Wholly Model Rounders: The Republic of Texas’ Christmas Congress
February 20, 2013 § 2 Comments
(With thanks to the Holy Modal Rounders)
“It has been said that the pioneers of most new countries and settlements are made up of young men of reckless and dissolute habits, impatient of restraint and of the trammels of society; they rush into danger for excitement’s sake, and the freedom attending a half wild life. But in the first installment of young men who comprised the clerks of the departments and citizens of Austin, there was a class of men of such superior mental and moral culture and intellectual endowments, that their equals could probably not be found in any place of similar size in the older states. During the first years after the settlement of the place, there was much of that native chivalry and gallantry that distinguish the true gentleman.” – Frank Brown (early Austin settler, newspaperman, Travis County Clerk and local historian)
Not only were these young men smarter and better educated than the High Popalorum and Low Popahirum (look that up!) they served, they were also better paid ($5 per day) than those members of the Republic’s Congress, as well they should have been. After all, they did all the hard thinking and heavy lifting.
On March 25, 1841, the Austin Centinel described the lofty Austin lifestyle:
“Could a gallant knight of the sixteenth century arise from his tomb, and find himself suddenly transported to Austin, he would scarcely suppose that he had slumbered away more than 200 years. It is true, he would find no tournament or mailed brother, to break him with a lance, but he would on every hand, find bold spirits, equipt for the pursuits of war, and fair ones for whose smiles he might well afford to peril life. The days of chivalry appear, indeed, to have revived, for here every citizen is a soldier, and every lady a heroine.
“From all we can learn, Austin is the gayest, healthiest and happiest spot in Texas. We have more improvements, as much business, more strangers, more excitement, and finer, higher times here than anywhere else. All those idle reports about Indian murders, and Mexican depredations, are mere stuff, and only serve to keep off the ennui. While the citizens of the low country are tugging and splashing about in the mud and the mire, here we are coursing it over our high hills and green plains, with light hearts and dry heels, as freely as the happy Nimrod and his gleesome followers of old. Here, we are not confined to the margins of a river, or the circuit of a single prairie in the tame chase of fox and deer; but away, and away do we follow the red man and the mountain roe, pursue the wild mustang across his boundless home, besiege the buffaloe or antelope while browsing upon our lawns, trace the bear and the tiger to their deep caverns amongst the craggy cliffs of the highlands, or snatch the spotted trout from the currents of our rapid rivers, and still and crystal pools.”
On May 23, 1840, the Austin Sentinel (The paper had changed the spelling of its name.) announced, “We have had three public celebrations in our city during the past few weeks.” It then went on to smugly say that there were no behavior problems associated with the events, much unlike Houston, where the papers recently rejoiced that the city had gone a couple of days without some major act of crime.
The first form of public entertainment in Austin was the Lyceum, which featured lectures and debates in the Senate chamber. Ladies and gentlemen were invited. Lyceum members met every Thursday evening, and a lecture, address or essay was delivered on the second and last Thursdays of each month.
On March 25, 1841, Mr. T. G. Foster delivered an address to the Lyceum “upon a subject on which he must be interesting. For eloquent must be the man indeed, who has love, matrimony, and the ladies for the inspiring subject of his discourse. Therefore, if every body don’t go this time, we will never say Lyceum to them again.”
Unlike most other boom towns, Austin had a newspaper, reading room, geology museum, and debating society before it had a proper bawdyhouse, burlesque show (called variety theatres back in the day), or saloon.
Houston, on the other hand, had the Houston Theater, which was a far cry from anything Austin had in the way of entertainment. The Houston Theater had opened a little over a year earlier, and the inaugural production is best remembered for the death by opium overdose of one of the actors. In the spirit of Janis Joplin 130 years later, he had been nervous and just wanted to chill out a bit.
The first public burlesquing of the ruling chuzzlewits of Texas took place on Christmas Day 1841, a fitting holiday gift for all the generations of satirists to come.
On December 12, 1841, the Austin Daily Bulletin printed the following Bulletin! No. 1:
The Congress Extraordinary of the Rounders of the Republic of Texas will convene at the Grand Hall above the Bexar Exchange on Saturday the 25th instant.
All distinguished Rounders of the Republic are invited to attend. Several members have already arrived; among them are the members from Screw-Auger Creek, Screamersville, Schubatansville, Squizzlejig county, Toe Nail, Kamchatska, Epidemic, Hyena’s Hollow, and Racoon’s Ford.
The Dictator General of the Rounders of the Republic is hourly expected. The message of his Excellency is expected to combine originality, vigor, philosophy, and sage advice to the members of the Fraternity.
We are requested to publish the two subjoined rules, and call the particular attention of members to their provisions prior to the commencement of business.
“If any member is too drunk to rise from his seat to speak, the Chair shall appoint a committee of three to hold him up; but provided the member shall be dead drunk, and unable to speak, the Chair shall appoint an additional committee of two to speak for him: Provided, however, that if the member is able to hold up by tables, chairs, etc. then and in that case one of the committee shall gesticulate for him.
“No member shall absent him from the House, unless he have leave to be sick.”
Christmas day 1841 was cold and damp and all without was uninviting, but inside the grand hall above the Bexar Exchange the merry Congress Extraordinary of the Rounders of the Republic met in high spirits. The Congress was as rollicking a set of madcaps as has ever, probably, congregated in obedience to the proclamation of one man, since Falstaff rallied his force at the “Boar’s Head,” in Eastcheap. It was mainly composed of Clerks of Departments: the Chief Clerks composed the Senate, and the Assistant Clerks the House of Representatives.
Their acts of the day, and extraordinary deliberations and pratorial efforts prior to their passage, were without parallel. The great Congress of Sovreigns at Vienna was not more magniloquent, nor half so jovial.
The Republic of Texas, the civil and judicial officers and the Congress that convened on the hill were abolished without ceremony, and it little more time than it took to relate it. The country was then placed under new and more efficient government, bills were introduced and passed with a celerity that would have done credit to more practiced legislators; and one of the standing rules being that no member should be required to speak with any relevancy to the subject under consideration, there was a diffusion of humor and a latitude of figure and simile, beyond any previous example. Bills were introduced and passed, corrective of the general ills of society, and the troubles, difficulties and inconveniences of Austin, and the pecuniary embarrassment of the members in particular.
Valuable reports on finance and other important subjects were made, and ingenious projects for gulling the world were adopted. The general tendency of the legislation was to benefit the people a great deal, and the Congress much more, a course for which there was plenty of precedent.
The Congress was liberally supplied with plenty of the source of hilarious vitality, and never, it was ventured to say, had a more intelligent, witty or business-like body convened in the world.
The message of the Dictator was a document which dealt less in the sophistications of government and diplomacy, than such documents generally do; and there was a plain directness in its advice and recommendations worthy of imitation by other high dignitaries. Wit and eloquence flashed upon, and lighted up, the assemblage from morning till night, and grace of posture and gesture date an epoch from the day that the first Congress of the Rounders of the Republic assembled.
It will be readily inferred that the object of this extraordinary gathering was to burlesque the regular Congress. It was regarded as a success. Some of the Congressmen, who were admitted to the Rounders’ Hall during the discussions, stated that it contained more talent than the national Congress; and that was before our legislators had become drawfed to pigmies. It furnished the staple of conversation for a considerable time to the citizens of Austin.
As this Saturnalia commenced on the first of the Christmas holidays, by proclamation it was convoked to re-assemble on the first of January, 1842, in the year of confusion 5845.