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August 13, 2021
With Friends Like These
Everything You Thought You Knew About the Alamo Is Wrong

In This Episode

The co-author of “Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth,” Bryan Burrough, debunks the Anglo-centric fables surrounding Texas’ founding myth — with a cameo appearance from Phil Collins. (In the myth, not as a guest on the show.)






Ana Marie Cox: Hi, I’m Ana Marie Cox. Welcome to With Friends Like These. I went to Hill Country Middle School in Austin, Texas in the ’80s. I have some very vivid memories. Most of them are about social embarrassment. But I also remember a lot of what I was taught in my state-required year-long seventh grade Texas history class. I’m not going to say I remember Texas history because what I was taught and what Texas history is, are two different things. In class, we were taught that Texas wasn’t really part of the South because it didn’t have a culture of slavery. We were taught that the only reason Texas fought alongside the South in the Civil War or as we called it, the War Between the States, was because of Texas’s deep belief in states’ rights. We were taught that the Alamo was a battle fought for Texas independence, that Texas fought to get out from under the thumb of Mexican tyranny as represented by the evil dictator/President General Santa Anna. And we were taught that while Texas lost the Battle of the Alamo, it was a valiant stand to buy time for the rest of the army who eventually won at the glorious battle of San Jacinto. Don’t mess with Texas, etc., etc., the end. As you probably already realize, none of those things are true and all of them exist to support a larger narrative of white supremacy. Our guest this week, Bryan Burrough, is going to help us understand that narrative and we’re going to learn what really happened at the Alamo. Our discussion is based on the bestselling book “Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth” which Bryan co-wrote with Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford. Burrough is a writer and historian, as well as the author of over a dozen books. He’s been a correspondent for Vanity Fair and The Wall Street Journal. He’s coming right up. 


Ana Marie Cox: Bryan, welcome to the show. 


Bryan Burrough: Thanks for having me. 


Ana Marie Cox: I want to go through what I know as the biggest myths of the Alamo, and you to give me a true or false. And maybe explain if it’s a false. How about that? 


Bryan Burrough: You got it. 


Ana Marie Cox: OK, number one, the overall point of the Texas revolt against Mexico was freedom. 


Bryan Burrough: This is a myth. 


Ana Marie Cox: What was the Texas revolt really about?


Bryan Burrough: Well, the great myth has always been that the Texians, the American colonists in the province of Mexico were being oppressed by the Mexican central government, that they did not have freedom. In fact, they had more freedom than any other citizens in Mexico in that they were still allowed to own slaves. We argue in “Forget the Alamo,” and any number of academics have argued the exact same thing before us, that the driving force behind the Texas revolt was slavery, that the only reason American colonists came to Mexico was to make money. And they did it doing the only thing they knew how to do, which was farm cotton. And to do that back then, they believed they needed slaves. And so the entire Texas economic model, the entire reason that American colonist came to Texas was to farm cotton picked up by the hands of the enslaved, enslaved African-Americans. And for the Mexican government, however, slavery was not an economic issue. It was very much a moral issue. The new Mexican nation that was given birth in 1821 was founded on liberal principles, in large part, that was the reason, the driving force behind the Mexican Revolution and—


Ana Marie Cox: They were offended by it. They thought it was a crime against humanity.


Bryan Burrough: In part because something like two thirds of the Mexican nation at that point was people of mixed blood. And so they found this personally abhorrent at a time when the rest of the world, Britain, pretty much all Western nations, were abolishing slavery. So Mexico was on the right side of history here. And looking back, the Texas colonists very much were not. So Mexico throughout the 1820s was constantly abolishing slavery and saying, OK, another year or two, but then that’s it! No more. Can’t bring any more of this type of thing. And, you know, if you go back and you read Stephen F. Austin, the father of Texas’s correspondence, you know, half of it is about is arguing with Mexico City about, look, guys, we really need the slaves. There won’t be a Texas with—I mean, it’s actually in a couple of days, say all that’s wanted in Texas is money and Negroes are necessary to make it. And every time Mexico would say, uh uh, we’re not going, no more, you know, Austin’s colonists would start to go home. They would start to start packing up. And, you know, over time, they put away their suitcases and they got out guns. That’s basically what happened. 


Ana Marie Cox: All right, another myth, or maybe it’s right. All right, my next maybe myth, the Alamo was an important outpost worth dying over. 


Bryan Burrough: Well, I could argue this several ways, and academics have. We’ve argued that the Alamo, which is in today, then San Antonio, still San Antonio, had some significance in that it lay along the primary route that any Mexican army, including Santa Anna’s, would take in its effort to retake the province of Texas. The Alamo edifice itself, which was not a fort by any means, it was an old Spanish mission with 12-foot stone walls around, you know it practically the size of a city block. It was enormous. It had no conventional defenses, did have a lot of artillery, and it had a 180 colonists there. But it was all but indefensible. And certainly in the face of 6,000 Mexican troops, it was indefensible. But the fact is, the de facto head of the Texas army thought it was indefensible and further thought that San Antonio was not worth saving. He wanted the army to fall back and defend along the rivers which run basically north-south, down to the coast. For whatever reason, and it’s always been one of the great mysteries, and I’m sad to say we can’t really clear it up, is why William Barret Travis and to the extent he is co-commander, Jim Bowie wanted to stay and fight there, because a lot of people thought it was a silly idea then and now. 


Ana Marie Cox: My understanding from the book is maybe they just didn’t quite believe there is going to be 6,000 soldiers coming for them. 


