Independence, Education, and Texas

Independence, Education, and Texas

Texas history was my favorite class in middle school, and possibly of all time. (Sorry, band, you were a distant second). Thank you, Mrs. Cheshire, for telling us a little bit of what Texas is, and for giving some insight into the basic question that histories of all types grapple with: Why are things the way they are? Also, that game we played in class where we all adopted the personas of different people in early Texas was great. And that time Matt* made a Davy Crockett paper bag puppet using a real, road-killed racoon tail. That was, if not great, memorable. (*possibly his real name)

That class was also the first time the idea of Texas Independence Day got stuck in my head. For those of you who forgot, weren’t paying attention, or who suffered the misfortune of growing up somewhere they don’t teach Texas history in schools, here’s a quick overview:

On March 2, 1836, 41 delegates declared Texas an independent nation, separate from a Mexican government that had been taken over by the dictator, chewing gum lover, and future Staten Island resident Antonio López de Santa Anna. A committee of five wrote the independence document literally overnight. In their declaration, which you can should read here, they set out 13 grievances against the government of Mexico. In case you were also sleeping during U.S. History, it’s a list that’s very, very similar to the American Declaration of Independence. Like Jefferson’s declaration, it accuses the previous government of ignoring a long list of inalienable rights, including the right to a fair trial. The Texian document (as Texans were then called) focuses mostly on a lack of representation in government and the movement of Mexican soldiers across Texas.

But there’s one big difference between the two. The Texas declaration, though much more general, specifically upbraids the Mexican government for failing to institute a public system of education.

It has failed to establish any public system of education, although possessed of almost boundless resources, (the public domain,) and although it is an axiom in political science, that unless a people are educated and enlightened, it is idle to expect the continuance of civil liberty, or the capacity for self government.

Nowadays, many national constitutions include education as a basic right, and maybe it’s just Mrs. Cheshire’s voice in my head, but I’d like to think that Texas—ever forward-thinking—was ahead of the curve on this. The declaration, which we celebrate each year on Texas Independence Day, was just the beginning. In 1839, the Congress of the newly independent republic passed an act ordering a site for a university, and the next year allocated more than 230,000 acres for it. The cash-strapped nation couldn’t spare the money, however, and the university remained an idea until 1876. By then Texas had joined, seceded from, and rejoined the Union.

In its reconstruction constitution, the state was mandated to “establish, organize, and provide for the maintenance and support of a university of the first class to be located by vote of the people and styled the University of Texas, for promotion of the study of literature and the arts and sciences” (an agricultural branch was also provided for). Texas’ rocky 19th century history kept the university a distant goal for decades, but even in the darkness after the Civil War, Texans made public education—first-class public education, even—a priority.

In 1881, Texans had chosen Austin as the site of the university, and its first board of regents, helmed by Ashbel Smith, had selected a curriculum and faculty. The next year, the state had provided more than 3 million acres of West Texas land, and lucky for us, oil and gas leases on that land still help sustain the UT System. In 1883, the doors to UT’s first pinewood shacks opened.

“Smite the rocks with the rod of knowledge,” Smith said “and fountains of unstinted wealth will gush forth.” Well, dang.

To tie Texas’ independent spirit even closer to its quest for good education, UT’s seal was emblazoned with a reverse-engineered Latin phrase, taken from the second president of the Republic of Texas, the stupendously named Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar: “The cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy.”

The University has never forgotten its crucible in the struggle for independence, either. Even if it was just for a day off from school. On a muggy March 2 in 1896, a group of first-year law students walked out of Judge R.L. Batts’ lecture, complaining that Texas Independence Day was a holiday for all Texans except those enrolled at UT. They marched a few blocks to Scholz Garten and drank beer in protest. Independently minded, indeed.

The next year, the now-senior law students inked a deal with the state attorney general to wheel one of the cannons that stood guard by the state Capitol building up the hill to the then-literal Forty Acres, where they planned a 21-gun salute in honor of the heroes of the Alamo, Goliad, Gonzales, San Jacinto, and the rest. When they awoke the next morning, March 2, UT president Winston—a North Carolinian—had spiked the cannon. The students fixed it, and blasted the cannon all day. Eventually Winston gave in and the academic students (as non-laws were called) joined in.

Since then, the Ex-Students Association has encouraged Texas Exes, wherever they are on March 2, to “sit and break bread and pay tribute to the institution that made their education possible.” And maybe, if they think like Mrs. Cheshire, they can pay tribute to the independent spirit that made that institution possible.

 Photo courtesy Kari Sullivan via Flick Creative Commons.


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