Campbell, Randolph B. An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas 1821-1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
An Empire for Slavery provides the historian with a detailed study of the Peculiar Institution in Texas from the beginning of Anglo-American settlement through the Civil War. In his book, Randolph B. Campbell sets out to provide the first state-wide study of slavery in the state he believes could have sustained and expanded the institution for many years past the Civil War. Campbell does not make excuses for slavery, but he insists that the practice was no worse or better within the limits of Texas. Besides outlining slavery’s similarities between Texas and the rest of the South, the author sets out to show that the institution affected the lifestyles and policies of Texans from the very beginning of settlement. Furthermore, he states that even without interpretation, a study of slavery in Texas is groundbreaking on its own.
As Americans migrated illegally into the Spanish territory of Texas during the first decade of the nineteenth century they brought with them their customs and property; this included their black slaves. After Mexican Independence in 1821, Anglo settlers fought an uphill battle with the Mexican government to keep slavery legal in Texas. Besides the conflicts between Hispanic and American cultures, slavery stood out as a dividing point between the Mexican state of Texas and the rest of the country. Campbell asserts that the desire to preserve slavery was one of the main reasons for the Texan Revolution in 1836.
Texans saw their slaves as essential for the growth of the nation, and later the state. The lack of free labor in the region made slavery necessary in the eyes of many settlers. Texas became a land of opportunity and profit for those who could tame vast chunks of land using forced labor. Since most immigrants to Texas were from the American south, African slavery already played a large role in their lives. Campbell believes it was this perceived need for slavery that ultimately kept lawmakers and citizens protecting the institution all the way into the Civil War. For example, free blacks during the Spanish period were uncommon but still protected by law. By the Civil War, Texans had taken many steps to ultimately destroy freedmen in Texas. Any free black entering Texas would be sold into bondage. This amongst other preventive measures ensured that slavery met no obstacles.
Campbell states that slavery remained just as wrong and as cruel in Texas as in other parts of the South.
However, the practice was no harsher and slaves acted similar to those in bondage elsewhere. Most of the book examines brief case studies in Texas to prove this point. The author examines the family, religion, work life, and the rebellious nature of slaves to find that Texan slavery coincided with many other accepted scholarly views of bondage. Whereas Campbell does give a few examples of abnormal behavior, he concludes that slaves acted and were treated just the same in Texas.
Furthermore, the author points to slavery’s high profitability in Texas as a key factor in its protection by whites. The practice provided not only labor, but also a fluid capital which greased the economy. To affirm this he shows the rapid rise in slavery between joining the Union in 1836 and rejoining the Union in 1865. At the beginning of statehood Texas had fewer than ten thousand slaves, whereas in 1865 there were close to 250,000 men, women, and children in forced servitude. Campbell calculates that slavery could have kept expanding indefinitely into Texas, thus creating an empire for the peculiar institution throughout the rest of the west. This dire need to continue to expand the state’s financial and political power through slavery ultimately led Texans to secede from the Union in 1861.
Although Campbell tries to avoid vast sweeping generalizations, he accurately supports a theme in Texas history. Slavery remained vital to how Texans perceived their state and society throughout the antebellum period. The Peculiar Institution weighed heavily around the state’s neck, and dictated policy for better or for worse. Campbell’s study is clear and well researched, and provides an excellent look at slavery in general. It gains further value by being the first to look specifically at the impact of slavery on Texas.
An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas 1821-1865. By Randolph B. Campbell. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
In 1821 Stephen F. Austin led a group of settlers to his newly acquired empresario land grant in northern Mexico. Austin’s settlers brought with them their African slaves and slave culture. In the process they created an ingrained slave culture and an empire for the expansion of slavery. In his groundbreaking study An Empire for Slavery author Randolph Campbell chronicles the introduction and spread of slavery into the Lone Star State. He presents no overarching thesis, nor does he attempt to prove or disprove any theory. Rather, he maintains that a study of slavery in Texas in and of itself is “new.” Campbell also explores the complicated economic impact of slavery, the life of Texas slaves and the master-slave relationship.
In his first chapter Campbell chronicles the history of African Americans in Texas and the particular suitability of Texas to the slave culture. He discusses the first slaves brought in by Stephen Austin and his colonists and concludes like Austin that “Texas must be a slave country.” Campbell then discusses slavery in the Texas Revolution and the struggles of the Texan colonists to thwart Mexican laws outlawing the practice. Campbell concludes that slavery formed an integral part of the colonist discontent with Mexican rule, but that slavery was not a cause of the Texas Revolution. Rather, Campbell agrees with most historians that slavery rapidly grew and spread in Texas as a result of the revolution.
