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This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE

On Feb. 18, 1839, Sam Houston spoke at the first temperance meeting ever held in the Texas town named for him, but after lecturing loud and long on the evils of alcohol, he ducked out the back to avoid taking the customary pledge.

The rally was actually the former president’s idea. The previous afternoon he told Augustus Allen, co-founder of the Buffalo Bayou settlement, it was high time inhabitants of Houston heard from the dry side of the liquor debate. Allen agreed, although such a suggestion from the hard-drinking hero must have come as quite a shock.

Still fresh in his mind was the wager the two friends made in January 1838. The politician bet the promoter an expensive suit of clothes that he could go the entire year without taking a single sip of spirits.

By spring, however, the new duds belonged to Allen. Despite his good intentions, Houston fell off the wagon with an embarrassing thud. He again succumbed to his most pernicious weakness and as one observer noted was “nearly all the time drunk.”

Sam Houston grew up on the rough-and-tumble Tennessee frontier, where a man was often measured by the amount of booze he poured down his gullet. In his youth he regularly indulged to excess, but the habit posed no serious problem until his world suddenly collapsed in 1829.

Shattered by a private scandal, Houston sent his debutante bride home to mother, resigned as governor of Tennessee and went into exile among his boyhood brethren, the Cherokees. Late in life he candidly confessed that he rarely drew a sober breath during this dark period.

The Indians called their white brother Big Drunk, a well deserved nickname that haunted Houston until his dying day. The Cherokees tolerated his erratic behavior, but even they could not stomach his violent outbursts. When Houston struck his foster father in a drunken rage, several braves beat him to a bloody pulp.

Soon after the 1839 temperance revival in Houston, the General went to the States for a visit. A prominent Texan reported from New Orleans that in a stupor the traveler caught his coat on fire, and the garment burned right off his back.

In May 1840, Houston married Margaret Lea, a strong-willed woman who declared open season on his drinking. She resolved to stop her famous husband from squandering his immense talents.

There were encouraging signs early in the marriage that Margaret was making progress. While on a trip to Austin in September 1840, and far removed from her watchful eye, Sam wrote, “If you hear the truth, you shall never hear of my being on a ‘spree.’” The next September, after he attended a Washington County picnic in his honor, a San Jacinto veteran said in astonishment, “The Old Chief did not touch the smallest drop of the ardent during his stay in this county.”

Political enemies took claims of Houston’s rehabilitation with a large dose of skeptical salt, and it mattered not if their foe had miraculously dried out. In the no-holds-barred campaigns so common in the Lone Star Republic, personal shortcomings past and present were always fair game.

During the hard-fought presidential contest of 1844, David G. Burnet revived the “Big Drunk” slur arguing that his opponent was as bad a degenerate as ever. As the race heated up, he went a step further by charging Houston with being an opium addict.

Since Texas was in those days a mighty small world, everyone had the key to the closet containing the secret skeletons of his neighbor. Cautioning Burnet against hypocritical sermons, Houston retorted that the candidate’s middle initial stood for “Grog” and added, “You have drunk more brandy than any other man in the Republic of Texas at the people’s expense.”

Houston suffered temporary setbacks in his struggle for sobriety but could proudly boast in 1851, “For years past, I have been a whole souled teetotaler, and so intend to be as long as I live.”

Despite his remarkable recovery, the alcoholic chink in his armor remained a permanent political liability. When many easterners hailed the Texan as their choice for the U.S. presidency in 1852, lurid tales from his past began making the rounds. Rushing to his defense, the New York Herald pronounced Houston infinitely better qualified for the highest office in the land “than a man who has been sober all his life.”

Though deeply wounded by cheap shots at his character, the reformed General managed to maintain his sense of humor. Following an 1854 baptism in a Texas creek, the preacher told Houston that the water had washed away his sins. With a grin he wisecracked, “Lord help the fish down below.”

Some folks insist Sam Houston should be remembered for San Jacinto and not his lifelong fight with alcoholism. Yet which was the tougher battle? Maybe by beating the bottle Old Sam ended up an even greater hero.

San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

COVER: A portrait of Sam Houston, then a U.S. Senator, made by Mathew Brady in 1861.

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