Stephen F Austin to Josiah H Bell, 03-17-1829

Summary: Replying to charges reported by Bell March 14: The alcalde and the ayuntamiento obeying the State law in making certain registrations for the citizens; most of popular uneasiness arises from ignorance of the law and inability of the people to inform themselves because they do not understand Spanish. If the people object to the lawyers, let them settle their difficulties by arbitration and drive the lawyers out of business. He himself knows the laws and is in touch with the acts of the ayuntamiento; he will protect the people.

San Felipe de Austin March 17, 1829

Dr Sir

I have been so much occupied for some time past arranging the papers and business of the office preparitory to my departure for the United States that I have not had an opportunity of mixing much with the settlers or of knowing what was afloat amongst them Your letter contained some sentences which induced me to make enquiries, and I must express great astonishment and regret at what I have been told in regard to the rumors that are afloat; that is, if it be a fact that the rumors I allude to are in circulation, and produce the excitement which it is said they do—

A clamor is made, as it is said, because the Ayto are about to levy a tax for municipal purposes—and the pretext on which this clamor is founded is that the Ayuntamiento have no right to tax the people because the colonization law exempts them and also it is said that there is no use for funds etc— Those who have circulated such ideas are either ignorent of the law, or are wilfully malicious and wish to create confusion. The colonization law most postively and expressly says that the colonists shall be taxed by the Ayto in the manner that the people are in all other parts of the state for munnicipal purposes—the law [exempts] the colonists from Taxes in all cases except three one is the taxes that are laid generally by Government to repel a foreign invasion, another is the tax on mines that may be worked by colonists, and the third is the municipal tax that is levied by the Ayto for municipal purposes—so much then for the legality of the measure—are funds necessary?—the law has prescribed the duties of the Ayto they are numerous and highly important and cannot be discharged without funds, and if they are neglected the members of the Ayto are each of them individually liable to a heavy fine—The Ayto of last year did not comply with the duties required by law in any one particular and each of the members were liable to a fine, and nothing but my own interference and representations and excuses for them, saved them from the fine—- This state of things is now at an end, the chief of Department has officially notified the Ayto of this year that he will execute the law upon them, if they neglect their duty any longer—It is made their duty by law to procure a competent Secretary, to provide the necessary public buildings, to provide funds to pay for their post office accounts, and to pay the necessary and legal expences of the Municipal authority and [the Chief] of Department has long ago called on them officially to present to him an estimate of the expences that are required and to propose a system of taxation to raise the means of paying those expences—Some persons have said that the Ayto have petitioned the legislature to lay a tax such persons are either grossly ignorant of the law, or are wilfully malicious— For the last 13 months the Govt have been repeating order upon order to the Ayto to do their duty, to raise municipal funds, and to execute the laws, the thing has been delayed under one pretext or another untill I have actually exhausted all the stock of reasonable excuses that I could devise and have drawn so largely upon shadows and frivolous apologies that I am ashamed to interfere any more, for I do not wish to say to the Govt that the Ayto are afraid to do their duty and to execute the law lest the people should resist, for this would in fact be saying that the jurisdiction of Austin was in a state of rebellion. Instead therefore of petitioning the legislature to lay a tax, the Ayto have been driven by the Govt to inform them how a tax could be levied so as to be as nearly equal upon all as possible— The Ayto were brought to the necessity of doing one of three things, either to propose a tax or to pay a heavy fine, or fly the country to save themselves from it— These are the facts as to the law and [official?] orders relative to a municipal tax—

The law most postively requires the Ayto to keep a register of births and deaths in the jurisdiction, and to make a return every three months to the Chief of Department. The old Ayto of last year paid no regard to the law, in fact they did nothing on any subject that they ought to have attended to. The Chief has postively told this Ayto that he will fine them if they neglect this duty any longer, and to save expence to the muncicipality the plan was suggested by me to advertise all over the country requesting every one to make a return of the births and deaths in his family, and this plan was adopted and the advertisements were posted up— Strange and incredible as it would appear to any man who possessed common sence, that this measure should create discontent and misrepresentation, it is nevertheless true, every father and every mother and every child in the jurisdiction is interested in this law, for it is of the highest importance to children that a legal register of their births should be kept for it secures to the children beyond the possibility of a doubt important privileges as native born Mexicans that some day or other may be of the greatest advantage to them. But independent of this it is the law and should be obeyed— My reasons for advising [the Ayto.] to take the plan of advertising for all persons to make the return was to save expence, for if this plan had not been adopted, the sheriff would have been compelled to have gone to each man's house and taken the list every three months and this would have cost the people of the jurisdiction about five or six hundred dollars each three months— It was the wish of the Ayto to comply with the law, to save themselves from fine and punishment and to benefit Parents and children by forming the register of births and deaths as the law requires, and at the same time to do it in a way that would save expence to the jurisdiction, and for doing this I am told that the people are discontented and say that it is to get fees into the office, there are no fees to be paid, but if the sheriff is sent round to each mans house every three months, his fees would have to be paid and you and all others may rest assured that if the returns are not sent in as required by the notices, that the sheriff will be sent round, and the people will be taxed to pay him— for as I before said the Ayto are compeled to make these returns every three months—and it will be putting about 1000 Dollars a year into the pocket of the Sheriff if the people do not comply with the notices that have been posted upon the subject, and taking that much from the pockets of the people— this is the fact as to this subject of [active?] clamor.

