The struggle and the idea. Defining Texas and the Texans.
This is the prepared text for my remarks at the Texas Center at Schreiner University in Kerrville, Texas, 25 March 2022.
Texas identity. What is it? How do we understand it? What does it mean? What does it demand of us?
Those of us who work in Texas history and heritage all stand in the shadow of T.R. Fehrenbach. There is a real sense in which the half-century of Texas historiography since his 1968 book, “Lone Star: A History Of Texas And The Texans,” is mostly a reaction to him.
So let’s start with him.
He writes that “[t]he Texan’s attitudes, his inherent chauvinism and the seeds of his belligerence, sprouted from his conscious effort to take and hold his land.” To Fehrenbach, it is the struggle that defines Texas and the Texans. This struggle, an affair of soil and blood, renders Texans “the most ‘European,’ or territorial, of Americans.”
We are Texan by virtue of the struggle — like Americans who became fully themselves after Yorktown, or Ukrainians now in the crucible of a true war of independence. Unlike thirty-six other states, we had that war of independence. We made ourselves with arms and suffering, and there is pride in it. It’s easy to see why Texans enjoy and embrace the Fehrenbach thesis. It says good things about ourselves. It communicates an inherited virtue. If we did not fight in our revolution or win our frontier — and none of us alive now did — then at least we live in those lights. We are the sons of heroes.
Moreover, Texas even today makes you earn it. America is full of beautiful places, and Texas has its share. America is also full of easy and bountiful places, and Texas has much less than its share. The verdant farmlands of East Texas are vastly outstripped by the dry plains of the Llano Estacado. The despoblado of the Trans-Pecos is a sun-blasted emptiness bigger than many countries. The Hill Country we enjoy here, today, was once a byword for poverty: this place, so beautiful, where the soil is so thin, and the dead rock rises just to the surface.
My own native South Texas is a killing arena for the unwary, hot and hostile. Any rancher counting the grim tally of migrant corpses in Brooks County will tell you.
If you want to make it in Texas, you have to bring more than a work ethic. You have to bring ingenuity.
There are no lakes, so you have to make some. There is little to no water, so you have to divert it or drill for it. There is hostile wildlife, so you have to kill it. There are riches in the ancient earth, and you have to quest for it, roll the dice on luck and intuition, wrest it to the surface, and pray there’s not a bust. All this Texas makes you do — and this is the easy era in Texas history, because there are no raiders, no bandits, no desperados to come and rob your home or burn your town. For the most part.
Texas identity is struggle, we tell ourselves.
It is nice. But it is not enough. The struggle is necessary, but it is not enough.
It is not enough because others struggle too, and they do not emerge as Texans do. Russia is a hard place too. The Arabian desert is a hard place too. The Congo is a hard place too. They struggle too, often more than we do. They do not emerge like us.
It is not enough because the territorial quality from the inheritance of struggle does not account for the new Texans. Native-born Texans like me, like many of you, love to brag about our status. I am the son of centuries of Texans. The first Treviño entered Texas over three hundred years ago, in the service of His Catholic Majesty the King of Spain, to destroy La Salle’s French fort. I like to think we came for the right reasons. I have those roots. I have that lineage. But I am not more Texan than the man who came here from California, saw freedom working, and said, “This is for me.”
I am not more Texan than my two sons, natives of China, who came here as immigrants and will inherit the whole history, heritage, and meaning of their father and his allegiance.
The Texans who chose Texas are arguably the most Texan. I don’t mean a choice in the sense of just moving here. Anyone can do that. I mean the choice to be here — a native of Massachusetts, or Illinois, or Pakistan — and to understand that the men of Alamo died also for you. I mean the choice to be here and to grasp that the whole glory and drama of Texas — our culture, our story — is now yours to protect, preserve, and pass on. There is privilege in birth. There is virtue in choice.
That virtue does not emerge from the struggle — though it is assuredly participation in the struggle. That virtue emerges from an idea. That idea is captured in the sixth paragraph of the Texas Declaration of Independence, where the Texians write that they are making revolution “that they should continue to enjoy that constitutional liberty and republican government to which they had been habituated in the land of their birth, the United States of America.”
The Texan idea is the American idea. It’s the one that says, “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” The idea sets Texans apart from, and above, the men of other hard lands. The idea renders possible the choice to become Texan.
With apologies to Fehrenbach, he only got part of the answer. Texas is not just the struggle.
Texas is the struggle and the idea.
The struggle and the idea require one another. Each sustains the other. Without the idea, the struggle loses meaning. Without the struggle, the idea loses existence.
American life writ large once required significant struggle. Basic tasks of basic life demanded physical exertion — pumping a well, controlling a horse, wielding a scythe — and everyone felt keenly the sense of vulnerability to the elements and the caprice of nature. When it was hot, it was hot indoors and out. When it was cold, there was labor and ash and danger in the fire to be kept. Modernity has liberated us from most of this. We live in unimaginable ease compared to our ancestors.
Something in the liberation diminished us. We lost a sense of meaning. We forgot that we walk upon battlefields and spilled blood. Illinois was an arena of dark twilight bloodletting for a generation before it was won, and no one there knows. South Carolina was the centerpiece of revolutionary violence against the King and his men, and no one there knows. Across the country there are pleasant suburbs upon the land where pioneers bled and worked and hoped and dared, and no one there knows.
They had their struggle too. But then the struggle vanished. The idea went with it.
The hardness of Texas can seem like a curse. But here is the truth: It is a blessing. Texas — hot, dry, hostile — sets us upon the precipice of existence, even in our cities, even in our pleasant retreats and rocky hills. The fact of the striving, the suffering, the struggle, calls its own purpose to mind.
It calls forth the idea.
It calls forth us.
We love to speak of ourselves. We are Texans and we love Texas. It is our proper object of reverence and study. But we ought to have humility. The struggle is a gift from God. The idea is a gift from America. Because they are gifts, we understand that their fruits — us — are not ends in themselves. They are objects of stewardship. We therefore must ask what their proper ends are: to what use we ought to put them.
When we understand that we are a nation, but not a nation apart, then our role and our duty comes into view. Texans invoked America in the creation of Texas. Travis wrote to “all Americans in the world” from the doomed Alamo. Because we struggle, we have the idea, and because we have the idea, the struggle possesses meaning. One part of that meaning is that the idea is not just for us. It was never ours alone. It was given to us. And that’s the key.
Our task as Texans now is to give it back. To return it to the source. To teach as we were taught. We are the keepers and the perfected expression of everything America has been and meant. That’s why an America that has forgotten its own idea needs us. Americans don’t need us to make them Texans. It needs us to remind them how to be themselves.
This is our calling. We should answer with gratitude. We are the people of the struggle and the idea — and we have a debt to pay.