From 1836 to 1861 slavery exploded in Texas, bringing thousands of new bondsmen to the Lone Star State each year. The 98th meridian formed a natural boundary beyond which slavery was unlikely to spread, but there was still plenty of room for growth in an industry that began more and more to influence and then inform Texas politics and public opinion. Even though slavery only existed in Texas for forty years, in that short span Campbell argues convincingly that Texas bore all the marks of a slave society where slaveholders held all the money, prestige and power, dominating Texas social and political life.
Slavery existed primarily as an economic institution in Texas. In this regard, slavery produced wealth for its practitioners. The author maintains that slavery was a financially sound institution in which Texans rushed to invest. Slavery certainly had plenty of room to expand in a place as large as Texas, and Campbell argues that slavery paid handsome dividends for the slaveholders and was in the process of continually expanding in Texas, rather than shrinking as it was in other parts of the South.
An Empire for Slavery also explores the legal aspect of slavery in Texas. Though laws existed on the books to prevent masters from mistreating their slaves, in reality these laws did little good because of the vague nature of the proper master-slave relationship. These legalities were little help to the slaves, who often suffered from cruel masters.
Finally, Campbell delves into the nature of slave life in Texas. He states that slaves overcame their difficult lot in life through the support of family, religion and music, and that most constantly yearned for freedom despite the psychological submission by some to the degradation imposed on them. The manifestation of this submission came in the form of the “happy” slave, or loyal house servant who went about their chores with gusto. Either these slaves had succumbed to their plight, or they faked happiness to escape punishment by the master.
Finally, Campbell examines the affect of slavery on the slaveholder. The author maintains that the institution harmed the master in different ways, but sometimes just as much, as the slave. Texas society formed around the institution of slavery and consequently took on a besieged mentality, threatened from within and without by abolitionist plots, real and imagined. This mentality eventually led Texas to secede from the Union to protect the institution of slavery. Sam Houston pointed out that even though Texans went to war to preserve slavery, the first shot of that war would sound the death knell of slavery.
Most history is often seen as irrelevant or antiquarian by people living in the present. An Empire for Slavery represents a refreshing departure from this trend as an original study of slavery in Texas that should have obvious positive ramifications for society in general and African-American Texans in particular.
John R. Lundberg
Texas Christian University
An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821-1865. By Randolph B. Campbell. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
In An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in
Texas, 1821-1865, Randolph B. Campbell traces the institution of slavery
in Texas from 1821 until its conclusion in 1865. Campbell remarks that
slavery was one of the key elements in shaping Texas’ history and growth
during the early nineteenth century.
In the opening chapter, Campbell states that slavery first appeared in Texas following the arrival of the Spanish explorers during the sixteenth century. However, Campbell notes that the institution remained stagnant until the arrival of American settlers. During the colonial period of Texas, American settlers realized that slavery was necessary in order to promote growth and expansion within the region. Spanish officials had attempted to restrict and abolish slavery, but there efforts failed to stop the influx of slaves into Texas. Although Campbell disputes the notion that the Texas Revolution was a slaveholders’ conspiracy, he agrees that Texas’ independence from Mexico removed a major barrier that had limited the growth of slavery in Texas.
Campbell maintains that as slavery grew and expanded throughout the western portion of the Republic, cotton farmers earned reasonable profits. For example, in 1837, James D. Cooke, a Virginia plantation owner who had visited Texas, remarked that a single slave could produce a $1,000 worth of corps each year. Although slavery could offer financial rewards to the cotton farmers of Texas, Campbell argues that the peculiar institution actually hindered the growth of Texas because it retarded the development of commerce and industry within the Republic.
Once Texas had gained its independence from Mexico, slaveholders from the southern states migrated to Texas because they were enticed by the fertile soil, ideal climate, and opportunity for wealth. Campbell notes that by 1860 over two hundred thousand slaves worked on the Texas plantations. During the Civil War, the slave population in Texas grew by nearly one-third because many southerners took their slaves to Texas because they did not want the federal troops to confiscate them. Campbell notes that the peculiar institution came to an end in Texas on June 19, 1865 when Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to issue an order that freed all of the bondsmen.
Another interesting aspect of Campbell’s work deals with how slaves residing in the Lone Star State had a similar life to those living in the other Southern states. For instance, slaves from Texas found comfort through music, family gatherings, and religious activities. Campbell also discusses that the two major components of a slave’s diet consisted of pork and corn. However, Campbell maintains that most masters encouraged their slaves to grow vegetable gardens to supplement their diets. Although these other food sources provided slaves with enough calories to work on the plantation, Campbell states that this type of diet severely depleted the slaves of essential minerals and vitamins. Campbell attributes the similarities between the slaves of the Old South to the slaves of Texas to the fact that a majority of the slaveholders in Texas had migrated from the other southern states.
