Anson Jones threw off the failures of his early life to become one of the most essential leaders of early Texas, a master diplomat who guided Texas to annexation as the 28th state in the Union. Ironically, the triumph of annexation ended in personal ruin for Jones, and his final years were ones of bitterness and tragedy
Born in 1798, Anson Jones was the thirteenth and next to last of the children of Solomon and Sarah Jones, tenant farmers in western Massachusetts. The area was rich in natural beauty and in political turmoil. Before Jones's birth, it was the center of Shay's Rebellion, an uprising against the fledgling United States government.
It is not known whether any of Jones's family were rebels. In later life, Anson Jones would remember a childhood marked by poverty and instability. The family moved ten times before he reached the age of 18, trying to better its situation with little success.
Anson was a frail boy who spent most of his time helping his father with a small tanning business and reading and studying when he could find the time. Life was hard, and Jones came of age as an awkward, serious, and timid young man.
Sarah Jones, Anson's mother, died when Jones was 19. Shortly thereafter, the family splintered. Jones was unsure what he wanted to do with his life and allowed his family to pressure him into studying medicine, a course he later regretted. His older brothers paid for him to apprentice with a doctor in Connecticut. He bounced around to several doctors before finally finding a mentor who helped him master the basics of medicine. In 1820, he received his license to practice and opened a small office in Bainbridge, New York. The town already had a doctor, and Jones was unable to attract much business. He moved to Norwich and opened a drugstore, which failed when some of Jones's creditors seized his stock of goods to pay off debts from his student days.
Hoping to make a new start, Jones headed for western Virginia but was overtaken in Philadelphia by his creditors and stripped of everything he owned, even his watch, in order to satisfy his debts. Destitute, he opened a medical office in a small apartment. He knew no one in the city and was too shy to make any friends. The business was another failure.
By 1824, Jones decided he had nothing to lose by taking a gamble on adventure. He moved to Venezuela and set up a medical practice in Caracas, where there were very few physicians. For the first time in his life he had a taste of success. His services were in demand, and he was able to save several hundred dollars in Spanish gold, enough to return to Philadelphia to attend Jefferson College and receive an M.D. degree.
Jones tried to improve his life by overcoming his shyness. He joined the Masons and the Odd Fellows and volunteered for leadership roles. Unfortunately, Jones had developed a new style to compensate for his old timidity, coming on as cold and abrasive. He alienated both prospective patients and the other men in his fraternal organizations. In 1832, again feeling himself a failure, he abruptly decided to abandon the medical profession. He and another Philadelphia man went into partnership to open a mercantile house in New Orleans.
Jones arrived in New Orleans in the middle of two devastating epidemics of cholera and yellow fever that had decimated the city. His troubles continued when his business partner turned out to be a crook and skipped town, leaving Jones in debt and facing multiple lawsuits from the failed business.
He opened a medical office just to make ends meet. Depressed and desperate, he found himself gambling and drinking heavily. It was at this time that he met Jeremiah Brown, a sea captain who commanded the Sabine, a Texas trader. Brown told Jones that the Brazoria settlement was in need of a physician. Jones took stock of his life. He had $32 in cash, $50 worth of medicines, and owed $2000. On October 14, 1833, Anson Jones dug into his pockets, counted out the $15 fare to Texas, and sailed into the unknown.
Anson Jones arrived in Brazoria, a small settlement of about fifty families, on November 1, 1833. He was shocked to find the town grief-stricken from a cholera epidemic that had killed eighty people. Jones had no desire to relive the terrible experience he had had in New Orleans. He decided to leave on the next departure of the Sabine, scheduled in two weeks.
When the people of Brazoria learned that Jones was a doctor with fifty dollars worth of medicine in tow, they began to call on him. Two of the area's doctors had died in the epidemic, they explained; Dr. Jones was desperately needed. To be begged to stay anywhere was a new experience for Anson Jones. He decided to give Texas a chance. By the end of 1834 he had a practice worth $5000 a year and had been joined in Texas by his sister Mary and his cousin Ira, also a doctor.
