Sam Houston led an improbable life. Born in western Virginia in 1793, he: moved as a boy of 14 to Tennessee; ran away from home two years later; lived for a time with the Cherokee Nation; learned fluent Cherokee; and was adopted by the tribe’s chief and given the name “Colloneh” — raven. (A few years later, he would marry a Cherokee woman as his second wife.) At age 19 he returned to the white man’s world, building the first schoolhouse in Tennessee.
In the War of 1812, he went from private to lieutenant in a few months, took part in two battles, was seriously wounded, and came to the notice of Andrew Jackson, who became his mentor. Houston became a lawyer (passing the bar examination after six months of study) and practiced until he was elected to Congress in 1822. Re-elected, he declined to run for a third term, instead winning election as Governor of Tennessee.
While Houston was in Washington, DC, to expose the frauds which government agents committed against the Cherokee, an anti-Jacksonian congressman accused Houston of being in league with a couple of crooks. Houston confronted him on the street, and beat him with a hickory cane, and, fortunately for the future of the State of Texas, the congressman’s pistol misfired.. But Houston was arrested, tried and found guilty of assault. Damages were assessed at $500. Instead of paying, in December, 1832, Houston left the country for the Mexican state of Coahuila, which included Texas.
Naturally he became involved in the politics of independence. In November, 1835, the army of Texas commissioned him as a Major General, and four months later, the convention that declared Texas independent of Mexico made him commander in chief. He led the army of Texas to a quick decisive victory over Santa Anna, as we shall see, and was elected the first president of the Republic of Texas with 79% of the vote in a three-man race that included Stephan Austin. Mexico invaded twice during 1842, but Houston avoided all-out war.
When Texas joined the Union, he was elected one of the state’s two Senators, and served there until 1859. Although a slaveholder and an opponent of abolition, he was a vehement opponent of sectionalism, and was one of only two Southern Senators to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, predicting correctly that it would lead to disaster. He was a strong supporter of the compromise of 1850.
In 1859, he successfully ran for governor of Texas as a Unionist, and thus became the only person ever to win election as governor of two U.S. states. When the Texas legislature endorsed secession, he did not resist, and did not accept the offer of 50,000 Federal troops to help him keep his post. He retired to avoid precipitating Texan killing Texan.
But he had no illusions about secession and where it would lead. On April 19, 1861, a week after Fort Sumter had been reduced, he said this to a crowd wanting to know why he did not support Texas’ entry into the Confederacy: “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.”
And, as we have seen, that’s about how it turned out. Sam Houston was one of the heroes of conscience John F. Kennedy would cite, more than a century later, in his book Profiles in Courage. The inscription on Houston’s tomb reads:
A Brave Soldier. A Fearless Statesman.
A Great Orator—A Pure Patriot.
A Faithful Friend, A Loyal Citizen.
A Devoted Husband and Father.
A Consistent Christian—An Honest Man.