In his 20-year tenure at UT Arlington, Dr. Sam Haynes, Professor of History and director of the Center for Greater Southwestern Studies, has positioned himself as an expert on the history of the American Southwest – researching and writing, teaching a new generation of historians to look beyond popular stories and previous scholarship. On March 7, Haynes will explore aspects of the Texas Revolution in the 48th annual Walter Prescott Webb Memorial Lectures at the E.H. Hereford University Center.
College of Liberal Arts Communications Coordinator James Dunning sat down with Haynes to talk about his role in this year’s Webb lectures, the myths and misconceptions of Texas and U.S. history and what he sees in store for the field of Southwestern studies.
Q: Walter Prescott Webb – the namesake of the annual lecture series sponsored by the Department of History – wrote a lot about Texas history, but this is the first time the lectures focus on the Texas Revolution. Why is that?
A: The genesis of this year’s Webb lecture series was a graduate readings class I taught on Texas history in the spring of 2011, and a research seminar on the same topic the following semester. There’s been a lot of cutting-edge scholarship in the field of American Southwestern Borderlands, which has greatly expanded our knowledge of Native Americans and Tejanos. But the Texas Revolution hasn’t really been part of that trend; very little serious scholarship has been done on the subject during the last 20 years. So that got me interested in organizing the Webb Lectures around this topic. We’ve titled this year’s lectures “Contested Empire: Rethinking the Texas Revolution.” It’s an appropriate title, I think, because we’re bringing in historians who are not known for their work in Texas history. We’ve got two historians of 19th-century Mexico – one is from Mexico [Miguel Soto, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico] and the other is from Scotland [Will Fowler, University of St. Andrews]. And then we have two other historians [Eric Schlereth, University of Texas at Dallas, and Amy Greenberg, Penn State University] who study the early national period of U.S. history. Our goal, then, is to bring together a group of historians who can offer some fresh new perspectives on a familiar topic.
Q: Are there myths or misconceptions about the Texas Revolution and that period of Texas history?
A: For a long time, the dominant narrative about the Texas Revolution focused on a clash of cultures: Anglo Americans fighting against Mexico. In fact, Texas in the early 19th century is a very ethnically diverse place. It’s highly simplistic to suggest that this is a conflict just between two groups. It’s only been fairly recently that historians have begun to pay attention to the role that Tejanos — Mexican Texans — played in the Texas Revolution. There’s also a huge Native American population that has been largely ignored in this story. There are nomadic tribes, like the Comanches, and sedentary tribes, like the Cherokees, each of whom have very different agendas in the mid-1830s, when the revolution begins. And although much has been written about the institution of slavery and Texas, we know surprisingly little about the slaves themselves and their role in the Revolution.
Q: What do you hope those in the audience take away from this year’s lectures?
A: That the event we know as the Texas Revolution has all these moving parts, with Anglo-Americans (in Texas and the United States), Mexicans, Tejanos, Native Americans, African Americans all playing a role. And that the event they thought they knew is actually more complicated. It’s much more than a story about the Battle of the Alamo.
Q: I find it curious that one of the biggest collectors of Alamo memorabilia, and a huge fan of Texas history, is British pop musician Phil Collins. Why do you think those stories resonate with people who are not from this part of the country?
A: I heard Phil Collins speak at the Dallas Historical Society two years ago. I was really surprised to learn that the Davy Crockett/Alamo craze, which took this country by storm in the mid-1950s, had spread across the Atlantic. There was a picture in the program of a very young Phil Collins wearing a coonskin cap, just like any kid in America at that time.
