San Jacinto Day Address

as given on
April 21, 1999
The Honorable Thomas R. Phillips
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas

We gather on this day, like generations of Texans before us, to honor those who fought and died on this plain to give Texas its independence. As long as our state endures, those who love Texas will mark this day.

The immediate results of the battle were significant and undisputed. The Runaway Scrape, or the wholesale abandonment of Texas by its Anglo-American settlers, was halted. The Constitution adopted the previous month at Washington-on-the-Brazos became operational, replacing the dictatorship of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and the anarchy of the Texas revolutionary governments with one of the world's purest representative democracies. During the ten years of the Republic of Texas, scarcely a week passed without some election being held somewhere for some office. In those elections, the veterans of San Jacinto became an instant political elite, regardless of how new they were to Texas. After the battle, Sam Houston had told his soldiers: "[W]hen liberty is firmly established by your patience and your valor, it will be fame enough to say, 'I was a member of the army at San Jacinto.'" This claim to fame was shared by all three presidents of the Republic, a majority of its vice-presidents, fifty three members of its Congress, and even two of its four chief justices.

But a case can be made that the long-term effects of the battle were even more important. An independent Texas was soon annexed to the United States, provoking the Mexican War. The treaty ending that war added California and the West to the United States. By 1848, Mexico had lost nearly half its total size, while the United States increased by more than one third, becoming the unrivaled great power of the Western Hemisphere. It could be claimed that America's dream of Manifest Destiny was realized on this field.

Even if this claim proves too much, it seems clear that Texas as we know it would not exist had San Jacinto been lost. General Sam Houston himself recognized that his ragtag army probably was good for only one battle. Had that battle been lost, the dream of an independent Texas would almost surely have vanished. The American drive for expansion might still have eventually incorporated Texas. After all, many Americans, including Thomas Jefferson, claimed Texas as part of the Louisiana Purchase. During the 1820s and 1830s, the United States made several heavy-handed attempts to buy Texas from cash-strapped Mexico. Yet even if the United States had eventually grown to its present boundaries, the Texas we know would not exist. Instead of the Lone Star State, the "largest and grandest", there would probably be several states 'of convenient size," bereft of the myth and mystery the world associates with Texas.

That such enormous consequences could flow from such a small, brief engagement remains, to this day, hard to comprehend. Only about two thousand soldiers were involved, and not all those were actually engaged in combat. The fighting itself lasted only eighteen minute, less time that today's ceremony, after which both commands lost control of their troops. The Texans had two cannons, the Mexicans only one. Compared to the great battles of the Napoleonic Era or the future clashes in the Crimea or the American Civil War, therefore, San Jacinto was but a skirmish.

Moreover, the battle had its share of eccentricities. Both Houston and Santa Anna deliberately situated their troops in a position from which retreat was essentially impossible. The outnumbered Texans launched a full frontal assault at the very unconventional hour of four o'clock in the afternoon. The Texans' martial music was a bawdy love song, not by grand design but because it was the only tune that both the drummer and the fifer knew.

Nevertheless, the conflict has spawned an inordinate share of historical riddles. Why, for instance, didn't Santa Anna wait for reinforcements, or at least post pickets to warn his exposed troops of enemy movements? Did Houston really even want to fight, or was he hoping to retreat to Nacogdoches to wait for rescue from nearby American troops? What if Santa Anna had escaped and rejoined the bulk of his army, rather than being captured nearly twenty-four hours after the battle? And what if Santa Anna's second in command. General Vicente Filisola, had disregarded Santa Anna's order to remove the Mexican army?

But the peculiarities and mysteries surrounding San Jacinto only add to its fascination, so that professional and amateur historians continue to puzzle over the battle today. And this continued interest gives us new insights on the battle. If we are honest about San Jacinto, we must face some rather unpleasant facts. For example, we must admit that Texas soldiers fought as much for greed or adventure as they did for liberty. And for many Texans, the "liberty" which they contended was not merely that of press, speech, or the free exercise of religion, but also of owning and trading in human slaves. Moreover, Santa Anna's atrocities at the Alamo and Goliad were repaid, at least in part, in the melee that followed the Mexican rout. We must also acknowledge that the many Tejanos, or Mexican Texans, who made essential contributions to the success of the Revolution were, in most parts of Texas, treated shamefully as soon as Texas won its independence. Finally, the contribution of both free and slave blacks to the Revolutionary cause are just now being recognized and honored.

It is both proper and necessary for a society to reexamine its history in light of modern understanding. The dangers of a blind allegiance to past prejudices are vividly illustrated in the ongoing tragedies of Kosovo, where ethnic hatreds can be inflamed by invoking the memory of a battle fought in 1389.

At the same time, honest reevaluation should by no means lead us to ignore San Jacinto or forget the Alamo, as some have urged. The heroes of San Jacinto did much that was right. The millions of people who have enjoyed the blessings and prosperity of life in a free and dynamic Texas over the last 163 years are indebted to their efforts. And for the people of 1836, the Battle of San Jacinto freed seven million Mexicans from the tyranny of a cruel, unprincipled, and megalomaniac dictator, at least temporarily. After all, other parts of Mexico had risen in revolt against Santa Anna; Texas was unique because it succeeded. Our revolution was supported by patriots from many parts of Mexico, most notably Lorenzo de Zavala, the provisional vice-president of Texas, whose home was used as a hospital after the battle and whose grave lies on these grounds.

In the end, Sam Houston's analysis of the effects of San Jacinto is probably the best. A mere three days after the battle, the Hero of San Jacinto said:

Here was born, in the throes of revolution, and amid the strife of contending legions, the infant of Texas independence! Here the latest scourge of mankind, the arrogantly self-styled Napoleon of the West, met his fate!

Because of San Jacinto, we can sing today, "God bless you Texas, and keep you brave and strong, that you may grow in power and worth throughout the ages long!"

The Texian Texian Legacy Association is indebted to Chief Justice Phillips for granting his permission to reprint his speech here. The insights and perspectives expressed in his address are of the utmost importance not only to Texans, but to all people, everywhere.

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