You can sign up at secondacts.bulletin.com/subscribe to get free posts delivered to your inbox each week and read past articles. You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
The great film director John Ford made a movie in 1962 called The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance. It's considered a classic of the Western genre. Without giving away too much, it's about a man, played by James Stewart, who is credited with killing Vallance, the town bad guy, in a shootout. Bolstered by the fame from performing that public service, he goes to marry the woman he loves and become a successful politician.
The problem is he didn't actually shoot Vallance. Another man, played by John Wayne, shot him from a hiding place to save Jimmy Stewart's life. Otherwise, Stewart never would have had a chance.
At the end the movie, Stewart has returned for the John Wayne character's funeral. He confesses the truth to the town newspaper editor. He didn't shoot Liberty Vallance.
But the editor refuses to run the story. The fictitious account was a better story.
"This is the West," the editor says. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Three Texas journalists have written a book that argues that the account of the Alamo and the birth of the Texas Republic that has endured for nearly 200 years is largely inaccurate, sometimes wildly so. It's the legend that's been printed as fact. Their book which exhaustively debunks what generations of Americans have accepted -- and celebrated -- as historical fact is titled Forget The Alamo.
"It's not an exaggeration to say the Alamo is the state's secular West Wall, its secular Mecca," they wrote. "The problem is much of what you think you know about the Alamo is wrong."
The authors, Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford, contend that the defenders of the Alamo were not simply fighting to free Texas from the grip of a Mexican despot, but to defend and preserve slavery in Texas, or, more precisely, a thriving cotton economy based on the labors of enslaved Black people.
"The Battle of the Alamo was as much about slavery as the Civil War was about slavery," the writers say.
In the early 19th century New Spain was an enormous Spanish colony encompassing not just present day Mexico and Texas, but most of what is now the western U.S, and almost all of Central America.
In those days, about the only people in Texas were Native Americans. Hostile Native people, Comanches in particular, made settling this sprawling, sunbaked landscape with colonists almost impossible. It was just too dangerous.
That changed with the cotton boom when global demand sent prices soaring. When almost all of the fertile land in the American South was bought up, Americans saw the opportunity to enrich themselves by moving to Mexican Texas where land was cheap and plentiful. They brought Black slaves with them to work the land.
"Texas as we know it only exists because of slave labor," the authors wrote.
In 1824, Mexico revolted against Spanish rule, ousted their colonial overlords and became an independent country. This posed a problem for the "Texians." Mexicans opposed slavery and were determined to end it.
"The new Mexican government was dedicated to liberal ideals," wrote Burrough, Thomlinson and Stanford. "Equal rights for all races had been the revolutionary rallying cry; in a land where 60 percent of the population was of mixed race, this was a powerful message.... A new wave of liberal legislators, many committed to liberty and equality for all, thought slavery an abomination."
Mexico banned slavery in 1829. But, despite efforts in the Mexican Congress to include Texas, the government deferred extending it to that distant territory. Still, little by little, it was chipped away. Laws requiring children of slaves be emancipated at age 14 and banning the trade and importation of slaves (smugglers largely ignored the ban).
The history of Texas and its relationship to Mexico is long and complicated. There were many other factors at play in the mounting tensions and armed conflicts between Mexico and American settlers and their Tejano (Mexican Texans) allies. But the writers argue persuasively that slavery was key. By 1835, it was all coming to head.
"With the central government firmly in control of their fates, many Texians believed it was inevitable that it would finally take away slavery for good," according to Forget The Alamo.
The tensions finally exploded in late 1835 in a series of clashes between the Americans and Mexican troops. The Mexican leader, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, decided it was time to settle the score once and for all. Now the dictator of Mexico, he personally led an army of thousands toward Texas's sole major city, San Antonio, site of the Alamo.
The Alamo wasn't just the old mission church which is what most of us imagine when we think about the Alamo. It was the entire three-acre walled compound around the church, including several barracks. It was within this compound that about 190 Americans, many volunteer militia, would make their stand in the winter of 1836.
Three of those Americans at the Alamo comprise a pantheon of heroes whose names are to this day revered in Texas and throughout the United States. Colonel William B. Travis, Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett. Travis was a lawyer from Alabama who drifted to Texas. Bowie was an adventurer from Louisiana known for knife-fighting and his knife in particular, a fearsome weapon with a 12-inch blade. Crockett was a huge national celebrity from his highly publicized bear-killing and Native American-fighting exploits in the rough Tennessee frontier. He had also served three terms in Congress. Travis and Bowie brought with them to the Alamo their personal slaves.
In a description that many in Texas would find offensive if not blasphemous, Forget the Alamo describes this almost holy trinity this way: "Bowie was a murderer, slaver and conman; Travis was a pompous racist agitator and syphilitic lech; and Crockett a self-promoting old fool who was a captive to his own myth." Talk about messing with Texas!
