It was only when I began to take an interest in the concept of a republic vs. a democracy that I began to appreciate the fact that, at one point in history, the concept of a republic was so highly revered that men were willing to die for it at the Alamo.
The history of the Texas revolutionary war for independence from Mexico is loaded with insights into the meaning of the word republic – a meaning that once was understood at some level by just about every adult in the United States. The famous monologue delivered by John Wayne in the Movie, The Alamo, gives us a glimpse at the intensity of devotion to the concept of a republic but it fails to define what that concept actually is.1
Davy Crocket, one of the defenders of the Alamo, refused to sign an oath of allegiance to the government of Texas until they changed it to the Republican Government of Texas.2 That’s how important the concept was – and still is to those who understand what it means.
To know what the concept of a republic meant to those who gave their lives for it at the Alamo, just check any history book on the topic written prior to the era of Progressive Education. (Surprisingly, Wikipedia has a fairly objective summary.3) You will find that these men were the point-of-the-spear for a movement throughout Northern Mexico (now the state of Texas) that was passionately opposed to the tyranny of the central Mexican government. Most of them were settlers from the US in the north, but many came from central Mexico in the south. They were a mix of pioneers, cattlemen, and ranchers, who wanted their own land – and especially their liberty.
Their resistance to the heavy hand of the central government gradually escalated from petitioning for the right to control their own local affairs to outright revolution for independence. The war was long and bitter. It became the practice for both sides to offer “no quarter”, which means they took no prisoners. Most of those who surrendered were shot.
When General Santa Anna was captured following the battle of San Jacinto, he negotiated his life in return for a promise by Mexico to recognize Texas as an independent nation. At that point, Mexican troops were called home, and the war was over. Texas became an independent nation in August, 1836. Nine years later, in March 1845, it elected to become part of the United States.
At the time this occurred, it was generally understood that a republic was a state built on the principle of federalism, which is the division of political power between central and local units, but there was more to it than that. In addition to the division of power, there is the subtlety of how much power is to be divided. No one is willing to die for a formula that merely demands a division of power without consideration of the extent of that power after it is divided. Who cares if it is divided between central and local governments if it is tyrannical in nature? In that case, we get whacked at both levels (a condition that is common in most of the world today). The reason the concept of federalism was (and still is) popular is, not that is calls for a division of power, but because of the anticipation that this division of power will act as a restraint against tyranny. If it doesn’t do that, it’s an exercise in futility.
The defenders of the Alamo envisioned that the concept of a republic went far beyond the requirement that there must be a division between central and local authority. They knew it also must include provisions that require the government (central and local) to serve the people instead of requiring people to serve the government. It included the assumption that state authority springs from the bottom-up, not the top-down, a structure in which higher units are obedient to lower units from which they derive their authority. In such a structure, citizens are the ultimate source of sovereign power. They may delegate some of that to a local assembly which, in turn, may delegate some to a larger assembly, and eventually up to the highest level but, in all cases, elected officials and bureaucrats understand they are public servants, while citizens remain the master.
That was the prevailing view among the men who pledged their lives to defend the Alamo. It was not the mission compound or a fort they were defending. It wasn’t even about independence from Mexico, It was about WHY they wanted independence from Mexico. It was about escaping from the tyranny of a central, all-powerful government. They were willing to die for the concept of a republic, because a true republic is the keystone in the arch of liberty.