Yesterday, I finally finished James L. Haley’s biography of Sam Houston. My girlfriend bought it for me on my last day of work as a tour guide in the Texas Capitol building- which displays a life-size statue of Houston just inside the main entrance. A replica of that statue stands in National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Houston’s life was one that spanned the two worlds, from his rustic youth roaming just went of the Appalachian frontier and fighting with Andrew Jackson’s ragtag Tennessee militia to his service in both houses of the U.S. Congress, as President of Texas and Governor of both Texas and Tennessee, and as a three-time U.S. presidential candidate and personal acquaintance of every U.S. President from Andrew Jackson to Abraham Lincoln.
From a modern perspective, Houston’s outsized personality and exploits can cloud the questions of conscience that he struggled with throughout his life, and the demons that plagued his often tragic career.
Friction with his family led him to run away from home at the age of 16 and seek acceptance among the Cherokee tribes of Hiwassee Island- a tribe whose removal from their traditional lands he would later supervise as the Cherokee agent to Andrew Jackson.
A failed first marriage to a high-society debutante named Eliza Allen, and the alcoholism that followed, left his political life in shambles and drove a nearly decade-long wedge between him and his friend and mentor Jackson. He went into a self-imposed exile and sought refuge in the Arkansas territory, among the same Cherokee tribe that he had helped to remove from western Tennessee.
Eventually, he came upon the Texas independence movement, which presented him with an opportunity to remake his political career, rebuild his finances, and reclaim his status as Jackson’s political protege. Immediately, though, he was forced into a position of being the voice of reason in the face of an poorly-trained, undisciplined and rash folk militia. He faced down near mutiny before leading the militia to an unlikely victory over the Mexican army at San Jacinto, and then, as newly-elected President of Texas, restrained their impulse to carry out a retaliatory invasion of Mexico-one which the fledgling republic couldn’t support and probably wouldn’t have survived.
Two years later, though, constitutionally prohibited from seeking a second consecutive term in office, he was forced to step aside and watch the leadership of Texas fall to the Lamar-Burton faction- his bitter political enemies. They squandered the political goodwill that he had built up among the Cherokee and Comanche tribes of west Texas, and erased most of the progress towards Texas annexation by the United States that Houston had made.
After a second term as Texas President, during which Houston was finally able to orchestrate Texas statehood, Houston was elected to the U.S. Senate to represent the new state. He resumed a correspondence with his old mentor, Andrew Jackson, who welcomed him to Washington to ‘take his place among the sages of the nation.’ Finally reconciled with the former president, Houston arrived at the Hermitage minutes after Jackson died.
In the Senate, the single issue that came to occupy Houston’s attention was the trend toward sectional division. He was himself a slaveowner, but had made his opposition to the growth of slavery clear throughout his career. He quickly became known in the senate as a southerner with northern sympathies (during his half-hearted campaigns for the presidency in 1852, 1856, and 1860, much of his support came from New York, where he was extremely popular).
He supported compromise of 1850, legislation that served mostly to defuse the sectional tensions that eventually led to the Civil War. He delivered a dramatic address to the Senate, urging the legislation’s passage. Anticipating that this was his opportunity to be heard nationally on the subject, he had the speech printed and distributed ahead of time.
“I cannot offer the prayers of the righteous that my petition might be heard. But I beseech those whose piety will permit them reverently to petition, that they will pray for this Union, and ask that he who buildeth up and pulleth down nations will, in his mercy, preserve and unite us. For a nation divided against itself cannot stand.”
Haley notes that
“Across the Capitol in the House, there had been a change in the delegation from Illinois. A disappointed Whig, an outgoing one-term congressman named Abraham Lincoln, was so disgusted with events that he had not even sought re-election. But one of Houston’s pamphlets must have found its way to him.”
Houston opposed the Kansas Nebraska Act in 1854, fearing that it would lead to war. In an address to the Senate on the subject, he said ” … 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.”
The loss of standing at home was such that Houston was dealt his only electoral defeat in his run for the Texas governorship in 1857 against Hardin Runnels, a candidate who advocated secession and the re-opening of the African slave trade.
Houston spent two more years in the Senate, and was successful in his second run for governor in 1859. By then, though, he was too late to stall the sectional strife that was inevitable. Easily the most poignant passage of Haley’s biography is that which chronicles the night of Friday, March 15, 1861. That day, Governor Houston received an ultimatum from the secession convention that had been commissioned by the Attorney General and recognized by the legislature. They had issued a proclamation that any public official who did not swear an oath of loyalty to the confederacy would be removed from office. Houston was given until noon the next day to make a decision.