Although a majority of Campbell’s work illustrates that slavery in Texas did not differ from slavery in other parts of the South during the early nineteenth century, Campbell notes that there were some disparity that emerged in the peculiar institution of Texas. For instance, Campbell states that Texans educated and armed their slaves. Additionally, Tejanos, who were Mexicans living in Texas, encouraged slaves to seek refuge in Mexico and Indian Territories. Tejanos also brought about unrest in Texas due to their insistence that slaves rise up against their white masters. Campbell also remarks that a majority of the masters of the larger plantations did not utilize overseers, but rather they worked on the plantation along side their slaves. While the peculiar institution in Texas shared numerous characteristics similar to other Southern states, Campbell’s book shows that slavery in the Lone Star State had its on form of uniqueness.
I would urge professors to use Campbell’s work for a course on Texas history because while there have been numerous dissertations and articles written about slavery in the Lone Star State, there has not been a single book written about this subject. Campbell’s work also offers a major contribution to the study of slavery during the antebellum era because it disputes the claim that the peculiar institution was less severe in Texas. Furthermore, the work’s organization and transition lends to the book’s accessibility.
An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821-1865. By Randolph B. Campbell. (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, c. 1898. Pp. xii, 306. E445 T47 C35 1989.)
Randolph B. Campbell, now on the faculty of the University of North Texas, is a product of the University of Virginia where he received undergraduate, masters, and doctorate (1996) degrees. His study of slavery in Texas was well documented, making extensive use of slave and master narratives as well as reminisces. He provided an index, bibliography, and appendices with statistical information and discussions of sources as well as impressive graphs, charts, and maps. A short essay in the introduction on the historiography of African slavery in America was particularly helpful.
Campbell suggested that a widespread assumption held that slavery in Texas was different than it was elsewhere in the South. Those who held that belief argued that, because Texas was more western than southern, slavery was not as important, noting that in 1860 Texas had only five percent of the total slave population compared to twelve percent in Virginia and eight percent in Louisiana. The thesis of An Empire for Slavery was that slavery in Texas, while holding certain distinguishing characteristics, was not remarkably unique and that it was just as important as it was to the other southern states. Campbell noted that seventy-seven percent of the heads of household in Texas were southern born and therefore likely to have share southern perspectives.
Campbell began with the arrival of the first Anglo-American colonists and their slaves to the Spanish territory of Texas. Slavery quickly gained a following due to the southern heritage of immigrants who believed that slavery was necessary for quick settlement and development. Following independence from Spain, slave owners faced strong opposition from the Mexican government but maintained their position through loopholes, subterfuge, and outright disobedience. Campbell dismissed the idea that slavery directly led to the Texas Revolution, arguing that the primary cause of the break was a clash of cultures. Slavery was part of the Anglo-American tradition that differentiated it from the rest of Mexico but it was only a part of the puzzle.
The condition of slaves in Texas between independence from Mexico in 1836 and the end of the civil war in 1865 constituted the bulk of Campbell’s study. He concluded that no fundamental differences existed between Texas slavery and that institution in the rest of the South. Many factors pointed to the congruence between slavery in Texas and elsewhere. The majority of slaves, ninety-nine percent, were in eastern Texas, an agricultural area not unlike much of the South. In addition, the slave population in Texas was similar in age and sex to that of the upper South. This was not to say that no differences existed. Campbell discussed the proximity of Mexico and Indian Territory as havens for runaways and the lack of conflict during the Civil War that left Texas slavers and slaves less disturbed than their southern brethren.
As a republic and a state Texas officially institutionalized and codified slavery, adopting most of its slave laws from southern states. Slavery grew and became rather profitable and by 1860 the number of slaves reached 200,000 and the slaveholding elite, who were less than thirty percent of the population, occupied fifty-eight percent of federal, state, and local political offices and owned seventy-three percent of all wealth. The success of slavery fostered such optimism for its future that Campbell dismissed Charles Ramsdell and others who, citing the harshness of west Texas, argued that slavery had reached its natural limits and would have died out eventually without the Civil War.
Campbell’s study did for Texas what Roll, Jordan , Roll did for the South as a whole, in that it described the condition and nature of slavery. It is, as he stated, new by definition since no previous work in the field existed. As such, it is an important contribution to the field, supported by admirable research and documentation. A reviewer in the American Historical Review faulted him for not explaining how conditions in Texas shaped the slave culture, a questionable criticism since his thesis is that Texas slavery was not significantly different. Campbell may not have closed the door on the discussion of Texas slavery but he certainly opened it wider.