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The Convention of 1836 was the meeting of elected delegates in Washington-on-the-Brazos, Texas in March 1836. The Texas Revolution had begun five months previously, and the interim government, known as the Consultation, had wavered over whether to declare independence from Mexico or pledge to uphold the repudiated Mexican Constitution of 1824. Unlike those of previous Texas councils, delegates to the Convention of 1836 were younger, more recent arrivals to Texas, and more adamant on the question of independence. As delegates prepared to convene, Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna led a large army into Texas to quell the revolt; the vanguard of this army arrived at San Antonio de Bexar on February 23.
The Convention was called to order on March 1, and the following day adopted the Texas Declaration of Independence, written by George Childress. Delegates elected an interim government, led by President David G. Burnet and developed a Texas Constitution, which they based primarily on the Constitution of the United States. On March 6 they received a missive from the Texan soldiers besieged at the Alamo, and delegate and commander-in-chief Sam Houston narrowly persuaded the men to continue their work on the constitution rather than rush to aid the soldiers. After the Alamo fell, Santa Anna's army marched towards Washington-on-the-Brazos, prompting the new government to flee.
The Texas Revolution began October 2, 1835 with the Battle of Gonzales. The following month, previously elected delegates convened in a body known as the Consultation. These delegates served as a temporary governing body for Texas, as they struggled with the question of whether Texians were fighting for independence from Mexico or the reimplementation of the Mexican Constitution of 1824, which offered greater freedoms than the current dictatorship. Many Consultation members wished to defer independence until the United States was persuaded to support their struggle. The Consultation quickly degenerated into near anarchy, with the interim legislature indicting the interim Governor, who promptly disbanded the legislature. By early February 1836 most of the members had gone home, and there were not enough delegates left for a quorum. A convention had been previously scheduled for March, and one Consultation member wrote to Sam Houston, "I sincerely hope that the Convention will remedy the existing evils and calm the Public mind. If not Texas must be lost."
On February 1, 1836 delegates were elected to the upcoming Convention. A total of 50 delegates were elected, with at least one representative from each settlement in Texas.
This convention differed from the previous Texas councils of 1832, 1833, and the Consultation. Many of the delegates to the 1836 convention were young men who had only recently arrived in Texas, although many of them had participated in one of the battles in 1835. Most of the delegates were members of the War Party and were adamant that Texas must declare its independence from Mexico.
By the end of 1835, no Mexican troops remained in Texas. As early as October, however, Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had been making plans to quell the unrest in Texas. He stepped down from his duties as president to lead what he dubbed the Army of Operations in Texas, which would put an end to the Texas revolt. Personally leading his forces, Santa Anna crossed the Rio Grande on February 12. Santa Anna and his advance force arrived in San Antonio de Bexar on February 23 and immediately initiated a siege of the Texas forces garrisoned at the Alamo.
The delegates assigned George Childress to lead a committee of five to draft a Declaration of Independence. Childress, the nephew of empresario Sterling C. Robertson, had been elected to the Convention three weeks after his arrival in Texas. The committee submitted its draft within a mere 24 hours, leading historians to speculate that Childress had written much of it before his arrival at the Convention. The declaration was approved on March 2 with no debate. Based primarily on the writings of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, the declaration proclaimed that the Mexican government "ceased to protect the lives, liberty, and property of the people, from whom its legitimate powers are derived" and complained about "arbitrary acts of oppression and tyranny". The declaration officially established the Republic of Texas.
Shortly after adopting the declaration of independence, the delegates began to work on a new Constitution. It drew heavily from the United States Constitution and included a declaration of rights (similar to the Bill of Rights) which guaranteed due process, the right of every citizen to bear arms, and freedom of religion, speech, and press. The declaration of rights also outlawed unreasonable search and seizure, debtors' prison, and cruel or unusual punishments. In a departure from the traditional Texas justice system, the Constitution called for grand jury indictments and speedy public trials with juries. Unlike the United States Constitution, however, the Texas Constitution codified racism. Free blacks were forbidden permanent residence in Texas without consent of Congress, and citizenship could not be granted to Africans, their descendants, or Native Americans. Furthermore, the Constitution forbade the future Texas Congress from emancipating slaves, and instructed slaveholders not to emancipate their own slaves without Congress's consent.
On the morning of March 6, the Convention received a letter, dated March 3, from Alamo commander William B. Travis. Travis begged for supplies and reinforcements and described the danger he and his men found themselves in. Unaware that the fort had already fallen, delegate Robert Potter called for the Convention to adjourn and march immediately to relieve the Alamo. Sam Houston persuaded the delegates to remain in Washington-on-the-Brazos to finish working on the constitution. Houston then left to take command of the volunteers that Colonel James C. Neill and Major R.M. "Three-Legged Willie" Williamson had been gathering in Gonzales. Shortly after Houston's arrival in Gonzales, Alamo survivors Susanna Dickinson and Joe, Travis's slave, arrived with news of a Mexican victory. On hearing their news, Houston advised all civilians in the area to evacuate and ordered the army to retreat. This sparked a mass exodus of Texans from the Anglo settlements.
After finishing their constitution, the delegates organized an ad-interim government which would serve until the following October. As president they chose David G. Burnet, who had not been elected to the Convention. Burnet had planned to join the fighting at the Alamo and had stopped at the Convention to recruit others. However, he became so "inspired by their deliberations" that he remained as a visitor. Speaking privately with many of the delegates, Burnet professed that he would be willing to serve as president of a new republic, even if that made him a target of Santa Anna. Among the names most commonly circulated for the presidency were empresario Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, and William H. Wharton. All were absent from the convention, however, so the nominees became Burnet and Samuel Price Carson. Burnet won, on a vote of 29–23, in the early hours of March 17. The delegates chose Lorenzo de Zavala as vice-president, Samuel P. Carson as Secretary of State, and Thomas J. Rusk as Secretary of War. Bailey Hardeman became Secretary of the Treasury, and David Thomas was elected Attorney General.
One of Burnet's first acts as president was to transfer the capital of the new state from Washington-on-the-Brazos to Harrisburg, which was located nearer the small Texas Navy at Galveston Island. Harrisburg was also closer to the border with the United States and would allow easier communication with U.S. officials. The move took on a sense of urgency when the convention received word that Santa Anna was within 60 miles (100 km) of Washington-on-the-Brazos. Burnet quickly adjourned the proceedings and the government fled. Burnet personally carried the Texas Declaration of Independence in his saddlebags.