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.

July 1973By Comments

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 Military Academy who did not drink or smoke. Eventually she married Second Lieutenant Robert E. Lee. What did Houston do? Why he went off and fought a duel over some nonsense and almost killed a man.

At this point in his life, Houston was an unpredictable sort. You never knew when he was going to fight or run. He might haul off and hit you with a cane or a compliment, while at the same time courting your lady with one of his overblown poems. And it was too early to tell what kind of governor he was. Suddenly, after announcing for a second-year term, he resigned and left the state for Indian territory. Eliza, his 18-year-old bride, loved another. Sam, it seems, wasn’t ready for the presidency.

President Jackson didn’t trust him and sent spies down on the Arkansas to make sure Houston didn’t stir up the Indians. He had word that Houston had vowed that in two years he would take Texas from Mexico, and that he would do it with Cherokees. It isn’t that Jackson didn’t want Texas from Mexico, it’s just that he preferred to buy it if he could.

President Jackson’s fears about Houston’s motives on the frontier were not unfounded, but Sam had more than one angle going for him. He ingratiated himself with the Osages and the Creeks and the Choctaws, and single-handedly put down an internecine war that won back Jackson’s confidence. The Cherokees made Houston a member of their nation, dubbed him an ambassador and sent him to Washington to win concessions from the white man’s government, and Sam did well enough for them in minor matters. He got bad Indian agents fired, for example, but he also tried to get for himself an Indian ration contract that would have been worth a million dollars. Sam Houston was probably the most enlightened white man of his day when it came to the red man, but the truth is that he used the Indians much more than he was useful to them. Time and time again, he went to them when he was down, only to leave when he got his get-up-and-go back.

“I have yet to be wronged or deceived by an Indian,” he once said. “Every wound I have known was the work of those of my own blood.”

But not even Tiana Rogers, the Cherokee beauty he took as a wife, could keep him happy down on the wigwam. He got to be such a drunken pain in the neck the Indians read him out of their council. He wept and told Tiana, “Go tell that you have seen Caius Marius sitting in exile among the ruins of Carthage.”

When he dried out enough to travel, Houston left the Arkansas and headed for Washington to go back into public life as a white man. At the mouth of the White River, he came across two French noblemen who were traveling about the country taking notes for a book. Their names were Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, and recognizing a quality in Houston, they drew him into conversation. “You believe then, in the possibility of saving the Indians?” Houston’s reply: “Yes. Without question, 25 years of skillful handling by the government would certainly produce this result.”

It is hard to believe Houston was this naive about the white man’s intentions, but maybe he was at the time. He was leaving the red man’s world, where he had made a mess of things, and was probably priming himself for a re-entry into the East that must have been difficult. Who would take him in like a prodigal son? Why President Jackson, of course, the man who would leave a black record in Indian affairs. Jackson did not honor the terms of treaties that even he himself had drawn with the Indians, and he forced tribe after tribe to give up their lands to white settlers and move further west. Houston not only knew of, but was an instrument in, this Western resettlement. Both he and Jackson saw it as one of the side effects of “Manifest Destiny,” that doctrine which drove the whittlers to the edges of the continent. Later, as an old, ineffective senator, Houston tried to divert this white man’s destiny from the Indians, but it was too late.

Houston’s subsequent behavior in Washington was not any better than it had been in Arkansas. He was lobbying around the town, trying to get money for his Texas adventure, when a congressman from Ohio, Rep. William Stanberry, cast a slur on his old Indian ration negotiations; whereupon Houston fell upon Stanberry in the streets and beat him with a cane. The news pleased Andrew Jackson. Stanbery was a critic of the administration. As a matter of fact the President wished “there were a dozen Houstons to beat and cudgel the members of Congress.”

But Old Hickory’s mood changed when Houston was cited for contempt. The House voted 149 to 25 to arrest Houston, and his trial before the galleries was the talk of the town. The president was distressed over Houston’s wearing a buckskin coat, and tossed him some coins. “Don’t you have any other clothes?” he roared. “Damn it, dress like a gentleman and buck up your defense.” Houston went out and bought a coat “of the finest material, reaching to his knees, trousers in harmony of color and the latest style in cut, with a white satin vest to match.”

The night before his summing up to the jury, Houston got drunk with some friends, which included the Speaker of the House, who was also the presiding judge. Hung over Houston was, but he rallied the next morning for a brilliant performance. He spoke for almost an hour, bringing in Greece and Rome and the Tyrannies of Caesar, Cromwell and Bonaparte. He quoted Shakespeare, Blackstone and the Apostle Paul, and a woman from the gallery threw a rose at his feet and shouted, “I had rather be Sam Houston in a dungeon than Stanberry on a throne!”

