Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Sam Houston

Tomorrow is the 123rd anniversary of the birth of Sam Houston, and THC is taking the opportunity to update a post from three years ago.  Sam is my favorite American character from that first generation of citizens born after the Constitution was ratified.

In his post on Ty Cobb, THC noted several disturbing trends in academic history.  One he did not mention is presentism; the uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.  Presentism allows a modern day student or teacher to avoid actually having to try to understand how and why people acted in the way they did in the context of their times.  It also tends to flatten out history in an effort to force it to confirm with trendy academic theories which combine post-modernist nihilism with a multicultural victim/oppressor analysis.  We are the poorer for that approach.

The actors in much of American history do not neatly fit into the political categories of the post WWII era.  They are much more interesting than they are predictable.  They are interesting as the people they were, not in what they represent in modern theory, which, in any event, sorely lacks an understanding of the complex motivations of individual human beings.

Sam Houston simply does not fit today's categories; a slaveowner who, while in the Senate, voted against the Kansas-Nebraska Bill in 1854; as Governor of Texas in 1861 opposed secession; and, in 1856, had the support of the most ardent abolitionist in the Senate if he chose to run for the Presidency.

How does current academic theory deal with a man who lived with the Cherokee as a youth, spoke their language, later became a member of the tribe and who gave the most impassioned speech ever heard on the Senate floor regarding the rights and humanity of the Indian tribes, yet whose political mentor was Andrew Jackson, author of the most unjustified American government action against peaceful tribes?

Sam Houston was born on March 2, 1793.  He deserves to be better known today as one of the most fascinating personalities and politicians of the early American Republic instead of reduced to a secondary character when they make a movie about the Alamo.

Brilliant, dynamic, a gifted orator, erratic, often drunk and a rake, until his third wife convinced him to give up alcohol in his 50s, a full member of the Cherokee Nation with an Indian wife (his second), a hero in the war against the Creek Indians, the only American ever elected to the governorship of two states, Tennessee and Texas (and not completing either term), a Congressman from Tennessee, a Senator from Texas, the commander of the Texian (they didn't call themselves Texans back then) army in its decisive battle for independence and the first President of the Republic of Texas.  A slave owner who argued against the expansion of slavery and whose last public act as Governor in 1861 was to oppose the secession of Texas and who resigned that office after refusing to take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy.

And the subject of what, to this day, remain two of the great mysteries of American history:

Why did his young wife of eleven weeks leave him in the middle of the night in April 1829, creating a scandal that led to his resignation as Governor of Tennessee?

Did his mentor, President Andrew Jackson, give him secret instructions regarding Texas (then a part of Mexico) before he left Washington DC in late 1832 and made his way to the Mexican state where he became an strong voice for independence from Mexico and annexation by the U.S.?

[The best recent biography is Sam Houston by James Haley from which most of the quotations below are taken].

Sam hated school, rejecting attempts to impose discipline on him, running away from home in 1809 at the age of 16 to live with the Hiwassee Cherokee in eastern Tennessee, where he was adopted by one of the chiefs, learned to speak the language and was given the name Colonneh, "The Raven".(John Jolly, Houston's Cherokee adoptive father)

Despite his lack of formal education, Houston was quite literate - one of his biographers writing "his usable vocabulary exceeded that of any of his contemporaries". Unusually for that time his father had a large library stocked with Homer, Virgil and many other great writers.  Sam devoured these volumes over and over again and for the rest of his life could quote from memory large portions from many of them.

Three years later he left the Cherokees, enlisting in the army during the War of 1812, where, as an   officer, he led a charge at a critical point in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (1814) against the Creek Indians in which he took an arrow to the groin and was shot in the arm and shoulder.  Near death for months, he eventually recovered through some of his wounds remained unhealed for many years.  It was during the war that he met Andrew Jackson and became his protege.

After the war, and while still in the army, Houston agreed to become the government agent to the Hiwassee later encouraging them to agree to relocate to the Arkansas Territory.  As part of the negotiations he journeyed with a Hiwassee delegation to Washington where in a meeting with Secretary of War John C Calhoun he receiving a tongue-lashing from the Secretary for wearing Cherokee dress. (JC Calhoun - how'd you like a tongue-lashing from him?)