Bryan Burrough: Well, that’s a different issue of what, there’s one issue of whether you defend the Alamo at all.  And then there is the issue of why the heck did they stay there when they knew 6,000 Mexican troops were on the way? The fact is, the germ, the foundation of the Alamo’s appeal has always been that these 180-odd Anglo colonists decided to fight there for their freedom against Mexican oppression. One of the great myths is that the commander Travis drew this line in the sand and say all men who want to, who want to defend their freedom step across the line. Well a, there was no line. Obviously, a myth created 60 years later by an amateur historian. But more to the point, the defenders made no conscious decision to stay there. They basically got trapped because they ignored every one of dozens of warnings. You know, it’s like, it’s like you’re in Times Square and they’re giving you a call every five minutes saying, look, Santa Anna, they’re in Central Park, they’re on 52nd, they’re 48th, they’re on 44th. Dude! They are on 43rd! And Travis and Bowie just never left. They just—so the idea that there was some heroism or some choice in this, it’s just—all joking aside—is not backed up by the historical record. It’s not backed up by anything. 


Ana Marie Cox: Let’s get to those 6,000 troops. Santa Anna, the leader, general, the commander of the Mexican forces, was a bloodthirsty tyrant determined to subjugate Texans—and please forgive me for saying this, but it is part of the myth—and take their women. 


Bryan Burrough: Oh, golly, take the women. Such an early— 


Ana Marie Cox: It is part of the myth. 


Bryan Burrough: Well, it was a stalwart of some of the earliest racist Alamo movies going back to the nineteen teens. Look, Santa Anna was no saint. He was the elected head of state of Mexico. He was coming—not to invade anything. He was coming back to retake Mexican land that was being taken by these illegally, by these American colonists. He, as a general, was prone to executing prisoners, as, let’s be clear, international law allowed him to be, in that what the Texians were doing was actually technically called piracy. And you were able to execute pirates. In fact, Mexicans had done this against Anglo invaders from the US 20 years earlier. Santa Anna had done it a time or two around Mexico. So the guy was no saint. But the idea that he was a dictator? No. That he was somehow bloodthirsty? No. That he was somehow oppressing these people—the fact is, Santa Anna knew, like everyone in Mexico City, that these Americans were kind of a problem, and they were always bitching about slavery, and so he actually allowed it. He allowed immigration. For Pete’s sake, he gave them a two-year moratorium on paying taxes. In fact, the trigger to all this fighting was when he had the temerity, if you can believe it, to say, OK, two years is over, we’re going to go collect those taxes. 


Ana Marie Cox: You agreed that we would start having taxes now. 


Bryan Burrough: The analogy that we use in the book is, imagine today if America opened up interior Alaska for whatever reason to Canadian colonization and Canadians poured in with their hockey rinks and their Tim Hortons stores and their poutine, and when we try to collect taxes, they refuse. When we send in tax collectors, they kill a number of them. When we send in troops to arrest these people who have killed our people, they go raise an army of Canadian adventurers and they pour in and start a revolt. That’s exactly—you know if that irks you, that’s exactly how Santa Anna felt. 


Ana Marie Cox: Everyone who fought on the side of Texas at the Alamo was an Anglo fighting for Texas independence. 


Bryan Burrough: Well, no. And this is a, this is a long and sad story because one of the points that we try to make in the book is the contribution of Mexican Americans who lived in Texas at the time. They are commonly called Dan and sometimes now Tejanos, has been criminally overlooked by Texas historians. And really only in the last 20, 30, 40 years have there been academic efforts to reclaim their importance. And their importance begins by the fact that they were the people living there when the Americans came in, they were the Americans’ allies in commerce, in business. They lobbied the Mexican government for them. They were their friends and allies in every conceivable way, in part because they didn’t much like the central government either. Ultimately, once the revolt is raised, Tejanos fight—mot every Tejano—but many of them fight alongside the Texians against the Mexican government, famously led by the Tejano commander Juan Seguin. And then afterwards, what happens? And this is, it’s really a kind of betrayal, the Tejanos are run out of most of central and south Texas. Their lands are confiscated, their land, their livestock it’s taken. Seguin himself, is chased out of San Antonio by clearly racist Anglos, chased from farm to farm and eventually is forced to do to flee to Mexico. And you know, the reason all that matters—you know Texas is about to be majority Latino right now, Anglos are now in the minority, 41% of Texas population—and for years, this whole narrative, the narrative they got told in the wake of the Alamo was it was all Anglos against all people of brown skin, which just was not ever anything like the truth. And if you talk, one of the main points we made in the book, and I’m not sure that we’re not among the first writers to float it out there is, how incredibly harmful this has been to the identity of Mexican Americans in Texas, who feel that they’ve just, it’s almost been used to haze them, to oppress them, if you want to use that word. You know, the classic thing being the big Anglo bully, he goes by the little Tejano guy, you know, punches him in the arm and says: remember the Alamo guy. It’s a it’s always been used that way. If you talk to Tejano intellectuals, they will basically say to you that if you accept the Alamo story is the Texas creation myth, our Garden of Eden, then the idea that Tejanos killed Davy Crockett is the original sin. It’s the thing that has been used to marginalize and, yes, suppress them for generations. And we’d like to believe trumpeting our little horn here, that we’re taking some small step toward correcting those notions. 


Ana Marie Cox: Yes. So let’s get to the so-called heroes of the Alamo. Jim Bowie—Bowie Knife, Bowie—was sick during the fighting, but he died propped up in his cot, pistols in hand. 


