Sam Houston was never president of the United States, but he was the first president of the Independent Republic of Texas, one of the first senators of the state of Texas, and was ejected from the governorship of Texas for refusing to swear loyalty to the confederacy on the eve of the Civil War.
Follow Houston as he runs away from home to live with the Cherokee, joins the army to fight under Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812, becomes Jackson's most likely heir as governor of Tennessee, flees Tennessee in disgrace when his first wife abandons him after 11 weeks, spends three years earning the name "Big Drunk" in the Indian territory, sobers up to lead Texas to independence from Mexico and then to annexation into the United States, and becomes a presidential hopeful before finally being forced out of office on the eve of the Civil War.
In case you didn't notice, it's going to be a heck of a life!
1. Sam Houston – James L. Haley
4. Heirs of the Founders – H.W. Brands
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Welcome to Abridged Presidential Histories. Episode A – Sam Houston, the Raven.
I know what you’re thinking - what is Kenny talking about? President Sam Houston? We just left our last episode with William Henry Harrison dying and his Vice President John Tyler becoming president. Who’s this Sam Houston guy?
Well, it’s a bit of a spoiler, but the one thing John Tyler is going to accomplish in his fascinatingly miserable administration is the annexation of Texas, and the annexation of Texas is going to put events in motion that 16 years later result in the Civil War.
That’s right. When I look at the first 80 years of American history, I think everything before the annexation of Texas as setting up the dominos to disunion. The Northwest ordinance, the Louisiana Purchase, the Missouri compromise, the nullification crisis – it all created a nation where, with the right push, everything could come undone.
And Texas would be that push. From here to 1861, it will be one thing directly leading to another, starting with Texas, and ending at Bull Run.
The annexation of Texas will lead to a war with Mexico.
War with Mexico will lead to the acquisition of huge tracks of land.
The acquisition of huge tracks of land will reopen the slavery question, resulting in a stronger fugitive slave law, the death of the Missouri compromise, and almost a mini civil war between slavery advocates and non-slavery advocates in Kansas called “Bleeding Kansas.”
All that stuff will result of a fusion of abolitionists and northern democrats and Whigs into a new political party – the Republican Party.
And the emergence of the Republican party will result in the election of Abraham Lincoln, and the immediate secession of southern states, who feared Lincoln would abolish slavery, and the onset of Civil War in 1861
And way back in the 1830s and 40s all the party leaders and political elites could see where this was going. That’s why, at the highest level, nobody wanted to touch Texas, until John Tyler came along and, eager to expand the nation and expand slavery, threw caution to the wind.
But getting into the background of why Texas was so dangerous and why everyone could see annexation would lead to all these things would take a bit too much time away from John Tyler. So I thought I’d tell the history of Lone Star State through the eyes of the man who won its independence, secured its annexation, and who was forced out of office when he refused to lead it into the Civil War, Sam Houston – the first president of the Republic of Texas
Sam Houston was born in Rockbridge County, Virginia, on March 2, 1793, and he’s basically going to be the most fascinating president this side of Teddy Roosevelt. Seriously, Sam Houston leads an incredible life. He’ll be a runaway, a soldier, a drunk, a revolutionary, a statesman – and an odyssean smartass the whole way through.
If Tom Sawyer were a real person who grew up and lived a real life, I think Sam Houston is who he’d be.
Shortly after Sam Houston was born, his father died just as his family was moving from Virginia to Tennessee, so he grew up with two older brothers serving as these towering, puritanical father figures, and he hated it. Seriously, he called them “The apostles.” And not in a nice way. When they tried to make him clerk the family store, he ran away to live with the Cherokee
That’s right! There were still quite a few Cherokee living in Tennessee at this point, and they were pretty friendly folk. So when 16-year-old Sam Houston walked into a village led by a chief the Americans called John Jolly, Chief John Jolly let him stay, and Houston practically became a member of the tribe. Houston learned the Cherokee language, its culture, and he flirted with the young women of the village. He began to dress like them, and this wasn’t a fleeting interest – when he becomes a senator way later in life, Houston will famously wrap himself in a Cherokee blanket and whittle away the days in the Senate chamber. The tribe even gave him an Cherokee name – the Raven, which was both a creature of good luck and the symbol of a wanderer. It would prove accurate on both counts.
