Sam Houston, Warts and All

Texas was the end of the line for Sam Houston, an adventurer with boundless energies, deep depressions, and a mysterious past, the sort of man who could have faced down LBJ.

I DON’T WANT TO SOUND like a sniffy scholar, some gray tepid don smelling of water biscuits,
beeswax and old superiority, but the longer I live with the potluck our democracy has served up of
late in the way of presidents, the more I find myself limping away to the library to savor the
Early American dish. It is not, I must admit, as hearty as I had hoped. Now I know that the high
tone of history books is deceiving, that the dignified historians with three names have had to deal
with as much official cupidity and stupidity as your modern Washington Post man.

In other words, after 184 years and 37 presidents, we’ve only had a dozen or so worth a damn. So
relax and trust in the Republic, which is the people and not the president—it’s not going to
unravel over Richard M. when it’s scraped the bottom of the barrel with the likes of Franklin P.,
James B., Ulysses S., and Warren G., and still survived!

Besides, valleys eventually run into peaks and high presidential profiles, enough to emblazon
Mt. Rushmore and give us heart, so persevere and keep your eyes peeled for a good man—or woman.

History hasn’t always. Like Lady Justice, it has been blind at times and let some good ones
go—which puts us on the trail of Sam Houston. To my way of looking back, America committed a
grievous oversight (which was really Eastern myopia) when she missed out on Houston as a leader of
the people. Texas got him instead, and Sam was even after the colorful provincial, the “magnificent
barbarian,” one paragraph in Beard’s Basic History of the United States.

That’s a shame really, because when he chose to stand up with a sober countenance, Sam Houston
could make himself the tallest man around, and in an age when the country, and most especially the
woods, were full of giants. While young Lincoln dreamed in the gloom of New Salem, Old Hickory came
out of Tennessee and invited common men to follow him into the White House. It was a time of
boundary-busting expansion to the West, when white men conquered a continent in the name of
civilization and wiped out a race of red men; a time, ultimately and tragically for Sam Houston,
Lincoln and the rest of us ever since, when white men would fight among themselves over the slavery
of black men. A dangerous time of derringdo, which was Sam’s specialty. He could bob to the top in
the most treacherous waters, but he was also quite capable of plunging himself down in despair to
the murkiest bottom, in streams and circumstances which most men might have found difficult but not
nearly so destructive.

The most notorious case in point was the way Houston handled his first wife’s coldness. That it
cost him the governorship of Tennessee was ridiculous and uncalled for, but a small matter when you
consider that it might also have cost him the presidency of the United States. I am not trying to
put stars in his crown that he doesn’t deserve, because I don’t think I have any illusions about
Sam Houston. In spite of his feelings for the American Indian, Houston was a slave-holding
Anglo-Saxon racist and the most grandiose imperalist of his time.

He first came to political prominence in Tennessee and the national capital because he was an
ambitious, bootlicking lackey of Andrew Jackson. So were Martin Van Buren and James K. Polk, and
Old Hickory took care of them in time. He would have Houston too, maybe in lieu of Van Buren and
Polk, but Sam stunned them all by running away from a bad marriage and hiding out with the Indians.
He did not end up in Texas bent on good democratic deeds. He came a mercenary revolutionary with an
appetite for empire and personal and political redemption, all of which he satisfied.

So there, having said that, I can get back to my original point, which is that Sam Houston would
have made a brawny president, a peak in that interminable valley between Jackson and Lincoln. If he
would have stayed under Jackson’s wing, he could have been president at any time between 1837 and
1857, and certainly he would have been superior to William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary
Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. Van Buren and Polk were good
presidents, but I can’t but think that Houston would have surpassed them too.

When I was a kid I used to lose myself in “play like,” and that’s what I’m doing now, playing
like Sam Houston made it to the presidency. But first he went through four distinct phases, so
let’s review them. If it is dull work it is only because I make it so. Houston was a Hollywood
script writer’s dream.

When history first takes note of Sam, he is a 16-year-old Huckleberry, a runaway who is living
it up with the Indian maidens down on the Tennessee River. After that he is a country school
teacher, a heroic soldier and Indian fighter under General Andrew Jackson, an Indian agent, a
Nashville lawyer and actor, a United States congressman and then governor of Tennessee. All this
before he’s 35 years old.

Judge Jo C. Guild, an old friend, has left us a description of the dashing young governor.
“Houston measured six feet six inches (The U.S. Army measured him six feet two) in his socks, was
of fine contour, a remarkably well-proportioned man, and of commanding and gallant bearing; had a
large, long head and face and his fine features were lit up by large eagle-looking eyes; possessed
of a wonderful recollection of persons and names, a fine address and courtly manners and a
magnetism approaching that of General Andrew Jackson. He enjoyed unbounded popularity among men and
was a great favorite with the ladies.”

Judge Guild, being a political creature of the Jackson machine, obviously overdoes it a little,
though Sam was obviously riding high at the time, on Andrew Jackson’s coattails. For all this elan,
the Houston of that day was a marionette of the old man who was president. Not many men saw through
him, but a woman did. In spite of Sam’s attentions, Mary Custis, the great-granddaughter of Martha
Washington, much preferred a quieter man, a youth at the


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