Bryan Burrough: We actually don’t, can’t be sure how he died inside the room. We, every account says that Bowie died inside the room where he was very, very sick, apparently with cholera. The Mexican accounts suggest that he was just shot while he lay there. There are some accounts that he was taken out and thrust up on bayonets and mutilated. But again, I don’t think anybody knows any of that for sure because we don’t have enough confirming accounts. The thing about Bowie that that matters most when you’re trying to reassess Texas history, is not how he died, it’s how he lived. Because Jim Bowie, he began his career as a trader of not just slaves, but illegal slaves, that is those brought in from Cuba during the 1800s, but where he really kind of becomes a public figure—he’s already a public figure after a famous duel called the Sandbar Duel in 1827—but it’s after that that Bowie basically makes an effort to, to, he falsifies thousands of pages of document to claim land across Louisiana, and later in Arkansas, and is found out and there are all sorts of federal investigations. This is why Bowie ends up in Texas, where— 


Ana Marie Cox: Like a lot of outlaws. 


Bryan Burrough: Like a lot of people, fleeing things in—


Ana Marie Cox: Let’s not use the word outlaw, maybe. Maybe this is too generous. Right? Like we lionize the term outlaw here in Texas, so . . . 


Bryan Burrough: Look, a lot of people, the thing that people were fleeing most came to Texas was debts, debts. That was a fairly, in the days where debts could get you in prison, a lot of people were fleeing debts. Bowie came to San Antonio. He did fairly well in that he married the daughter of one of San Antonio’s richest men who bankrolled any number of ridiculous gold mining and other schemes that never got anything, never got anywhere. And then the father and the wife were both killed in a cholera epidemic. And Bowie ended up—you know, it’s an overstatement to say that he was a homeless drunk on the streets of San Antonio, but he was just a couple of notches above that. He was a figure of fun in San Antonio, where they called him Jim Bowie, the Drunkard. He was still famous, especially regionally famous, as a great fighting man. But locally, everybody knew that he was down on his luck and his best days behind him. The story ends, of course, when the revolt is raised, and, of course, Bowie is one of the first people that they call because he has a reputation as a great fighter. 


Ana Marie Cox: Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier. 


Bryan Burrough: Yes, we are— 


Ana Marie Cox: Let me tell you what I, what the myth is. Let’s go with the myth. And this actually, I found— 


Bryan Burrough: The myth is so silly. I can’t believe anybody actually still believes it. It’s one of those myths we don’t deserve any credit for knocking down. But you go ahead. 


Ana Marie Cox: OK, I found one of the early accounts, one of the one of the early sort of, I don’t know, self consciously the myths of Texas, but it’s a manuscript, and so [reading] “Crockett fought to the end even after he ran out of bullets using his rifle as a club. He survived the battle and was brought before Santa Anna, who ordered him executed.” And this I get to quote the fun part, “but before the Mexican army could act, Crockett, entirely unarmed, spring like a tiger at the throat of Santa Anna, but before he could reach him, a dozen swords were sheathed in his heart.” 


Bryan Burrough: Well, I cannot say that that’s the dominant myth, but if it’s not, that should be. That’s a heck of a story.


Ana Marie Cox: That’s an awesome one right?


Bryan Burrough: The myth is always that, that he went down fighting, that’s the way it has been in the in the John Wayne movie and in most modern accounts that want to ham up and hero-ify Davy Crockett. In fact, we know from the Mexico accounts, and I don’t think this is pretty much any longer disputed, that he was captured. We don’t know how he fought or anything, but he was captured and executed. In fact, that myth kind of arose only during the 1950s when Crockett became such a big deal because of Disney movies. But the figure of Crockett before he got to Texas, I’m not sure how much new we have to say about that, because it’s been said by others much better. But Crockett, we sometimes forget, he’s very famous in the ’50s and ’60s, in the 20th century. The fact is, he was one of the five or ten most famous people in America at the time. He was on the first national celebrities, in part because, yes, he had been a politician, a congressman from Tennessee. But you have to remember, the thing about Crockett is he was much more than just a politician. He was a politician with a shtick, which was a very thick frontier action, and “yeah, I’m in Washington, but I’d really be out shooting, shooting bears and fighting with the Injuns” this type of thing. Everybody knew it was just shtick. They, everybody loved it. People wrote books about him and there were plays about, not the Davy Crockett, the real guy, but the fake guy. That was the famous Davy Crockett. Long story short, he gets voted out of office, apparently is much better at shooting bears than making votes. And like a lot of people, including his peer, Sam Houston, also of Texas, immigrates to Texas in hopes of starting a new life. And in Crockett’s case, clearly thinks that if Texas is somehow separate from Mexico, there might be a presidency or vice presidency, the secretary of state, that he could get something. But let’s be clear, the only reason he’s in the Texas army, the only reason he’s at the Alamo as a private, is you have to join the army if you want to get the, whatever it was, 100 acres of free land to become a citizen. So he goes down there thinking, yeah, there’s nothing much going on, the fighting’s all over, and Crockett gets trapped and dies at the Alamo just like everyone else. 


Ana Marie Cox: Those are the ones I literally came up with off the top of my head based on my Texas history experience. 