But Houston did have to earn his keep, and it appears he might have done this by helping the Cherokee trade with the white settlements around them. By 1811, Houston had moved back into white society and was working at one of these trading posts, but it still wasn’t really his thing, so when the army came recruiting in 1813, he signed up to serve in the War of 1812.
And do you remember who else was in Tennessee during the War of 1812? That’s right! Andrew Jackson. Like a bad penny, he’s going to keep turning up. In 1813, Jackson was leading the state militia in the Creek war, which was a struggle between American militia and a sect of creek Indians called the Red Sticks who had gone to war with the Americans over American encroachment on native lands.
Sam Houston joined Jackson’s army just in time for the climactic battle of this War – the battle at Horseshoe bend. In this battle, the Red Sticks took up a really strong fortified position on a sort of peninsula in a bend in a river. They had built wooden barricades across the width of the peninsula that any attack would have to charge into, and they kept their canoes ready on the shore in their rear for a quick escape if overrun. Jackson’s plan for the battle was to have native American allies sneak across the river and steal the canoes as he launched a frontal assault on the barricade with overwhelming numbers – it was a strategy that worked. The canoes were stolen and 800 of the 1,000 red sticks there were killed in the fight, unable to get away. Houston led the charge and was one of the first Americans over the barricade, where was shot twice in the arm and took an arrow in the groin for his troubles, but he refused to go down. Houston was actually a rather huge man for his time – 6 foot 6 – and he kept fighting until he literally collapsed from his wounds. He had lost so much blood that the field doctors thought he’d die for sure and didn’t even bother treating him, but he surprised them by surviving and began a slow recovery.
Houston soldiering was done for now, but Jackson didn’t forget his bravery. And that would be helpful when Houston turned to a career in politics a decade later.
When the War of 1812 ended, Houston asked to stay on in the army – he was still determined not to lead an ordinary life. But his next assignment proved one of the most conflicting of his life – he was asked to get the Cherokee – his Cherokee - out of Tennessee.
As I mentioned earlier, there will still quite a few Cherokee in Tennessee at this time. And, among all those Cherokee, some small group of them had signed a treaty saying all Cherokee in the state would sell their land and move west even though this little group did NOT speak for any of the others – And if this bullcrap sounds familiar, this was a common land-grab tactic that I mentioned in the William Henry Harrison episode. The Americans told all the Cherokee in Tennessee a deal’s a deal, and they had to go.
And one of those groups that was about to be forced out over a treaty they had nothing to do with? Ol’ John Jolly and the Cherokee village that had been Sam Houston’s home and family for three years.
And now, in 1817, 24-year-old Houston was being ordered to make them leave.
And, I mean, what would you do? Would you try to pull a McGuyver and train the Cherokee in how to fight and resist?
I don’t think you’d get the Hollywood ending.
And Sam Houston didn’t think so, either.
Houston went to his tribe and told them, if they fought, they would die. What was happening wasn’t fair, but they had no choice but to leave. And if they left peacefully, he might be able to get them more supplies for their journey.
With heavy hearts, the Cherokee agreed. They packed their things and began the long walk west toward the Indian territory of Arkansas.
Houston was disgusted by the administration’s treatment of the Cherokee and the role he had played in it, and he decided he was done being a man who carried out other peoples’ policies. It was time to start setting his own policy instead.
It was time, for a life in politics.
And Houston was primed for it. He was resourceful, charismatic, a war hero, and not shy about asking for favors.
In 1822, 29-year-old Sam Houston has won his first congressional seat, running unopposed thanks to Andrew Jackson’s firm backing. In 1827, Andrew Jackson asked Houston to run for Tennessee governor, and Houston said yes, although he wasn’t entirely comfortable with Jackson’s reasons. The sitting Tennessee governor was a Jackson loyalist, but the state constitution allowed no more than two consecutive terms, and this guy’s two terms were up. So Jackson wanted to arrange for Houston to take the governor’s mansion for a single term and then politely vacate it so the other guy could take it back.
