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Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently signed a law (House Bill 2497) creating “The Texas 1836 Project,” intended to teach the true history of Texas and demonstrate its core values and patriotism.
Historians across the country worried that yet another state was trying to rewrite history and to prevent students from debating controversial issues, especially around the issues of racism and slavery.
Brian Franklin is a native Texan who teaches Texas history at Southern Methodist University. He has a very different take on the 1836 Project. He sees it as “a blessing in disguise for history teachers.” The Governor wants students to read the founding documents of the state of Texas and Professor Franklin says, “Bring it on!” The real history of Texas is right there in the founding documents.
Franklin at first responded on a Twitter thread. Then he wrote an article for Slate.
The text of H.B. 2497 is itself relatively tame. It wants to promote history education—a cause that every history teacher would champion. But the context of the bill is much more troublesome. Abbott and much of the Republican-led Texas Legislature have joined a battalion of state leaders across the country who have declared war on ideas they believe aim to destroy society. They’ve identified two scapegoats: the New York Times’ 1619 Project and critical race theory, or CRT, a set of ideas coming from legal academia that is rarely directly taught in K–12 and college classrooms but has become a favorite dog whistle for the right. (If you’ve lost track of the many anti-CRT/1619 bills in play across the country, the situation is outlined in this New York Times piece from earlier this month.)
Enter the 1836 Project, and Greg Abbott’s rallying cry as he signed the bill: “Foundational principles” and “founding documents”! As a history professor, I say we take Abbott up on that challenge, especially the “documents” part. Time to start reading!
Let’s read the 1836 Texas Declaration of Independence. It not only exposes the tyranny of Mexican leader Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, but also describes how Anglo Texans consistently bent and broke Mexican laws. In class, we can talk about how one of the laws that Texans violated was Mexico’s decade-old abolition of slavery. The declaration also describes Stephen F. Austin’s incarceration. In discussing what happened there, we can discover that Mexican officials rightly suspected Texans of fomenting illegal revolutions for
Let’s read Texas’ single most foundational document, the 1836 Constitution of the Republic of Texas. We will find several values familiar to present-day Texans: divided government, religious freedom, and the right to bear arms. But we will also find some “values” that don’t track very well in 2021. That it was illegal for either Congress or an individual to simply emancipate a slave. That even free Black people could not live in Texas without specific permission from the state. That “Africans, the descendants of Africans, and Indians” had no rights as citizens.
Let’s read Republic of Texas President Mirabeau Lamar’s message to the Texas Congress in December of 1838, where he calls for the “total extinction or total expulsion” of all Indigenous peoples in Texas. This included the Texas Cherokee, who had long-standing land rights recognized by Mexico and by Texas’ previous president, Sam Houston. In class, we can talk about how Lamar would make good on his proposal by sending a Texan army to massacre and drive out the remaining Cherokee in July 1839.
Finally, let’s take a close look at the “Declaration of Causes,” the document an elected Texas convention published in February 1861 to explain why the state was seceding from the United States. Here, no reader needs the 1619 Project or CRT to help them conjure the spirit of systemic racism. The document’s writers aren’t shy about their intentions. They believed in some “undeniable truths”: Their beloved state of Texas had been established “exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity.”* In Texas, Black people had “no agency” and were “rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race.” This enslavement was not just a temporary necessary evil; it was a positive good, “the revealed will of the Almighty Creator” to “all Christian nations.” This is “Christian heritage,” but not necessarily the kind the bill establishing the 1836 Project says it wants to promote.
Like Professor Franklin, I am a Texan. I studied Texas history, along with all of my classmates. We never read the founding documents. Governor Abbott has just opened a genuine opportunity for history teachers to grapple with difficult issues.
Thank you, Governor Abbott!