Bryan Burrough: Well a couple of the other ones are to do with the battle itself, the fact that somewhat, that they did make the, choose, they did choose to fight to the death. We now know for Mexican counts that twice in the last 48 hours Travis offered to surrender. So he was not fighting to the death he wanted out. Santa Anna rejected these offers because he wanted these guys dead. He wanted them made examples. And then really the goriest but apparently true from all the accounts we now have, is the idea that they all fought to death in their place, which every book over one 150 will tell you. We now know from Mexican accounts, really first identified as important in the 1990s that between a 1/3 and 60% of the defenders to the Alamo essentially cut and run. Nobody suggesting that this has anything to do with cowardice, but the fact is they were outnumbered, something like 4,000 active attackers to something like 200 defenders. They were, their only choice was to, in essence, run, out into the open where they were killed to a man by Mexican lancers. So almost everything about the battle that plays up its heroic elements, it’s difficult to find supported in the facts of history.


Ana Marie Cox: You know, it didn’t even occur to me to ask about whether or not everyone at the Alamo died, because that’s so foundational to the myth. That’s just that’s why, if anyone has any kind of idea of any heroism, right, you’re like, well, at least they all, like, died fighting. But no, again, quite understandably, people went for it. If they could.


Bryan Burrough: We think, the best number is about 7 people are said to have surrendered and been captured, including presumably Crocket. They were all they were all executed. But it’s funny, there’s this idea that’s always been around that we’ll never know exactly what happened at the Alamo because they were all killed, which is the most dominating Anglo-centric thing you can say. They didn’t all die. Just the Americans died. There were still thousands of Mexican witnesses there that wrote things down in memoirs. We have any number of accounts of exactly what happened. Many of them having surfaced in the 20th century, from Mexico, from the Mexican viewpoint, as well as the actual after-action reports from that day and the next day. So the idea that we can’t know what happened at the, at the Alamo is demonstrably nutty. 


Ana Marie Cox: We’re going to take a quick break for ads and then we’re going to come back and talk about, of course, the star of the Alamo story, Phil Collins. 


[Ad break]


Ana Marie Cox: So you read the book with the story of Phil Collins at the Alamo. 


Bryan Burrough: Well, you know, we actually just thought it was natural. It’s what everybody says that the best way to understand the Alamo is through the stories of the British rock stars that are most associated with it. 


Ana Marie Cox: Yes, of course. 


Bryan Burrough: I mean, David Bowie, Ozzy Osbourne and yes, of course, Phil Collins. What we do at the beginning is we use Collins and Ozzy as a playful way to show the two different ways to view historiography of the Alamo. Collins, as the world’s leading collector of Alamo memorabilia, we suggest symbolizes traditionalism, the traditional Anglo-centric narrative. Ozzy, whose role at the Alamo was brief but telling, is known for having peed on the Alamo, or actually a statue next to the Alamo in 1982. And we suggest that Ozzy symbolizes what’s called in Texas, Alamo revisionism, which is the idea of more or less peeing on the Alamo.  


Ana Marie Cox: [laughs] You can say piss if want. Like this is, this is sort of a PG-rated podcast. Piss on the Alamo. So just curious, David Bowie? 


Bryan Burrough: Oh, this is my favorite factoid in the whole book. David Bowie was, of course, as everyone knows originally David Jones. There was another David Jones in The Monkees so he needed a new name and one of his favorite TV shows growing up was a, I believe, a two-year series on ABC about Jim Bowie. And so David Jones took the name, which he then pronounced Bowie. 


Ana Marie Cox: Yes, we can, we can just discuss British rock stars—sorry. I can start over. 


Bryan Burrough: I can go all day on this. 


Ana Marie Cox: [laughs] Let’s drill down a little bit on Phil Collins, because I think you’re right, his interest in the Alamo is really representative of what a lot of people like him, let’s say, you know, white dudes of a certain age find inspiring and venerating about the Alamo, which is the masculinity of it, right, there’s this frontier masculinity that is just all over the story. But what’s fascinating to me, and you lay this out in the book, is that women had a huge part in maintaining that myth of masculinity. 


Bryan Burrough: Well, in fact, I’m not sure, I’m not sure that we would be having this discussion if it were not for the several women who were absolutely integral to preserving the prevailing myth. And I don’t know how much, how much detail to go into all this, but there were three. In the late 1800s, the Alamo was basically a ruin. It was remembered, but the place itself was just nothing. And there was no, it was a ruin. There was no commemorative ceremonies or anything until two women in San Antonio teamed up. Ardina De Zavala, the daughter or granddaughter of the first vice president of the Republic. She was a schoolteacher and she wanted to preserve the site. She had no money, however, and so she teamed with a woman named Clara Driscoll, who was among, if not the, wealthiest woman in Texas at the time. And together over a period of years, they essential preserved the site. Unfortunately, they ultimately had a fallout because Ardina wanted something historically accurate. She wanted to make it look like it did. She wanted to preserve especially the long barrack, where so much of the fighting had happened. Where Clara wanted to turn it into a Taj Mahal of Texas, a beautiful park built around the chapel, which is the building that stands there today. Funny, the building, most people called the building, the Alamo. That building that you go to if you go to San Antonio, that’s not the Alamo. That’s a church that was one of several buildings that lined a huge open-air plaza. It’s become known as the Alamo, colloquially. Anyway, the two women ended up in a massive fight and just hated each other until the end of their days in the middle of the 20th century. 


Ana Marie Cox: But because of their interest and because of the certain viewpoint, I suppose that Clara bought more than De Zavala, they wound up perpetuating this specific myth. 