Houston said yes to one term, but he didn’t say yes to only one term. After a very successful term as governor, Houston ran for reelection, and Jackson decided to not get involved. This was kind of Houston’s test. A chance to cement himself as Jackson’s one and true heir – someone who might leap from Tennessee to the national scene – but then something crazy happened.
Houston got his heart broken, and he was so distraught, that he disappeared on a three-year bender in the Indian territory.
Yeah. That happened. Let me tell you about it.
In 1829, 36-year-old Houston married the 19-year-old Eliza Allen – a woman practically half his age – and there were immediate problems. Like. Big problems. Two days after the wedding, Sam Houston was out snowball fighting with some kids at a friend’s house when the friend’s wife joked to Eliza, “You should go help him.” And Eliza, stone cold, replied, “I wish they would kill him.” And then, as if to make sure she was understood, Eliza repeated herself, “Yes, I wish from the bottom of my heart that they would kill him.”
Which isn’t the best sign of a healthy marriage.
Four months later, when Houston was off debating his rival for governor, Eliza fled to her family while without even saying a word of goodbye. And when Houston got home to find her missing, I mean, not even country music will capture how devastated he was. He’d had no idea this was coming, and it broke his heart. He dropped out of the governor’s race days later, packed his things, and fled west off the map into Indian territory, where he spent his next three years drowning his sorrows at the bottom of a bottle.
And everyone thought Sam Houston was through.
And the thing that makes this even crazier is, to this day, nobody knows for certain why Eliza left. At first, neither would say a word of why to anyone. For years, asking Sam Houston about Eliza was the quickest way to earn a stare that Could peel paint.
And when they did start talking, they gave different reasons at different times. As best I can figure, it was probably a combination of two things. First, and this is a biggie, Eliza loved another man. In the 1820’s, young women had to marry who their parents told them to marry, and Eliza’s parents told her to marry the politically well-connected Houston – and not her teenage beau. Which must have been pretty upsetting, but Eliza might have still gone through with it if not for one other thing. Remember when Houston took that arrow in the groin during the battle of horseshoe bend? Well, it never healed right, and blood oozed from it his entire life. Which, that’s a hell of a honeymoon surprise.
When Eliza, who was already questioning this marriage, saw that wound, I’m thinking she said hell to-the no, I’m out. And fled back to her parents, and it broke Sam Houston’s heart.
Over the next three years, little snippets and tales of Houston made their way back east. It appears President Jackson may have even had spies keeping an eye on his old friend. But basically, Houston drank, and drank, and drank. He reunited with John Jolly and his old Cherokee family, who took him back in, but he drank so much they soon changed his name – from “The Raven,” to “Big Drunk.”
But slowly, gradually, he pulled himself back together. The Cherokee knew he had connections in D.C., and they frequently sent him as one of their emissaries to the nation’s capital, and at some point during these visits, he did get back in touch with President Jackson, began to sober up, and began to dream of Texas.
Which means, it’s time to talk about Texas!
So we are right around 1833 right now, and I’m going to zoom out and step back a bit because there are a few major Texas milestones we need to hit to get you caught up on what’s going on and why.
So, if we go way back to, like, the 16th century, everything west and south of the Louisiana Territory has been controlled by Spain ever since a conquistador named Cortes overthrew the Aztec empire 1521. In the 300 years since then, Spanish power had waxed and waned. In 1810, Mexico began a war for independence. A war it won 11 years later in 1821, establishing Mexico as an independent country. A huge independent country. Mexico City laid claim to all the lands as far south as panama and everything west of the Louisiana territory as far north as the Canadian border. This was a country full of mountains and deserts and terrain that made long-distance communication difficult, so it began with a very decentralized constitution. Places like Texas, more than 400 miles away from the capital in Mexico City, were allowed to pretty much do their own thing, and they got used to doing their own thing.
Especially when they started bringing Americans in.
Around the same time Mexico won its independence, an American named Stephen F Austin was given permission to settle American migrants in the area known as Texas. The government in Mexico City hoped these settlers would spread west and keep the native American populations in check and develop the land and trade routes, enriching the Mexican state. But the Texians, as they were called, they mostly stuck to eastern Texas, which had a climate that was friendly to slave-based agriculture. Because, oh yeah, they totally brought their slaves.