They found him guilty and sentenced him to a reprimand, which was like a love pat. Stanberry, much more serious than the rest, pressed for a criminal conviction and got it, but Houston never paid the $500 assault fine. He was on his way to Texas, with a loan from the President and status as an Indian agent, aboard a pony without a tail named Jack.

“I was dying out,” he said, “and had they taken me before a justice of peace and fined me ten dollars it would have killed me; but they gave me a national tribunal for a theatre, and that set me up again.”

On the Red River Houston ran into his old Arkansas friend, Elias Rector, who gave him a razor, some money and a new horse. “I accept your gift,” Houston rumbled, “and mark my words. If I have good luck the razor will someday shave the chin of the President of a Republic.”

Well, that’s fine and dandy, and I’m glad that Sam was heading for Texas, because at 41 he was still too immature to be president of the United States.

Don’t you know that Stephen F. Austin hated, just hated, to see swashbucklers like Sam Houston hit Texas? The quiet, intellectual man who would become known as “The Father of Texas” was a Mexican citizen, as were his Anglo colonists. Austin had picked them with care and they had sworn allegiance to Mexico. The last thing they wanted was independence as a republic or annexation by the United States. All they wanted from the government in Mexico City was state rights. This was the mood of the American settlers.

But Houston, after two months in Texas, reported back to President Jackson that every Mexican troop had been driven back across the border, and that Texans were twenty to one for annexation. This was a bunch of bull, and Houston had gotten it at Nacogdoches, which Austin considered to be a hotbed of insurgents and adventurers. At any rate, Austin hurried to Mexico City to try to get the new Mexican president, General Santa Anna, to agree to separate statehood for Texas and to approve a new constitution. To his astonishment, Santa Anna threw him in jail.

The news was a torch to Anglo tempers, and there were men who wanted to raise an army then and there and snatch Austin from the Mexican capital. But now, Houston, who had been priming the revolutionary fervor, became the soul of moderation. Wait, he counseled, until we are strong.

Austin cooled his heels in a Mexican jail for two years while Sam Houston went about mixing business and politics. Although he was not a Mexican citizen he put out his shingle and began to practice law. The authorities were lax about such little technicalities. But not about religion. You could not buy land unless you were Catholic, so Sam Houston became a Catholic. And he began to buy land, for himself and some of Andrew Jackson’s cronies back East.

“What the devil am I out here for?” he wrote to one of his brothers. “Part, I will tell you, and the balance you may guess at. I will practice law, and with excellent prospects of success. With two other gentleman (who furnish the capital) I have purchased 140,000 acres of choice lands. Besides this I own and have paid for 10,000 acres of the most valuable land in Texas. Several minor matters I am engaged in, and if I enjoy health I will make well out of them.”

Minor matters? Thirty-one years later Horace Greeley wrote that Houston had been sent to Texas by Andrew Jackson to foment revolution, expel the Mexican authorities, and prepare the region for speedy annexation to the United States. Abolitionists believed this, thought it was an attempt to expand the slave states’ empire, and so did some of the Texas colonists who wanted their own Republic. Well, I think it was the other way around, that Houston, not Jackson, was the proponent of open rebellion. Jackson kept agents busy in Mexico City trying to buy Texas, though of course by this time he would have taken it as a gift from adventurers. (Which is what he, or rather his successors, Martin Van Buren and John Tyler, ultimately did.) Before Houston ever crossed the Red River, he told a Baptist preacher that he was going out to Texas to live with the Cherokees and “establish a little two-horse republic, of which I will be the first president.”

Lawyer and speculator Houston’s best client was the Galveston Bay and Texas Land Company, whose offices included New Yorkers James Prentiss and Samuel Swartout. Were these the two capitalists to which Houston referred in his letter to his brother? The two Sams seemed the friendlier of the trio, exchanging warm and encouraging notes about personal matters as well as business. Swartout was also the Collector of the Port of New York. His sticky fingers were to bring about the foulest scandal of the Jackson administration, and we now know that the Galveston Bay and Texas Land Company sold some fraudulent land script. The good stuff Sam Houston sold to some of his Creek Indian friends, to lure them to Texas to fight if they were needed.

In 1835, two events happened that pushed Texas to secession and war with the mother country. President Santa Anna proclaimed a unified constitution for all of Mexico, which made a clean sweep of state rights, and Stephen F. Austin returned home. After two years of observing Santa Anna, he concluded that Texas’ only choice was to take up arms. Sam Houston’s time in Texas up to this point is not a pretty picture. But in the crises that followed, he alone in Texas seemed to have kept a cool head and a masterful hand. The factionalism between the provisional government and the militia did more damage than the Mexican army, and at one point, during the skirmishes, Houston found himself deposed as commander-in-chief. He was so sick of the mess he thought seriously of chucking it and heading for the Rocky Mountains, where he had also dreamed that destiny might lead him. Instead he retreated to the Texas plains and the council of the Cherokees. He wasn’t there long. The convention called him back, in his rightful place at the head of the army, such as it was, and he rode into history a hero.

