Bartee Haile: Sam Houston made as many enemies as friends
This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
Infuriated by the General’s defense of the Cherokees, Col. Sam Jordan grabbed an ax handle and took a swing at Sam Houston on Dec. 10, 1840. Adolphus Sterne alertly blocked the blow saving the intended victim from serious bodily harm.
Wherever he went in his illustrious life, Sam Houston made fast friends, who stuck by him through thick and thin, and bitter enemies, who would have gladly cut off their right arm to see him burn in hell. The towering figure’s abrasive manner and personal eccentricities did nothing to defuse this ill will, which was an explosive mixture of unadulterated envy and honest criticism.
Even as a 25 year old junior officer in the American army, Houston rubbed people in high places the wrong way. He accompanied his boyhood friends, the Cherokees, to Washington in 1818 to present a list of long ignored grievances to the U.S. government. Secretary of war John C. Calhoun politely received the delegation but chewed out the brash lieutenant for dressing like a “savage.”
In a matter of days, the hot-tempered South Carolinian accused Houston of smuggling slaves. The unfounded allegation was soon laid to rest, but the wronged officer resigned his commission in disgust and returned to civilian life. Calhoun could not have known, of course, that the obscure Tennessean would rise to national prominence as the architect of the Texas Revolution and that the two would periodically lock horns over the next 30 years.
Fourteen years later, an Ohio congressman charged Houston with fraud in an under-the-table scheme to secure a lucrative contract for feeding the Cherokees. Bumping into William Stanberry on a Washington street, the accused proceeded to thrash the slanderer with a hickory cane.
The frightened representative pulled a pistol, shoved it in his attacker’s chest and pulled the trigger. The weapon miraculously misfired, and Houston survived to set out for Texas the following year.
David G. Burnet was the famous newcomer’s earliest opponent, whose hatred became a full-blown obsession which frequently distorted his judgment. As the head of the interim rebel regime, he went so far as to deny permission for the wounded hero to sail on the same ship.
The attending surgeon explained that the condition of Houston’s ankle, shattered by a Mexican bullet at the Battle of San Jacinto, was worsening and that an emergency operation in New Orleans was imperative. Deaf to the doctor’s plea, Burnet stood firm. Finally, in open defiance of the provisional president, Thomas J. Rusk and his brother carried the casualty aboard the vessel and the surgery was performed in time to save his leg and possibly his life.
Near the end of Houston’s initial term as chief executive of the new Republic, Burnet claimed he was half-Indian. The president retorted tongue in cheek that his irrational foe was a hog thief. Burnet indignantly demanded a duel, but the wily General got the best of him as usual by merely ignoring the challenge.
Someone with the name Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar was practically destined to consider himself a cultured gentleman and Houston a coarse, vulgar frontiersman. The second president felt his larger-than-life predecessor was a public embarrassment with his drunken binges, fraternizing with poor whites and cozy relationship with the Cherokees, while he provided a far better “role model” with his violin and poetry.
Not surprisingly, in the eyes of many if not most Texans, Lamar was a stuck-up dandy who put on airs. Houston, on the other hand, was affectionately viewed as a man of the people.
Dr. Anson Jones, the learned physician from Massachusetts, was also a Houston critic but wisely revealed his opinion only to his diary. The stuffed shirt, who eventually served as Texas’ fourth and final president, wrote in 1840, “No man is more completely the master of the art of appropriating to himself the merit of others’ good acts than General Houston.”
After annexation Houston decided to record his version of the Revolution and supervised the writing of Sam Houston and His Republic. Burnet’s animosity had not diminished in the slightest as indicated by a caustic comment to his close friend, Lamar: “Houston and his Republic. His republic! That is true; for I can regard Texas as little more than Big Drunk’s big ranch!”
However, in his twilight years, Burnet overcame his consuming hatred of Houston. Penniless and cursed by bad health, he acknowledged his rival’s ultimate triumph. “In my heart dwells no bitterness towards General Houston,” he wrote. “He is a Christian, blessed with a Christian lady and several fine children, while I am bereft and alone.”
Sam Houston, it seemed, always won in the end.
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