So when Mexico banned slavery less than a decade later in 1829, the Texians were pretty damn upset. I mean, they didn’t actually free their slaves. They just called them indentured servants while keeping them trapped in a live of slavery. But they were upset at even having to pretend. And they didn’t get any less upset when taxes they’d been exempted from came due right around then, too, because, if there’s one thing that’s always true about Texans, it’s that they don’t like paying taxes.
So, we’re getting into the 1830’s now, and everyone is pretty upset about these taxes and the abolition of slavery, but at least they’ve got a fairly autonomous regional government, right?
Hah. About that.
In 1833, a Mexican general named Santa Anna overthrew the government and crowned himself dictator. That decentralized constitution? Two years later, in 1835, Santa Anna tore it to shreds and wrote a new one that made it clear he was in charge.
And that’s about when Mexico’s provinces started rebelling.
So let’s reset the Table. It’s 1835, insurrections are breaking out all over Mexico. The Texians, who are mighty pissed about this whole ‘you can’t call your slaves “slaves” and you have to pay your taxes’ business, are itching to join ’em. And Sam Houston, the war hero and one-time Jackson heir who’s finally drying out, is right there in the region thinking its time to get in the game.
Things are about to come to a head.
Sam Houston entered Texas in 1833, allegedly on Indian business, but quickly set about making political connections across the region. Houston may now have been deemed impolite society in the parlors back east, but the Texians liked the cut of his gib. And when Santa Anna tore up the constitution in 35’, Houston got himself elected to a political convention protesting Santa Anna’s tyranny, and then got himself elected major general of the Texas army.
The Texians were organizing to fight, and Houston had procured himself a lead role.
But the Mexicans were coming.
In October, 100 Mexican dragoons showed up in Gonzalez, in southern Texas, to reclaim a little cannon they had there, and 150 Texas volunteers gathered under a white “Come and take it” flag to defend it. Shots were fired. And the war for Texas independence began.
The war for Texas independence basically has two phases. The first phase was the Texians vs a small regional army led by a regional Mexican general who the Texians could fairly easily push around. The Texians drove the general off, seized San Antonio, and some actually convinced themselves they’d won the war. That was easy, let’s go capture Sante Fe and Monterrey! But Sam Houston knew better. He did his best to keep the Texians focused on building a strong government with a strong militia, because this wasn’t over. Santa Anna was coming. And Santa Anna was pissed.
As soon as Santa Anna finished putting down Mexico’s other rebellions, he marched on Texas and arrived in early 1836 with several armies, each thousands of men strong.
This was the second and decisive phase of the Texas revolution – The wrath of Santa Anna.
The Texians knew Santa Anna was coming, but they didn’t know when. On March 2, 1836, just as they were declaring their independence in a small town along the Brazos river, the news they’d been dreading arrived. Santa Anna had entered Texas, marched on San Antonio, and laid siege to the old mission called the Alamo. Roughly 200 Texas volunteers were surrounded by 2,000 Mexican soldiers. Houston was ordered to reinforce the Alamo, but the fight was over before he’d even gathered his men – Santa Anna overran the old mission and ordered all its defenders killed.
Only women, children, and a single slave were allowed to flee, to carry with them the warning that with Santa Anna, resistance meant death.
At this point, General Sam Houston had maybe 400 partially armed and poorly trained militia under his command, compared to maybe 6,000 Mexicans sweeping across the state in multiple armies. So Houston did the only thing he could do, he friggin’ ran. In an event known as the runaway scrape, Houston’s army fled roughly 200 miles, marching toward the Louisiana border, picking up recruits and drilling his men as they went. As they fled, the state’s government fled, too, driven by fresh reports of captured rebels being killed to the man.
Now, there are rumors that the reason Houston was fleeing toward Louisiana was that he expected an American army on the border to cross into Texas and help him defeat Santa Anna, but it never came to that. Because Santa Anna was getting cocky. Too cocky. Santa Anna decided that if he could capture the fleeing Texas government, he’d win, so he raced ahead of his armies with just 300 men in pursuit of the Texas government. But that’s not what made the move cocky. What made it cocky was that he wrote Houston a letter telling him exactly what he was doing and saying that after he captured the state government, he’d be coming for Houston next.
