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Gregg Cantrell’s book on the life and times of Stephen Austin is one of the very important literary and historical analyses of the character Stephen Austin since Eugene Barker wrote his own historical biography in 1925. The founder of Texas has been the subject of a lot of controversy both in his lifetime and during endeavors to elevate him just like the founders of other states around the globe. While Austin is a central figure in the history of Texas, he remains a little understood figure in contemporary American society. The bibliographic work of Cantrell is thus an attempt at making the Texas founder less of an enigma (Cantrell 1999, 13).
Whereas previous attempts at chronicling the life and times of Austin focused on political measures, Cantreell attempts to give more flesh to the man by exploring broader contexts in the life of Austin. Austin is placed in the context of the histories of three regions: the Mexican borderlands, the south and the West. This placing of Austin in these different contexts gives deeper insights on the aspects of the Texan founder. Austin employed slave labor and was a proponent of plantation Agriculture which makes him fit the bill of a Southerner. By taking up Mexican citizenship and its culture and language, he is placed in the context of borderlands. His business dealings which were imbued with speculation and capitalism place him in the context of Western history. Cantrell incorporates all these elements in the life of Austin in order to show how all these influences led to the development of the Texan founder and his legacy (Cantrell 1999, 134-165).
Cantrell’s Austin is an amalgamation of self pity, self awareness, skills of mediation and negotiation and a sincere sense of duty. The character of Austin is in a constant state of modification and incorporation all through his life. He is involved in land deals in Arkansas, promoted his father’s banking interests through the Missouri parliament and frequent run ins with opponents. Many a time Austin encountered real and imagined enemies who he blamed for his troubles. Cantrell asserts that the entire Austin family was in a constant state of feeling besieged by enemies and as such was always in a combative state. This according to Cantrell played a major role in forging the character of Austin as a negotiator and mediator in the early Mexican republic where he established many important connections with potential adversaries (Cantrell 1999, 257-60). This may be evidenced by his efforts to convince Manuel de Mier y Teran into taking over Texas. In the course of time Austin even wins over his bitter rival William Wharton into his way of thinking. Cantrell asserts that in all this, Austin had a mission which was greater than mere speculation in land. His vision for the land of Texas is what gave him impetus which eventually shaped the history of Texas in relation to the three regions and their people.
Even as Cantrell shows certain sympathy towards Austin he does not lose focus of the critical realities. The Texas founder was a controversial figure all through his lifetime since his motives for Texas were not clear. Due to his special connections high in the Mexican government, many people considered him to enjoy special privilege. Austin was a shrewd politician and businessman and was always getting something out of any situation. While he was opposed to the actions of the Edwards brothers which were against Mexican government policy, he nevertheless was in support of the Fredonia Rebellion which was intended to demonstrate that he was loyal to Mexico City. This action may have appeared suspicious to his fellow colonists even though Cantrell asserts that Austin believed in a semiautonomous Texas within Mexico (Cantrell 1999, 304).
Austin’s character is brought out exceptionally well in Cantrell’s biography which fleshes out the man from the bronze statue figure he is associated with in many minds. Austin showed an unexplainable penchant for perseverance and persistence which enabled him to attain great success despite his ill health and considerable hardship. Austin masters Spanish and its accompanying culture with a single minded determination that belied the great difficulty he faced on immigrating to Texas. He shows a remarkable ability to plan, master detail, negotiate and get most advantage from difficult situations which showed his leadership ability. He also shows a remarkable penchant for sacrifice when he makes the decision to leave behind family so to enable him get back the wealth his family had amassed. His sacrifice is also portrayed on his lack of interest in having a relationship with a distant cousin since he was too much involved in his vision for Texas to be involved in romance. He also shows his shrewdness by sacrificing command of the undisciplined Mexican army and opting to take up a diplomatic post in the United States, since he knew that such a post would adhere to military glory in the instance of the failure of Texan rebellion against Mexico (Cantrell 1999, 378-89).
The author Cantrell has made a very deep analytical work on Stephen Austin by performing a lot of research on Mexican and American historical sources. The biography presents Austin as character that develops in the course of history as opposed to a static hero as had previously been done by authors like Eugene Baker. The biography gives deep insights into the life and times of Stephen Austin which previous texts failed to consider and capture. The text places Stephen Austin in the context of the esoteric relations between the United States, Mexico, Southern and Western history. Cantrell has achieved a compelling and interesting read into the founder father of Texas that is readable by both the historical scholar and the layman.