He had never been interested in politics. But even as a casual observer, Jones could see that his new home would soon be engulfed by war with Mexico. He was a peace-loving man but was greatly influenced by the increasingly militant stand of Stephen F. Austin. In 1835, he joined other leading citizens of Brazoria in signing the petition that called for the Consultation. Late in the year, Jones visited the Consultation's deliberations and was disgusted by the drunkenness and what he considered the dishonest rhetoric. Jones felt so strongly that, for the first time in his life, he spoke out. He helped organize a public meeting in Columbia that called for a declaration of independence from Mexico.
When war came, Jones recognized that he and his family would be caught up in it. He sent his sister Mary to New York for safety. When word reached Brazoria of the fall of the Alamo, Jones enlisted as a private in the Texas infantry. Jones was quickly put to work treating dysentery, measles, and other diseases afflicting the soldiers. But Jones wanted to fight. When the word came that the Texas troops were going to attack Santa Anna's army, he turned over his sick patients to another doctor and marched with the army to take part in the Battle of San Jacinto.
After the fight, Jones returned to his more familiar role, helping to tend to the wounded. His medical knowledge caught the attention of General Sam Houston, and Jones was selected to organize a medical corps for the Texas army. In the summer of 1836, he went back to New Orleans to buy medical supplies for Texas. He also settled his personal debts while in the city. Houston and other Texas leaders wanted Jones to remain in service, creating the position for him of apothecary general, but Jones decided to return to Brazoria and resume his medical practice.
His cousin Ira had died during the war, so Jones was once again alone in practice. His travels as a doctor took him often to the temporary capitol of Columbia, and Jones became intensely interested in public questions and the state of the nation. He was outraged when private companies began to swoop into Texas and attempt to control the Texas economy. He finally realized that political matters had become more important to him than the practice of medicine.
Jones, still a shy and solitary man at heart, now jumped into the political fray. He was elected to the Second Texas Congress. Jones almost immediately became one of the most respected statesmen in the ramshackle new capital of Houston. Like Jones, almost none of the legislators had any experience in government. But Jones had qualities that made him stand out from most early Texas leaders; namely, he was methodical, reasonable, and detail oriented. His few months of medical school in Philadelphia made him the most educated man in Congress; his colleagues were impressed with his passing knowledge of Latin and French. Anson Jones became chairman of three key committees: Foreign Relations, Ways and Means, and Privileges and Elections. While many members of the government were getting drunk and brawling in the streets, Jones was mastering the details of government.
During his time in Congress, Jones lived at a boarding house. It was there that he met a pretty, sad young woman named Mary Smith McCrory. Although only 18, Mary had been recently widowed when her husband died after only two months of marriage. They began a quiet romance. Soon Jones asked her to marry him and return with him to Brazoria. He would resume the life of a country doctor. They scheduled the wedding for June 1838.
Fate intervened in the form of Sam Houston. Ever since the Texas Revolution, relations with the United States had been a confused mess. Houston needed a new minister to represent the Texas cause in Washington, D.C. His choice was Anson Jones. After some hesitation, Jones felt obligated to help. He and Mary decided to postpone the wedding.
Jones's letters and diaries from this period reveal him to be lonely, depressed, and irritable. Nonetheless, he did a brilliant job in carrying out Houston's policies. Recognizing that annexation was a dead issue, Jones formally withdrew Texas's proposition to join the United States. Houston and Jones now believed that Europe held the key to the immediate future of Texas, and Jones began to cultivate the ministers of Britain and France, proposing Texas as the next economic kingdom for cotton, beef, wool, and sugar. Jones was considered so successful that when he returned home after being dismissed by the new president, Mirabeau Lamar, he was welcomed back to Texas as a hero.
Jones immediately took office as a Texas senator, filling the unexpired term of a senator who had died. He became one of President Lamar's harshest critics. Once again his intellectual abilities made him stand out. Jones chaired the Foreign Relations and Judiciary committees and was eventually chosen as president pro tem of the Senate.
