History

The 1836 Project Is an Opportunity

A chance to teach Texas’ “founding documents”? This historian says, “Yes, please!”

Exterior of the museum's central dome and rotunda with a large Lone Star sculpture, a Confederate States of America flag, and a Mexican flag out front
The Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin in 2014. Carol Highsmith/Library of Congress

Historians across the country are criticizing Texas House Bill 2497—which, after Gov. Greg Abbott signed it on Monday, establishes the “Texas 1836 Project”—as yet another rhetorical volley in the culture wars, aimed at inflaming already-high tensions and asserting partisan political power. And they’re not wrong.

But as a historian, a Texas history professor, and a proud born-and-raised Texan, I applaud the new law’s call to “promote awareness” of the founders and founding documents of Texas. For teachers, this is an opportunity to read and analyze history with students. And speaking from my own experience, there’s one thing I can tell you: It’s not going to turn out how the politicians who applauded at the signing ceremony think it will.

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H.B. 2497 mandates only two things. First, it calls for the creation of a nine-member advisory committee “to promote patriotic education” and Texas values. Second, it requires the committee to provide a pamphlet to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which will give an overview of Texas history and explain state policies that “promote liberty and freedom.” The DPS must distribute this pamphlet to everyone who receives a new Texas driver’s license. Another bill, H.B. 3979, which bars teachers from linking slavery or racism to the “true founding” or “authentic principles” of the United States, is now on Abbott’s desk.

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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.)

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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 years.

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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.

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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.

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I know these historical documents are opportunities for education because I teach them all the time. Every semester that I teach Texas history at Southern Methodist University, we read these documents (and many more). And every semester, without fail, I have students respond in two ways: frustration and enlightenment. After reading the 1836 Texas Constitution’s enshrinement of racialized citizenship, they’re exasperated: “Why didn’t anyone teach us this before? I thought the Alamo was all about freedom.” When we read Texas’ reasons for secession in 1861, some can hardly believe it. They’ve always been taught Texans joined the Confederacy to defend their family or states’ rights, not because of an explicit devotion to maintaining a society based on racial subjugation.

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I’m not an award-winning teacher. I don’t have any elaborate tricks up my sleeve, and I’ve never asked students to read any academic writing on CRT. And yet it’s my great joy every semester to watch students leave the class more aware of injustices, past and present. They’ve read for themselves. They’ve learned. They’ve changed.

So thank you, Greg Abbott. I know that you mean for the 1836 Project to manufacture a certain kind of citizen, one who joins you in the fight against the dark forces of CRT, 1619, and the very idea of “systemic racism.” But I can assure you—by insisting on a strategy that encourages teachers to read and discuss Texas primary sources, you have made a fatal error. You’ve charted a course to lead students of history to one destination, but the map will bring them straight to the places you’re trying to hide. Everything is right there in the documents, for everyone to see.

Correction, June 11, 2021: This piece originally misquoted the Texas Declaration of Causes as describing the state as established “exclusively for the white race.” The quote is “exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity.”

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