All civilized countries that I know anything about have a vagrant law—this state has one, and it is a very good and just and necessary one—. The old Ayto paid no regard to it—the members of that body believed that it would distroy their popularity to attempt to stop or correct disorder. I was of a different opinion and censured them for permitting rioting drunkeness and fighting etc to the extent that prevailed here last year, and I advised the present Áyto to publish the law on the subject and to execute it vigorously. They have published it in full, and that has raised a clamor against them. I regret very much that good citizens should suffer themselves to be operated upon by the clamors of disorderly and bad men, because it tends to encourage such men to be clamorous—they know that they have nothing to hope from the law nor from justice, for if the law was executed and justice done them they would suffer heavy penalties and it is therefore their interest to gull the people by crying out oppression, and trying to enlist their sympathies, and creating prejudices against the authorities. I regret this state of things exceedingly, it has caused me to doubt that there is either a want of judgment in the mass of the people to discriminate between a rigid and just execution of the laws, and an abuse of them or that there is a great mass of moral depravity which revolts from restraint or legal control. I believe however that the evil proceeds from the former, rather than from the latter cause. It is highly pernicious no matter from what cause it proceeds, for if the people can be operated upon by clamorous men, everything like stability or security in the administration of Govt is at an end—the civil authority must be sustained by public confidence or it can do nothing, and if the people are mere puppets in the hands of artfull demagogues and clamorous factionists whose interest it is to discredit the civil authorities and throw them into ridicule, where is the security of honest men? It is in the good sence and morality of a grog shop or common brothel, rather than in the law or in the officers of justice-— A man who has mixed a great deal with the people of this colony and whose judgment of human nature is very good has told me repeatedly that a few clamorous bad men with smooth and plausible tongues could throw the people into a ferment and create a prejudice against the civil authorities whenever they pleased. I fear his opinion was well founded tho not because the people are generally in favor of bad men, but because they lack judgement to discriminate between what is the duty of a public officer, and an abuse of his authority— This want of judgement arises from a want of knowledge of the laws by which the persons in office are obliged to be governed, and also from a disposition to be suspicious and jealous of "men in power"? it is to be sure a pigmy sort of power to be a member of the Ayto for that body can do nothing except by authority of law and under the direct and immediate control and supervision of the Govt—but it is an office, and the American people have a national propensity to suspect and to abuse all men who are in office—this want of knowledge of the laws then I believe to be the true source of all the evils, and it cannot be remedied at this time, for it is impossible to have all the laws translated and printed in the English language, and in this state of things the only safe guard the people have against the artfull clamors of designing and malicious men is to repose full confidence in the authorities of Govt and to be satisfied that they will not do any thing contrary to law, nor contrary to the true interest of the people—

You say that the people have full confidence in me. I must confess that they have a bad way of shewing their confidence, by indulging in groundless and immaginary complaints and vague suspicions against the civil authority when it is well known that I am here and have my eye on every act of the Ayto that is of any importance—The three measures I have spoken of—the tax—the vagrants— and the notice to report births and deaths every three months, were all adopted with my advice and knowledge

The Ayto so far have committed no error that I know of, of any kind unless it is neglecting to do some things that they ought to have attended to, such for instance as making a return as the law requires of the children born of slave parents and reporting monthly what their situation is etc. etc.

If the people have confidence in me, they are safe—I know the laws and the duties of the Ayto and I also understand what the people of this colony ought to do for their own good. Much better than they do, for if they were left solely to themselves, the colony would be ruined and thrown into perfect anarchy in three months- Let the people therefore dismiss their unfounded fears and suspicions and repose in me, if they doubt the Ayto, and I pledge myself that they shall hear of it the moment that Ayto adopt an illegal or a pernicious measure, and above all things let them close their ears against the clamors of those who have more to say, and less to loose either of property or character than any body else in the country.