Entering Tennessee politics in the 1820s, he rose quickly, serving in Congress from 1823 to 1827 before being elected governor in the latter year.  Jackson was clearly grooming him as his heir and there seemed no limit to his prospects, particularly after Jackson was elected President in 1828.  Then, in January 1829, he married Eliza Allen, the 19-year old daughter of a prominent family.  In early April, Eliza fled their house in the middle of the night.   Eliza rejected all his efforts at reconciliation and scandalous rumors flew about the cause of the rupture.  On the day Houston resigned as governor he was visited by Congressman David Crockett who asked him what he planned to do next.  According to a letter Crockett sent to friends, Houston replied that since as an Indian agent he had exiled his beloved Hiwassee Cherokees to the Arkansas Territory he now intended to share their exile with them.  On his journey west he wrote a letter to Andrew Jackson in which he described himself as "doubtless, the most unhappy man now living".

Spending the next three years with the Cherokees he became an adopted citizen of the nation, married Tiana Rogers, the daughter of Chief Hellfire Rogers, and embarked on a epic drinking binge.  Sam had always been known as a heavy drinker but during this period it got so out of hand that some Cherokees occasionally taunted him with a new name that translated as "Big Drunk".  One visitor reported that Houston refused to speak English to anyone.

Periodically sobering up he went to Washington on behalf of the tribe in 1830 and again in 1832 (on the way there he ran into Alexis de Toqueville, who later wrote an account of their conversation) to expose frauds committed by US government Indian agents in the Arkansas Territories.

We don't know how Houston reconciled his closeness with the Cherokees with his relationship with Andrew Jackson, who by 1830 was urging Congress to pass legislation allocating funds for the forcible removal of those parts of the five "civilized" tribes (including Cherokees) that were still left in the southeastern US to the portion of the Arkansas Territory which later became the state of Oklahoma.  Much of what happened to the Indians as the European settlers advanced from the eastern seaboard was inevitable in one form or another but, even by the standards of the day, the forced removal of those tribes which had made a conscious decision to adopt and adapt to the ways of the white settlers was a disgrace.  The issue was hotly debated with Jackson prevailing in the House by only five votes (102-97).  Every representative, save one, who had Indians proposed for removal in their district or who were directly adjacent to such a district voted in favor of the removal.  The one exception was David Crockett of Tennessee, who lost his seat in the next election.(The Trail Of Tears)

During Houston's 1832 Washington visit, he was accused of fraud by Congressman Stanberry of Ohio.  When Stanberry refused to recant, Houston confronted him on Pennsylvania Ave, beating him with his hickory cane at which Stanberry drew a pistol and at pointblank range pulled the trigger but it misfired.  Houston was then hauled in front of Congress and charged with contempt.  The ensuing trial, in which Houston was defended by Francis Scott Key (yes, the guy who wrote The Star-Spangled Banner), provided weeks of entertainment for the general public.  Houston was convicted, given a reprimand and directed to pay Stanberry $500 in damages.  He left town without paying.

Sam made his way to Texas (Tiana Rogers declined his request to accompany him), where, as required, he became a Catholic, took the oath of allegiance to Mexico and promptly became an advocate for Texian independence.  Houston played a prominent role in the events leading up to the start of the Texian revolt in October 1835 and in early 1836 was named as Commander of the revolutionary army.  He instructed William Travis to go to San Antonio de Bexar and bring back the cannon from the Alamo.  Travis, supported by Jim Bowie and later joined by David Crockett, decided to instead stay and defend the post.  Y'all know what happened next (for more read The Alamo Series which includes a discussion of the controversy over the death of Crockett and an assessment of how the Alamo has been treated in TV and film.).

After the fall of the Alamo, and the massacre of the surrendered Texian garrison at Goliad, the Mexican army, led by Santa Ana, began pursuing Houston's army eastward.  Here the plot thickens and links back to the question of whether Houston was coordinating his actions with Jackson, who was still President.  Houston kept ordering the Texian army to retreat in what become known as the Runaway Scrape, coming under increasing criticism from his subordinates and other Texian politicians for his failure to fight the Mexicans, finally facing a potential mutiny unless he confronted Santa Ana.  There is some evidence (this is still hotly contested) suggesting that Sam's plan was to retreat all the way to the Red River, the border between Mexico and the U.S.  On the other side, the U.S. had mobilized an army and it is thought that Houston's intent may have been to trigger an incident which would lead to US intervention and eventually the direct annexation of Texas by the Americans.  It's difficult to gauge the accuracy of this scenario but it does indicate just how murky the whole affair was.

In any event, the Texian army never reached the border and instead, at San Jacinto, attacked and overwhelmed a portion of the Mexican army, capturing Santa Ana and achieving Texian independence.  As the hero of San Jacinto, Sam Houston became the first president of the Republic and later that year the City of Houston was founded near the site of the battle. (Following the Battle of San Jacinto, Houston, who had been wounded in the foot, accepts the surrender of Santa Ana)

Nine years later, after the annexation of Texas in 1845, Houston became the first US Senator from the new state.  In the Senate chamber he often wore a Cherokee blanket over his suit.  One observer called him "a magnificent barbarian". Most of his thirteen years in the Senate were spent on the sectional strife over slavery.  His old nemesis John C Calhoun had returned to the Senate, and until Calhoun's death in 1850 the two clashed continuously.  He saw the constant agitation by Calhoun and other Southern radicals to expand the geography of legal slavery, and the Abolitionist cause, as similar threats to the future of the Union.

