Texas Slavery Then

Book Review:

Campbell, Randolph B, “An Empire for Slavery. The Peculiar Institution in Texas 1821-1865.” Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

I had Dr Campbell on KNON once, years ago. He was teaching at North Texas University in Denton.

Dr Campbell has strong factual basis for his description of slavery in the Lone Star state. There are 15 pages of bibliography notes that include census figures from 1840, 1850, and 1860 as well as the recordings that were made in the 1930s by former Texas slaves. He had judicial proceedings against slaves and civil cases concerning squabbles between one “owner” and another – as well as squabbles over slave “rentals” and “mortgages.” He has a lot of wills in which “owners” divided their “property” among their heirs. Campbell knows his subject.

This is a dispassionate work of history, not a polemic against slavery nor one of the many apologies for it. He just tells what happened, and that, by itself, makes riveting reading. Given the many misleading accounts of Texas history that exist and are pushed by Chambers of Commerce and politicians, this one is a genuine relief. By looking at the facts, one can finally see through some of the mythology and deliberately misleading versions. Certainly in reality, Texas slaves were not happily playing their banjos and loving their “masters.”

There are some revelations. For example, every Texas child knows that Stephen F Austin, “The Father of Texas,” spent considerable time in Mexico as a representative of his group of settlers. What I hadn’t realized is that a lot of Austin’s Mexico mission consisted of pleas to the Mexican government to allow slavery. During the entire period that white settlers poured into Mexican Tejas, slavery wasn’t legal. The law just generally wasn’t enforced, not for ideological reasons but simply because Tejas was rough country and far away from Mexico City. Many of the new settlers brought their slaves.

Campbell takes a position on the role of slavery in motivating the white settler’s eventual rebellion against Mexico. He says that it was certainly a factor, but not the immediate cause. He does note that the constitution of the Republic of Texas strongly favored slavery, as did state laws after Texas joined the United States. At the beginning, and from time to time, Black freepersons were not allowed anywhere in Texas. After Texas joined the Confederacy, manumission was outlawed.

As to the theory that white settlers intentionally moved to Texas in order to steal the land from a weak Mexican Republic, Campbell offers no opinion in this book. This is just about slavery.

Speaking of laws, Campbell explains that slaves were not legally equal to other forms of “property.” The law had to recognize that slaves were people as well as property. Slaves endured all kinds of punishments, including legal jailing and execution. Dallasites who have read the transcript of the trial of Jane Elkins, the first Texas woman officially executed, may have wondered why it included her dollar value ($700) along with the rest of the proceedings. Campbell says that the “owner” of executed “property” was legally entitled to half their “value.” Apparently, someone got $350 from the county when Jane was hanged.

It is interesting that lynching was never popular in Texas until after African Americans were freed. There were no laws protecting them from lynching, but there were plenty of laws protecting their “owners” from losing money.

Even though I know that farmers regularly try to upgrade their livestock through selective breeding, it had never occurred to me, until I read to page 154 of this book, that some “owners” did the same thing with their human “livestock!” Some male slaves were rented out to stud!

Did slaves and abolitionists fight for freedom in Texas? Well, Campbell estimates that about 4,000 slaves managed to escape to Mexico or to a few friendly native tribes, but most slaves just tried to “get by” with things the way they were. Many of the Germans who migrated to Texas after 1848 did not use slaves, some opposed it, and at least one editor, Adolph Douai of San Antonio, made a public fuss, at least for a while. Seventy percent of free Texans did not own any slaves, but they voted the slaveowners into all important offices; consequently, we may assume that they took no stand against it.  Slavery was apparently considered an economic question, not an ideological nor moral one. During the Civil War, Campbell says that 98,594 African Americans took up arms with the Federal Army. Only 47 of them were from Texas. The main reason is that Federal forces never invaded Texas; consequently, no Texas slaves were freed before Juneteenth.

Was slavery worse in Texas than elsewhere? Campbell says there is no evidence of it. As one reads of the horrors endured by Texas slaves, we can take no comfort from the idea that it was better elsewhere. Campbell says that the treatment of slaves, which varied greatly from “owner” to “owner,” was nevertheless about the same throughout the South.

–Gene Lantz

I am on KNON’s “Workers Beat” radio talk show every Saturday at 9AM Central Time. Programs and my “Workers Beat Extra” podcasts are posted on soundcloud.com on Wednesdays. If you are curious about what I really think, check out my personal web site

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