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YEP, HE’S THAT LAMAR—the one for whom all those streets and schools were named. Mirabeau B. Lamar, born two hundred years ago, fought at the Battle of San Jacinto and subsequently became the third president of the short-lived Republic of Texas. The role of heroic leader was one that Lamar—a poet, painter, and self-styled cavalier—had always envisioned for himself. But his impracticality doomed his dreams of empire. When the fledgling nation needed cash, for example, Lamar ordered the printing of $3 million in largely worthless “red backs,” then squandered most of the money on brutal attacks on various Indian tribes and an ill-fated foray into hostile Mexican territory.
He was born Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar on August 16, 1798, near Louisville, Georgia. At age 25 he became secretary to Georgia’s governor. His first wife died after four years of marriage.
In 1836, galvanized by the news of the fall of the Alamo, he headed to Texas and joined the army.
Lamar hated Sam Houston, who was his political opposite. Houston succeeded David G. Burnet as president of the Republic of Texas and was in turn succeeded by Lamar, who won the 1838 election by a landslide after both of his opponents committed suicide. At Lamar’s inauguration, Houston dressed up as George Washington and delivered a scathing speech on Lamar’s views. In retaliation the new president relocated the capital from Houston, which bore his rival’s name.
Lamar also hated Indians and vowed to banish the Cherokee, Sam Houston’s adopted tribe. Houston’s friend Chief Bowl was killed in an 1839 attack ordered by Lamar.
Stung by Mexico’s refusal to recognize the Republic of Texas, Lamar leased the Texas Navy to the rebel government of the Yucatán.
His proposal to use revenues from public lands to endow schools earned him the sobriquet the “Father of Texas Education.”
In 1841, while trying to reopen trade with Mexico—or, truth be told, to annex some of its land—Lamar dispatched an expedition to Santa Fe. The Mexicans arrested his men on arrival and marched them to prison in Mexico City; many died of abuse on the way.
That humiliation closed out Lamar’s presidency, and he retired to his Richmond plantation. He later fought in the Mexican War and served as U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua and Costa Rica. In 1851 he remarried. He died of a heart attack on December 19, 1859.