Jones's love life took several twists and turns. In Washington, he had fallen in love with Jeannette Thurston, the daughter of a federal judge, who turned him down as a suitor. When Jones returned to Texas, he found that Mary McCrory had moved to the frontier town of Austin, Lamar's new capital. His journals reveal that things were somewhat awkward between them when they met again. In his quiet way, Jones started over with the young widow. He opened a medical practice in Austin. The two of them went riding, and Jones spent time at her family's boarding house. On May 23, 1840, they were married. The next year they moved back to Brazoria where Jones resumed practice as a country doctor. They soon started a family with the birth of a son, Sam.
Sam Houston was reelected to a second term as president in the fall of 1841 and appointed Jones as secretary of state. For Anson Jones, it would be the culmination of his career.
Jones took the helm of foreign affairs at a critical time in Texas history. On one side of the ledger, Jones could place recognition by France and the Netherlands and tentative recognition by Great Britain and Belgium. On the other side of the ledger, after the folly of Lamar's Santa Fe Expedition, the possibilities for peace with Mexico seemed more remote than ever.
Houston and Jones agreed on the purpose of getting two proposals, preferably at the same time: an offer of annexation from the United States and an acknowledgment of Texas independence from Mexico. This way, Texas could make the irrevocable choice between annexation and independence.
The threatening war with Mexico was the first crisis that Jones had to handle. A victory over Mexico could mean secure independence for Texas, but Jones believed that Texas lacked the money, men, and leadership to pull off a successful invasion. He and Houston quarreled over policy questions, especially after Houston committed troops to the Somerville expedition, which led to the disastrous Mier expedition.
Jones's European negotiations were more successful and consumed most of his time as secretary of state. He worked with European diplomats on laying the groundwork for colonies of immigrants to start new lives in Texas. Most importantly, he began a complicated series of negotiations with the United States, Britain, France, and Mexico, sometimes directly, sometimes through third parties. Skillfully, Jones made it appear that Texas was about to receive Mexican recognition and become a British satellite. If anything could spur the United States to reconsider annexation of Texas, it would be the prospect of losing Texas forever, with a British-controlled Texas blocking westward expansion.
During their time together, Jones lost much respect for Sam Houston. He detested Houston's emotional nature and his political gamesmanship. Yet he and Houston were united in their goals and their way of thinking about the future of Texas. By 1844, as a result of their diplomatic efforts, Britain had negotiated an armistice between Texas and Mexico; the Texas prisoners of war had been released; and the French were establishing regular steamship service to Texas. More trade deals were in the works.
At the same time, the United States had opened negotiations with Texas on annexation. In spite of their growing differences, Houston wanted Jones to succeed him as the next President of Texas. Houston believed that only Jones could be trusted to handle the delicate diplomacy that would result in the long-awaited goal. During the campaign year, Texas became a pawn in the U.S. presidential election between James Polk and Henry Clay.
During the Texas presidential election campaign, Jones came to distrust Houston more and more. Eventually, he decided that Houston was trying to sabotage both his candidacy and Texas's chances for annexation. The issues of the campaign became muddied as Jones slugged it out with General Edward Burleson. Jones was still a shy and colorless man, and the intricacies of his foreign policy made him seem slick and untrustworthy to many voters. All the same, Burleson was a plain soldier with no diplomatic experience. Most Texans wanted annexation, and this factor gave Jones the victory in a close election.
In just eight years, Jones had gone from penniless immigrant to president of the Republic of Texas. In that time, he had educated himself, growing from mediocre country doctor to master of international diplomacy. He had pursued every angle open to Texas, from an alliance with Britain and France to annexation to complete independence. Now, on the eve of his greatest triumph, it was this pursuit of alternatives that was to prove his undoing.
Following popular sentiment, the Texas Congress declared for joining the Union. Jones counseled caution. Polk and pro-Texas sentiment had carried the day in the U.S. presidential election, but there was no guarantee that annexation would pass the U.S. Congress. If it failed, Jones wanted to be free to propose independence under a British and French alliance.