There has been some errors no doubt in the administration of justice and the fees that have been charged by the Alcalde and by the Sheriff have been too high in some instances—but the present alcalde in this respect has only followed what others did last year—the fee bill will now be published and it will reduce the sheriffs fees considerably, and also the Alcaldes, and I hope that will not make a clamor—

The law regulating fees was passed by the Legislature of this state last year. that law fixes the sheriffs milage at half a dollar for each League he rides from the seat of justice to the place where the process is to be served. The way I understand this law is that the sheriff can charge that sum for the number of Leagues he rides and no more—for example if he has ten writs to serve at Brazoria, and it is 20 Leagues from here to that place he only rides 20 Leagues to serve them all and can only charge 20 Leagues of milage and no more, and not 20 Leagues on each writ, for then he would get pay for 200 Leagues when in fact he had only traveled 20. Heretofore the sheriff has charged the full amt of milage on each writ and agreeably to this rule if he had 100 writs and summons for Brazoria he would get pay for 2000 Leagues which would be $1000, when in fact he had only traveled 20 Leagues and therefore by law would be entitled to receive 10 Dollars and no more—This is the greatest abuse that exists in the colony and this abuse must and will be corrected. I urged the old Alcaide to publish the fee bill and to execute it—I do believe that the only reason why it was not published last year, was because the Alcalde feared the Sheriff would make a clamor and it was supposed that the people would join him, for it has always been a general rule with the people to join in any clamor raised by no matter whom against the Alcalde or the Authorities let it be just or unjust. The fees charged by the Alcalde have never been very high, tho they are a little higher than the law allows, but the present Alcalde has only followed the rule that was adopted by his predicessor, and Duke followed the rule that was adopted by the old Court of Alcaldes, who made a new fee bill much higher than the one which I established when the administration of justice was in my hands— No one is bound by law to pay any costs unless the bill of costs is made out with each item stated and signed by the Alcalde and delivered to the person who has it to pay or to his agent if he has one, and that bill of costs is a voucher on which the Alcalde may be punished by the Governor and Legislature of the State if the fees are more than the law allows—

I cannot say that the decissions of the Alcalde as a Judge are just or unjust. I have made it a fixed rule to keep intirely clear of that office I mean the Judicial Office, and not even to give an opinion when asked, unless it is so far as to translate a law. I have however observed that the Alcalde is very particular to call in arbitrators in all cases chosen by the parties, and every case is decided by arbitra tion, if injustice is done, the arbitrators and not the Alcalde are to blame— The party who looses a suit will always make a clamor, it is a matter of course in all [countries], and more so in this than in any other and for the single reason that every body believes that the people here can be operated upon and gulled by clamorous men— As regards the personalities that have existed in this place between a few individuals, there has been too much of it, and some of our best men have displayed a childish pettishness and suffered themselves to be enraged at trifles and at low bred and unprincipled men, when they ought in fact to have paid no attention to them. This is an infirmity of human nature. It is not every man who can command his temper at all times and especially when he is abused and slandered by others. As a general rule which never ought to be departed from, a person in office should never, at no time, act officially while under the influence of irritation or passion—he ought to execute the law calmly and firmly, but not pationately—and he should do his duty totally regardless of clamor or abuse— My own temper is hasty to a fault and violent when excited and I therefore laid down the above rule for my own Govt when I first began the colony. I have violated it in some instances and have sometimes suffered my temper [to rise] at the unjust abuse and misrepresentation that has been heaped upon me. I always regretted it afterwards, for a man in a passion most generally says or does things that he ought not to have said or done. My fits of irritation however have been but momentary. Reason and the Public good told me that I must bear abuse and clamor and do my duty regardless of what was said, and I have done so, tho the best personal friends I have in the country have blamed and censured me for not taking up the cudgels and adopting harsh measures. It is truly fortunate for this colony that I had sufficient reflection, not [to] be influenced by the inflamitory advise of my friends, nor by my own irritable temper, to an extent that would have caused me to adopt violent measures, for I had legal power from the Govt to do a great deal— my authority up to the time the constitution was published was very great, and I am now convinced that the rule which I laid down from the beginning to controul my own temper and to bear all things patiently as a dray horse [has] saved the colony from total ruin— There is however reason in all things, and the people of this colony must not expect to find many men who will bear abuse for the sake of public good as I have done, and they should be more prudent and cautious and judicious in their complaints and clamors than they have heretofore been, for otherwise they will distroy themselves— Nothing is more necessary and beneficial to the well being of a community than confidence in the public authorities, and noth- ing more distructive than unjust and illfounded abuse and jealousy of them—

As regards the lawyers who you say in your letter are causing all the disturbance in the country, I believe they are an evil and a great one but they are patronized and encouraged and paid, by the people. A distiller of ardent spirit throws into the world a drug that entails disgrace and ruin and misery on thousands of innocent and helpless women and children, and sinks many a worthy man from the highest to the most infamous grade of society— Is the distiller, or are those who support him most to blame?