Bryan Burrough: Will Clara’s victory over Ardina really that enshrined this Anglo centric narrative. I mean, the only story Clara Driscoll wanted told was the most historic story possible and under Clara’s supervision from the 1900’s to her death, I want to say in 1940s, the daughters of the Republic of Texas did exactly that. And it was also Clara who really did more than anyone in taking this from a fairly obscure Texas thing to a national thing. Clara Driscoll, because in large part because of her wealth was very active in national politics, including Democratic politics. She actually had Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt down for one of the, I think it was in 1836 for the sesquicentennial. 


Ana Marie Cox: 1936. 


Bryan Burrough: 1936, of course, no, excuse me, the centennial. And so I, I believe Roosevelt was the first or certainly among the first American presidents. And that’s really what, that was the beginning of when you see the Alamo going from being this regional thing to a national and then an international thing.


Ana Marie Cox: You mentioned three women. 


Bryan Burrough: The third is Amelia Williams, who was the first academic to write about the Alamo. And she has such a great personal story, I just hate to end up Ozzie’ing all over her, because she was a, she was a—


Ana Marie Cox: History is complicated. 


Bryan Burrough: She was a middle-aged schoolteacher who came to UT, University of Texas to get her masters and then her Ph.D. for which she was urged to put together the first academic dissertation-level examination of the battle. She did an amazing job trundling around Texas in a Model T, gathering papers and maps and photos and all sorts of stuff. And certainly many things she gathered were of use and helped preserve the history. The problem was that the narrative that she advances in her dissertation is the classic Anglo-centric narrative. It is the one that basically comes out and says that the Mexicans were no good, do for nothing, smelly, that type of stereotype, and that the Americans were bringing the civilizing influence of America—it was this level of B.S. And this is circa, say, 1931, that her dissertation came out. And, you know, but it was so definitive that, in part because UT was so dominant in in the study of Texas history, that that really most of Williams’s assertions were not challenged really until the first outsider started doing rigorous research on this 30, 40 years later in the ’60s and ’70s. So, yeah, women had an incredible role to play, not in necessarily the fighting of the wall, but the preserving of the idea, the preserving of the myth. 


Ana Marie Cox: It’s an interesting parallel to the way that it was women in the south south who helped preserve the myths about the civil war. 


Bryan Burrough: Well, and same thing happened in Texas in that in the 1860s, ’70s and ’80s, it was widows in large part because they were, they couldn’t go into traditional commerce or even academia back then. So this type of thing, remembering their menfolk, was not only an avenue open to them, it was an avenue that men and governments and universities wanted, it was one of the few societally approved and accepted roles for women in the late 1800s. And so while it’s always, we always talk about women preserving the lost cause myth in Dixie, in fact, they were just as important in preserving the Texas creation myth, the Alamo myth, in Texas. 


Ana Marie Cox: And there’s a lost cause element to Texas history as well. We sort of mentioned it in talking about whether or not the Texans were fighting for freedom at the Alamo. One of the things I remember learning in Texas history was that Texas wasn’t really a slave state. It was kind of like it didn’t really count as a slave state. And also, it’s not really the South. It’s Texas. Do you remember this? I have very vivid memories of this? 


Bryan Burrough: I like to think Ana, that I’m not a man that has buttons to push. You’re pushing so many buttons from me, right? Look, I have to say, first off, the only thing I remember about my seventh grade history class, I remember the classroom and I remember the coach, Coach Simmons, very nice man, I don’t remember anything that I was taught. However, talking to other people, I do have a sense of what you’re saying is largely correct. This idea that Texas was not a slave state, it is such balderdash to use an antiquated term. The fact is the Republic of Texas, its constitution, its laws were—we argue, and I think this is defensible—the single most militant slave state, slave nation in recorded history. It had things in it in the Constitution, such as that even the Confederacy didn’t have. The idea that there was no such thing as a free Black in Texas. If you were of color, if you were, if you were Black in Texas, you were a slave, so don’t get shipwrecked, you were going to be a slave. This type of thing, look, by 1900, 60, 70 years later, the stink of the Confederacy, the association with slavery, is one that a lot of people, thinking people are increasingly uncomfortable with in Texas. You saw this in between 1900 and the centennial in 1936, you saw what academics will describe to you as a really organic and yet overt series of events and papers and books whose idea was to sever Texas from the awful old south and make it part of the west, or the new south west. And by and large it was entirely successful. By the 40s and 50s, nobody’s talking about Texas as part of dear old Dixie. They’re talking about Texas rooting tooting shooting cowboys. And this was something that a lot of people in Texas wanted badly. 


Ana Marie Cox: If people are wondering how this happened, how you teach that, what I remember is specifically Texas has a different, it was in in the books. Texas has a different culture than the South. We are not really the South. There is a different ethos in the south. And Texas wasn’t really interested in slavery during the Civil War. Texas fought in the Civil War in order to fight for state’s rights. This is all, I remember this, this is like literally like the tests and stuff, they’d ask questions about this. 


Bryan Burrough: And the reason this notion lived so long is elements of it are true. I would say Texas does have a different culture. We have a western southern culture. Back then, not so much. 1830 and ’40s it was southern until independence, and we come up against, we’re the only southern state with a, the Native American frontier, an active frontier. So there is a different culture. But the idea that slavery somehow wasn’t important to Texas is just crazy talk. The only reason Texas exists is because of slave labor. It’s the only reason whites came. They wouldn’t come without it and they fought like hell bureaucratically and then with bullets to keep slavery. It was the key to the Texas economic model. 