On February 27-28, the U.S. Congress approved Texas annexation. It would be almost a month before the word reached Texas. In the meantime, Jones had reached a deal with England and France to negotiate peace and recognition from Mexico. Jones warned the European ministers that Texans would not tolerate much further delay and gave them 90 days in which to conclude the negotiations. He also made it clear that Texas might choose annexation over the Mexican treaty even if negotiations were successful.
When the news of annexation reached Texas on March 20, a storm of protest broke upon Jones and his policies. The president was denounced as a sell-out to Britain. He was burned in effigy, and wild threats were made to overthrow the government. Through it all, Jones remained publicly silent. In his own mind, he had acted correctly, giving Texas the choice of peace with Mexico and independence, or U.S. annexation and almost certain war. But while Jones may have been a skilled diplomat, he was no politician. The people of Texas did not want choices and alternatives. They wanted annexation, and the sooner the better.
On June 4, 1845, Jones received word from the British minister that Mexico had agreed to a treaty guaranteeing peace and the permanent independence of Texas. Jones presented the treaty to the Texas Congress. A furious Congress rejected the treaty, approved annexation to the United States, and adopted resolutions censuring Jones. Later in the summer, Jones was stripped of most of his powers. Jones was stunned by the outcry against him.
For the remainder of his term of office, Jones spent most of his time at his plantation, Barrington, near Brazoria, with his wife and their three children. His final official act was to preside over the transfer of power on February 19, 1846. At the ceremony setting up the government of Texas as a state in the Union, Jones delivered a short and simple address, concluding, "The final act in this great drama is now performed. The Republic of Texas is no more." Then, with his own hands, he lowered the flag of the Republic of Texas for the last time.
In the years that followed, Jones built a thriving plantation at Barrington and a prosperous medical practice. His wife Mary was devoted to him, and his children were healthy and intelligent. His sister Mary moved back to Texas and opened a schoolhouse nearby where the Jones children and others had their lessons.
Some men might have been happy, but Anson Jones was not. Over the years he grew bitter and obsessed. He spent years copying old diaries and letters, accumulating six hundred pages of manuscript that he said would prove the wisdom of his annexation policies. He traveled to New England, scene of his impoverished boyhood, where he spent months researching his genealogy. He took grim satisfaction when he finally proved that he was a descendant of the famous Cromwell family. Most destructively, he conceived an insane hatred of Sam Houston, becoming convinced that Houston was a villain who would destroy Texas.
In 1849, Jones was thrown from a horse. His left arm was crushed and became withered and discolored. For a time, the severe injury seemed to jolt him into the present. He traveled to the east for medical treatment and became interested in business and new technology, especially railroads. He rejoined the Odd Fellows and became involved in his church. But he soon found that the business world was as corrupt as the politics he had renounced. His arm gave him constant pain that even morphine could not blunt, and he retired once more to a brooding existence at Barrington.
In 1857, both of Texas's seats in the United States Senate were vacant. Sam Houston was running for governor rather than seeking another term in the Senate, and Thomas J. Rusk had committed suicide. Jones believed that he would be chosen by the state legislature to fill one of the vacancies. He traveled to Austin to accept the honor in person. He expected to be greeted by callers eager to hear his views on the future course of Texas. Instead, he sat alone at his inn with his papers and his newspaper clippings. When the balloting took place, he received not a single vote.
Jones was shattered. Thereafter, his life rapidly spiraled out of control. Hastily, he decided to sell his plantation and move the whole family to Galveston to start over. He let Barrington go for only a fourth of its value. Leaving the family still at the plantation, he went to Houston and gave his six-hundred page manuscript to his bankers. It would explain everything about the true founding of the Republic of Texas.
Then Anson Jones checked into the Old Capitol hotel, the wooden building that had once served as the capitol of Texas, the place where he had shed his identity as a failed country doctor and become a respected statesman. He stayed for four days, brooding upon the past. He ate dinner with a friend, telling him that, "My public career began in this house, and I have been thinking it might close here." That night, January 9, 1858, Anson Jones returned to his room and shot himself. He was fifty-nine years old.
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