by David Furlow

I don’t always admire a professional revolutionary, but when I do, it’s usually Lorenzo de Zavala, the most interesting man in Texas. Don’t take my word for it, either. Just turn to William Fairfax Gray, the Virginian who served as the first Clerk of the Texas Supreme Court. Writing in his diary in San Felipe de Austin on February 28, 1836, Gray noted that,

This evening a number of members [of the Convention of 1836, Texas’s constitutional convention] arrived, among them, Lorenzo de Zavala, the most interesting man in Texas. He is a native of Yucatan; was Governor of the State of Mexico for five years, minister to the Fiscal Department and ambassador to France from the Republic of Mexico, which post he renounced when Santa Ana proved recreant to the liberal cause, and he then resided for some time in the United States. He now lives on his estate on Buffalo Bayou, near Galveston. He is a fine writer and Republican; a pure statesman, although some accuse him of inordinate ambition…

William Fairfax Gray, Diary: From Virginia to Texas, 1835-1837 (Dallas: Southern Methodist Univ. 1997), 111.

The Diary of William Fairfax Gray reveals the importance of Lorenzo de Zavala
in early Harrisburg, Houston’s predecessor community.

The representative of Harrisburg, i.e., Harris County, during the Consultation and the Convention of 1836, he urged Texans to take arms against a sea of troubles. A self-trained physician, he presided over the birth of the Republic of Texas. Born Manuel Lorenzo Justiniano de Zavala y Sáenz, Anglicized as Lorenzo de Zavala, exemplifies the best of Texas’s Castilian Spanish traditions. Juan Seguin, Angel and Jose Navarro, Silvestre and Fernando de Leon, and other Tejanos represented other aspects of that tradition. But none played as important an early role in shaping Texas law as Lorenzo de Zavala.

Portrait of Lorenzo de Zavala available through the
Texas State Library and Archive.

Dr. Bruce Winders, Curator of the Alamo, discusses the law and statutory
enactments of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Texas during the Alamo’s
The Legends of Texas series.

Born in the village of Tecoh in the Yucatan Peninsula, de Zavala received a traditional Catholic education at the Tridentine Seminary of San Ildefonso in Mérida in 1807. He began his career as a reform-minded journalist and newspaper editor who served as Secretary of the City Council of Mérida from 1812 until 1814.

After being imprisoned by Spanish authorities in Veracruz in 1814, he learned enough medicine to become a prison physician in 1817 and enough English to become a proponent of constitutionalism. Instead of accepting the “divine right” of kings to rule their peoples, young Lorenzo believed that people must take governance into their own hands. Zavala went to Madrid in 1821 as a deputy to an empire-wide Spanish Cortes (meaning “court,” i.e., a parliament) before revolution drove the Spanish out of Mexico. See Raymond Estep, Zavala, Lorenzo de, HANDBOOK TO TEXAS HISTORY, (last visited Mar. 7, 2017).

De Zavala helped draft the federalist Mexican Constitution of 1824 to ensure that power came to reside and remain with the people of Mexico. See Stephen L. Moore, Eighteen Minutes: The Battle of San Jacinto and the Texas Independence Campaign 78 (Dallas: Republic of Texas Press 2004). He represented Yucatán as a deputy in two Mexican Constituent Congresses and the Mexican Senate, then won election as Yucatán’s Governor. Centralist Party leaders exiled him to the U.S. Later, de Zavala received a March 12, 1829 empresario grant to settle five hundred families on a huge tract of land in southeastern Texas. After visiting France and England, Zavala returned to Mexico, rose in political prominence, and went to Paris in 1834 as a Mexican diplomat.

When de Zavala learned of General Santa Ana’s seizure of power in Mexico, he denounced Santa Ana as a tyrant, resigned his diplomatic post, and returned to Texas in time to participate in the rebellion that began at Gonzales on October 2, 1835.

By then, Stephen F. Austin and other leaders had drafted the first Constitution for a Mexican State of Texas separate from Coahuila at the General Convention at San Felipe in April of 1833. See Ernest Wallace, David M. Vigness, & George B. Ward, Documents of Texas History 80, 105 (State House Press Austin 1994). One year earlier, in October 1834, Juan Seguin, the Chief of the Department of Bexar, grew dissatisfied with “the reactionary designs of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who was . . . endeavoring to overthrow the federal system . . . .” Seguin “urged every municipality in Texas to appoint delegates to a convention . . . to meet at San Antonio to consider the impending dangers and to devise means to avert them.”

De Zavala soon joined with Stephen F. Austin in supporting Mexican federalism consistent with the Mexican Constitution de Zavala signed in 1824. See T. R. Fehrenbach, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans 200 (New York: American Legacy Press 1973); Estep, Zavala, Lorenzo de, Handbook. When it became clear that federalism’s prospects were dim in Mexico, the publication of “Opinions of Lorenzo de Zevala” in leading Texas newspapers launched the independence movement.

De Zavala appeared as the representative of Harrisburg in the Consultation of 1835, as it sought autonomy for Texas; he played an even more prominent role in the independence-minded Convention of 1836. Francisco Ruiz and Antonio Navarro went to the Convention in Washington-on-the-Brazos on behalf of San Antonio de Bexar. Their support for independence helped rally Tejanos to fight. De Zavala helped write the Texas Constitution of 1836, as constitutional-law specialist James C. Harrington noted:

Some of the delegates there had helped write constitutions for other states. One of the more prominent delegates was Lorenzo de Zavala, widely respected for his intellectual argument in favor of republican government.

Soon after being appointed there as the Republic’s first Vice President, De Zavala ensured that officials translated the Constitution and the Republic’s statutes into Spanish for Tejano citizens.

That 1836 Constitution provided that, “All laws relating to land titles shall be translated, revised, and promulgated.” The Republic’s Congress mandated that the Commissioner of the Texas Land Office hire a translator who “shall understand the Castillian [sic] and English languages” with the ability to record “all the laws and public contracts relative to the titles of land which are written in the Castillian [sic] language . . . .”

On May 27, 1836, de Zavala became one of the peace commissioners who accompanied the defeated Santa Ana to Mexico City. Soon afterwards, Zavala returned to Harrisburg. Exhausted from travel and in poor health, de Zavala resigned the Vice Presidency on October 17, 1836. Less than a month later, on November 15, 1836, he died of pneumonia. Before he died, de Zavala played a major role in advancing the rule of law in Texas to include Tejanos.