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December 11th, 2013
Bartee Haile: Erratic Lamar never lived up to his potential

This Week in Texas History:
A column


Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar

Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, second president of the Texas Republic, dropped dead from a heart attack on Dec. 17, 1859.
When Lamar stepped down as the Lone Star chief executive in December 1842, he was a physical and emotional wreck.  Not only had his grand plan of setting the new nation on an independent course gone all wrong, but the voters had picked archenemy Sam Houston over soul mate David G. Burnet as his successor.
A much anticipated trip to Georgia to visit his daughter Rebecca, whom he had seen just twice in seven years, was almost permanently postponed by a duel.  Blaming Lamar for his recent rejection as vice-president, Memucan Hunt demanded satisfaction but mutual friends managed to defuse the private powder keg.
When the widower emigrated to Texas in 1835, he left his only child with relatives in Macon, Georgia.  Although the lonely father must have longed to have the teenager share his empty home on the Brazos River, he decided against uprooting the delicate girl.

Lamar returned to Texas in 1843 a few days ahead of the letter that broke his heart.  Rebecca was dead, the victim of a mysterious malady that overnight took her young life.

As he had done during his crisis-ridden administration, when the pressures of the presidency caused him to take a controversial leave of absence, Lamar cracked under the strain.  Once more all he wanted was to run away.

Telling himself that travel was the best antidote for grief, he closed his plantation and hit the road.  Extended stays in Georgia, where he wept over Rebecca’s grave, and New York consumed the balance of 1843 and all of 1844.
Then in February 1845 he was received in Washington, D.C. as an unofficial emissary of Texas.  Honored with a “courtesy” seat in the U.S. Senate, the champion of Lone Star sovereignty stunned his hosts with an impassioned appeal for annexation.

Hoping the long vacation had revived the interest of their enigmatic hero in public affairs, Lamar’s admirers encouraged him to campaign for a senate seat.  But he refused to make the race opening the way for Thomas Rusk to join Sam Houston as the second senator from the 28th state.

In the Mexican War, Lamar served under Gen. Zachary Taylor and fought with distinction at the Battle of Monterrey.  He spent the rest of the conflict at Laredo, which he represented in the second Texas legislature in what turned out to be his last elective office.

By late 1848, Lamar was again on the move wandering with no discernible purpose across the South.  In 1850 he fell head over heels in love with the 23 year old daughter of a Methodist minister, and the romance blossomed into marriage the following February.

After the birth of a baby girl, the happy couple set up housekeeping in 1852 on Lamar’s small estate outside Richmond, but financial problems soon threatened their wedded bliss.  Failing as a planter as well as an author, the hapless husband sank deeper and deeper into debt.

In desperation Lamar appealed to Senator Rusk to use his influence to get him on the government payroll.  Against his better judgment, the loyal friend informed President Buchanan, “Genl. Lamar is an applicant for appointment of resident minister to some of the European or South American republics or would accept the governship of a territory.”

While Lamar dreamed of a prestigious post that would resurrect his political career and heal his pocketbook, he wound up settling for a bottom rung on the diplomatic ladder.  After borrowing the money for a suitable wardrobe, the new American minister to Nicaragua and Costa Rica arrived at Managua in January 1858.

For 20 miserable months, the illustrious Texan languished in the cursed tropical backwater.  However, for an amateur ambassador he was generously compensated and able to pay off his creditors.

In October 1859, Lamar was reunited with his family after a difficult two-year separation.  As usual, the footloose former president swore that he was home to stay, and this time fate forced him to keep his word.
At 62 Lamar looked forward to starting a new life but first had to recover from his diplomatic ordeal.  The Central American climate had sapped his strength to the point that the slightest exertion left him completely exhausted.

Despite the constant care of his doting wife, Lamar grew weaker.  Rising one morning the week before Christmas 1859, his heart suddenly stopped and he collapsed on the bedroom floor.  In a matter of seconds, the old hero was gone.
Mirabeau Lamar knew only peaks and valleys.  Battlefield bravery at San Jacinto propelled him into the presidency of the Texas Republic, and from there the sky should have been the limit.
But the introspective visionary, who was more comfortable with poetry than politics, lacked purpose and staying power.  When life did not go according to plan, he went to pieces.

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

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