- José Antonio Navarro: In Search of the American Dream in Nineteenth-Century Texas
David McDonald’s long-awaited biography of José Antonio Navarro does not disappoint—it is a monumental achievement, based on a wealth of primary sources in both Mexico and the United States. An expert in the interpretation of early Spanish documents, the former superintendent (1978–2002) of the Casa Navarro State Historic Site in San Antonio brings more than three decades of research to the task of rescuing Navarro from an inadequate historiography which McDonald has found to be “infested with errors” (2).
McDonald has researched widely—tracing Navarro’s life under five of the six flags which have flown over Texas, and showing that for Tejanos, the half-century from Mexican independence in 1821 to his subject’s death in 1871 can legitimately be called the “Age of Navarro” (272). No single person during this period was more important in shaping the destiny of Mexican Texans, and no one, in McDonald’s view, came closer than Navarro to being “a true Mexican American”—urging his Tejano compatriots to have faith in the ultimate justice of the American political system, while at the same time never deviating “from his adherence to the language, culture, and values of his Mexican origin” (272).
McDonald has also researched deeply—carefully revisiting primary sources to root out the errors perpetuated by countless historians (including the author of this review). For instance, McDonald finds that the claim that Navarro was a supporter of secession and the Confederacy comes from a misreading of an 1855 newspaper account of Navarro’s efforts to have Texans “secede,” not from the Union, but from an affiliation with the Know-Nothing Party that he opposed in the 1850s (247). McDonald makes excellent use of Navarro’s correspondence with his friend Samuel Maverick to show the old Tejano as a solid Unionist as late as 1859, though as in the case of his political ally Sam Houston, Navarro’s sons enlisted in the Confederate service.
Undoubtedly the most important misinterpretation corrected by McDonald is [End Page 219] the branding of Navarro as a “leading white supremacist” (265) as a result of his membership in conservative groups opposed to the racial reforms associated with Reconstruction in Texas. These groups did, argues McDonald, use racist language in their pronouncements, but they did not support the disfranchisement of freed-men so much as they opposed the disfranchisement of former Confederates.
Far from being a “white supremacist,” Navarro led the successful efforts in the Constitutional Convention of 1845 to prevent voting in the new state of Texas from being limited to whites—a victory of signal importance for the mixed-race majority of the Tejano population. McDonald goes so far as to say that “Navarro’s efforts at the convention reflect his concern for his constituents of mixed race regardless of variation” (212), but Navarro’s willingness to go along with restrictions on Africans and their descendants show that his attitudes toward blacks were equivocal, not equalitarian.
Indeed, McDonald concedes that it was largely through Navarro’s efforts in the Coahuila y Texas legislature in 1828 that the door remained open to bringing slaves from the United States disguised as indentured servants. Navarro was as devoted as his friend Stephen F. Austin to the economic development of Texas, and despite their theoretical opposition to slavery, both men believed that “the equation was simple: no slaves, no cotton” (71).
No brief review can do justice to this thorough and balanced biography of the most important Hispanic Texan of the nineteenth century. McDonald has captured Navarro: the family man, the statesman, the first native-born historian of Texas, and the always passionate defender of the rights of his people.