During the entirety of Houston’s career, when faced with a hard decision between competing ideologues, he had adopted a tactic of stalling and waiting for more favorable circumstances, while looking for a middle ground between moral absolutes. The strategy had served him well during his early dealings with the Cherokee (even if it didn’t serve the Cherokee very well). Rather than embracing Jackson’s more aggressive impulses that might have led to all-out war with the Cherokee, Houston presented a softer face of the administration to his old adopted family, persuading them that moving west, rather than fighting, was ultimately in their best interest.
The same tactic carried him through the Texas Revolution. Rather than indulging his militia’s impulses towards immediate action, which would have meant certain ruin, Houston convinced his army to take up a lengthy retreat while they received formal training and grew in size. After the war, and at least into the late 1850s, he steadfastly opposed both Texan and American designs on annexing Mexico, especially in the wake of the Mexican-American War. Finally-with his support for the Compromise of 1850 and similar tactics intended to defuse the move to war-he pursued what might be characterized as stalling tactics in the face of the virulent sectionalism that he witnessed in the Senate.
But he was also capable to embracing rigid, uncompromising stances on certain issues. He glorified Andrew Jackson’s principle, if not his practice, of popular democracy, and refused to participate in the party convention system of nominating presidential candidates that he viewed as antithetical to it- even at the cost of his own Presidential campaigns in 1852, 1856 and 1860.
Clearly, though, he was not going to be able to put his stalling tactics into practice with this final decision. And it is tempting to wonder if Houston grappled with the same question that night that I asked as I read about it- what sort of judgment can be passed on Houston for tolerating the evil of slavery for so long, even if he did so in the name of gradually eliminating it in a more peaceful way? How much can one embrace compromise before one is simply dodging the hard decisions? How long should one allow the arc of the moral universe to be? And how does a constant compromiser like Houston recognize when the time has come to take decisive, uncompromising action?
Houston arrived in his first-floor office in the Capitol the next day, and sat despondently as the secession convention continued upstairs. Haley writes that a Houston partisan, Reverend William Mumford Baker, noted the “old governor sitting in his chair … sorrowfully meditating what it were best to do … the gathering upstairs summoned the old man … to come forward and take the oath to the Confederacy. I remember as yesterday the call thrice repeated- ‘Sam Houston! Sam Houston! Sam Houston!’ But the old man sat silent, immovable.”
Houston drafted a speech to be delivered to explain his decision to the legislature, the convention and to his fellow Texans. “It is, perhaps, meet that my career should close thus, I have seen patriots and statesmen of my youth one by one gathered to their fathers, and the government which they have reared rent in twain. … I stand the last, almost, of my race. … I am stricken down now, because I will not yield those principles, which I have fought for… The severest pang is that the blow comes in the name of the State of Texas.”
He never delivered the speech.
Houston arrived at work the following Monday morning to find the convention’s choice for governor, Ed Clark, sitting in his desk.
In following months, Houston turned down repeated offers from President Lincoln of Union troops to keep Texas in the Union.
He moved his family to Huntsville, occasionally making public appearances and speeches. In his final years, Houston became a kind of deathbed cheerleader for the Confederacy, celebrating Confederate victories over the Union army at Galveston Bay in his speeches and congratulating the victorious commanders in speeches that, increasingly, decried what he called the tyrannical tendencies of the North, and Lincoln.
Upon reading the Emancipation Proclamation in late 1862, Houston called his slaves together on the front porch of his “Steamboat House” in Huntsville, and informed them that they were free- several months before the Proclamation- which was virtually unenforceable in Confederate Texas anyway- required it. Houston’s decision was in violation of Texas law, which prohibited the manumission of slaves. It is probable, though, that Houston’s move was calculated to curry favor with the Union troops which occupied Galveston and who, Houston likely feared, would soon occupy Huntsville, too. A year later, Houston’s will was opened to reveal that a dozen slaves, ages four to 35, were still listed among his possessions, valued at $10,530.
Houston’s failure to take decisive action in the face of Texas secession is easy to excuse. It is often done of historical figures far more odious than Houston in the name of “celebrating our heritage” or recognizing that they were “products of their time.” All too often, though, this type of rationalizing is itself a fatal compromise made by those who would like to hold a glorifying, uncritical eye up to their own past. Such is the work of making heroes out of history- and it obscures the realities of our past and our present. Houston’s final failure was tragic and heartbreaking. At the heart of the decision he grappled with are the questions that run throughout our history, about injustice, democracy and the nature of progress.
I guess the point of a good biography is to raise that type of questions.
Next up: Lyndon Johnson.