JAMES L. HALEY’S NEW BIOGRAPHY, Sam Houston (University of Oklahoma Press, 2001), is the product of fifteen years of research. Haley, an independent scholar living in Austin, has written several books, including Texas: An Album of History and The Buffalo War: The History of the Red River Indian Uprising of 1874.
texasmonthly.com: When did you first become interested in Sam Houston?
James L. Haley: It was about sixteen years ago. Houston, at that time, hadn’t been written about in maybe twenty years, so he was really underdone at that point. I had been prowling around the archives and came across the Andrew Jackson Houston collection, and there was just so much new material there that I thought I could put a proposal together and do a new biography.
texasmonthly.com: Did you come across any unexpected sources of information?
JLH: I did a little collector edition of some of Sam Houston’s papers that was published in 1987, and I was with the publishers down in Liberty at the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center. While I was there, I was talking to Jean Houston Daniel, former governor [Price] Daniel’s widow, and she said she thought that some of Houston’s papers wound up in the Catholic Archives of Texas in Austin. I thought, “Well, there’s no reason for them to be there,” so I kind of put it at the end of my list. I called them up finally in 1996, and the archivist said, “Oh, yeah, we have the Houston papers.” I thought it would be a file-folder full, and this woman wheeled out a book truck with thirteen boxes of Sam Houston papers. I started looking through these papers and just about had a stroke. They went all the way back to 1818 when he was a 25-year-old Indian agent in the Tennessee backwoods. I asked if anyone had ever come down to use the papers, and she said no. It was just a gold mine. That’s what historians live for.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Sam Houston?
JLH: The most surprising thing about him was his sheer complexity. People who are otherwise very academic and very scholarly, when they discuss Sam Houston, they just lose themselves in their personal interpretation of him because he was so complicated. Did he blow his nose through his fingers and spit tobacco juice on the porch? Yeah. Did he engineer the annexation of the United States by outfoxing England and France? Yeah. He was such a multifaceted personality.
texasmonthly.com: What were some of Sam Houston’s most outstanding traits?
JLH: He always had his own personal code of honor, which I think was the unifying characteristic throughout his whole political career. He was a soldier. He fought under Andrew Jackson and, of course, led the Texas Revolution, but he hated war. He campaigned to the very last of his strength trying to stop the Civil War from happening. He was hated in the South because he wasn’t a Confederate, but he always answered to that personal honor.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think the Texas Revolution would have had the same outcome without Sam Houston?
JLH: Really, Sam Houston is the only one who could have led the revolution successfully. Nobody else had the experience that he did in the army. No one else had the sagacity to see that the war wasn’t over just because they got Cós to surrender at San Antonio in December of 1835. He knew Santa Anna was coming. Houston was the one who was saying you need to organize and drill and turn yourselves into an army because when Santa Anna gets here, you will wish you had. After the fighting started, he kept falling back in front of the Mexican army until he knew the men were ready to fight. There’s been a long debate that the Battle of San Jacinto really should have been fought on the Colorado, but there wasn’t one Mexican army at that time—there were at least five, each of which was bigger than Houston’s army. He would have had to have beaten them all in succession. It would have been suicide.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think people have any big misconceptions about Houston?
JLH: What most people don’t know is that he hated the political process. He was a product of that Jacksonian time when you could be nominated by torchlight parade. By the time of the 1852 and 1856 elections, you had a manager in your convention, and they would make deals for you. He hated that so much that he was willing to give up running for president. It drove his supporters crazy because almost every astute political observer on the scene said that if he had run for president in 1860, he would have beaten the hell out of Lincoln and possibly headed off the Civil War. He knew the only way to get nominated in the convention would be to make deals behind people’s backs. He just wouldn’t do it, and it cost him the presidency.
texasmonthly.com: What were your goals when you started writing Houston’s biography?
JLH: I come from a long line of alcoholics. My father was an alcoholic, his mother was an alcoholic, four of his brothers were alcoholics. To know that Houston had his own war with drink and depression, I thought, well, how did he overcome that? Here he was—congressman and governor of one state, leader of a revolutionary army, and two-term president of a separate country. How did he do that in the face of alcoholism? He could lose whole months out of his life with the most abject depression and despair, and yet, when he found his own peace of soul with Margaret [his third wife], he still wouldn’t help the Baptists write religion into law. They wanted a Sunday prohibition law. He could have laughed it off, but he didn’t. He wrote this long position paper about why you can’t legislate morality. So, I was after Sam the man. I wanted to know what made him tick as a human being.
texasmonthly.com: Do you have plans to write another biography?
JLH: After fifteen years with General Houston, it will be a long time before I try another biography.