Amid the national controversy surrounding Confederate statues and what they represent, many Americans have started to re-examine historical figures and their stance on slavery.
One question a reader submitted to our Austin Answered series asks: Where did the “Father of Texas,” Stephen F. Austin, stand on the issue?
“Short answer: It’s complicated,” said Gregg Cantrell, a history professor at Texas Christian University.
Cantrell, the author of “Stephen F. Austin: Empresario of Texas,” said Austin’s views on slavery were split between personal views and economic reasons.
“Stephen F. Austin held, what I would say, are sort of Jeffersonian views toward slavery,” Cantrell said. “Those Jeffersonian views were that slavery in the United States is a necessary evil.”
Cantrell said that Austin believed slavery was a bad moral example for the country and that it could be seen as a security threat.
“He once said that he feared that the South and Texas would be ‘Santo Domingonized,’ which was a word he made up,” Cantrell said. “He was referring to the Haitian Revolution, where the black slaves of that country rose up and killed almost every white person on the island at the beginning of the 1800s.”
However, Cantrell said Austin saw slavery as a needed resource for the Texas economy.
“Austin understood early on that all of his hopes and dreams and plans for Texas depended upon the cotton economy,” Cantrell said. “He understood very clearly that the cotton economy depended upon slave labor. On numerous occasions when people raised this issue with him, he said, ‘Texas must be a slave country,’ and he put his money where his mouth was. He worked repeatedly and tirelessly to counteract the various efforts by the Mexican government to weaken and or abolish slavery.”
Cantrell said Austin successfully lobbied for Texas to be exempt from the Mexican national government’s abolition of slavery in 1829. Austin also had a law passed by the state government that allowed slavery to continue, but under a different name.
“Slave owners coming to Texas before they left the United States could technically emancipate their slaves and then force them to sign a 99-year contract of indenture, making their slaves indentured slaves,” Cantrell said. “Technically not slaves, but bound to ‘employers.’”
Cantrell said this law and Austin’s decision to go against the Mexican national government can be seen as a contributing factor to the Texas Revolution.
“All of this grated on Austin and his fellow Anglo-Texans because they knew the trend was not favorable,” Cantrell said. “The trend in Mexico, in general, was that slavery’s days were numbered.”
In the end, Cantrell said, Austin knew slavery was rooted in American society during that time, although he understood it went against the freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
Austin died at the age of 43 on Dec. 27, 1836, a quarter-century before the Civil War began, and never lived to see the Texas Republic become a U.S. slave state that later joined the Confederacy.
“Austin’s conundrum with Texas was the American conundrum with slavery at large,” Cantrell said. “The Constitution would never have been approved if it did not guarantee the survival of slavery because the southern states would never have gone for it, and Texas would never have attracted Anglo-settlers without the promise that the cotton economy was going to make Texas prosperous.”
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