Stephen Austin's Legalistic Concerns
JOSEPH W. MCKNIGHT*
STEPHEN FULLER AUSTIN NEVER BECAME A LAWYER IN THE PROFES-
sional sense of being admitted to the bar. At an early time his father
had hoped that he would follow that profession, and he actually spent
an apprenticeship of about six months toward attaining that goal.
Much of his life was nonetheless spent in performing lawyerly func-
tions: negotiating, drawing and supervising the drafting of contracts
and other instruments of legal significance, and, for long periods, serv-
ing as a legislator and as a judge. These, however, were secondary as-
pects of Austin's greatest achievement: establishing an Anglo-American
community in Texas on a foundation of law as the basis of orderly so-
ciety. Because the legal aspect of a society tends to be enveloped in its
own professional jargon and the impact of law on daily life is subsumed
in the current of events that dominate the narrative of a particular pe-
riod, the legal side of those events tends to be lost to the historian's view.
Hence, a review of that aspect of Austin's activity and his perceptions of
law may help to explain his achievements and to supply a different per-
spective from which his work may be viewed.
In 1798, over twenty years before the Texas project was begun, Moses
Austin had moved his family westward from Wythe County, Virginia,
to St. Genevieve, the largest town in what would later become the Mis-
souri Territory. The Austins, thereupon, became subjects of the king of
Spain. From observation of his father's efforts and from his own later
experience Stephen Austin became accustomed to dealing with officials
who were not especially pleased to have settlers from the United States
among them and who were suspicious of any action which smelled of
American expansionism. Despite this suspicion, the Americans in the
region were tolerated and their presence was thought to be innocuous
and even useful at times. The population of Missouri when the Austins
*Joseph W. McKnight is professor of law at Southern Methodist University. He is grateful to
David B. Gracy II for sharing with him some of the products of research sponsored by the
Beretta Foundation of San Antonio and to his assistants Elizabeth A. Smith and David Wise.
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 89, July 1985 - April, 1986. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117151/. Accessed April 26, 2015.