Armas No. 15 — The Homestead, "Anniversaries."
Reflections upon Texas, history, and the immediacy of both.
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It’s a year of anniversaries, both here and impending. The new 2023 brings us the bicentennial of the Texas Rangers — still, despite modern attacks upon the institution, one of the most vital and admirable forces in two centuries of Texas’s national history — and also the 175th anniversary of the conclusion of the U.S.-Mexican War. That war conclusively ended the strategic threat of Mexican revanchism that might otherwise have eventually reclaimed the fragile and uncertain Texas republic. We had to do it under the American aegis, much to the regret of contemporaneous Texas nationalists and visionaries like Mirabeau Lamar — but for Sam Houston and the overwhelming majority of Texas citizens, they wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Looking past 2023, we see coming upon us the 180th year of statehood in 2025, the 190th year of independence in 2026, and of course the Texas bicentennial in 2036. The year 2025 is also the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution, which is a topic of direct importance to Texans, as our own revolution is properly understood as a direct continuation — the same principles, and the same cause — of the one that began in desperate combat at the Lexington Green and the Concord Bridge.
The first generations of Texans understood this perfectly well: Travis’s famous letter from the Alamo addresses itself to “All Americans in the World,” and the Texas Declaration of Independence asserts that the Texans are making revolution “that they should continue to enjoy that constitutional liberty and republican government to which they had been habituated in the land of their birth, the United States of America.” For those of you who have the opportunity to walk the halls of the Texas State Capitol, take some time to use the north exit when you leave. Inside the doors there is a bronze plaque, listing the veterans of the American Revolution who are buried in Texas. Assuming those veterans were present in Texas before 21 April 1836, then they participated directly in both revolutions. One of those men, a North Carolina native named Stephen Williams, spent the American Revolution in Patriot service in the savage tumult of the Carolina backcountry — including the American disaster at Camden — and half a century later, at age 75, participated in the Texan victory at the Siege of Bexar.
Nearly anyone would be blessed to witness just one such event in their lifetime: in Texas we have a small number of forefathers who directly participated in two. Of the great majority of the Texas-revolutionary generation who were far too young to have fought in any war but that one, there was nevertheless an awareness of what their fathers did — and their responsibility to live, and act, in that same spirit.
We think about these anniversaries not just as moments on a calendar and remembrances of the past, but as signposts on how we ought to live now. There is an enduring conceit, which has led a great many astray, that history is a tale of uninterrupted progress, with every future being better in some respect than every past — and with obvious deviations from that ascent being exceptions requiring correction. This has been true in a material sense only for the past two centuries or so. A Texan of 1836 would not have required much adjustment, except in the social sense, to live in 1736 — but a Texan of 1936 would be very much out of place a century in his own past, and one of 2036 exponentially moreso. We should beware of that conceit. History does not proceed in one direction, and though knowledge may accrete, wisdom does not.
To that end, we look to the things we commemorate — the Rangers, the Revolution, Independence, Statehood, and beyond — and engaging them properly means asking ourselves whether we’d do the same given the same circumstances, the same knowledge, and the same stakes. Set aside whether any one of us would fight in one revolution: would we risk everything in two? Would we put our names on a Declaration of Independence that would guarantee our execution in enemy hands? Would we stand and fight after wearying and dispiriting weeks on the Runaway Scrape? Would we love liberty so very much that we would sacrifice absolutely everything else for it? Virtue is easy in pronouncement, and quite a bit more difficult in practice: there is a reason the ranks of the saints are so few. Perhaps we are equals to what came before — we live in hope — but we know that meeting that standard requires knowing the stories of those who met it, and gave us our Texas today.
Like a lot of south Texans who come from families where, until recently, marriage and children came young, I had the privilege of knowing several of my own great-grandparents. These were men and women born, in my case, between 1890 and 1920, and they carried with them the memories and instruction of their own elders from their own youths. I knew them in their old age, in their eighties for the most part — and it is instructive to think about who they knew as children, the ancestors who were themselves in their eighties in those century-past decades. Let us say, perhaps, someone the age of Juan Lino Ramirez — the great-grandfather of my great-grandfather, born in 1826 and builder of one of the grand and crumbling homes in the old plaza at Roma, Texas. He died in 1887, but what would someone of his generation have witnessed, endured, or participated in by, say, 1915? Start making the list, and you see the great drama unfold:
The Goliad massacre.
The Runaway Scrape.
The Dawson massacre.
The Black Bean Incident.
The Council House fight.
The Vasquez invasion.
The Woll invasion.
The Republic of the Rio Grande.
The U.S.-Mexican war.
The Cortina wars.
The Las Cuevas war.
The Garza war.
Perhaps, in the twilight of his days, our elderly Texan in 1915 would have learned of the Plan de San Diego — a Carrancista effort to wage exterminating war against Anglos in south Texas — and the iron cruelty of the reaction to it. What would he have thought? One possibility — perhaps even a probability — is that he understood himself to be living through yet another episode of the hard and endless struggle for the land. We think the centuries are long, but I — a man on the precipice of fifty — knew those who knew that generation. The epic of Texas presses in upon us, and is woven into the fabric of our lives, whether we notice it or not.
Texas history inexorably processes, and our duty is not to excuse it, but to explain it — and to deserve it. In this year and season of anniversaries, this understanding of our duty to the past is what informs, shapes, and secures our future.