Ana Marie Cox: We’ll be right back with more from Bryan Burrough co-author of Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, in just a second. 


[ad break]


Ana Marie Cox: So we’ve gotten into Texas history, seventh grade Texas history, I’ve always enjoyed telling people about the existence of this year- long course that I think we might be the only state with such a course.


Bryan Burrough: I thought so too. Someone in Maryland told me they have it, too, so I can’t—I thought for years we were the only ones. 


Ana Marie Cox: Well, I’ve been bragging about it for years, so I’m just going to continue bragging about it because I’m a Texan. And it is basically an indoctrination program of sorts. At least it was up until I was in school in the ’80s, right, and I have these vivid memories of being taught about the War Between the States. Texas is not a slave state. I can’t remember the modern stuff. Actually. A lot of LBJ. Just lots of LBJ and Ladybird also. Might have been the whole like last quarter of the class was LBJ and Ladybird. What is the Alamo taught as in Texas schools today? 


Bryan Burrough: Well, it is difficult to generalize because as we learn, talking to a lot of different teachers and students, there are those, perhaps in small towns, perhaps a little bit more in west Texas, who emphasize the traditional narrative more than others. We’ve talked to some Texas teachers who you might describe as progressive in urban areas that teach the importance of Tejanos, that may allude to slavery. It’s hard to generalize. There are state guidelines. In fact, it is actually the law of the land that we must, that teachers must teach that every defender of the Alamo was, quote, “heroic”—that’s one of the nuttier things. But, you know, I think there is a certain variability in what’s taught. But in the end, what matters is—and I can imagine if somebody is sitting there in Connecticut or Michigan saying, OK, Ana, you’re kind of losing me here, why does any of this matter? You may not understand, but you may not understand that every time you think Texans are crazy, Texans are—I mean, they’ve got, their politicians, you do not understand that at the basic core of Texas identity, and yes, there is a Texas identity. I don’t know that there’s an Ohio identity. Sorry, Ohio. I don’t know that there’s a South Dakota identity. But at the core of Texas identity is this idea of Texas exceptionalism, which is the idea that we are not just a little, but a lot better than the Rhode Islands and the Delawares of the world. Why? Well, we started— 


Ana Marie Cox: We were in our own country, goddammit! That’s the main thing. 


Bryan Burrough: Oh, I used to say own country? During this I learned that the cooler thing to say is we’re the only state that defeated a foreign country in its own war. 


Ana Marie Cox: There you go, yes! 


Bryan Burrough: And then became our own country and then chose to merge our country with the US. That’s the way you put at the highest level of Texas identity speak. But, this all comes out. I think it manifests itself in a political culture as well as just a culture culture, in which Texans do strut around, I think a little bit chesty—I mean, male, not female, obviously—a little a little kind of full of ourselves, a little braggadocious. These are qualities that have been associated with a state going back a hundred years. And they are all firmly rooted in this Texas creation myth built around the Alamo. That’s why, and I’m not trying to change the subject that’s why we have gotten such shit for this book. 


Ana Marie Cox: I just want to validate how right you are about with my experience being a Texan, even Austinites are Texans. I mean— 


Bryan Burrough: Liberal liberals act this way, too. 


Ana Marie Cox: Yes, that’s the point I want to make, is that don’t go round insulting Texas in front of somebody from Austin, right? Like that person may vote very differently than the rest of Texas, but if you insult Texas, they’re going to respond like Rick Perry would. I mean, it’s kind of, I mean, it’s a result of all that indoctrination. I read somewhere, and I’m not going to stand by the statistic, that Texas is like the state with the highest rate of books about itself, and the highest rate of buying memorabilia about itself. 


Bryan Burrough: I don’t I, I can’t validate that for sure, but I will tell you, in publishing? It’s the only state in the country where you say you want to write about they’re like, OK. Because they know Texans write, read books about Texas. If you go, any anyone who’s lived here more than 10 or 20 years, I guarantee you they’ve got a bookshelf, just Texas books. I mean, it’s a thing.


Ana Marie Cox: As we are speaking, I want people to noe you are wearing a T-shirt that has Austin on it, right? And I have behind me a blow-up of a baggage tag from the Austin airport.


Bryan Burrough: Mine, mine’s even worse, I have a— 


Ana Marie Cox: And I have a flag over there that I’m not going to turn the camera on. [laughs] 


Bryan Burrough: I have a guest room in here that is every picture of—eight or nine or ten—it’s Texas map or a Dairy Queen or something, my grandsons now, call this the Texas, dad’s Texas room. 


Ana Marie Cox: And we probably should stay too long on this, but the only other comparable kind of pride I’ve ever seen is like maybe New York City specifically. 


Bryan Burrough: Or with your university. 


Ana Marie Cox: Yes. 


Bryan Burrough: It is, the thing about Texas is, it’s a little bit like belonging to a fraternity, a sorority or just a university. It becomes your team. 


Ana Marie Cox: So we’ve really, I think, gotten people clear about how important Texas is to Texans, right? It’s, it is—


Bryan Burrough: That’s incredibly well put. Yes. 


Ana Marie Cox: So maybe this will help people understand why the battle over the Alamo history has bubbled into, like, gigantic form in Texas politics, like careers are made and lost because of the Alamo. 


