Redacting Texas

The Equity Office in the city government of our state capital has recommended that a number of that city’s place names be changed, foremost among these being the name of the city itself. The namesake of Austin, as many people know, is Stephen F. Austin, founder of the largest Anglo colony in the old Mexican province of Tejas.  The Austin Colony was centered on the alluvial bottoms of the lower Brazos River, and was in most respects a small duplicate of the great Mississippi Delta back east.  That means that the Austin Colony raised sugar and cotton with slaves.  Oh yes, it also handed Santa Anna his hat on the banks of the San Jacinto River.

I do not think the name of Austin will be changed, but if it were, this might very well serve as the precedent for a frenzy of geographic revisionism.  Houston would obviously have to go, since Sam Houston also approved slavery, owned slaves, and played no small part in humbling that Mexican army. If the names Austin and Houston are redacted, the names of a great many schools and streets in Texas will also have to be corrected.

And there is no reason to suppose it would end there.  The namesake of the city in which I reside is William Joel Bryan, nephew and heir of of Stephen F. Austin.  Austin died a bachelor, so a sizeable portion of his estate passed into the hands of W. J.. This estate included plantations and slaves near the mouth of the Brazos, and also the land on which the city of Bryan (and my humble abode) stands.  So if the name of Austin is proscribed, Bryan must be proscribed as well.

The namesake of Dallas is disputed, but I am as sure as one can be that the city is named for George M. Dallas, vice president to James K. Polk, and warm supporter of Polk’s war against Mexico.  (If you will permit a brief digression, I think the attempted obfuscation of the namesake of Dallas is of a piece with another obfuscation on the part of that dissimulating city.  Dallas was built on cotton, not cows, so the name Dallas Cowboys is a false mustache.  If an allusion to local history is what the team’s owners were after, they should have named it the Cotton Pickers.  I might take up football watching if it gave a fair promise of a Dallas Cotton Pickers Cheerleader gamboling in her skivvies.) But, returning to my point, the city of Dallas was almost certainly named for a man who stomped his gringo boot on the bleeding neck of suffering Aztlan, and rumor has it that Aztlan is still sore about that.  Sore, and plotting revenge.

I expect this report of the Austin Equity Office will succeed in renaming only a few streets, a park, and perchance a creek (in which, it so happens, naked hippies are wont to cavort). Their aspiration to change the name of Austin will not be foiled by the machinations of a shadowy neo-Confederate conspiracy, or by public protests and mass outrage (which would in any case be vilified and ignored), but by what we geographers call “geographical inertia.” Once a town, a road, or a name, is firmly placed on the land, it is very difficult to move it.  Generally speaking, the name of a geographic feature (we geographers call these names toponyms) may change in the period shortly after a name is first applied, but toponyms “settle in” and “harden” with the passage of time.

This is, as I say, generally the case.  Established toponyms tend to persist, although they are naturally subject to linguistic mutations in sound and orthographic changes in spelling. The two great exceptions to this rule are change due to foreign conquest and change due imperial fiat.  In both of these cases, the change serves to remind people who is boss.

Foreign conquest is obvious enough.  I said earlier that the men of the Austin Colony humbled a Mexican army on the banks of the San Jacinto River.  Like most of the rivers in Texas, the San Jacinto has a Spanish name.  The names of Texas creeks, meanwhile, are almost all English.  These two layers of toponyms obviously reflect the two waves of conquest that rolled over Texas, and that erased almost all of the preexisting Indian toponyms. The Spanish conquered Texas, but they did not settle it, so they needed names for only the rivers.  When the Americans handed Santa Anna his hat, and took Texas for themselves, they settled the land, and so bestowed names on little things like creeks and hills.

China is, perhaps, the best example of geographic revisionism by imperial fiat.  I am far from expert in Chinese history, but my understanding is that the names of major cities were often changed when a new dynasty came to power.  Dynastic change came at long intervals, so a man might grow old in a city his great grandfathers had heard of, but when a new dynasty came to power, it would often announce its ascendance and demonstrate its sovereignty by changing names on the map.  We can see similar imperial fiat at work when Byzantium became Constantinople, and when Constantinople became Istanbul.

We see an assertion of sovereignty and dominion on a small scale in this quote, from the article in the Austin American Statesman that reported the proposal to change the city’s name.

“Before the council renamed Robert E. Lee Road as Azie Morton Road and Jeff Davis Avenue was changed to William Holland Avenue, the city gathered input from residents along those streets. A majority opposed the changes, which occurred in April.”

Azie Morton was an African American woman who served as Treasurer of the United States in the Carter Administration.  William Holland was born a slave in Texas, fought on the side of the Union, graduated from Oberlin College, and returned to Texas as an educator and legislator. Neither is unreasonable as the namesake of a street, but to impose these toponymic antonyms in the face of geographical inertia and local resistance is, obviously, the work of imperial fiat.

Another line jumps out from the article in the American Statesman.

“The report also identified numerous historical markers related to the Confederacy on city property that could be targeted for removal. Those include a marker for the Confederate States of America that’s located at Congress Avenue and Cesar Chavez Street.”

