The key was being sure. 

And doubt was not in the makeup of Bowie and Travis, although Crockett’s political experience might have taught him to take a little time in fixing on the right. The story of the line drawn in the sand by Travis at the Alamo is stronger in memory and use than it is in the minds of most historians, but it is a perfect metaphor for the Alamo story: in life, war, morality—you have two choices, and two choices only; there is the line. Decide. Now.

One of the legacies of the Revolution, and of the Alamo, is that American democracy was able to grow in Texas, though not without vicious fighting with native populations and oppression of African American slaves and Tejanos. This kind of oppression was, sadly, not unique to Texas.

Even though the positive legacy of the Alamo and the Revolution has been far-reaching in its impact, it is also a hard fact that it has not been uniformly positive. To accept the legacy as unadulterated heroism traps it in myth and diminishes its great importance as history.

The Alamo and the Age of Romanticism

Any discussion of the Revolution must reckon with the Alamo’s long shadow. In dominating our memory of those days 180 years ago, the Alamo has obscured other potential legacies of the Revolution, principally that of the tragic events in and around the Presidio La Bahía in Goliad.

The Alamo hovers over the Goliad story and permeated the thoughts of the men involved in the Goliad campaign. Some of the men at the Alamo were previously well-known throughout the South—Jim Bowie, for one, was already renowned for his prowess as a fighter, and his famous knife was carried by men across the southern frontier.

David Crockett was much better known, indeed famous, throughout the United States; William Barret Travis was not so widely known, but in Texas he had already made his name as a firebrand during the disturbances at Anahuac in 1832. Their notoriety alone added drama to their actions at the Alamo, a drama that Goliad seemingly lacks.

But the tragic story of Goliad is laden with as much meaning as the battle of the Alamo. In fact, the story of Goliad is more resonant with our own confounding times than the famous fight at the Alamo.

The Alamo was one of the defining events of 19th century America, occurring at a time when men still fought duels over the slightest offense, and when a peculiarly southern code of chivalry— underestimated as a presence in the Texas Revolution—shaped the thoughts and actions of many Texan leaders.

Recall that the early 19th Century was smack in the middle of the Age of Romanticism. Nothing was more quintessentially romantic than the gallant sacrifice of one’s life in a noble cause. The novels of Sir Walter Scott were widely read, especially Ivanhoe, as was the poetry of the English Romantics.

So when the Alamo commanders sent their famous words—Victory or Death—to the world, both they and their world were in accord. The world saw the matter as they had seen it: The highest calling of a man of honor was to find his noble cause, and pledge his life—or death—to that cause. That the Alamo rose to iconic status almost at once is no surprise, for the Alamo epitomized much in the Age.

Goliad in the Shadows

But what of Goliad? Colonel James Fannin was in command there, although the use of the word command is even more out of place in the case of Goliad as it is in describing Sam Houston’s struggle to control his wayward forces during the later Runaway Scrape.

Shadowed by the reckless glory of Travis and Bowie, and by the mysterious workings of Sam Houston, Fannin could not find his own way by following their paths, no matter how he went about it, by turns impetuous, indecisive, and pulled in different directions by his refractory soldiers and the chaotic so-called government that never figured out who was in charge.

From the time he received a famous plea from Travis and Bowie for aid, delivered by James Bonham on February 19, to the final, tragic events at the Presidio La Bahia in Goliad on March 27, the specter of the Alamo—of its men and commanders—was continually with James Fannin.

More important to history and to our collective memory, however, is not Bonham’s mission, but the surrender by Fannin of his 300-man force to the Mexican General Urrea on March 20, following the fierce battle of Coleto Creek the day before; and even more important still is the tragic end that came to Fannin and most of his men on Palm Sunday, March 27, 1836.

Most historians agree that the Mexican General Urrea sought to circumvent orders from Santa Anna to execute all prisoners, while Fannin agreed to something less than a capitulation in hopes of saving his men.  \Urrea risked severe censure, or much worse, in signing any such document. Both men relied on the honor of the other: Urrea believed that Fannin would keep his word and have his men lay down their arms, and Fannin believed that Urrea would do all he could to get the Supreme Government, if not Santa Anna, to grant clemency to such a large force rather than kill them all.

So in relying on honor, did not Fannin and Urrea meet the requirements of their chivalric Age? The answer is no. Although the ultimate mass executions of Fannin and his men caused greater outrage in America than the deaths at the Alamo, and provided equal motivation for Houston’s men at San Jacinto to kill Mexican soldiers trying to surrender, the fact that Fannin surrendered—that he failed to win or to die fighting—has subordinated the story of Goliad.

The cruelty and alleged perfidy of the Mexicans were fast absorbed into the collective memory, for memory welcomes injustice, another word for wrong, but memory abhors inglorious defeat.

A Slight to History?

So now when most people, most Anglo Texans, one should say, remember the Alamo, they see glorious death, indeed martyrdom, in the cause of freedom; but when they remember Goliad, even the outrage has faded, and there is no glory.

This as at least a slight to history, though it might comport with preferred ideas about the past.

The Alamo was an event of its Age, a defining event, iconic. But how much of the romance and chivalry of that Age do we find in modernity? How often do we, as individuals, set ourselves to a heroic task, our lives at stake, our weapons drawn in a battle to the end? Yes, our brave military personnel, our police and fire professionals, and many others of course, may be called upon in the course of their work to lay it all on the line.

And yes, there is in the legacy of the Alamo, the Revolution, and the Texas frontier a powerful and important call to individual strength and self-reliance, even in the face of daunting odds.

The point is not whether individualism and self-reliance are good in themselves; they are. The point is that when taken to the extreme, in disregard of others, and in defiance of reasonable compromise that is so much a part of the real world, they are anachronistic.

Goliad was only in small measure a part of its Age. It has paid the penalty for that. The only part of its story deemed worthy of remembrance has been the mass executions, disconnected in modern memory from the dramatic struggle to save lives that preceded them.

Yet to study real history is to accept its constant irony. In fact, Goliad was a 21st Century decision on a 19th Century battlefield, but it has failed to connect to the times it foreshadowed, our own times.  The principals strove to overcome their Age, their constraints, and their personal inclinations, in a pragmatic and, yes, honorable effort to save the lives of hundreds of men on both sides. They found a reasonable compromise. Their motives were for the most part good, though not without self-interest.

Would we understand such motives, such ends today? Would we, somewhat more accepting of the complexity of our world, now take a closer, more subtle look at what they did, and why they did it?

It is time now to look back and see the significance of Goliad, not only its resonance with the ambiguities of our time, but its deeper meaning as a tragedy. For what is more tragic than for good men and women, adversaries in war, to strive for peace and then die at the arbitrary whim of the powerful?

Is not peace sought in good faith after a bitter conflict as important as freedom fought for in battle?  Life is not much good without both peace and freedom. So let us remember the Alamo, and remember Goliad, for what they both actually were, and for what they both really mean to us today.