Bryan Burrough: Well, yeah, we—let’s make clear this book is meant to be, it is not a political book. It’s meant to be fun, accessible thing, a set of new ideas for those who are open to new ideas. Turns out not everybody in Texas is. We knew that. But the pushback, the gust of pushback that we’ve gotten, frankly, I didn’t see coming. Part of this was just the timing. We came out at a time, pure coincidence, where the governor they’re passing a bill in the legislature saying things you can’t, you can’t teach about slavery, to do with the revolution. And then, you know, we got a certain amount of pushback early on, but things really exploded when we, our big publicity event in a time where you don’t have that many publicity events right now because of COVID was at the Texas State History Museum here, the Bullock in Austin, beautiful museum if you’ve never been. And you know, we had something like 400, 500 people that night, and earlier that week, a conservative think tank in the state started calling for state officials to cancel it. That this was anti-Texan, that these ideas didn’t deserve to be floated at the state museum. And four and a half hours before we were supposed to go on our Zoom call for this, the lieutenant governor caused the museum to back out, and the event was canceled. And that, I mean, actually, it turned us overnight from guys who wrote kind of what we think is an interesting fun book on Texas history, into these paragons of First Amendment, you know— 


Ana Marie Cox: You were almost canceled, right. My condolences. You were canceled. You were literally canceled.


Bryan Burrough: Yes. You know, and suddenly we, it became all about politics. We’re getting editorials written about us, and the Times of London, and all of these, everybody and, you know, the three of us who wrote this book, some of us are more comfortable fighting this fight and others just want to talk about Texas history. We all have our own take on this. But it’s been instructive. I wrote this book, having been back in Texas full time for five years, having been gone in the New York, New Jersey area for 30 years. And I had not quite understood how shall we say, idiosyncratic, our state’s leadership had grown in my absence. And so I’m getting my own new kind of education in Texas politics. 


Ana Marie Cox: I was going to say that for future historians, I think one of the head scratching elements of the story might be the degree to which Twitter is involved, like politicians tweeting at each other about the Alamo. 


Bryan Burrough: Yes. 


Ana Marie Cox: Bryan, why do politicians tweet at each other about the Alamo? 


Bryan Burrough: Because it’s faster and more widely-read than press releases. 


Ana Marie Cox: [laughs] I kind of meant what are they fighting about? 


Bryan Burrough: Oh! Oh, gosh. Well, they’re fighting over this, they’re fighting over whether or not the take advanced, or revisionist take advanced and reviewed in Forget the Alamo is real, is right. And we have some older politicians who are kind of view this as some woke lefty attack on their cherished history. And let’s just say I am not that. But it’s, it is a way, I think, the politicians you see doing this, frankly, and I may kick myself for saying this publicly later—it’s much less about what they’re actually fighting it for, than it is displaying to their, to their voters and backers that they’re doing that. It’s essentially a kabuki thing, that’s a lot about fundraising. In fact, the day after the lieutenant governor had to cancel, he went out and sent out a big fundraising flier announcing what he’d just done. And look, I should also say, as much as I can tell you that I am hurt, offended and actually kind of horrified that a state government official could do this, clearly against the law. I have to in the very next breath, admit to you, that this was very, very good for book sales. I mean, this was, the book exploded, publicity exploded, so, you know, I have to I have to acknowledge that.


Ana Marie Cox: We should not get any further without talking about the Latino activism around—it’s not around the Alamo, it’s around retelling the story of Texas, right? But the Alamo is a part of that. That’s become a part of the battle. 


Bryan Burrough: Well, it’s become a huge part of the battle. 


Ana Marie Cox: Yes, that’s just part of the battle. You could say it’s THE battle these days. 


Bryan Burrough: Well, it is. Look, we are keenly aware that Chris and Jason and I, three middle-aged Anglo guys, are not the ideal messengers of Latino empowerment or to carry water for a version of history that has excluded Latinos. But can I just say, nobody else was doing it and we felt like not to do it was to ignore important things that needed to be put out there. One of the main reasons that Texans can’t talk about this is Anglo-Texans have so little sense of what the Alamo myth means, how harmful it is to Latinos, to Tejanos. They just don’t understand it. They talk past each other. [unclear] talk about it at all!


Ana Marie Cox: I mean, let’s be clear, like when you say no one else is talking about, Latino activists have been protesting at the Alamo, have been creating art about the Alamo, I mean, they’ve been trying to to get people— 


Bryan Burrough: Yes. That was the end of what was going to say. Yeah. That LULAC, which is kind of the Latino NAACP, has made the Alamo intermittently an issue since the late ’80s. And yes, there’s been some art, there’s been some stuff on the Internet. But by and large, it’s fair to say that the Latino viewpoint of the Alamo, which is part of the viewpoint that’s in Forget the Alamo, has just made no headway in mainstream Texas media or culture. It’s hard to find people who even understand they have a problem with it, and then don’t understand when you explain it to them. It’s just really hard. And part of this, and I you and I are both Anglos, so this is hard to say, but part of this, no doubt, is the fact that Texas media and Texas politics is still dominated by Anglos, many of which just don’t get it. 


Ana Marie Cox: So I want to turn again to my experience in Texas. 


Bryan Burrough: This is the best part of the interview, is your experience. 


Ana Marie Cox: So I read this book in my home, which is in Travis County in the city of Austin. I’m five miles from the James Bowie High School. I am two miles from the David Crockett High School. And my street is just a couple of turns off of William Cannon Drive. 


Bryan Burrough: I got you beat. 


Ana Marie Cox: OK. You go. 


Bryan Burrough: I live on Bowie. I live on Bowie and on the other side is Lamar. I live like, the two parallel streets are Bowie and Lamar. 