Though heavily outnumbered, the Alamo defenders held on for 13 days before Santa Anna's troops encircled them and launched a final assault on the compound. All of the defenders were killed and their bodies burned. Only a handful of civilians, including a woman and her baby who hid inside the church, and the three slaves were spared.
A few weeks later, Santa Anna was defeated by Sam Houston's troops at the Battle of San Jacinto, near present day Houston. The Republic of Texas was born, becoming what the authors say "the most militant slavocracy anywhere."
The Texas Constitution that was adopted on March 2, 1836, while the Alamo was still being besieged, included this excerpt:
All persons of color who were slaves for life previous to their emigration to Texas, and who are now held in bondage, shall remain in the like state of servitude... Congress will pass no laws to prohibit emigrants from the United States of America from bringing their slaves into the Republic with them... nor shall Congress have power to emancipate slaves, nor shall any slave-holder be allowed to emancipate his or her slave or slaves without consent of Congress unless he or she shall send his or her slaves without the limits of the Republic. No free person of African descent, either in whole or in part, shall be permitted to reside permanently in the Republic.
No "all men are created equal/inalienable rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" ambiguity about who that applies to in this document.
On December 29, 1845, Texas joined the United States. Sixteen years later, it would join the Confederacy in rebellion.
For the next 150 years, the Heroic Anglo Narrative, as the book refers to it, grew. With each retelling, it was polished and embellished. It would come to include the apocryphal tale that Travis drew a line in the dirt with his sword and ask those willing to fight to the death to cross to his side of it (as the story goes, everyone did); that Crockett went to his death literally swinging his empty rifle, Old Betsy, crumbling to the ground surrounded by the Mexican soldiers he took down with him (Forget The Alamo says two witnesses claimed he surrendered and was executed later); and that Bowie died with guns blazing (he was apparently killed as he lay incapacitated by illness in his sick bed.)
The heroic narrative really took flight in the 1950s and 1960s thanks to Hollywood.
First, in 1954, Disney made a limited-series television show called Davy Crockett. It was a huge hit, as was its theme song ("Davy, Davy Crocket/king of the wild frontier.") Within just two months, Americans spent $100 million on Crockett merchandise, including his trademark coonskin cap.
In 1960, the movie The Alamo, an epic nearly-three hour extravaganza, was released. It starred and was directed by John Wayne -- none other than the man who really shot Liberty Vallance -- who apparently saw it as a true story but also a metaphor for America fighting Communism. The movie was not very successful at the box office, but it nonetheless helped further shape popular perceptions, especially in Texas.
"The Alamo was our creation myth," wrote Lawrence Wright, who saw it as a child growing up in Texas, in his book God Save Texas. "In some elemental and irresistible manner, the movie told us who we were."
I recently watched The Alamo. It was the first time I had seen it since I was a little kid. As a child, I thought it was great. As an adult, it made me cringe. Needless to say, it's the Heroic Anglo Narrative on steroids. Some of it is just ridiculous. Mexican soldiers waving swords and shouting "Adelante!" "A la carga!" before being gunned down by the score. I was horrified by the minor character, Jethroe, as Bowie's fiercely loyal, shuffling slave who dies trying to protect his master. I will have more say at another time about that and the actor, Jester Hairston. who played Jethroe.
A few weeks ago, I flew to San Antonio to see the Alamo for myself -- I hadn't been in many years -- and to take a tour to see how it's presented. Before the tour, I wandered around Alamo Plaza. I walked around the Cenotaph, a large gleaming whole monument bearing the names of the fallen and a frieze with the images of Travis, Bowie, Crockett.
The tour guide was a spunky, energetic young woman who said she was a native of San Antonio. It was a very thorough tour with the guide providing vivid descriptions of how the Alamo looked at the time and what seemed like a fairly balanced account of the battle itself. That account, however, was light on context. It was recounted broadly as a clash between freedom fighters and the tyrannical "centralist" Santa Anna.
"Their sacrifice paved the way for Texas independence," the guide said. The book argues -- yet one more contention that is sure to enrage its critics -- that it was a needless sacrifice that did not, as the heroic narrative goes, buy meaningful time for Sam Houston to raise the army that would defeat Santa Anna at San Jacinto.
The tour concluded in the tiny Alamo museum with our guide issuing a spirited call: "Remember the Alamo!"
The authors of Forget The Alamo do not dispute that the defenders of the Alamo fought valiantly against the odds, or even that Travis and others truly believed they were fighting to free themselves from oppression. But they insist that the Alamo story, as handed down for generations -- about what they were fighting for and what caused the conflict -- is mostly myth, a myth twisted into the service of discrimination and to justify violence, then and later in U.S. history.
"Maybe it's time to forget the Alamo," they concluded, "or, at least the whitewashed story, and start telling the history that includes everyone."