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Stephen F. Austin and the Telos of Texas

"We shall go for Independence, and put our trust in our selves, our rifles, and——our god." —Stephen F. Austin

The idea of becoming an empresario first came to Stephen F. Austin through his father, Moses Austin. Moses was initially involved in the mining business, in Missouri, but the panic of 1819 led to significant losses. Seeking a new opportunity, Moses conceived a plan to colonize Texas, which was then part of Mexico. He obtained a grant of land from the Spanish government to bring American settlers. Unfortunately, Moses died in 1821 before he could carry out his plan.

His dying wish was for his son to continue the project.

With the family ruinously indebted, Stephen F. Austin set out to restore his family's wealth and honor by fulfilling his father's wish. As we observed in How to Pass a Torch, a son's memory of his father is what preserves authentic human culture over time.

Austin arrived in Texas in 1821 and selected the land between the Brazos and Colorado rivers for his colony. To incentivize settlers, Austin offered substantial land grants, with heads of families receiving up to 640 acres. Settlers could receive extra land for specific activities, such as 320 acres for the wife, 160 acres for each child, and 80 acres for each slave.

Austin envisioned an economy based on the Southern plantation model, with a focus on cotton production. By late 1824, Austin successfully completed the terms of his first contract. He brought the first 300 American families (known as the "Old 300") into Texas and established a rudimentary system of government.

If you're wondering what this has to do with blockchains, consider the following story.

Upon settling his colony, Austin was, in some sense, wealthy with land. But he still needed income, and his plan from the beginning was to charge fees on the land grants to settlers. This was all very clear in his initial advertising for the venture, but settling a new territory is rife with political risk. (Not to mention the ever-present risk of violent death at the hands of a Comanche.)

The entire venture was dependent on the volatile and undeveloped government of Mexico. In 1823, the newly independent Mexican government changed the terms of Austin's grant. The government significantly increased the amount of land each family would receive, which increased the fees Austin could collect. But then this caused resentment from the settlers, which grew to such a fever pitch that the government stepped in and cut Austin's fee to zero. When he applied for his second contract in 1825, the chief allowed him to charge $60 for each league of land granted, but this was never ratified by a higher authority. Knowing the risk, Austin had to lobby the government to ratify an official fee schedule.

As we found in the case of Sam Houston, the frontier dramatizes the core challenges of civilization, which tend to get muddled as a country becomes more wealthy and complex.

The land grants were essentially a big, messy Proof of Work system. Anyone who could do the work of getting to Texas, would be rewarded with a subsidy. But in the 1820s, such a process was riddled with extreme uncertainty, risk, and inefficiency. Similar to how the "airdrop" meta in crypto has functioned as a messy substitute for Proof of Work. Austin was airdropping land to the earliest members of his "community," on the expectation that they would work that land and raise its price for everyone. Austin himself was airdropped the land by Mexico, of course, on the same logic.

Except at no point could the terms ever be reliably written down for all parties at once, let alone reliably enforced. To make it all work, Austin had to organize manually what Proof of Work blockchains organize automatically.

In a previous essay, we found that the first settlers of New England naturally discovered the logic of decentralization. When William Bradford received a patent from England in 1630, he could very well have claimed personal control over the colony, as Lord Baltimore had done in Maryland. Instead, partially through his faith, he chose to decentralize instead.

I was struck to learn that Stephen F. Austin came to a similar realization 200 years later, and for the same reason: The tight knot that connects Faith, Exodus, and Decentralization.

Here is how Austin biographer Gregg Cantrell describes Austin's viewpoint around 1830:

"He still longed for the status, respect, and personal fulfillment that would come from being the acknowledged founder and leader of a prosperous Texas. He had once thought that he could attain these things under a constitutional monarchy or an enlightened central republic, but he now understood that his interests were best served by decentralized government. Only Mexican federalism would give himself and his colonists the personal freedom to enjoy the fruits of their massive landholdings without fear of burdensome taxes, restrictive land laws, or ruinous monetary policies... Should Texas fail to secure these reforms, he ominously explained to Mary Holley in December 1831, 'we shall go for Independence, and put our trust in our selves, our rifles, and—our god.'"

Just as we do today, Austin faced a predatory Managerial Class. But over time technology tends to constrain rent-seeking bureaucrats, and the uncertainties in founding of a new territory decrease over time. Law becomes code, and stupid contracts get smart. What Austin risked his life and livelihood to solve on the Texan plane, we have now solved mathematically—in one sense, anyway, as the human element is irreducible.

Figures like Austin show what faith, sacrifice, and ingenuity can achieve—against far greater difficulties than we face.

What would it look like to exercise Austin's daring and perseverance in the digital context, given that many of Austin's problems are now solved? How much more could we accomplish, if only we assumed the same degree of risk and difficulty that Austin assumed?

There is a telos to American history, which passes through Texas, and culminates in the form of decentralized, self-enforcing truth machines.

Sam Houston was grasping for it.

Stephen F. Austin was grasping for it.

And so are we.


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