The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 85, July 1981 - April, 1982 Page: 2
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Southwestern Historical Quarterly
especially grave in 1854, when the presence of a group of Mexican
Texans further loosened the controls of masters over slaves, and again
in 1856 and i86o, when statewide rumors of slave rebellion conjured
up the specter of black insurrection. The question that confronted
Austin in each instance was, given its tradition of limited government,
could the city meet the emergency? Further, if the community went
outside the legal system to quell the turmoil that threatened from
below, could law be restored once the crisis passed? Or would the
efforts to stir up "vigilance" create instead hysteria, overturning both
law and order?2
Despite its rudimentary state of development, the city government
from the outset recognized the special nature of urban bondage and
created a set of laws to restrict slave social life. In 1840 the mayor and
aldermen passed the first of these ordinances, establishing a ten o'clock
curfew for slaves, outlawing the sale of liquor to bondsmen, and for-
bidding "any white man or Mexican" from "making associates" of
Negroes. In 1848 the city made it illegal for an owner to allow a slave
to hire his own time or to "act or deal as a free person." The major
problem that faced the city officials was not deciding what activities to
prohibit but arriving at a means of enforcing their edicts. Recognizing
the weakness of relying on the city marshal alone, the council in 1850
created a city watch, to be appointed monthly, with responsibility for
suppressing all "assemblages of negroes after nine o'clock at night,"
and slaves "found drunk ... or guilty of abuse or other improper con-
duct," and for keeping down "seditious or insurrectionary feelings
among the negro population." Members of the guard had the author-
ity to inflict punishments without resorting to trials. This attempt to
adapt and invigorate the county patrol system, a timeworn, ineffective
institution that did little more than soothe white fears during emer-
gencies, failed to meet the needs of the growing town. A chronicler
who had lived in Austin in the early 185os recalled that during this
period, "somehow, the enforcement of the penal statutes ... had not
been attended with that energy, promptness, and decision that was
2Richard C. Wade, Slavery in the Cities: The South, 1820o-86o (New York, 1964), 143-
3Austin City Gazette, Feb. 12, 1840; Austin Texas State Gazette, Oct. 5 (first quotation),
Nov. 2 (second quotation), 1850o. A state law to prevent slaves from hiring their own time
had already been passed in 1846. H. P. N. Gammell (ed.), The Laws of Texas, 1822-1897
(Io vols.; Austin, 1898), II, 1,5o1-1,5o03; Frank Brown, "Annals of Travis County and the
City of Austin from the Earliest Times to Close of 1875" (typescript; Austin-Travis Coun-
ty Collection, Austin Public Library), XVIII, 67.
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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 85, July 1981 - April, 1982, periodical, 1981/1982; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101208/m1/22/: accessed June 29, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas State Historical Association.