Houston decided to come for Santa Anna first.
Santa Anna had it backwards. Capturing the democratically-elected Texas government would never end the war. But capturing the dictator Santa Anna? That sure as heck would.
Realizing Santa Anna was as isolated as he was ever going to be, Houston rushed his army, now 700 strong, toward the Mexican Dictator. The two armies met at San Jacinto, where they set up camp only 500 yards apart – I mean, that’s 5 football fields - and a two-day battle took place. On the first day, Houston outnumbered Santa Anna, but only engaged in light skirmishes. Not wanting to risk it all quite yet. The following morning, Santa Anna received 500 reinforcements, meaning he now outnumbered Houston, but Santa Anna didn’t attack. He probably figured, if Houston didn’t attack yesterday when my army was smaller than his, he’ll never attack today when my army’s larger. Santa Anna also knew time was on his side. The longer he waited, the larger his army would become, so he took it easy and relaxed.
And that was a big mistake.
The Texians waited until the afternoon, when the Mexican army decided the quiet morning meant it was safe to nap and bath, and that’s when the Texians struck. As much as Sam Houston had tried to drill them, he still couldn’t do much better than line them up facing the right direction and order them to charge. But at San Jacinto, that one charge was all he needed. The Texians caught the Mexicans napping – literally. Santa Anna might have even had a woman in his tent when the Texians attacked, and they and overran the Mexican camp in just 18 minutes. 650 Mexicans were killed, 200 wounded, and 300 captured – including Santa Anna. While the Texans suffered only 11 dead.
With their leader captured, the other Mexican armies were forced to retreat. Santa Anna would later be freed in exchange for a pledge to pressure Mexico’s Congress to recognize Texas independence, but for all intents and purposes, Sam Houston won Texas’s independence on April 21, 1836, on the fields of San Jacinto.
Seven months later, Texas held its first presidential election. And though there were three men on the ballot, there was only one contender. Sam Houston ran away with 76% of the vote.
And so, on October 22, 1836, Sam Houston was inaugurated as the first president of the independent republic of Texas. The one-time heir of Jackson who had disappeared into the west on an epic 3-year bender to drown his broken heart, had reemerged the hero of Texas, and he now had but one goal, get Texas annexed into the American Union.
Houston wasted no time.
He quickly organized a resolution asking the Texans if they favored annexations, which they overwhelmingly did, and he then sent representatives to D.C. where he was confident president Jackson would welcome the lone star state with open arms.
And then he waited.
And Andrew Jackson left him hanging.
For a couple reasons.
First, Congress was out of session. But even if it had been in session, there was no guarantee north and south would agree to annex another slave state, which would throw the delicate balance of power in the Senate out the window.
Second, remember how Santa Anna had promised to pressure the Mexican Congress to recognize Texas independence? Well. He didn’t. Mexico still very much claimed that Texas was part of its territory, and if anyone tried to annex the wayward province, it was going to mean war.
So, as Andrew Jackson wrapped up his final year in the white house, he decided there was no need to rush it on this Texas thing. Everyone was confident Texas would one day join the United States, but the politics of making it happen decreed that it wouldn’t happen just yet. Jackson recognized Texas independence on his last day in office, but he didn’t push for annexation.
And the Texans, well, they were a bit embarrassed. This was the international equivalent of being left waiting at the altar. So they withdrew their petition and realized, holy smokes, we’re going to have to do this independence thing for a bit longer than we expected.
And it wasn’t going to be easy.
Houston is going to face three big challenges as president of Texas
- And Texans.
And when I say “Texans,” I’m being a bit tongue and cheek, but seriously, governing is hard! Not everyone in Texas wanted the same things Houston wanted, and the republic barred presidents from serving consecutive terms, so the next 8 years – 1837 to 1845 – would see Houston rotate in and out of the presidency several times. And the political rivals who would be president when he was out of office, they would do some pretty crazy things.
