Col. Anthony Butler strutted like a peacock out of the White House on Aug. 7, 1829 with a seven-figure line of credit and secret orders to make the Mexicans an offer they could not refuse.
Andrew Jackson regarded the Rio Grande realm as “lost” territory, a legitimate part of the Louisiana Purchase that the Monroe Administration had seen fit to surrender to Spain. Five months into his presidency, he decided to buy Texas back and settled on five million dollars as a fair price.
While pondering possible pitchmen, Old Hickory remembered the cocky Carolinian who had expressed enthusiasm for the enterprise. Impressed by Anthony Butler’s firsthand knowledge of Texas and his can-do confidence, the president gave him the assignment.
Jackson could not have made a worse choice. His new charge d’affaires in Mexico City was a diplomatic tenderfoot, whose ignorance of the country, culture and language was an embarrassment. On the personal side, according to a reputable historian, he was “a bully and swashbuckler openly scandalous in his conduct and a national disgrace.”
The Mexicans had Butler’s number from the very start. The government controlled press exposed his hidden agenda and scornfully dismissed as a national insult the pittance he was prepared to pay for the northernmost province.
Although Jackson later disavowed bribery as a diplomatic tool, his original instructions sanctioned the practice. The president candidly confided to Butler that he “scarcely ever knew a Spaniard who was not the slave of avarice, and it is not improbable that this weakness may be worth a great deal to us.” The emissary concurred with his boss’ assessment calling the Mexicans “selfish, corrupt, utterly unprincipled” and adding, “Any of them may be successfully appealed to through their cupidity.”
But for all his big talk, Butler had nothing to show in August 1833 for four years south of the border. Realizing his superior was a sucker for inflated promises, he swore, “I will succeed in uniting Texas to our country before I am done or will forfeit my head.” Practically salivating at the prospect, Jackson replied, “If you succeed it will be a feather in your cap.”
When Old Hickory began to question the propriety of paying off foreign officials, the third-rate envoy delivered a condescending lecture. “How little you know of Mexican character! I can assure you, sir, that bribery is not only common and familiar in all ranks and classes but freely spoken of.”
Butler picked the wrong president to patronize and was promptly punished with a notice of recall. He not only ignored the summons but countered with a hare-brained scheme for the military seizure of the prize that had exceeded his grasp.
Jackson could not believe his eyes, when he read the preposterous plan. “If you will withdraw me from this place and make the movement to possess that part of Texas which is ours placing me at the head of the country to be occupied, I will pledge my head that we will have all we desire in less than six months.”
“A. Butler: What a scamp!” the president scribbled in the margin of the incredible communication and reiterated his desire to have the loose cannon recalled “at once.”
For leading Texans the removal of Butler could not come too soon. “Such men as he is would destroy a country,” snorted a disgusted Sam Houston, “but take my word for it, he will never gain one!”
“I have never known so bad and base a man,” complained Stephen F. Austin, whose two-year detention was due in part to the diplomat’s petty refusal to intercede on his behalf. Butler did not lift a finger to free Austin because imprisonment was an effective way to silence the influential colonizer he saw as his chief critic.
Butler finally returned to Washington in June 1835 but not with his tail between his legs. To prove that money truly did talk in Mexico, he brought a letter from Father Ignacio Hernandez, a member of Santa Anna’s inner circle. For half a million dollars, the priest promised to pull the strings that would make Texas the property of the United States.
“Plausible denial” may have been what the president had in mind, when he recorded his opposition to the arrangement right on the Hernandez document. Yet if Jackson wanted no part of the shady deal, why did he let Butler keep his job?
Even after the Texas Revolution was well underway, Butler refused to give up on his pipe dream. He kept stalling for time until the very day of his replacement in January 1836 and hung around Mexico City until the month after the Battle of San Jacinto.
Butler settled in the new Republic and actually persuaded a sufficient number of voters to grant him a seat in the Third Congress. His constituents must have seen through his smoke-and-mirrors routine, however, because they did not elect him to a second term.
On the one occasion Anthony Butler put the interests of others above his own, he got himself killed. He died a hero on the Mississippi River in 1849 trying to save passengers from a fire aboard a burning steamboat.
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