Ana Marie Cox: Want to tell people who Lamar is?


Bryan Burrough: Mirabeau Lamar, he was a famous Texas politician and he fought at Cinzano and then was a famous politician during the Republican years. 


Ana Marie Cox: And I will let people know the trivia answer to who William Cannon is. He supposedly fought at the Battle of San Jacinto. He also was just a wealthy landowner around here, and he bought the land, the 1820s, so I’m guessing there might have been some people who were enslaved on that land. 


Bryan Burrough: Well, if you go back, you go back and look at the roles in 1825, one of every four people, one of every four people in Texas was enslaved. 


Ana Marie Cox: So I bring this up not to brag, but to point out the challenge that might be faced if people wanted to go around renaming stuff. 


Bryan Burrough: It’s been tried. 


Ana Marie Cox: It’s, this is another example maybe to illustrate how deeply the myths of Texas are woven into the identity of every single Texan, which is—I may be wrong about this—but I feel like we have more shit named after questionable people than even in the South. 


Bryan Burrough: Oh, come on, this is not even a debate. 


Ana Marie Cox: OK, all right.  


Bryan Burrough: I mean, just take 8 question people, whether they’re slaveholders or slave traders in Texas, it’s everywhere. Every city has the same— 


Ana Marie Cox: We have a Seguin. We do have a Seguin.


Bryan Burrough: And there’s nothing wrong with it. That’s awesome. But Bowie: slave trader. Travis: no better. Stephen F Austin, the father of Texas, who fought so hard for slavery. I mean, it’s everywhere and not just streets, but schools. Oh my God, I feel, I’ve never counted, but it’s got to be hundreds. Counties, towns, creeks. I mean the names are everywhere. It is part of establishing Texas identity. 


Ana Marie Cox: Yeah. So you said it has been tried. I would be pessimistic for almost any kind of change. 


Bryan Burrough: We, we point out—this started like in the late ’80s. I remember, I believe it cited in the book NAACP picketed one of the Bowie’s. Might have been a Bowie high or a Bowie elementary here in Austin saying that African-American kids should not have to attend a school named after a slave trader. That went nowhere, basically about every two or three or four years since, there’s been an effort somewhere in the state to rename one of these schools. It’s almost always a Bowie or a Travis. And there have been some compromises, I believe a couple of schools that were going to be named, got headed off. But I’m not aware of any that have whose names have been changed. 


Ana Marie Cox: We have a Stephen F. Austin University. I mean, it is, I’m glad you’ve sort of validated my observation because I was thinking about the South, the real South, versus Texas in terms of all the naming conventions. And it’s just, I don’t, yeah, perhaps it’s because a lot of Texas stuff was named after the Civil War. I don’t know. It’s just it’s just so deeply woven in. I’m a little pessimistic about changes being made. A lot pessimistic, I should correct myself. 


Bryan Burrough: This whole thing, though, this whole question of Texas identity that we’re talking about, people, just people who aren’t here may not understand that people in Texas do believe at some primal DNA level, that we’re about 10% more special than you are. And the way we, and the way we remind ourselves and inculcate this in our children is not just seventh grade history, it’s by naming every single thing short of the stars after people from the Texas revolution. 


Ana Marie Cox: Yeah, just 10% better? I don’t know. I mean, it depends on whether or not you went to UT or Texas A&M, I think. We’re getting close to the end here, but I wonder if you wanted to say anything about sort of, the changes that that need to be made could be made. Are you hopeful for a revisionist history of the Alamo at least? 


Bryan Burrough: I am. 


Ana Marie Cox: That would make a huge difference. I mean, we can’t change the place names, maybe. But . . . 


Bryan Burrough: But look, let’s be clear. Number one, we’re not philosophers or professors. We’re just aging journalists who wanted to write a book to bring something to attention. So we don’t have some plan of action, how we like Texas to change. That said, I think we had hoped that with Latinos poised become a majority in Texas, that this was kind of time to maybe have a constructive civic dialog about this, which has not—let’s be clear—this has not happened. And I have, we have a number, befriended a number of Tejano academics who have come up just in the last month or two and said, you know, we’ve been trying to say this for 40 years, and no one listens to the voices of some Tejano professor. And suddenly, because we did it in a book with a catchy title, it’s become a thing. I actually kind of thought they might be pissed at us or irked and in fact, they haven’t. It’s been, it’s been really wonderful, to think that we could maybe try to do something good. And let’s be clear, this is not a zero-sum game. I don’t believe and I don’t think any of us believe that the only way to revise Texas history is to kill the heroic aspects. There are clearly things that could be called heroic here. I mean, there are ways where everyone can have what they want. History is, by its nature, inclusive and excluding, just bringing some new ideas into it shouldn’t mean that others are obviated. That’s pretty far down the conversation. I think that demographics will probably have more to do with this than books. I think that in 20 or 30 years, the ideas that we’re floating, which let’s be clear, are built on the shoulders of academic work done by others before us, I think will be much closer to accepted by the political and the cultural mainstream. 


Ana Marie Cox: Bryan, thank you so much for coming on the show. 


Bryan Burrough: Thank you. This was an awesome interview. Thank you. 


Ana Marie Cox: And that is it for the show. This podcast is a production of Crooked Media, produced by Alison Herrera with assistance from Izzy Margulies. Again, we talked to Bryan Burrough, co-author of Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, co-written with Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford. Take care of yourselves.