Illegal immigrants overwhelmed the border. In violation of federal and state laws the hordes kept pouring in, seeking economic opportunity. Border security had collapsed. There were no funds or personnel available to patrol and control the border. Incoming, undocumented migrants had no respect for the law. The situation reached a tipping point when the illegals outnumbered the residents by 90%. In high dudgeon, the new majority first announced itself as a place of sanctuary for all incomers and then declared independence from the federal government.
Underground Railroad II
It can’t happen here? Well it did. The above scenario was enacted more than 100 years ago in Mexico’s federal republic. The illegal immigrants came from Missouri, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and the Indian Territories and poured into Mexico’s border state of Coahuila y Tejas during the 1820s and ’30s.
In 1820 Moses Austin and his son Stephen petitioned Spain to allow norteamericanos to settle in Tejas. The Austins were either prescient people, conspiracy theorists, or Pollyannas — probably a combination of all three. The controversy surrounding Missouri’s admission to the Union in 1821 as a slave state spooked them, in spite of the fact that, in this instance, the US Congress remained committed to protecting slavery where it existed. But more importantly, decent cotton lands were disappearing, with land prices as high as $50 an acre — far too much for men of modest means. On the other hand, the projected price of cotton lands in Tejas was only 12.5 cents an acre.
Border security had collapsed. There were no funds or personnel available to patrol and control the border. Incoming, undocumented migrants had no respect for the law.
After Mexico declared independence from Spain in 1821, the new Mexican Congress approved the Austins’ land grant request for 300 families . . . with their slaves. However, Spain had formally abolished slavery in 1811 (except in Cuba and Puerto Rico). It was a policy the new Mexican government supported and kept, and it was a trend — with many fluctuations and partial exemptions (with Tejas to the fore) — that would only intensify when formal Mexican abolition came in 1829. Still, norteamericanos perceived Mexico as weak, vulnerable, and conflict ridden (it had 49 presidents in just over 30 years, as opposed to the US’s ten), an assessment that proved only too true. Nonetheless, Mexico ultimately stood firm on its anti-slavery policy and equal rights for all.
Those anti-slavery policies created a magnet of freedom for US slaves. Alice L. Baumgartner, in her new book South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War, estimates that between 3,000 and 5,000 “self-liberated” slaves escaped to Mexico. “Self-liberated” because the southern route to freedom lacked any sort of organization — no “stations,” “conductors,” safe houses, or other infrastructure. And she spins one hell of a good tale.
Mexican history is hilariously tragicomic — from President Iturbide declaring himself emperor, to President Santa Ana’s state funeral for his leg, to Austria-Hungary’s Emperor Franz Joseph’s brother Maximilian assuming that Mexicans would welcome him with open arms as their new emperor, to Mexico’s treaty with Haiti to invade Cuba and free its slaves in order to send a strong abolitionist message to the US. And that’s just a sample. Baumgartner interweaves Mexican and US history artfully as both become relevant to the trajectory of our Civil War. Along the way, as far as meager records allow, she intersperses the escape stories of, mostly, Tejan, Texan, and Louisianan slaves, along with stories of emigration by fugitive Seminoles and their black allies (about 25% of the Seminoles), who went to Mexico in 1849 to join the Mexican armed forces. She also tells the stories of their owners’ attempts to retrieve them.
Major and minor Mexican government officials, along with ordinary citizens, helped and hid the fugitives. On the other side, Texas heroes Jim Bowie and William Travis don’t come off so well. Bowie was a slave trader and smuggler, while Travis, a lawyer, defended “property” claims through legal — and questionable — channels in both countries. He brought his slave Joe (one of five) into the Alamo — where he became one of the few survivors of the massacre, spared because of his skin color.
One theme that Baumgartner interestingly explores is the contradiction — in both countries — between declarations that all men are created equal and acceptance of the right to slave property, the attempts to reconcile contradictions, and the fascinating reasoning and sophistry resorted to on both sides. It had been a hotly debated issue at the founding of our country when Thomas Jefferson declared that all men are created equal with a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Some believe that he declined to finish the phrase with the more usual “and property,” fearing that it would provide legal ammo to slaveholders. Although a slaveholder, he sensed the peculiar institution’s demise in the future.
A related subissue that Baumgartner also pursues in depth was the distinction between slavery, indentured servitude, peonage, and lifetime labor contracts — whether forced or entered into willingly.
Between 3,000 and 5,000 “self-liberated” slaves escaped to Mexico. “Self-liberated” because the southern route to freedom lacked any sort of organization — no “stations,” “conductors,” safe houses, or other infrastructure.
The book is fast-paced and reads like an adventure thriller, alternating between escapees’ tales, the evolving policies of Mexico and the US, and European reactions. It has no woke tendencies in spite of referring to “Tejas,” “Texians” (regarding the nationality of the inhabitants through time), and norteamericanos — after all, Mexicans too are Americans, as are all inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere (most Spanish speakers refer to US citizens as estadounidenses, or Unitedstatesters). In fact, one reviewer from Black Perspectives, while praising the book, faults it for “problematic language [such as] ‘hostile Indians,’ referring to white enslavers by the painfully dated term ‘masters,’” among other minor woke quibbles too convoluted for this reviewer to recount — all in all, a healthy sign.
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Review of South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War, by Alice L. Baumgartner. Basic Books, 2020, 384 pages.