And yet there was even a question about that. No discerning man on the continent, friend or foe, had ever questioned Sam Houston’s courage until his own men did it at San Jacinto during his hour of greatest triumph. His victory over Santa Anna left Anglo-Saxon America spellbound. Thomas Hart Benton arose in the United States Senate to call him another Mark Antony, Texans elected him president of their rebellious republic over a crestfallen Stephen F. Austin, and yet for years veterans of the battle of Buffalo Bayou went about shaking their heads. To them the general had acted like a damned coward, retreating and hemming and hawing around until they and their junior officers almost mutinied him into attack.

For all the glory and honor that followed, Sam Houston still seemed a troubled man, “towering in a bright blanket, grand, gloomy and peculiar, brooding and drinking.” His problem was a little Nacogdoches belle named Anna Raquet. She lost interest. And that was another contradiction in the man. As fine a figure as he cut in public, turning the ladies heads and men’s hearts to envy, he couldn’t make it with the women he really wanted. Sam Houston was spurned by every woman he seriously pursued until, at the age of 47, he married the resourceful and enduring Margaret Lea. But that was to come later.

Erasmus Mumford, the historian, visited the new capitol, named after its bachelor champion, and observed that Houston City was “a moral desert, a hell on earth where vice of most every name and grade reigned triumphantly.” Let us not overlook the dirty old man in all this halo-ing. Mumford was talking about the salons of Mrs. Mann and Madame Raimon, to which the president of the republic and other heads of state were prone to repair. Mumford continued: “The general and new president, Old Sam Jacinto as they called him, lived in a log cabin. He is a good talker but an awful swearer.”

A family friend wrote in 1838:

“Whilst I remained in Houston, I called on the president, found him in good health and perfectly sober. He told me he had resolved and was determined to stand to it; not to touch, taste or handle the unclean thing, until the first of January next. I am in hopes he will refrain from intoxication for the short term of one year, which will do credit to himself, and be a fine thing for the Republic of Texas.”

The finest thing Houston did for the republic was to marry Margaret Lea. She sobered him up and settled him down in a way that was loving but not possessive and restrictive. They had eight children, the last coming when Houston was 67, and he took great pride and attention in them.

It was in those days after he found Margaret that Sam Houston matured into the kind of man many would have liked in the White House. He was the best chief executive Texas ever had, and under trying circumstances. What would he have done as President? I think that if he had been elected early enough he might have been able to soften the growing antagonism between North and South. In that time we had several Northern presidents who were sympathetic to the South, but only one Southerner who was sympathetic to the North. That was James Polk, and he helped cool the country’s passion for the slavery issue by pursuing a vigorous expansionist program, even though it brought war with Mexico and the threat of war with Britain.

I see Sam Houston doing much the same thing, only in a bigger way than even Polk, who had increased the size of the United States more than any president since Jefferson. In the war with Mexico, Houston would have gone to the capital and conquered the whole country, kept us so busy expanding that we wouldn’t have had time to fight among ourselves. Like Lincoln, he would have allowed slave states and free states. Oh yes, Lincoln would have preferred that to secession and civil war. And Houston might have made it a little easier for the Indians to bear up under all that manifest destiny.

But it didn’t happen. Texas proved to be the wrong way to go for any larger ambition, and let’s not fool ourselves about the man’s modesty—he wanted to be president of more than his little “two horse republic.”

Except for his now and then eloquence in defense of Indians, and his stand against secession and civil war, Sam Houston’s later years in Washington as the senator from Texas were somewhat pathetic. He was like an old, molty lion who had waited a little too long to make his move, and now lesser but younger appetites were beating him to their fill.

It was as if the fates, realizing this, took him back to Texas, to his trusty theater where, as the deposed governor standing alone against a willful people, he could make an exit worthy of the profile in courage the late President Kennedy gave him.

He refused an oath to the Confederacy, and he refused arms of the nation.

“The time has come,” he wrote, “When a man’s section is his country. I stand by mine. All my hopes, my fortunes, are centered in the South. When I see the land for whose defense my blood has been spilt, and the people whose fotunes have been mine through a quarter of a century of toil, threatened with invasion, I can but cast by lot with theirs and await the issue.”

Two years later he was dead.

He left to his widow and children: the house at Huntsville, five horses, four cows, a rifle, a pistol, and his San Jacinto sword. He left 12 slaves, the oldest a 55-year-old man named Lewis, valued at $400, the youngest a four-year-old girl named Lotte, also valued at $400. The most valuable slave was a 35-year-old man named Joshua. He sold for $2000. He left to Margaret and the children 17,873 acres of Texas—all this, the house, the slaves, the animals and land, all this worth in those times about $89,000. All that he left to his family. And to us he left Texas.

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