One launched an invasion of Mexico to try and capture Sante Fe – a disastrous attack that just depleted the treasury and got everyone captured or killed. That same president also passed a law saying all freed African Americans had to leave Texas by a certain date or be re-enslaved – something Houston cancelled at the last minute by executive order after he’d won reelection. Another president moved the republic’s capital from Houston to Austin, which, well, how do you think Houston liked that? He actually tried to move it back out of Austin twice only to be stopped by angry Austin mobs both times, so Austin is where the capital stayed.
Basically, whatever Sam Houston wants to do, he’s going to have a strong opposition trying to do the opposite, and they’ll pull Texas in that opposite direction whenever they’re in power.
But what about those other challenges – Mexico and Annexation? Remember how Mexico hadn’t recognized Texas independence? Well, to make sure the Texans didn’t forget it, The Mexicans periodically raided and invaded the republic – especially after Santa Anna again became dictator in 1839 – and twice occupied San Antonio before withdrawing back to the Rio Grande river. For all intents and purposes, the badlands between the Nueces river and Rio Grande river were a 40-to-100-mile-wide no-man’s land that served as a buffer between the Texans and Santa Anna’s armies.
Houston didn’t want another war with Mexico. He knew he’d been lucky to win the last one, and he knew the angrier Mexico was the less likely American annexation was. But avoiding war wasn’t easy. Those Mexican raids demanded to be answered. And whenever the Texans formed an army and responded – for example, briefly occupying Laredo at one point – the more gung-ho members of the army would splinter off and usually get themselves captured and killed trying to invade deeper into Mexico. At one point, 176 such Texans were captured on an invasion Houston hadn’t authorized and forced to draw beans from an earthen jar. Of the 176 beans in the jar, 17 were black, and every man who drew a black bean was executed by firing squad in a courtyard.
And when stuff like that is going on – Mexicans capturing San Antonio, Texans capturing Laredo, prisoners being executed by bean lottery – it would be really easy for the two sides to slide back into all-out war, so Houston had to be really crafty in how he handled Mexico. And the strategy he settled on could basically be summed up as the opposite of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous axiom.
When it came to Mexico, Sam Houston spoke loudly, and didn’t carry a stick at all.
Texas was broke. It had practically no army. There was no stick. So all-out war wasn’t an option. But if Sam Houston didn’t put up a strong front – if he let on how weak his position was – the pro war Texans would toss him out and the Mexicans would swoop in and invade.
So he blustered. He bravado’d. He talked a big game. And he also appeased – kind of pulling it both directions at the same time. It takes a long time for mail to get from Mexico City to Austin, and Houston took advantage of this by engaging in really slow-moving negotiations for an armistice. These negotiations took forever to conclude, but while they were going on, Mexico was loath to invade, because Houston’s big carrot was to refer to Texas as a “department” of Mexico in the armistic – in other words, he made it look like Texas might rejoin Mexico.
Of course, Sam Houston knew the Texas senate would never ratify such a deal, so such offers only bought peace and time.
And time was very important, because the last big challenge of Sam Houston’s presidencies – that original goal – annexation to the united states, was taking forever.
America’s political elite – Martin Van Buren, Henry Clay, and the like – were unwilling to discuss annexing Texas because annexing Texas would resurface the debate over slavery, and Van Buren and Clay had built national parties by studiously avoiding all discussion of slavery, which was a sectional issue. Basically, if either man picked a side on it, they’d alienate half their party and never win another national election – a mistake less-crafty politicians would make in the 1850s.
So Sam Houston had to make the benefits of annexing Texas, and the risks of not annexing it, look greater in the eyes of Americans.
And he did this by playing a diplomatic game with the Europeans.
Houston began flirting with the British about developing closer political and economic ties, and maybe even turning Texas into a British protectorate – which, just imagine if today Texas was part of a global British empire. Unthinkable, right? – but Houston made sure the Americans knew it was a possibility. He might have even planted editorials in Texas newspapers to make it look like Texans were in favor of it. And he did this well enough to convince politicians in both D.C. and London that a Texas entry into the British empire was a real possibility.
But that’s not the only plate Houston had in the air. At the same time he was insincerely negotiating an armistice with Mexico, and insincerely talking to Britain about becoming a protectorate, he was sincerely participating in secret negotiations president John Tyler’s administration about annexation.
