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.”
“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.
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?
Note: This is a more personal version of the same essay that appears on the main page under the same title.
My novel THE EDGE OF FREEDOM, A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution, is mostly about the Goliad campaign in the Revolution—but the more I have thought about it, the more I realize that the book is really about the relationship of Goliad to the iconic symbol of the Revolution—the Alamo.
First, the process of writing the book. The Presidio LaBahía at Goliad has been one of the most important places in my life, and I’ll tell you why. About 30 years ago–my home was then in Waco–my family and I often drove to the Gulf Coast for short vacations. Of course, with young children we were in a hurry to get to the ocean, and the first few times through Goliad, we didn’t stop. But after a few trips, I had to stop. I had completed my master’s in American history at UT by that time, and though I had decided not to pursue an academic career because of the lack of jobs in history, I never lost my passion for it, and I had also written a master’s paper on Texas history.
After spending some time at the presidio, the place began to pose questions to me. One question in particular kept coming up, and that question was this: What did James Bonham, the famous courier from the Alamo, and James Fannin, the commander at Goliad, say to each other when Bonham arrived there in February 1836?
What I didn’t know then was that answering this question and the other questions that it spawned would take much of my time for three decades.
While writing scenes of the long debate that I imagine occurred between Fannin and Bonham, I eventually realized that I was seeing the Alamo from the perspective of Goliad, rather than seeing Goliad through the dominant lens of the Alamo.
And then I began to feel that, in the relationship of the Alamo and Goliad, one could see signs of one historical age fading away and hints of another age emerging, one similar to our own.
I believe that the Alamo was a signal event of the Age of Romanticism, a time when passion and idealism seemed to eclipse the previous Age of Reason. Romantics such as the English poet Lord Byron sought to sacrifice themselves to the great cause of freedom, in his case the cause of Greece against the Ottoman Turks. Americans saw the fight in Texas as a chance to share in the glory of their forefathers, and even Texans motivated by greed or a desire for adventure also could claim to be chivalrous warriors, knights in the cause of freedom, disdainful of both risk and brute reality.
Here I am concerned with a particular strain of Romanticism, one that took hold in the American South during the first half of the 19th Century.
That Southern Romanticism was (and still is, in some ways) characterized by the noble and, to use a word of those times, chivalrous devotion to heroic achievement, to fame and glory, to an idea of women– more on this later, in relation to Goliad—to an idealized past, and to an intense sense of personal honor and pride that would brook no insult or challenge. Even a mild affront could turn into a duel. The few paces between the dueling parties provided the only middle ground there was, with life and triumph on one side and death or defeat on the other.
The influence of this Southern Romanticism on the people and events of the Texas Revolution has not been the subject of extensive scholarship. But in my attempt to describe the influence, I am indebted to the work of the late Rollin G. Osterweis of Yale and Bertram Wyatt-Brown, emeritus professor at Florida, both of whom wrote about the Old South generally, rather than about the impact of the Romantic Age on events in Texas.
The term code of honor, to me, is the best description for the masculine version of Southern Romanticism, although Wyatt-Brown calls it the rule of honor. Within that code there is the cult of chivalry, the glorification of military valor, the adoration of the hero, and the enshrinement of Southern women.
Why was the South receptive to this code of honor? For one thing, the South was and probably still is a more physical culture than the rest of the nation.
To be sure, in the early 19th Century people in the North were no strangers to sometimes brutal working conditions that required great physical effort, yes on farms, but increasingly in cramped, dingy shops and factories.
But in the South so much of life was centered on the outside world—planting, harvesting, hunting, fishing; racing horses; forming militias to fight the Creeks or the Cherokees, and to capture runaway slaves; or, most urgently of all, to put down actual or feared slave rebellions. And so there was an enduring martial spirit, beginning before the American Revolution, drawing strength from it, and carrying forward because of the still-violent Southern frontier and because of the need to keep slaves in check.
And of course it was heroic military action, above all, that could bring fame, glory, and the most fulfilling form of honor. Not to mention that in a plantation society, a military vocation was often the best honorable alternative to being a great planter or a firebrand politician.
As the issue of slavery became more of a wedge between North and South, Southerners found ways to justify slavery, calling it a positive good. A major apologist for slavery argued that not only was it a positive good for slaves, who after all—he claimed—were incapable of independent living; it was also, he believed, the key to honoring Southern women.
In the words of the Rev. Thomas R. Dew of the College of William & Mary: “We behold the marked effects of slavery on the conditions of woman—we find her at once elevated, clothed with all her charms, mingling with and directing the society to which she belongs, no longer the slave but now the equal and idol of man.”
Thus did slavery emancipate the white Southern woman according to the Reverend Day. Of course, most white Southern women did not live in households that owned slaves. In fact, women were not the equals of men, were idols mostly when men needed something to fight over, and were expected to use their real or imagined leisure to instill in their sons the very code of honor that men cherished.