In 1993, the now-imperiled marker was located at the corner of Congress Avenue and First Street; for a quarter century it has been located at the corner of Congress Avenue and Cesar Chavez Street; in the not so distant future it may be located in the Cabinet of Atrocities at the State Museum of Abominable Relics.

The mills of social vengeance grind slowly,
but they grind exceedingly fine.

I generally prefer old place names.  In fact, I prefer place names that are so old that it takes some effort to discover their original meanings, just as it takes some effort to read nearly illegible names on weathered tombstones.  In the case of place names that commemorate a bureaucrat or politician, I say the more weathered the better.

But I also prefer to know who is sovereign, and who has the ear of the sovereign, since getting this wrong can be so very painful.  Calling the capital of Texas Austin does, after all, imply that the true magnates of Texas look upon Steven F. Austin as a venerable man, and that it is therefore safe for plebian Texans to do the same. But if the true magnates of Texas have changed their mind about Mr. Austin, plebian Texans need to know this.

We should not always do what is safe, but we should always know what is safe.  And to that end, I think we should know about these stealthy redactions to the map of Texas..

27 thoughts on “Redacting Texas

  1. Pingback: Redacting Texas | @the_arv

  2. There was a big push in Memphis, TN awhile back to remove a couple of confederate statues from Memphis parks. Given the current demographics of the city and its status as one of the most dangerous, crime-ridden cities in America, I doubt the men to whose memories the statues were erected would complain much about being moved elsewhere.

  3. No! Not Again! Politically Correct Cultural Marxism demands another sacrifice! We need to change the name of Austin because of How Stephen F. Austin felt about Slavery? So we are nullifying history, and all this man’s great accomplishments I might add, based on how he FELT about a certain issue? I knew it would eventually come to this; post-modern liberals thrive on this precept of “feeling over logic”. Horse Manure. All of It.

  4. Pingback: Redacting Texas | Reaction Times

  5. It looks to me like the effort to redact Texas will be a race between imperial fiat and foreign conquest.

    My money’s on the latter, not least because it’s helped along by the former.

  6. To change the name of every place in the nation that contains a link to slavery is a dubious proposition, at best. Yet if we change the names of places or take down monuments on public lands that honor people who lead an armed insurrection against the United States government, in order to keep the institution of slavery alive, then I have very little problem with changing those place names. Their names and legacies live on in many different forms especially on numerous parcels of private property.

    • During Reconstruction, radical Republicans tried to treat Southerners as traitors, and it didn’t go well. In time the settlement was that the North would admit that there had been a real Constitutional question and the South would admit that the War had decided the question. This settlement allowed Southerners to honor Confederate soldiers as patriots while the North centralized power in Washington. Now that the spiritual grandchildren of the radical Republicans have annulled the settlement and declared that Southern soldiers were traitors, the spiritual grandchildren of the Rebels can declare that Lincoln was, after all, a tyrant, and the 14th and 15th amendments are not legitimate. I don’t suppose much would come of this, but I do think this was a sleeping dog and we should have let it lie.

      • … but I do think this was a sleeping dog and we should have let it lie.

        I agree. The better part of wisdom would have been to have left well enough alone. But you know, boys will be boys and all that. Certain persons (adolescents trapped in an adult’s body) possessing a certain temperament cannot, it seems, resist the impulse to poke and prod and otherwise harass the sleeping dog with a stick. I trust we both know the danger inherent to doing that.

    • Traitor is simply another name for “revolutionary who lost.” Traitors never prosper etc., etc.

      And, in a technical sense, they were not traitors, they were separatists. They were not trying to overthrow the US government, they were trying to extricate themselves from it.

  7. At some point the sleeping dog will wake up while some really never slept. To vanquish ghosts from one’s past they must be confronted even if they are painful. The war was an armed insurrection against the United States to divide the nation in two so people would remain enslaved. There should have been, rightly so, certain conditions to be admitted back into the Union after the war. I wouldn’t classify Lincoln as a tyrant. If we do then many of our presidents would be tryants. That is a high standard. I have a feeling we will have to respectfully disagree on these issues ( though I enjoy the debate) . In the interest of full disclosure I am a lifelong resident of New York with two relatives who fought in New York regiments.

    • My ancestors also fought for the Union, mostly in Wisconsin regiments. I grew up in western New York, and was a mild Yankee partisan until late in life. I’ve lived in Texas for thirty years now, but I don’t think that is what tempered my views. The desecration of monuments really turned my stomach in ways I would not have predicted before it happened.

    • Slavery was the issue, but not just slavery per se, rather who gets to determine whether slavery continues and how that determination is made.

      Of course, back then, people had the courage of their convictions, hence, war. Despite abortion being even more hideous, we simply do not have that same courage (myself included)*, else war would have occurred long ago.

      * I guess I can fall back on the “low likelihood of success” or “exhaustion of other means” from just war theory to excuse my inaction.

      Hah, tyrants – not as high a standard as you think. Just because we are presented with a choice between two variations of tyranny rather than forced to simply accept one does not mean there is no tyranny.

      • Prof. Smith discussed this issue at length in A Lamp That Shall Be Put Out in Deep Darkness. Which you will want to read if you haven’t already. I’ve provided the link to the article below.

