Passionate Nation: The Epic History of Texas
by James L. Haley, Free Press (division of Simon & Schuster), New York, 2006, $35.
Don’t let the title confuse you. Texas was a separate nation for only about a decade before becoming the 28th state on December 29, 1845. But passionate it certainly has been— under Spanish (1519-1685), French (to 1690), Spanish again (to 1821) and Mexican (to 1836) rule; as an independent republic (to 1845); as one of the U.S. states (to 1861); as a member of the Confederate States of America (to 1865); and back to being the Lone Star State again. At 636 pages, Passionate Nation is big, but it could be bigger. It’s about Texas, after all. Trying to fit in all that pre-Alamo stuff, as well as the myth-enshrouded Alamo affair and the postAlamo years, is no small task, but James L. Haley, best known for his biography of Sam Houston, handles the challenge well. Only at the end, in modern times, does he seem to run out of steam. (George W. Bush is not yet history, but he makes it into the “Afterword.”)
Haley says in his preface that “T.R. Fehrenback’s Lone Star, published in 1968, marks the last time the mainstream book market has seen a general history of Texas.” Certainly, the state and the nation were overdue in receiving another such Texas history book, not counting “works consisting of sanitized passion plays for the schoolchildren” (as Haley calls the many textbooks that have come out in the last 40 years). Actually, only a small part of Passionate Nation deals with events over the last four decades, but that’s OK with those of us who can’t get enough of the earlier, more intriguing characters and stories. Also, Haley often looks at the lives of the rank-and-file people (Anglos or not) rather than just the deeds of the familiar Texas leaders and heroes. Naturally, the author has plenty more to say about Sam Houston and Jim Bowie, but he also provides insight into unsung Texans such as Benjamin Lundy, a Quaker abolitionist who came to Texas in 1833 and fought against annexation by the United States, and Daniel Webster “80 John” Wallace, a respected black cattleman in the early 20th century.
Haley says that Texas history is unique among the 50 states (since it was a republic, not a territory, before becoming a state) and that Texans “are bonded more tightly to their history than are the people of any other state.” Virginians and others might dispute that last statement, but it’s not worth getting up in arms over. We concede that the strong passions of Texans have led to romance, violence and myths larger than the state itself. Haley covers it all, selectively of course, for this is only a one-volume work. He offers many fine sources for additional reading, which will delight those Texans who can’t get enough of themselves and those outsiders who have particular passions of their own.
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.