Sam Houston, San Jacinto, and the Coming Civil War


John Willingham has an M.A. in American history from the University of Texas at Austin. His novel The Edge of Freedom, A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution was published in February 2011 by Inkwater Press.

Sam Houston’s improbable victory over the Mexican leader Santa Anna at the battle of San Jacinto 175 years ago, on April 21, 1836, opened the way for emigrants from the South to pour into the new Republic of Texas.  Although not yet a state of the Union, Texas was another vast territory beckoning settlers who were eager for land, a natural extension of the Louisiana Purchase of 1804.

Like his mentor, Andrew Jackson, Houston knew that the influx of U.S. citizens into Texas would lead to statehood.  Both hoped that the annexation of Texas would work to strengthen the Union rather than weaken it.  

One great irony for Sam Houston was that the 1845 annexation of his beloved Texas, made possible by the earlier victory at San Jacinto, re-ignited the sectional argument over slavery that had been dormant since the Missouri Compromise of 1820.  Annexation led to war with Mexico only four months later, and that war brought even more territory into the Union, much of it south of the Missouri Compromise line and therefore open to slavery.

A young congressman named David Wilmot proposed in 1846 that any new territory acquired as a result of the Mexican War not be open to slavery.  Houston, in the U.S. Senate after annexation, found himself arguing against the Wilmot Proviso, ironically in the same camp with his great enemy John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, the famous nullifier who had already opposed the nationalism of Jackson.

Calhoun and Houston had first met in 1818, when Houston, wearing Indian dress, introduced a delegation of Cherokee Indians to Calhoun, who was then Secretary of State under President James Monroe.  Calhoun reprimanded Houston for his choice of apparel, and from that point on, the two men stood on opposite sides of many issues, and if they happened to agree, it was despite their mutual dislike.

The debate over the Wilmot Proviso ran into 1848, when the Mexican War ended.  Houston opposed Wilmot for a variety of reasons, but he considered the Missouri Compromise line inviolate, and Wilmot did not present a strong challenge to that line.  Calhoun, however, used the issue to rally southern Democrats to the cause of slavery, which he had already called a “positive good” not only because the African race was inferior but also because “there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other.”

Did the old Unionist Sam Houston believe that the flames of sectional enmity, having been fed by Calhoun and other radicals on both sides, could still be suppressed by wise and skillful moderates?  Never intimidated by Calhoun’s brilliance, Houston as a senator was capable of besting the senate giant in debate.  They had already argued over the admission of Oregon as a Free-soil state, with Houston again looking to the Missouri Compromise line as his standard while he joined Oregon’s supporters.

Houston was heartened by passage of the Compromise of 1850, fashioned by Henry Clay, which gave the Union a reprieve.  Again, Houston had argued against Calhoun—and against southern interests—when he supported the compromise in a famous speech.  In words that Abraham Lincoln would use a decade later, Houston told the Senate that “A nation divided itself cannot stand.”  

Calhoun had to have his last words on the subject delivered by someone else as he lay dying of tuberculosis. His final words reveal a man who wanted desperately to turn back the clock and restore the balance of the Union that existed in 1789.  His dream was futile; the six decades since the adoption of the Constitution had witnessed many changes, including the complete abolition of slavery and the slave trade by Great Britain by 1833.  And even many whites in the North and Midwest were hostile to the expansion of slavery on grounds that they did not want either free or enslaved black people in their midst.

Henry Clay, with the help of Houston and other moderates, prevailed in 1850.  But by 1854, the old Missouri Compromise line was erased by the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  Once again, Houston was in the thick of the debate, this time with Stephen Douglas.  This time, Douglas had the right political formula, offering the North the expansion it sought in the upper Midwest, and offering the South the chance to expand its peculiar institution north of the old Missouri line.

Sam Houston foretold what would happen in the next six years:  increasing enmity, Civil War, and the defeat and repression of the South.  “I see my beloved South go down in the unequal contest, in a sea of blood and smoking ruin,” he said.

Houston and John Bell of Tennessee were the only senators from the South who voted against the Act.  Houston’s vote cost him his Senate seat, and then led to his defeat in the race for governor of Texas in 1857.  When he was elected to that office in 1859, he found that he could not keep Texas in the Union and was forced by secessionists to vacate his office.

Houston won the battle of San Jacinto, dreaming that Texas would soon be a crown jewel of the union he loved.  The ultimate irony was that, at the time of his death, the champion of both Texas glory and national greatness had been cast aside by most Texans as they disdained further compromise and rushed headlong to the doomed southern cause.

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