- The Paper Republic: The Struggle for Money, Credit and Independence in the Republic of Texas
The notion that the Republic of Texas operated for nearly ten years in a state of virtual bankruptcy seems almost axiomatic to historians of the period. Perhaps for this reason, the financial mechanisms that kept the Texas government afloat for a decade have never received much attention. However, James Bevill aptly demonstrates the value of exploring the financial quagmire of promissory notes, stock certificates, and broken promises that littered the economic landscape of Texas and ultimately, he argues, sealed the fate of the young republic. The result is not only captivatingly visual, but also manages to humanize its topic in a way previous studies simply did not imagine.
Bevill's goal is simple. His work presents the financial story of The Paper Republic through the actual pieces of money it used. An enthusiastic numismatist, Bevill's work combines years of research into Texas money with a straightforward contextual narrative that allows a treasure trove of paper instruments to speak for themselves. His thesis is likewise straightforward: like a "good detective," he writes, "'just follow the money and you will find the truth'" (9). Beginning with the earliest Spanish coins, readers can trace the development of paper money on the specie-starved frontier, and sense the frustration of the common people of the Texas Republic who lived and worked in a country with nearly worthless currency. This methodology not only provides a book with incredible value to collectors and material culture enthusiasts, but also one that successfully weaves the national politics of nineteenth-century Spain, Mexico, and Texas with a history of the everyday people who actually used the money.
In spite of the effectiveness this approach, however, Bevill's framework is subject to limitations, his detailed treatment of paper artifacts leaves little room for in-depth analysis. Noting the Provisional Government's use of dollars rather than pesos during the Texas Revolution, Bevill aptly discerns strong Anglo influences; one wonders, however, how much the successful introduction of paper notes by Anglo colonists contributed to the economic growth underpinning such influence. Likewise, Bevill carefully describes the Texan quest for U.S. funding throughout the 1835-36 period, but he draws no connection between the lenders' desire for Texan independence and the subsequent corresponding policy shift of the Texan government. Ultimately, the artifacts Bevill presents dictate the pace and flow of this work. For this reason, William Gouge's The Fiscal History of Texas (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, and Co, 1852) will likely remain the seminal work on Texan finances given its similar scope.
The a comparison with Gouge in this case is unfair, however. Although Bevill frequently relies on Gouge as a source and shares his disgust for frivolous government spending, Bevill adds an accessibility and humanity to the subject that [End Page 212] Gouge's writing lacked. By focusing on Texas paper and its users, this work maintains a tone much more akin to William Ransom Hogan's The Texas Republic (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1946), than one on financial matters. Bevill is on strong ground when he argues that the motive behind Texas's annexation was "primarily a financial one," but he shines when detailing the outrage and frustration of ordinary people whose financial hopes were dashed when Texan politicians scaled the national debt by more than 50 percent (288). In all, Bevill's work is eminently readable, thoroughly accessible and a welcome addition to the scant literature on the finances of a republic without money.