When Texas was a country, it sent its diplomats to D.C.
By John Kelly,
From a brief online search, I gather the United States sent a string of chargéd’affaires to the Republic of Texas. Did the Republic of Texas ever send an ambassador to Washington? Was there ever an embassy?
— Chris Haga, Frederick
Answer Man had the unique experience of going to school for a few years in Texas. They were formative years, in as much as they included fourth grade and seventh grade, two grades where Texas history is a large part of the curriculum.
And Texas, Texans will remind you, has large history. If you’ve ever wondered why there are amusement parks all over the United States called “Six Flags,” it’s because in the course of its existence, six flags have flown over Texas, where the amusement park chain was founded.
Those flags represented Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the United States of America and the Confederate States of America. The Republic of Texas was its own little country, or rather, fairly big country. It was in existence from 1836, when it gained independence from Mexico, to 1845, when it was annexed by the United States.
The title of “ambassador” wasn’t used by the State Department until 1893, said State Department historian Evan Duncan. Before that, the highest diplomatic rank in the U.S. government was what’s known as an envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary. Under that was a chargéd’affaires.
A chargéd’affaires is what the United States sent to Texas. The first one was named Alcee La Branche, who grew up on his family’s plantation outside of New Orleans. He served in Louisiana’s House of Representatives before Andrew Jackson appointed him in 1837 as the first U.S. diplomat to Texas. La Branche served until 1840, when he resigned to attend to personal affairs and prepare for another run at public office. He later killed a journalist with a double-barreled shotgun in a duel, something many politicians wish they could do today. There is a street named after him in Houston (though it’s spelled “La Branch”).
Texas sent emissaries to Washington, too, either ministers plenipotentiary or chargés d’affaires. The first was Memucan Hunt, who spent most of his time in Washington trying to get Texas annexed by the United States. He later became secretary of the navy for Texas. (Yes, they had a navy. Or at least a secretary of the navy.)
Then came Anson Jones, who was told by Texas President Sam Houston to withdraw the annexation proposal and focus on forging economic ties with foreign countries. (Jones later became president of Texas, that nation’s last.)
Next was Richard Dunlap, who, according to a biography, had the distinction of being “the first white child born in Knoxville, Tennessee.”
There were several other chargés until the last one was appointed in 1842. He was Isaac Van Zandt and he concentrated on getting Texas into the union. One of his descendants: acclaimed Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt.
Isaac’s name appears in an 1843 Washington city directory in a list of 13 accredited diplomatic agents, along with such “real” countries as Great Britain, Mexico, France and the Argentine Confederation.
The State Department’s official register from the period does not list the addresses of diplomatic missions. Answer Man could not find entries for the Texans in local directories. It’s possible they did their diplomacy while installed in boarding houses or hotels.
There are some in Texas today who wish the state would secede and become its own nation once again. “A standard myth in Texas is that the annexation agreement included the right to leave the union,” said Randolph Campbell, chief historian for the Texas State Historical Association and a professor at the University of North Texas, in Denton.
That is not the case. In fact, Randolph said, Texas was desperate to stop being its own country and join ours. “Texas didn’t have money to pay for anything,” he said. It was deeply in debt. It didn’t have much trade. It had no manufacturing. The only asset it had was land, but there was so much of that as to make it virtually worthless. Plus, Mexico kept invading.
“I don’t think that it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that annexation saved Texas,” Randolph said.
Yes, Texas has a lot of history, diplomatic and otherwise. “You can’t make myths out of nothing,” Randolph said. “Texas provides really good stuff for mythmaking.”
Reader Debbie Isaacs turned to Answer Man for help and he is turning to you. She remembers that around 1977 or 1978, on the sidewalk of either 19th or 20th Street NW, near M, there was an odd, enclosed structure.
“The shape of it was kind of like a large capsule,” Debbie wrote. “It was made out of thick brown metal and was 6 or 7 feet tall. There was a smallish slit on one side that you could look in. Inside, it was made to look like someone’s living space, with objects on the walls, a small TV, a chair, maybe a table. I believe everything inside was painted blue.”
Does anyone remember it and know what it was?
Send your questions — and answers — to email@example.com.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.