Stephen F. Austin to Ayuntamiento of Bexar, 11-07-1826

Summary: Interpretation of law exempting colonists from tariff duties.

A letter I have just received from the Empresario Green De Witt, dated from La Vaca Bayou, apprizes me of a disagreeable occurrence which took place there relative to the seizure of a cargo of goods consisting, principally of flour, corn, coffee, whiskey and dry goods. by virtue of the decree of May the 20th 1824, in relation to contraband articles. I understand that this cargo was purchased at New Orleans by its owners for the purpose of assisting the colonists of that Empresario, at the commencement of his establishment, under the impression that the law permitted the introduction of such goods for the consumption of the people of Texas.

I candidly state, that, with the decree of the Sovereign Constituent Congress, N° 141, of September the 29th 1823, and the Colonization law in my hand, I should, without the least hesitation have introduced the same goods that have been seized; as well for my own consumption as for the purpose of selling them to the people of Texas. The above mentioned decree clearly declares, in the most specific terms, the object and intention of Congress in passing it.

The text of the decree is as follows:

"The Sovereign Mexican Congress, taking into consideration the deplorable situation to which the Province of Texas has been reduced by Indian hostilities, and in order to give partial relief to the destitute condition of her civilized people, have determined upon decreeing, and do hereby decree, that all goods of what class soever, whether home products, or foreign, introduced in the Province of Texas, for the consumption of her people, shall be free from taxes; and the exemption shall continue in force for the term of seven years, from the date of the publication of this decree in the capital of said province."

Now the object of that decree, was "to give a partial relief to the destitute condition of her people " by granting them certain definite privileges, for a limited term; to which Congress considered them entitled in consequence of their sufferings and "the deplorable situation to which they were reduced by Indian hostilities." It is therefore obvious, that the object of Congress was to encourage the people of Texas by granting a well determined and clearly defined privilege, an absolute right, without restriction or reservation whatever, except limitation of the term to seven years, during which this favor is to continue; and this very limitation to a specific term, is, in my opinion, indisputable proof that the object of Congress was to grant and guarantee to the people of Texas the full enjoyment and benefit of the privileges of said decree during that term, without any reservation of the power to rescind it by another decree, unless in cases of abuse, or such criminality on the part of her people as would place them without the pale of any law. For instance, if Congress for sufficient reasons, had, by decree, granted to an individual, (let us suppose a resident of Bexar) an exclusive right, or privilege to manufacture powder, or paper, or to introduce, for a limited period, certain goods free from taxes; and, subsequently by a general decree, should prohibit the concession of such privileges to any person; can it be supposed that the local authorities of Bexar, would consider as annulled, by this latter decree, the special favor granted to that individual by the former, without any abuse of the privilege on his part?

There cannot exist more general and at the same time more explicit terms, than those of the decree of September the 29th 1823, it says: " all goods of what class soever, whether home products, or foreign;" which includes anything whatever, any production of every part of the world " that may be introduced in Texas." That is to say, not only by her own inhabitants, but by any other person having the right to trade with the Mexicans and to enter their territory. " For the consumption of her inhabitants," that is to say, not only for the consumption of the individual who may introduce them, but, also, for the purchaser, if he is a resident of Texas. To pretend that the individual who goes personally to New Orleans, or any other place, to buy flour, coffee, sugar, etc., for his own consumption, has the right to introduce these goods, but not to sell them to his Texian neighbor appears to me to be unjust, and oppressive, repugnant to the system that rules us and to the Constitution in every sense, because it amounts to a declaration that the rich possess rights the poor are not to enjoy; that the rich man, who can take his gold and silver to purchase his necessaries in foreign countries, can introduce whatever he pleases, and live in luxury; while the poor man who earns four reals a day by his labor, or by that of his mules, horses, or mares, with which he could each day parchase from a merchant, the flour, sugar, etc., necessary for the subsistence of his family, is deprived of the use of those indispensable articles because he has not a sufficient capital to absent himself from the country and to introduce them expressly for his own consumption. If a broad construction of this measure is recognized, it appears to me, that the fundamental principles solemnly acknowledged, and guaranteed by the Constitution, that all free citizens are to enjoy equal privileges and to be equal in the eyes of the law, is a nullity and a mockery.