But then, just before these secret negotiations could bear fruit, for explosive reasons we’ll cover in John Tyler’s episode, *wink wink,* the negotiations were made public and suddenly all of Houston’s cards were revealed on the table.
The Mexicans were furious and threatened to invade.
The British still thought they could get Texas, and convinced Mexico to stand down.
And the Americans came closer and closer to annexation.
And as annexation came closer to reality, Mexico, in turn, began to panic. Nobody in Mexico wanted the United States on the border – a future Mexican president would sum up the sentiment by saying, “Poor Mexico. So far from God, and so close to the United States.” – and Santa Anna was willing to do just about anything to make sure Mexico was not ‘so close to the united states.’ He offered to recognize Texas independence in exchange for a pledge that Texas would never join another country.
And so, at the very end of Houston’s term, a convention was called in 1845 with two options on the table.
Independence and peace with Mexico – this was Santa Anna’s offer.
Or annexation into the United States, and likely war with Mexico – the American offer had finally come through.
And the Texans, well, do you think it was ever in doubt? They overwhelmingly chose annexation to the United States.
Texas was officially annexed into the United States on Dec. 29, 1845; 52-year-old Sam Houston was overwhelmingly elected one of its first two senators; and Texas, and the union, found themselves at war with Mexico within a year.
But I’ll get to that in episode 11 on James K. Polk.
At this point, Sam Houston’s redemption was complete. The one-time heir of Jackson had come out of nowhere to lead Texas to independence and then annexation. He’d even married a new loving wife in 1840 – a woman named Margaret Lea who was with him to his death. You could forgive him for settling down to a peaceful retirement.
But this is Sam Houston. So hell no, he’s not ready to retire.
Sam Houston spent the next 15 years – 1845 to 1860 – building his national profile while serving as a senator, governor, and sometimes simple citizen of Texas – he’s the only man to have been governor of two states. And he started to get some national buzz for president of the United States. Houston was a southerner who put the union first – and he knew it was in peril. In 1852, he predicted the following:
“the free soil party, uniting with the abolitionists, will elect the president of the United States. Then will come the tocsin of war and the clamor for secession... each section, in profound blindness ... will rush madly to war, each anticipating an easy victory. But ... what fields of blood, what scenes of horror, what mighty cities in smoke and ruins - it is brother murdering brother ... I see my beloved south go down in the unequal contest, in a sea of blood and smoking ruin.” Houston predicted a military dictatorship would then be imposed over the south, which would respond with, “the bitter curses of assassinations.”
Which is crazy close to what’s going to happen.
So, hoping to avoid this, Houston let himself be put forward as a presidential candidate that he thought the North and South could compromise on. And in 1852 and 1860, he received delegates from various parties favoring his nomination.
But he never did get nominated. Because in the 1850’s, compromise was a 4-letter word. The only way to win the southern votes you needed to reach the white house was to either favor the expansion of slavery or have no stated position on the matter. And Senator Houston had opposed its expansion, so his candidacy was dead on arrival with the south and would never take off. Defeated, Houston settled for one last hurrah as Texas governor instead … starting a two-year term in December, 1859.
And this takes us to the last great principled stand of Sam Houston – the decision over whether to join the confederacy.
A year after Houston was elected governor, Abraham Lincoln was elected president. And when southern states started seceding in the months that followed, most Texans wanted to join them.
But not Houston.
Houston loved the union. When he was a young man, he’d met the revolutionary war hero, the Marquis de Lafayette, who had impressed on him the importance of preserving the union as the most powerful force in the world against tyranny, and Houston sincerely believed that.
So when his fellow Texans wanted to destroy that union, Houston did everything he could to stall them and their calls for secession.
First, the Texas supreme court ruled that only the state legislature could secede, and the state’s legislature only meets every other year, so Houston tried to buy time by simply refusing to call a special session to Austin. But then Texas secessionists went over his head by calling a state convention to debate the matter. Seeing he was being outflanked, Houston called congress so he could personally pitch them on staying, but nobody was buying what he was selling, and they soon decided they were sick of him. On March 15, 1860, the Texas secessionist convention swore an oath of loyalty to the confederacy, and then ordered governor Houston to do the same, or else. They gave him until noon the following day to make up his mind.
