PARIS — Near Place Vendôme in the most luxurious corner of Paris, a few steps from the Ritz and across from a new Louis Vuitton store, but high above the street where nobody is likely to notice, a legend engraved in stone marks the site of the Ambassade du Texas, and informs the passer-by below that on 29 September 1839 France was the first nation to recognize that short-lived republic.
This historical relic of Lone Star independence in la ville lumière is a quaint reminder of the nation that once was and, between the etched lines, of its particularly grim, even gruesome, history of slavery, anti-Hispanic racism, grand delusions and grinding privations. French recognition, after all, was not a matter of idealism or ideology, but of greed, and much of Texas at the time was a hell on earth that some of the cynical French tried to sell to their countrymen as paradise.
Today we are hearing once again there are Texans who want independence. Not a lot, perhaps, but apparently enough to embarrass the already embarrassing state Republican Party (home to Canadian-born Sen. Ted Cruz) at its convention next month. Between 10 and 22 county and district conventions, depending on whom you talk to, have said the topic should be debated.
“There’s almost no chance Texas Republicans will actually vote in favor of seceding, mind you—not least because most of the party wants nothing to do with this,” writes Amber Phillips in The Washington Post, “but the fact we’re even mentioning secession and the Texas GOP convention in the same sentence suggests that the once-fringe movement has become a priority for at least some conservative grass-roots Texans.”
In 2009, Texas Gov. Rick Perry flirted with the notion of secession, if Washington “continues to thumb their noses at the American people, who knows what may come out of that?”
But a key reason the modern secession movement looks more than a bit ridiculous, aside from the fact it’s unconstitutional, is because one of its founders in the 1990s was a wacko named Richard Lance “Rick” McLaren, now serving a 99-year sentence for kidnapping and engaging in organized crime.
After McLaren had been in the slammer for about a decade, in 2007, the Houston Chronicle found “Hostage No. 802782,” as he called himself, completely unrepentant. Like many a fundamentalist and terrorist, he cherry-picked historical documents to convince himself and a handful of followers, “We’re just the (keepers) of the 1836 constitution.”
In 1997, after a week-long standoff with Texas Rangers, McLaren had agreed to a two-page “cease-fire” accord that, in his view, as the Chronicle put it, “duped authorities into opening the door for Texas freedom. Eventually.”
A former district attorney put McLaren’s document in perspective. “His mind was so scattered that day, we could have given him a banana peel and he’d have signed the back of it,” Albert Valdez told the Chronicle. “It was just nonsense, but it was a way of appeasing him."
When one delves into the little-known history of Franco-Texan relations, one finds that they, too, were rife with chicanery.
When Texas was part of Mexico, slavery was outlawed and under threat, but when it won its independence in 1836, it wrote the “right” to own blacks into its constitution, while ruling out citizenship for “Africans, the descendants of Africans, and Indians.” (In 1836 there were about 5,000 slaves in Texas, a quarter-century later, there were 183,000, making up about a third of the state’s entire population.)
François Lagarde, a professor emeritus at the University of Texas who is now back in his native France, is one of the few scholars who’s looked closely at that period from a European perspective. In the 2003 book, The French in Texas, which he edited, Lagarde notes that while the slave-holding guarantee encouraged immigration from the southern United States, it complicated hoped-for annexation because of Northern opposition, and it caused a problem when it came to desperately needed international recognition.
The French and British, clearly, did not give a damn about the so-called Monroe Doctrine warning foreign powers to stay out of the Western Hemisphere. They were all over the place, in fact, and ready to protect their interests. But the British, who had abolished slavery in 1833, would not recognize the independence of Texas “until the Texas Congress ratified a secret treaty on the suppression of the slave trade in 1842,” according to Lagarde. (As I wrote in my book, Our Man in Charleston, last year, stopping the African slave trade was a British obsession.)
The French weren’t so picky. They still had slaves in their colonies (abolition didn’t come until 1848) and they had considerable ambitions in Latin America. Decades later they would conquer Mexico and try to establish a satellite empire there, and in 1838 they already were nibbling around the fringes of the country. They’d sent a naval squadron to Vera Cruz “to blockade Mexican ports in retaliation for unpaid debts,” as Lagarde writes, and by the end of the year they had stormed the city.
One of the French admiral’s aides visited Galveston and Houston a few months later and wrote a report, quoted by Lagarde, that seems to have been a model of the genre: “Mexico would never win Texas back as the ‘Anglo-Saxon race’ was obviously superior to the ‘degenerate’ Spanish race. Slavery was unavoidable, as the profit was high, and if France were to establish ‘very advantageous commercial relationships’ with Texas, it would have to allow slavery.”
At about the same time, Lagarde tells us, the French embassy in Washington sent a young, ambitious and rather unscrupulous junior diplomat, Alphonse Dubois de Saligny, to check out the new republic. It took him three months to get there from D.C., he spent about the same amount of time traveling to some parts of Texas, lied about traveling to others, and wrote a glowing report in which he opined that the Mexican race was doomed to “disappear before the onrush of modern civilization pioneered by the Texians,” that annexation by the United States “would never take place,” and that the Indian threat was “negligible.”
Thus France should recognize the Republic of Texas to take advantage, in de Saligny’s words, of “the opportunity open to us to establish our influence over a portion of this continent, and to open important outlets for our industry and navigation.”
De Saligny then went back to Paris, where he worked with the Texas envoy there on the Treaty of Amity, Navigation and Commerce signed in October 1839. According to Lagarde, there may have been a little sweetener involved: a $50,000 bribe to the French authorities.
But the hoped-for influence and commerce between France and Texas never did materialize. Internationally, the Anglo-Saxon Texans preferred the Anglo-Saxon English, and, close at hand, yes, they did want to be annexed by the United States, and finally they were—provoking the 1846-1848 war in which the U.S. won California as well.
De Saligny, meanwhile, seems to have let his easily caricatured French arrogance get the better of him, pissing off the locals at every turn by paying his bills with counterfeit currency, or not at all, and sending a flunky to kill the pigs (with pistols and a pitchfork) of one of the men to whom he owed cash. When the man with the pigs grabbed de Saligny by the throat and shook him, de Saligny, indignant, wrote, “In view of such facts, Sir, I should be tempted to believe myself in the midst of a savage tribe, rather than in the bosom of a civilized and friendly nation.”
As Lagarde tells us, despite efforts to persuade the French to come to beautiful Texas, few did. At the time, the newly conquered French colony of Algeria was much more promising. A few of the French who did come left a mark. One Parisian designed the first state capitol building in Austin, but Lagarde concludes on a note that suggests just how difficult life was for most of those who put their faith in the vaunted promise of an independent Texas. He quotes a report in the Houston Telegraph and Texas Register written in 1843 from the settlement at Victoria, about 120 miles southeast of San Antonio:
“The few French Families that settled near this town have suffered many privations. … They expected to find a paradise in Texas, where they would obtain the comforts and even the luxuries of life with little labor, and of course they were disappointed. Several of them became insane, probably from discouragement and the suffering they were enduring. One of them, an old lady, while insane paddled across the Guadeloupe [River] on a log, and as soon as she got upon the opposite bank, she commenced dancing and singing in high glee, supposing she was out of Texas. She had previously been exceedingly melancholy.”