I guess that’s because the West, as a place, has a universal appeal. And for a lot of people, the West is embodied by the Alamo; it’s the quintessentially Western icon. But it’s also important to remember that the Alamo and the Texas Revolution didn’t always enjoy the prominence in our history that they do today. Americans really became fascinated with the Alamo during the industrial period, around the beginning of the twentieth century. The United States was becoming urbanized, and it was also changing demographically, as millions of Eastern and Southern Europeans found new homes in American cities. At the same time, as a result of the Civil War, a cultural divide existed between Americans in the North and South. It was only natural, then, for Anglo-Americans to look to the West as a uniquely American place. That’s when people like Teddy Roosevelt discover the Alamo; he has himself photographed dressed up like Davy Crockett in buckskin and holding a long hunting rifle (just like Phil Collins!). So the appeal of the West is rooted in a sense of nostalgia that only exists when America becomes a modern, industrialized nation. And it reemerges in the 1950s, as Americans (and the British too, apparently) become increasingly aware of the conformity of suburban life.
Q: Let’s switch gears and talk a bit about your research. How did you approach your most recent book, “Unfinished Revolution: The American Republic in a British World, 1815-1850?”
A: The book is about the United States and Great Britain in the early 19th century. As the director of the Center for Southwestern Studies, I guess it sounds odd that I’ve written a book on transatlantic history. But in fact, the relationship between the U.S. and Great Britain at that time had an enormous impact on the Southwest. Originally, I had planned to write a book on the way Manifest Destiny — this idea that the U.S. had a right to dominate much of the continent — was influenced by a fear of Great Britain. I argue that American political leaders were convinced that Britain wanted to establish control over parts of the West, particularly Texas, California and Oregon, and that American territorial growth was a reaction to those fears. But as I got further along in my research, it became clear that Americans feared the British in all kinds of ways. So I ended up with chapters on American theater and cultural life, American literature, banking, trade, and slavery — all of which revealed similar feelings of Anglophobia, a fear of the British. So, it’s a very different book than the one I set out to write.
Q: It has to be frustrating when popular myth supersedes historical fact. As an educator how do you overcome those preconceptions?
A: It’s particularly hard when I teach Texas history, because the legends that surround the history of the state are so deeply inscribed in our consciousness. They are also beliefs that many people care about deeply, and for that reason they are sensitive toward anything that suggests a different narrative. But my view is that when we approach the subject, we need to set aside any kind of agenda that would impair our ability to think objectively. What do I mean by that? Well, any point of view that has a predetermined outcome in mind. If we set out to “prove” that Texas revolutionary leaders were heroes, then we have an agenda. By the same token, if we set out to gather information that presents a contrary view, then we have another agenda. I don’t believe either approach has a place in serious historical scholarship. People can form their own opinions, and can make their own moral value judgments. I’m just trying to figure out what happened.
Q: You’ve spent nearly 30 years researching U.S. history. Has there ever been an “a-ha!” moment? Have you ever come across something you thought more people needed to know about?
A: Sure. In writing Unfinished Revolution, it became clear to me that, consciously or not, U.S. historians for the past 100 years have been influenced by the nation’s position as a world power. But the early history of the United States isn’t really all that different from that of other nations emerging from long periods of colonial rule. Developing nations don’t always follow the same trajectory, of course, but after independence they do exhibit certain anxieties, especially toward the nation that created them. And that’s as true of the United States as it is of any other former colony. It‘s easy to lose sight of this today, because the nation enjoys a position of global dominance. But if the early history of the United States isn’t quite as exceptional as we once thought, then it’s also true that we will look at the past very differently if there comes a time when America loses its position of global dominance. We like to think of the past as something that is static, that it never changes. In fact, however, it is constantly being shaped by how we look at the world — and how we see ourselves — at a particular point in time.
Q: What do you foresee as the future of U.S. Southwestern historical research?
A: I think it’s a really exciting and vibrant field right now. To a large degree, this has to do with simple demographics. By 2020, the state of Texas will have a Latino majority. It’s hard for me to imagine that the story of early Texas, which has traditionally focused largely on the exploits of Anglo-American males, is going to remain the dominant narrative. But the field is also being shaped by other historical trends, such as a new awareness of the roles of women, to give just one example. My guess is that the rewriting of the history of the Southwest, and of Texas in particular, is only just beginning.