But the Reverend Day’s torturous justification of slavery had the effect of equating Southern womanhood with the survival of slavery at a time when the South needed all the reasons it could fine to sustain the institution. To denounce slavery was to threaten Southern womanhood, and so it became a matter of honor, that word again, to defend both, and to keep the South as it was, unsullied by crass and commercial Northern dominance. Far from being evil, slavery was essential to maintaining the noble way of life, for what could be nobler than defending womanhood?
The novelist Sir Walter Scott was already famous when his book Ivanhoe appeared in 1820. The book conquered the South—or, rather, it spoke romantically to the South in reassuring ways that the South needed.
The novel had it all: the honor of chivalrous knights loyal to virtuous women under duress; the noble heroism, the glory of combat, and a convenient story line that could easily be translated to the American South. Just as the Norman knights were far superior to Saxon knaves, so were honorable Southerners superior to the narrow, grasping Northerners who now criticized the Southern way of life.
One aspect of the code of honor, however, was that it was too often dependent on external validation. If it was thought that your wife or daughter had been slighted, you were honor-bound to retaliate, often violently, even if the slight was trivial or non-existent. Everything depended on appearances. No insult could be borne, compromise was unmanly, the middle way un-heroic. Logic and reason counted for little when honor was a stake. Such was the burden of Southern Romanticism.
So after wandering through the weeds of Southern intellectual history, what, you might ask, does all of this have to do with the Alamo and Goliad?
By way of transition, I want to relate a well-known story about Sam Houston and his mother that helps to illustrate what I have said up to this point. A Virginian by birth, Sam was 19 when the War of 1812 broke out. Mostly self-educated and absolutely devoted to Homer’s heroic epic the Iliad with its vivid story of the Trojan War, Sam no longer wanted only to read about larger-than-life men making their mark in history’s tablet; he wanted to be one of those men.
So he informed his mother of his plans to fight in the War. Later, he spoke often of her response. Handing him a musket, she said, “Never disgrace it; for remember, I would rather all my sons should fill one honorable grave, than that one of them should turn back to save his life.” [Emphasis added.]
She then gave her son a plain gold ring. Engraved inside the ring was one word: “Honor.” You may know the rest of the story. Houston fought at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, under the approving eye of Andrew Jackson. Young Sam took a Creek arrow in his upper thigh, then rejoined the fight, leading a charge over breastworks, where musket balls smashed into his shoulder and arm. These were not the last wounds Houston would receive but they cost him the most: some believe that his first wife, Eliza, who left him after only a few days of marriage, did so in part because of the hideousness of his wounds. Whatever her reasons, Houston would allow no one to question her honor.
We will return to Sam Houston shortly in order to revisit his reading of Homer and to explore how that experience might have made him different from the other heroes of the Texas Revolution and how it probably helped him to become the greatest figure in the state’s history.
But now on to the Alamo and Goliad.
The Southerners at Goliad, including Colonel James Fannin, the commander there, shared the aforementioned romantic impulses, as did most of his men from the North or from Germany and other foreign lands. And I believe Fannin wished to be passionate and headstrong in the cause of freedom, as were William Barret Travis and Jim Bowie at the Alamo, men truly of their age and focused only on the honorable fight before them.
Let’s go back to that conversation between Fannin and James Bonham, who implored Fannin to march with his men to reinforce the Alamo. I imagine the earnest, thoughtful Bonham, a lawyer by profession, speaking eloquently in the voice of the Age, while James Fannin struggled painfully to meet the demands of the Age.
Yet when Fannin later answered the impulse to act in defiance of reality but in the spirit of the age, he did not win the glory he and his men wanted so badly. His eventual effort to march to aid of the Alamo failed miserably because of the inability of his force to ford the San Antonio River, mainly because of the artillery they had brought along.
Historians have faulted Fannin for this and other shortcomings and failures, but the main criticism, especially by those who see the Revolution only through a military lens, has been that at a crucial point in March he divided his force, leading to further delays in leaving the presidio to join Sam Houston at Victoria after the fall of the Alamo was known. Even worse, the delay allowed the Mexican forces under General Urrea to catch up with him on open ground.
Why did he divide his force and delay going to meet Houston? Well, blame it on men convinced that nothing, not military strategy, not the need to preserve the strongest Texian force left in the field, not—surely not—anything so trivial as mere military orders from Sam Houston or anyone else—none of these practical considerations could stand up to the honorable, the chivalrous imperative to march to the aid of a woman in distress.
And such was, or was thought to be, one Louisa Ayers. She was the wife of the tax collector of Refugio, whom he had left behind, unguarded, with other women and children. And this same Mr. Lewis Ayers now had as his knight-errant the former marshal of Refugio, Amon B. King, who himself had been so impatient to join Fannin and his men in Goliad that he had left his town untended.
After Mexican irregulars had looted the town, this marshal, now Captain King of the Refugio Militia, and Lewis Ayers demanded that Fannin send troops under King’s vengeful command to rescue the women and children in Refugio. Of course, typical of the chaos of the Texas Revolution, all of this happened just as Fannin received Houston’s order to join him at Victoria.