This is a very important matter, particularly to the older inhabitants of Texas, who have been so long exposed to the depredations and hostilities of the Indians. Texas, does not, at present, produce in sufficient quantities for her own consumption, flour, sugar, rice and many other articles; she has not a sufficient number of curriers, shoemakers, hatmakers, tailors and other tradesmen; she has no cloth factories; and cannot expect to have any for some years to come, for want of hands and capital. A communication with the other States which might supply her with these articles, cannot be conducted without an escort of troops for protection against the Indians. All this was certainly well understood by the Sovereign General Congress when they passed the decree referred to, and their object was, obviously, to admit from foreign countries, all the articles required by the people of Texas until she extricated herself from her unfortunate situation. Texas is now in the condition she was at the time of the publication of the decree of September the 29th 1823, and all the motives that urged Congress to grant the privileges contained in said decree, still exist to the same extent. Therefore, taking into consideration the text of the decree, and the evident intention of the Sovereign authority that made it, it appears to me that justice and the welfare of Texas, alike demand that the decree of May the 20th 1824, which prohibits the introduction of certain articles, should not be so construed as to abrogate or in any wise impair, diminish, or change the decree of September the 29th 1823; and, that, by virtue of said last mentioned decree, any goods not coming from an enemy's country may be lawfully introduced into Texas by the citizens of any nation at peace and in friendly relations with our Republic; and be sold to the people for their own consumption, agreeably to the letter and spirit of said law of September the 29th 1823, and the intention of the sovereign Constituent Congress which was evidently to grant to the people of Texas the liberty of introducing " all goods of any class whatever, whether home products or foreign," free of taxes for the term of seven years from the publication of the decree at Bexar. Indeed, if we admit the principle that a subsequent law may deprive the people of a portion of that favor we must also admit that they can be deprived of the whole. The law of May the 20th 1824, on prohibited goods, and other laws published subsequently to the decree of September the 29th 1823, establish the taxes to be paid on goods introduced into the Mexican Republic. Now, why are these laws not extended to Texas; and why is it not declared that the goods introduced into Texas shall pay the same taxes as in other sections of the country? Why is the law establishing the tariff of a date posterior to that which exempts Texas from taxes? it occurs to me that it is as natural to give this construction, as to hold that goods are prohibited by a general law published subsequently to the law which grants the particular privilege of introducing them into Texas free from taxes "all goods, whether home products, or foreign." Furthermore the law of May the 20th 1824, makes no mention of that of September the 29th 1823, and does not declare that it is annulled. It must also be observed that the law of September the 29th 1823, is a special law, concerning a single province, and not a general law; consequently if the object of Congress at the time of passing the law of May the 20th 1824, had been to annul the prior law, it would certainly have been expressly stated, and be accompanied by a declaration of the reason for its abrogation. Indeed, a particular and special privilege is as sacred a right as that of property, which Congress would never withdraw without well grounded motives, nor without stating their reasons for doing so in the preamble.

The seizure of the cargo at the mouth of La Vaca Bayou is a matter of great importance. As I understand, a part of this cargo was intended for the new settlers, and was necessary for their subsistence ; and the other belonged to some merchants of the United States of the North, who came to trade with the Mexicans in Texas, in the belief that the law of September the 29th 1823, was still in force. That seizure withholds from the settlers indispensable provisions; and the citizen of a friendly and allied nation is deprived of his property. He will, undoubtedly, make his complaint to his government, which will inevitably result in disagreeable demands on the part of that government.

The people of Texas, in their present condition, must possess the full and unrestricted enjoyment of all the privileges that the Supreme Government has been pleased to grant them. The privilege of introducing any goods is very necessary; therefore, and considering that they hold this right by virtue of the law of September the 29th 1823, and as I am personally interested in the subject as a resident of Texas, and in my capacity of Empresario of one of the new colonies, I have made use of the freedom of a citizen in the expression of my opinion, hoping that your Honorable Body will be pleased to forward it to the proper authority, in order to remove the doubt that exists in the interpretation of the decree of September the 29th 1823.

God and Liberty.

San Felipe de Austin, November 7th 1826.

Stephen F. Austin.