I can’t help but think back to that other great conflict of Houston’s life – when he was ordered to make his Cherokee family emigrate to the west. Then, it was country vs. second family. This time, it was support the union, or the state he’d created.
It must have been excruciating.
Family legend has it that Houston spent the whole night pacing in his home, wrestling with what to do. Stand with Texas, or the Union? Which loyalty would he betray? When he emerged in the morning, he said to his wife, “Margaret, I will never do it.” And he sat in his office whittling, in earshot of the convention, and ignoring them as they called for him to swear loyalty to the confederacy. When he failed to appear, the convention declared his office vacant and appointed a pro secessionist man to the office instead.
When Houston showed up to the governor’s office the next day, the secessionist sat in the governor’s chair. “Aren’t you an early riser,” Houston said. “The early bird gets the worm,” the secessionist replied. And that was that for Houston as governor.
But it almost wasn’t the end for Houston the fighter.
The night before, Houston had written a fiery denunciation of the secessionist convention.
Fellow Citizens, in the name of your rights and liberties, which I believe have been trampled upon, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of the nationality of Texas, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of the Constitution of Texas, which has been trampled upon, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of my own conscience and manhood, which this convention would degrade by dragging me before it to pander to the malice of my enemies, I refuse to take this oath.
I deny the power of this convention to speak for Texas… I protest in the name of the people of Texas against all the acts and doings of this convention, and I declare them null and void!
Houston wrote these comments, but he never did deliver them. But, Abraham Lincoln did find out about them, and apparently reached out. Two weeks later after being ousted, Houston gathered three of his closest advisors to ask for their advice. A union army was holed up in a Texas port. Lincoln had offered to make Houston a brigadier general in charge of that army and increase its size to 50,000 soldiers, IF Houston would keep Texas in the union.
Two of Houston’s three friends told him not to take the deal. And I can picture Houston there, standing by the fireplace, grimacing. He finally spoke, “If I were 10 years younger, I’d be ignoring your advice.”
But Houston wasn’t 10 years younger. He was 68 years old. And his days of fighting, he decided, were through.
As Texas slid into the confederacy, committees of public safety formed across the state to confiscate the property of anyone insufficiently loyal. Some were executed. The secessionist convention issued a “declaration of causes” to make clear why the state was seceding, quote “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”
Which, if I may be honest, I feel sick reading that. But I get even sicker when I hear people say the civil war wasn’t fought by the south to preserve slavery. They all wrote it down. It’s right there to read it.
As the world went to hell around him, Houston quietly retired to Huntsville, Texas. In America’s climactic civil struggle, he would not participate
Two years later, On July 26, 1863, Houston died of severe pneumonia at his home with his family. His last words were, “Texas! Texas!” and then his wife’s name, “Margaret.” He didn’t live long enough to see his prophesy of southern defeat come true. He was 70 years old.
Let’s be honest. That was a pretty epic life. The lost boy who ran away from home to live with the Cherokee, served under Jackson in the war of 1812, fled the Tennessee governorship for three years of drunken self-imposed exile in the Indian territory after having his heart broken by his first wife, only to pull himself together and win Texas independence, join it to the union, and oppose its secession. What a life.
But what can we learn from this epic odyssey?
I’ll go with, we all have our demons, our challenges, our weaknesses that we fear will define us. But they don’t have to. By some accounts, Sam Houston was an alcoholic from the time he first ran away from home to live with the Cherokee. Sometimes he was a functioning alcoholic, and sometimes he wasn’t. But it’s not what defines him. He’s the man who won Texas independence. The man who brought it into the union. And the man who tried to keep it there. That’s his legacy. His struggles with alcohol are only remarkable in how he didn’t allow them to define him. So, whatever your weakness, it doesn’t have to define you either.
One last story.
Late in life, after his wife convinced him to be baptized in his 60s, a friend said to Houston, “Well, General, I hear your sins were washed away.” Houston replied, “I hope so. But if they were all washed away, lord help the fish down below.”
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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, and the U.S. Coast Guard Band.
The primary biography for today’s episode was Sam Houston, by James L Haley.
In our next episode, we’ll resume the main narrative with the president who did annex Texas – John Tyler. The only president who will die a traitor.
That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.