Now, after all you have read so far about Southern Romanticism, consider this question: What would William B. Travis have done if he had been the commander at Goliad rather than at the Alamo, and received word that women and children were in danger from the enemy, barely 25 miles away, and in urgent need of rescue? What would Travis have done if he had then learned that the very force he had sent to save those women and children also had to be rescued? What would the age have demanded of Travis? For a Southern commander to have ignored these pleas would have brought dishonor to him and his men. Their code, and their romantic age, demanded action, the consequences be damned. It was all or nothing.
Or, expressed in language more resonant: “Victory or Death.” Travis’ famous words from the Alamo declared not only the determination to die honorably for a cause but also declared, in the spirit of the Age, that nothing mattered but the code—fighting another day be damned; joining a force that might actually attain victory—be damned. Brute reality, the certainty of annihilation, be damned. There were only the bare, powerful, absolute words of the code: “Victory or Death.” As in a duel, the honor of the Texians had to be preserved; they could not run away, no matter the cost, no matter the odds.
Yet, when Fannin sought to act in the spirit of the Age, immortal glory was not the result. The Refugio relief mission not only cost Fannin time, but also left him about one hundred men short when he finally met General José de Urrea on the field of battle at Coleto Creek, near Goliad, on March 19, 1836. And on March 20, 1836, when Fannin heard the cries of his wounded and saw the newly-arrived Mexican artillery demolishing his trench work with salvos of grape shot and chain, the all or nothing, victory or death demands of his age ran smack into a very different reality from the one Travis had disregarded at the Alamo.
Given the choice of leaving his wounded on the field to die or waiting, with almost no ammunition remaining, for the Mexicans to kill them with artillery fire and bayonets, Fannin and his officers finally decided that they should try to save the wounded and maybe even the entire force of 300 men. One imagines that rarely was the tension between honor and humanity so great as it was during the deliberations among Fannin and his men.
Pulled both ways, Fannin finally placed his trust in General Urrea. Together they groped for common ground, hoping that a vaguely worded surrender document might buy enough time for Urrea to circumvent the brutal decree of Santa Anna that all Texian captives be executed.
I believe that both men deserve our respect for rising above the impulses of the age to fashion an imperfect compromise meant to save lives. But, because they made a pragmatic 21st century decision on a 19th century battlefield, their efforts to save lives and similar attempts by Francita Alavez, the real Angel of Goliad, and others on the Mexican side, have not received the respect that they deserve, either during their own age or during the complex, ambiguous age their actions anticipated, namely our own.
If the Alamo was a glorious sacrifice in the cause of freedom, then Goliad was a bold if risky gambit in the cause of peace. While we honor those who were killed in Goliad more than 180 years ago, let us honor as well what men and women on both sides tried to do before the slaughter of Fannin and almost all of his men took place on Palm Sunday, 1836. The deepest tragedy of Goliad was that the risky gambit succeeded only for a few.
So this is what my fascination with the dialogue between James Bonham, the Alamo courier, and James Fannin, the commander at Goliad, has wrought: a desire to sort out the passions of the Age, to find out not only what the men might have said, but to discover, through fiction and research, why they said what they said, and to glimpse some of the cultural currents in their historical moment.
Finally, I want to return to Sam Houston, and his fascination with Homer’s Iliad. The first two lines of the Iliad are these:
“Sing, Goddess, of the rage of Peleus’s son Achilles
“The accursed rage that brought great suffering to the [Greeks].”
For it was the rage and impulsive actions of Achilles that led to even more killing, of his own people, of the Trojans, of Hector, and then to the terrible destruction of Troy–and all because Achilles felt that Agamemnon had violated his honor. The noble Achilles, instead of placing the needs of his people first, nursed a personal hatred and thereby lost his true honor. For true honor owes its first allegiance to something beyond the self; there is no real glory for the hero without this higher purpose.
So it was that Sam Houston, grown to early middle age, did not surrender to rage, impulse, or pride, or follow his personal siren song into the haven of seclusion, but instead endured insults and hints at his lack of courage in order to fight another day after the Runaway Scrape; and on that other day, April 21, 1836, at the battle of San Jacinto, he won. He was a man who cared less for appearances at that stage of his life than he did for his country. Even the name, Runaway Scrape, shows what many believed about Sam Houston before his great victory.
A Romantic, yes; but a Romantic with the wisdom of the ancients fixed in his brain, a Romantic who knew not only the greatness that individuals may achieve but also the terrible consequences that often ensue when human passions rule.
And after that day at San Jacinto, though wounded yet again, he refused to let his passions control him and rejected imprudent demands from his men; and he spared Santa Anna, and by sparing him and obtaining a pledge that all Mexican forces would leave Texas, he never had to fight General José de Urrea, a real professional soldier, unlike Santa Anna. No Romantic himself, Urrea was a man who, with superior force, might have won a more extended war.