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Bartee Haile: The ups, downs of Texas’ first president

This Week in Texas History: A column

Confederate Col. William E. Burnet, son of the first president of Texas, was buried in Alabama on Apr. 2, 1863. The loss of his last living family member was a final crushing blow for David G. Burnet.

His wife and other children already dead and gone, Burnet never recovered from William’s fatal miscalculation of a Civil War battlefield. Penniless and prostrate with grief, his own passing seven years later came as a merciful release from a wretched existence.

The youngest of eight children, David Gouverneur Burnet was born in 1788 at Newark, New Jersey. Distinguished public service was a family tradition. His father served in the Continental Congress, a brother in the U.S. Senate and another brother was elected mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio.

At 17 Burnet sacrificed a modest inheritance in a noble but vain effort to keep his employer’s sinking company afloat. Poor business judgment proved to be a lifelong curse that kept him on the brink of poverty.

Carried away by the youthful impulse to save the world, Burnet joined a crusade to liberate Venezuela. Those Quixotes not chopped to pieces by the Spaniards succumbed to yellow fever. The lucky American was among the fortunate few, who made it out alive.

Leaving the peasants of South America to free themselves, he started a trading post in Louisiana. But the enterprise failed and so did his health. Racked by tuberculosis, he chose not to die in bed and took a solitary one-way ride into the wilderness of Texas.

Puzzled Comanches found the delirious white stranger and instead of taking his scalp took pity on him. Burnet lived with the band for two years and slowly regained his strength.

A permanent resident of Texas by 1826, he obtained a potentially lucrative empressario contract. But again he faltered financially showing once more that he had no head for business.

Jumping feet first into provincial politics, Burnet made a major splash in 1833 by authoring the Texas petition for a separate spot under the Mexican sun. As the Anglo-American colonists clamored for expanded rights, he rose to prominence.

The historic convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos picked Burnet as president of independent Texas on Mar. 16, 1836. However, the duties of the new office took a back seat to the more urgent necessity of evading Santa Anna.

In spite of his frantic flight, Burnet found time to bombard his commander-in-chief with caustic communiques. “The enemy are laughing you to scorn,” he informed Sam Houston. “You must fight them. You must retreat no farther. The country expects you to fight.”

Burnet was stranded on Galveston Island wondering where next to run, when word arrived of the miracle at San Jacinto. But the victorious general received less than rave reviews from his envious president.

In gratitude Houston distributed $12,000 in captured silver to the unpaid soldiers, who whipped the Mexicans. Burnet furiously insisted the spoils of war should have been donated to the destitute government.

In petty retaliation the president refused passage on a Galveston-bound ship to the wounded general. Ignoring Burnet’s spiteful order, Thomas Rusk helped to carry the hero aboard.

“Born to be unpopular” was how one historian described Burnet. His stuffy style rubbed Texans the wrong way and left an irritating, pompous impression.

But it was Burnet’s runaway ego that grounded his sky-high ambitions. Hatred of Houston festered into a fanatical obsession that pushed him to self-destructive extremes.

As vice-president of the Lone Star Republic, he hoped to succeed Mirabeau Lamar in the elections of 1841. But after a blistering exchange that left Texans knee-deep in campaign mud, Houston won a second presidential term by a whopping 3-to-1 margin.

Five years later, Burnet true to form blamed his old foe for sabotaging an appointment to the federal bench. In fact he received scant support for the important post because of his lackluster judicial record.

Mutual opposition to southern secession failed to bring the aging warhorses together. By the time the Confederacy collapsed, Sam Houston and Burnet’s entire family had perished.

Seventy-eight years old and dependent upon the generosity of friends, Burnet’s day seemed to have finally dawned in 1866. Despite his Unionist leanings, Texans chose him for the U.S. Senate. But Burnet shared the fate of all popularly elected southerners, when the Radicial Republicans refused to let him take his seat.

With a flowing white beard and craggy features, David G. Burnet could have passed for angry Old Testament prophet. On the eve of his death in 1870, the bitter and bewildered ex-president burned his private papers. In one fell swoop, he tried to erase the past and punish posterity.

BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or haile@pdq.net.