The truth is that the evil lays in the people [themselves] It is a part of the national character of Americans to be contentious and litigious, and I do believe that a lawyer would fatten on 100 Americans, when he would starve on 10,000 of any other people on earth. If you wish to correct this evil therefore go to the foundation and cut it up by the roots. Let every man settle his differences by an arbitration of his neighbors, or if he goes to law let him attend to his own business and not employ a lawyer. I know of no other way of correcting the evil for if the Alcalde was to silence all the lawyers and suffer none to appear before him, the people would immediately cry out despotism and oppression and say it was a hard case that a man could not employ an agent to attend to his business for him, and a talking lawyer would go about bawling oppression, that he was not allowed to exercise his profession and that the Alcalde had taken his bread from him and his poor family (if he had one) etc. etc. And the people would no doubt take sides with the lawyer and curse the Alcalde much more for silencing the lawyers than they now do for not silencing them— An honest and conscientious lawyer is a valuable member of society-— there is none more so, but a hot headed fractious [abusi]ng and contentious lawyer is a curse on any community, and ought to be discountenanced but I really cannot see any other effectual remidy than the one I have pointed out to correct this evil— it must be corrected by settling disputes by means of arbitration in each neighborhood, and by never employing a lawyer in any case-

As regards the prejudice that appears to exist against this place, I must say that it is both unjust and impolitic— There has been much contention here it is true, but who caused it? Drunkards and vagabonds and unprincipled men, known and acknowledged to be such by every body—make a difficulty and the people abuse the Alcalde and the place for suffering so much disorder The Alcalde attempts to correct the evil by calling these outrageous men to an account, and executing the law on them and the people take sides with the vagabonds and abuse the Alcalde and the good part of the citizens here because they had attempted to controul the bad ones—

One day the people curse the Alcalde for not doing a thing, and the next they curse him for doing it— I say that this prejudice is impolitic as well as unjust because it is the interest of each man who lives in this colony or in this section of the country to encourage the improvement and advancement of this town—The day will come when a selection must be made for the seat of Govt of Texas—the people of his jurisdiction should keep that object in view and by pushing forward this place pave the way to its location here— If we can get decent public buildings and an academy etc under way and have the place otherwise improved so as to afford comfortable accomodations, this place stands a better chance to be the seat of Govt than any other point in Texas. I am of opinion that it must ultimately be on the Brazos river, but if it is taken to any thing like the center of territory it will be somewhere about the St. Antonio road or above it— It cannot be long before there must be a supreme Court established for Texas and it ought to sit at this town, these are important considerations, and every one who does or says anything to retard the advance of this place is actually doing an injury to himself that is with the exception of those who live near the St. Antonio road, for it is their interest to sink this place and raise up a town there for the future seat of Govt but the people of the Coastwould surely rather it should be here, than any higher up the river— I calculated the chances for this place to be the future seat of Govt of Texas many years ago and I was then of the opinion that the people of this Colony could make it the seat of Govt if they took the right course and I am of the same opinion still—

The Academy is a very important matter and I hope you will aid us some from that quarter of the country— If we can get it under way I have no doubt the Govt will aid us— I will devote a great deal to this object if it goes on, for independent of the good that will result to the children of the Colony, it will give a favourable character to it abroad.

My whole thoughts and ambition and desires have been devoted to the advancement of this colony and the happiness of its citizens I have no other wish—no other interest, and I therefore cannot but observe with deep regret any thing like a want of union or of confidence in the people—I have a great desire to visit the United States and to spend a year or 18 months there, but I really have some fears that things will go into confusion My Dr Sir the people must rely with more confidence on the men chosen by themselves to take charge of their public matters and they must close their ears against the idle rumors and clamors of those who are bawling out oppression in order to screen themselves by throwing obliquy on the authorities who attempt to control them

As soon as the Commissioner arrives the drunkards will raise the hue and cry against me, for I shall in future reject every man who is not of the class required by law, and there are several now in the country who will be rejected, and the more clamor is made about it the more rigid I shall be—In the beginning of the settlement I was not so particular as I shall be in future.

The principal part of the tax that is to be raised will be paid by land and slave holders—my tax will be higher in proportion to my disposable means than any five men's in the colony.

You are at full liberty to show all I have said to who you please— the complaints against the Ayto are groundless and unjust and ought to be stoped for no good and much evil will grow out of them Your friend

Stephen F. Austin [Rubric]

[To Josiah H. Bell]