Houston was one of the few Southern supporters of the Compromise of 1850 and took to the floor of the Senate in a well-received speech:

"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 mercy, preserve and unite us.  For a nation divided against itself cannot stand [Abraham Lincoln must have been listening] . . . I wish, if this Union must be dissolved, that its ruins may be the monuments of my grave, and the graves of my family.  I wish no epitaph to be written to tell that I survived the ruin of this glorious Union."
Slavery came back to the forefront in 1854 with the proposed Kansas-Nebraska bill which would undo the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and allow the new territories to choose whether to be slave or free.  Houston was the only Southern Senator to oppose the bill arguing that:

"No event of the future is more visible to my perception than that, if the Missouri Compromise is repealed, at some future day the South will be overwhelmed".

Two other events during the 1854 debate give some further insight into Houston.  On March 14, Senator Edward Everett of Massachusetts attempted to introduce a petition signed by three thousand Northern (and predominantly New England) pastors opposing the bill.  It triggered an uproar with Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois denouncing the petition as, "presented by a denomination of men, calling themselves preachers of the gospel . . . [who had] desecrated the pulpit, and prostituted the sacred desk to the miserable and corrupting influence of party politics".  As recounted in Haley's book, the leading abolitionist Senator, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, rose "with fire in his eyes":
Abruptly Houston cut him off.  "Sumner, don't speak! Don't speak! Leave him to me! . . . "Will you take care of him?" he asked Houston.  "Yes, if you will leave him to me."
(Charles Sumner)
Houston told the Senate that the ministers had no less right to petition government than any other citizens:
No man can be a minister without first being a man.  He has political rights; he has also the rights of a missionary of the Saviour, and he is not disenfranchised by his vocation . . . He has a right to contribute, as far as he thinks necessary, to the sustentation of its institutions.  He has a right to interpose his voice as one of its citizens against the adoption of any measure which he believes will injure the nation.  These individuals have done no more.
The real cause of the agitation, Houston argued, was the attempt to repeal the Missouri Compromise:
which I predicted would have this influence upon the community . . . If we wish to avert calamitous effects, we should prevent pernicious causes.
As a result of his opposition to the bill and defense of the Yankee pastors, Sam Houston, the Texas slave owner, found his popularity skyrocketing in the north and the fervent abolitionist Sumner would support him for the presidential nomination in 1856. 

But there was another reason he opposed the bill; he saw it as the death knell for the Indian tribes.  Houston had reluctantly supported the original Indian removals because he saw no alternative and thought the government would keep its promises - in the intervening years he had seen that it had not, and his views were changing.  He rose to speak during the debate:
The honorable Senator from Indiana says in substance that God Almighty has condemned [the Indians], and made them an inferior race, that there is no use in doing anything for them. . .  Sir, it is idle to tell me that.  We have Indians on our western borders, whose civilization is not inferior to our own . . .  The Indian has a sense of justice, truth and honor that should find a responsive chord in every heart.  If the Indians on the frontier are barbarous  . . . who are we to blame for it?  They are robbed of the means of sustenance; and with hundreds and thousands of them starving on the frontier, hunger may prompt to such acts as prevent their perishing  . . .

We should be careful if it were with a power able to war with us; and it argues a degree of infinite meanness and indescribable degradation on our part to act differently with the Indians, who confide in our honor and justice, and who call the President their Great Father, and confide in him.
Sam Houston's last fight in 1860-1 was his unsuccessful struggle to prevent Texas from seceding.
What is there that is free that we have not?  Are our rights invaded and no Government ready to protect them?  No!  Are our institutions wrested from us and other foreign to our taste forced upon us?  No!  Is the right of free speech, a free press, or free suffrage taken from us?  No!  Has our property been taken from us, and the Government failed to interpose when called upon?  No, none of these!

You are asked to plunge into a revolution; but are you told how to get out of it?  Not so.
He predicted the dire consequences of war.  After resigning he spoke to a crowd:
Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you, but I doubt it. I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of states rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.
Returning to his farm he stayed out of the public eye during the war, dying in 1863 before seeing his prediction come true. 

For more on Houston, you can go here to find out about a documentary that's been shown on PBS stations in Texas and Tennessee.  

No comments:

Post a Comment