        As far as the tyrant thing goes, the irony of Mr. Granger’s reply on that issue is that it seems to have been lost on him when he read it that Mr. Smith wasn’t saying that Lincoln was a tyrant, nor recommending anyone else “classify” him as such.

        The point that he (JMSmith) was getting about (if I may presume to understand his meaning) is that the grandsons and granddaughters of the Confederacy were content to leave well enough alone on the tyranny question, and even to allow their counterparts in the Union states to Deify the Great Emancipator mostly unmolested,… so long as the latter would, by the same token, allow the former to honor their Confederate forbears with a few monuments to their memories and other small tokens of their gratitude. Otherwise, all bets are off, so to speak.

        In any case, the “debate” of which Mr. Granger says he enjoys is not a debate at all. If I guess correctly, there is a very good reason Smith made a conscious choice to not to engage debate with Granger on the specific points Granger raised, but instead to offer the perspective of an older and wiser man. If you know what I mean.

        Here is the link promised above.:

      • Professor Smith’s words were not lost on me. I took our exchange as a debate, we hold different viewpoints, and a much wiser man offering his perspective for others or myself to learn from. We even agreed on a point or two during the during the ensuing discussion. As for the definition of a debate, I would refer you to the definition of the word from the Merriam Webster Dictionary. This definition provides me with the definition of a debate.

      • For the conversations criticizing the slide into relavatism I am finding your definitions and meanings of words and phrases somewhat relative.

      • You are right that slavery by itself was not the sole cause of the Civil War. It was the implications of slavery upon different segments of living and society, the economic and moral implications amongst many others, that brought about the war. The leaders of the Confederacy were very clear in their speeches and declarations of secession.

      • Hello, James.

        The “tyrant” thing aside, let me just say that I have no interest in debating with you over the definition of debate. Judging by your words you seem to like or enjoy debating others. That is all well and good, but I am confident that you’ll get your fill of it over time and learn rather to despise it than to enjoy it, or to derive any sort of pleasure therefrom. Not because you’re not especially good at it or anything like that, but because it generally doesn’t accomplish anything other than to hone your skills as a debater, if it accomplishes that. I could be wrong, but I figure Prof. Smith doesn’t especially enjoy debating either, although he probably enjoyed it at one time. Most of us did.

        As far as what you have written as to your overall opinion of southerners during the Civil War era and the cause(s) of the Civil War itself, I will again strictly avoid debating the points you raise upthread, and rather offer to you the sage advice of Alexander Hamilton in Federalist no. 1, wherein he wrote in part:

        It is not, however, my design to dwell upon observations of this nature. I am well aware that it would be disingenuous to resolve indiscriminately the opposition of any set of men (merely because their situations might subject them to suspicion) into interested or ambitious views. Candor will oblige us to admit that even such men may be actuated by upright intentions; and it cannot be doubted that much of the opposition which has made its appearance, or may hereafter make its appearance, will spring from sources, blameless at least, if not respectable–the honest errors of minds led astray by preconceived jealousies and fears. So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy. And a further reason for caution, in this respect, might be drawn from the reflection that we are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question. Were there not even these inducements to moderation, nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties. For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.

        Thanks for the reply.

  8. I would look at the individual purpose and nature of each mounment. If it should be brought down, in my opinion many should since they sit in a public space, it should be done in a dignified way. I am not a huge fan of memorials in general because the standards for many of them are arbitrary. There is a veterans memorial ourside of my village that’s simple and solemn. The Vietnam War memorial wall is another example to follow. Unfortunately my examples are only military ones.

    • I think we should be very slow to raise a monument, but then very much slower to pull it down. I fear we will regret opening the can of iconoclasm and symbolic vengeance, since it will not be easy to close.

      • Your comment is why I am generally very hesitant about putting up so many memorials. Most of the memorials our nation now erects are to the military contributes to a deification of a powerful institution that becomes insulated from accountability. The rush to eract memorials and the criteria for them is very arbitrary.

  9. I won’t debate the good, bad or the ugly…it’s a soap box I’ve learned to walk away from. My energy is more precious now than in previous years. I greatly enjoyed the post. And the comments. I can appreciate thoughts on both sides of this conundrum. I do feel a bit vexed with the ‘unjust persons’ bit. I want to be clear, I’m not defending the ‘unjust persons’. However, to sit here so many years later, with the advantages we enjoy, as citizens of a country some would say was created by an unjust war, well, it just makes me laugh out loud.

    Do you see the irony, c matt? Nothing clarifies our vision like a lens polished with a few hundred years of history and the blood of those passionate enough to be a sacrifice for their beliefs. (There are just too many rabbit holes to pursue here but I’ll try to stay focused.) I am saddened by the thought that a few hundred years from now, people might look back and see how we wrangled so many issues, not due to conscience, or remorse, or some true desire to remove emotional scars, but due to a fear of being perceived as politically incorrect.

    Thank you for the post, Mr. Smith. It inspired both thought and dialogue. Would that it inspires us to consider how we go forward.

  10. Pingback: You Are the Alien Now – The Orthosphere


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