by Dr. Bruce Winders, Alamo Curator
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” — Declaration of Independence, 1776.
On July 4th, 1845, delegates meeting in Austin decided to let citizens of the Republic of Texas choose if they wanted to join the United States. The vote, which took placed on October 13, overwhelmingly affirmed Texans’ desire to be part of the U.S. On February 19, 1846, President Anson Jones announced in a ceremony that “the Republic of Texas is no more.” Texas had become the 28th state in what was referred to as the Union, joining a federal republic of twenty-seven other states.
The Fourth of July is a good time to refresh our understanding about just what a republic is. The modern republic, a recent development in the world history, has existed as we know it for fewer than 250 years. A quick review of western civilization explains how the republic as a form of government came into vogue. The historic period of the Protestant Reformation (1517–1648) broke Rome’s monopoly over Christianity.
What emerged was the concept that man possessed “free will” or the right to choose how to worship God without interference from an established church or clergy. Concurrently, the Renaissance Era (1300–1600) further broke with religion orthodoxy by contending that man’s earthly life, in addition to his afterlife, represented an important time. The Renaissance promoted the role of man as an individual and not just a cog in a machine-like society. These movements set the stage for a period in western civilization called the Enlightenment (1600–1800), which promoted a further break from the traditional worldview.
The republic was an idea reborn during the Enlightenment. During this time in history, monarchs ruled all nations. The Protestant Reformation had put an end to the notion that kings were chosen directly by God to be his earthly representative. It became much easier to question or oppose a ruler if he or she was not believed to be invested with divine authority.
As for the Renaissance’s emphasis on the individual, shouldn’t a person who controlled his spiritual destiny also be free to direct his own earthly matters by having a say in civic affairs? During the Enlightenment, intellectuals known as philosophes searched for a type of government that could replace the monarchy. Ancient Greece and Rome provided the example — the republic.
How was a republic different from what came before? Under a system of monarchy, power flowed from above down to the people, who were called subjects. Society was stratified with various levels of nobility on top and commoners on the bottom. Moving up this societal ladder in which a person’s station was determined by birth proved difficult to impossible for most people. Rigid and stagnant, a monarchial society offered little chance for advancement because its rules and norms were intended to preserve the status quo.
The republic turned this tradition upside down. Emphasis was placed on the individual, not class or station. People were no longer considered subjects (essentially property of the king) but were designated citizens in recognition of their individual worth. Citizens were considered equal and endowed with basic freedoms such as speech, assembly, and religion. In addition to possessing rights, though, citizens had the obligation to obey the law and defend the republic whenever it was endangered.
In the notable reversal of the power structure, citizens didn’t live under hereditary rulers but instead elected their own leaders. Thus, this new theory of government placed the individual citizen in charge of his or her own fate.
Every year the Alamo celebrates the republic by offering public readings of the U.S. Declaration of Independence as a reminder of the principles upon which our nations was founded. Please join us this July 4th when we once again celebrate the republic of the United States of America.