Academic journal article Independent Review

Constitutional Rules, Political Accidents, and the Course of History: New Light on the Annexation of Texas

Academic journal article Independent Review

Constitutional Rules, Political Accidents, and the Course of History: New Light on the Annexation of Texas

Article excerpt

Personalities of such dramatic dimensions so dominated the struggle over the annexation of Texas that one can hardly imagine the events without these particular characters. The proponents, John Tyler and John C. Calhoun, worked furiously toward the immediate annexation of Texas, for what they regarded as the good of their country, their party, their constituents, and their own political careers. Their political opponents, Thomas Hart Benton and Martin Van Buren, resisted forcefully, not only over Texas with all its implications and symbolism, but also for control of the Democratic party. From the very beginning of the American debate over Texas, the opponents of slavery contributed passion and color to the drama: Benjamin Lundy with his fiery pamphlet, John Quincy Adams with his heroic filibuster, and ultimately David Wilmot with his proviso to divide the territory acquired through the war that the annexation provoked.

And yet, as colorful and influential as these larger-than-life characters were, it was not so much the individual actors as the Constitution that determined the outcome of this great drama of American history. For the Constitution, by stipulating permissible actions, defines how Americans make collective decisions. More important with regard to the annexation of Texas, the Constitution actively encourages certain types of strategies. Even if we grant the premise of Manifest Destiny -- that the territory of Texas was destined to become part of the United States -- we still need to consider when, how, by whom, and under what terms this absorption was accomplished. Reflecting upon the governing structure established by the Constitution can help us answer these questions. We can even show how constitutional rules called certain types of people onto the political stage.

Of course, many modern students of the political process appreciate that institutions matter. Rational-choice theories of politics -- law and economics, public choice, and the new institutional economics -- deal with exactly this point. But because so much of this work is abstract, it is especially valuable to demonstrate the critical influence of constitutional rules on issues of decisive importance in determining the course of American history.

Without doubt, the annexation of the Republic of Texas by the United States was a critical event in North American history. In the view of many historians, the annexation of Texas marked the point at which the Civil War became unavoidable. The annexation itself provoked partisan polarization, sectional acrimony, and political upheaval serious enough to prompt a realignment of the political parties. The Mexican War followed quite directly from the annexation. The Compromise of 1850 arose from the attempts to allocate between free and slave states the territory acquired from both the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War. This compromise was so fragile that very small events could easily disrupt it, and in the following decade many large and dramatic changes occurred.

Institutions matter directly, as when the policy a group chooses changes with changes in the voting rules, but institutions may also matter indirectly. Politicians, in both the legislative and the executive branches, may react to the incentives and constraints created by institutions. In particular, the constitutional rules may shape the choice of issues on which to campaign. The decision-making rules in the U.S. Constitution shaped many of the details of the annexation of Texas in this way. The Constitution allowed particular strategies for winning elections and achieving policy outcomes. And these strategies, in turn, invited politicians to frame the issues surrounding the annexation of Texas in distinctive ways. So profound was the influence of the Constitution on the selection of issues that we may make the following bold statement: if the constitutional rules had been different, the outcome would have differed in predictable ways. …

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