After it sat on my shelf for several years, I finally got around to reading Lone Star Nation, by H. W. Brands, and quickly discovered what a treat I had been missing. I guess I thought I knew all I wanted to know about the formative history of Texas, particularly since I consumed the late Ted Fehrenbach’s classic, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, and had the opportunity to meet and discuss it with him during the Texas Sesquicentennial period over thirty years ago. And it is a great book, but it is in many ways complemented by Brands and I learned a lot and understood much more by having experienced both books.
There are differences: Fehrenbach covers more historic ground, from the early 16th century through the early 1970s, when 20th century urbanization and globalization were beginning to take their toll on the culture of the “days of the republic”. Brands on the other hand takes us from the 1820s and the beginning of the colonization of Texas through the trials of the Civil War in 1861-65, and his story is more tightly focused on, as he says, “how a ragged army of volunteers won the battle for Texas independence and changed America”.
Brands also does a really good job of explaining the struggle from colonization through independence from the standpoint of Mexico and its leaders, particularly Santa Anna, covering significant internal debates on competing Mexican systems of governance after its independence from Spain, much of which was a new perspective to me and one that added a lot of depth to the story. The same applies to his treatment of the issues involving U. S. expansion, the Indian conflicts, and slavery during the turbulent period leading to Texas independence and statehood from the perspective of the American leaders of the time–J. Q. Adams, Jackson, Clay, Webster, Calhoun, et al.
And then, of course, there are the personalities–Austin, Houston, Bowie, Travis, Crockett, and a host of lesser names. Brands goes in depth on all of them, including the lives they left behind to come to Texas, with a few surprises of which I was not previously aware.
Like many of you I’m sure, I have seen the 1962 movie How the West Was Won more than once, and it’s a pretty good movie, but one part of it is deficient in the extreme and that is in the portrayal of the role that the battle for Texas played in the completion of “manifest destiny” and the winning of the American West. I think it was allotted about a minute or so of background narrative without enough explanation and no significant scenes that are memorable. Among other important elements of this history, these books remind us of this crucial episode that, as both authors know, drastically changed America, arguably as much or more than the Louisiana Purchase. It really is pretty simple–no Alamo, no San Jacinto; no San Jacinto, no Texas; no Texas, no Mexican War; and no Mexican War, no California. So if you liked Lone Star, you will like Lone Star Nation. And if you haven’t read either one, I recommend them both.