Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Seat of Empire


Modern observers know that the business of politics is a nasty one.  Jeffrey Stuart Kerr’s Seat of Empire reminds us, however, that as politics goes, it is simply business as usual, that little has changed since the founding of this country – or since the earliest days of Texas history.  Here, Kerr tells the story behind the “birth of Austin, Texas,” a city forever linked to the personal feud between the first two presidents of the Republic of Texas: Sam Houston and Mirabeau B. Lamar. 

Lamar was determined to create a permanent capitol for the new republic on the site of a hill whose natural beauty he fell in love with while on a remote buffalo hunt.  Houston was determined that the permanent capitol of Texas be located just about anywhere else, and preferably far to the east of Lamar’s chosen site.  (One would suspect that Lamar felt equally strongly that the permanent capitol would be anywhere but its present location, Houston, the city named after his despised political rival.)  

Lamar’s vision was on shaky grounds from the beginning.  Sam Houston, the hero of San Jacinto - the battle that effectively gave birth to the Republic of Texas - was not the only politician against setting the country’s capitol in an area so remote that it could not be securely protected from Comanche raids and Mexican army invasions from the south.  Other prominent Texas politicians lobbied to have the new capitol placed in cities more convenient to, and more likely to be an economic godsend for, their own constituencies.

Jeffrey Stuart Kerr
Kerr details how Lamar and his backers were finally able to pull off the coup that would create the built-from-scratch city that became the last capitol the Republic of Texas would know – and the only capitol that the State of Texas has ever had.  As Kerr puts it, “The city of Austin was born in 1839, almost died in the early 1840s, and sprang back to life thereafter…the explanation begins with a buffalo hunt.”

State of Empire is an eye-opener for those (including, I suspect, most Texans) who do not know the colorful history of Austin’s founding.  Those who know the modern city’s streets well will find it difficult to envision Comanche raids on the same ground so bold and horrific that they came close to forcing abandonment of the new settlement.  Somehow, largely due to a handful of brave and determined citizens, Austin survived long enough for the rest of the Republic to catch up with it.

Bottom Line:  State of Empire will be of particular interest to Texas readers but will also benefit Sam Houston and Mirabeau B. Lamar scholars and historians more generally interested in this period of Texas history.  The book is aimed at general readers but includes a generous number of annotations, and enough bibliographic material, to lead scholars to other sources of detail concerning the birth of Austin, Texas.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

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