Sam Houston had been forbidden by law from succeeding himself as Texas president. He left office in the grip of his old demons, depression and drinking. Houston traveled east to visit his family and Andrew Jackson, now retired. Reports soon reached Texas of Houston's wild carousing. But something happened on the trip that would change Houston's life forever.
In May 1839, Houston visited Mobile, Alabama, to talk to some business associates about a land deal. While there, he stayed with friends and was introduced to a pretty, intelligent 20-year-old named Margaret Moffett Lea. Margaret was shy, romantic, and a devout Christian. After Sam left Mobile to continue his tour, Margaret wrote to him that her heart was "like a caged bird" without him.
Houston returned to Alabama after visiting in the east and asked Margaret to marry him. Margaret accepted, but her mother had serious doubts. Houston was 46 years old, divorced under scandalous circumstances, had lived with an Indian wife, and was a heavy drinker. It was only with caution and reluctance that she gave her permission. Many of Houston's friends also had doubts as to whether Sam could curb his rowdy behavior enough to make Margaret happy. But Margaret was determined. She confided to a friend of Houston's that "Not only had he won her heart, but she had conceived the idea that she could be the means of reforming him, and she meant to devote herself to the work."
Now an engaged man, Houston returned to Texas, where he was elected to represent Nacogdoches in the Texas House of Representatives. He spent most of his time criticizing Mirabeau B. Lamar, whom he despised for his harsh Indian policies and his botched attempts at empire. Houston also hated Austin, the rough new capital city that Lamar was building on the edge of the frontier.
In May 1840, Houston went back to Alabama, where he and Margaret were married. Houston built a small house for them at Cedar Point near present-day Baytown. To almost everyone's surprise, Houston worked hard to mend his ways and curb his excesses. His slip-ups with alcohol became rare events. The soft-spoken and gentle Margaret Houston turned out to have nerves of steel. Houston soon wrote a friend, "You have, I doubt not, heard that my wife controls me and has reformed me."
Later in the year, Houston defeated David G. Burnet to win election to his second term as Texas president.
As Houston took office again, the Texas economy was on the rocks. The treasury was empty, and inflation was out of control. The Texas redback paper currency was worth as little as 2 cents to a U.S. dollar. Houston stressed financial austerity and drastically reduced government offices and salaries. He still believed that only annexation to the United States could ensure the long-term survival of Texas.
Santa Anna had returned to power in Mexico, and in March 1842, he sent an invasion force north, capturing Goliad, Refugio, Victoria, and Bexar. The 400 Mexican troops stayed only a few days, just long enough to harass and frighten south Texas. The overall goal was to provoke Texas into an invasion of Mexico, in which case Santa Anna would crush the Texans.
The Mexican harassment was a test of nerve for Houston, as many Texans clamored for an invasion, exactly the response Santa Anna was hoping for. Houston delayed, knowing Texas could not survive another war. Instead, he made peace overtures to Mexico. His efforts were repaid by a second invasion in September, which again seized control of San Antonio. Houston authorized General Alexander Somerville to take 700 volunteers to the southwestern border as a show of force.
Somerville captured Laredo and Guerrero before he and most of his men headed for home. But about 300 hot-headed men decided to continue into Mexico. They crossed the Rio Grande at Mier on Christmas Day 1842. After a fierce battle, the Texans were forced to surrender. Many of the "Mier Expedition" prisoners escaped, but 176 were recaptured and held at Salado, Mexico. The atrocity that followed became one of the most notorious of Santa Anna's career. Santa Anna at first ordered a Goliad-style massacre of all the prisoners. His more humane subordinates pleaded for the prisoners' lives. Santa Anna modified his order so that only every tenth man was to die. Black and white beans were placed in a jar and each man forced to draw. The seventeen men who drew black beans, along with their leader Captain Ewen Cameron, were immediately shot.
During the trouble with Mexico, Houston took the opportunity to abandon Austin, which he despised as Lamar's capital. Only 90 miles north of San Antonio, and on the edge of the Comanche frontier, Austin was vulnerable to capture by Santa Anna's forces.
The president decided to move his government back to his namesake city of Houston. To his surprise, his unilateral decision turned into one of the biggest messes of the second term. In an incident that became known as the "Archive War," Houston ordered the removal of all government papers from Austin. The people of Austin, determined to keep the capital, rallied to arms and chased down Houston's men, bringing the papers back to Austin at gunpoint and then hiding them. It was a highly embarrassing incident for the president. Houston was never successful in getting the capital officially moved. However, for the remainder of his term, he conducted most of the government's affairs from Washington-on-the-Brazos.
The final year of Houston's second presidency saw the annexation fight come back to the forefront. Houston was at his most political and scheming during the high-stakes, behind-the-scenes maneuvering with the United States, England, France, and Mexico. For example, Houston told the British envoy that Texas desired an alliance with England. As Houston planned it, the United States would then fear that Texas might become a British protectorate, forever blocking westward expansion by the U.S. At other times, Houston seemed to deliberately court another war with Mexico, playing up U.S. fears that Texas might be lost forever without a quick annexation.
Houston believed his dream was about to be realized in April 1844, when the John Tyler administration negotiated a treaty of annexation with Texas representatives and sent it to the U.S. Senate for ratification. But all of Houston's machinations came to nothing. In June, the treaty was overwhelmingly defeated, a victim of party politics, anti-slavery sentiment, and fears of war with Mexico.
Texas annexation became the major issue in the 1844 U.S. presidential campaign. But Sam Houston realized that his term of office would expire before any decision was made. Determined to leave Texas with a successor competent to shepherd Texas through the rest of the process, he hand-picked Anson Jones, his secretary of state, to follow him as Texas president.
The Moderator-Regulator War: In the summer of 1844, Houston had to intervene in a serious civil insurrection. A long-brewing feud in East Texas between two vigilante groups, the Regulators and the Moderators, exploded into widespread violence. Houston was forced to send in troops to restore order. He personally went to San Augustine to investigate the situation and mediate a peace treaty between the two factions.
Final Days: Sam Houston left the presidency in December 1844. His last act as president was to write to General Santa Anna in Mexico and petition for the freedom of Jose Antonio Navarro. The great Tejano patriot was the last Texan prisoner being held by Santa Anna, sentenced to life in prison for his participation in Lamar's Santa Fe expedition.
Houston's years after the presidency were as eventful as those that went before.
Domesticated: Sam and Margaret started a family that eventually grew to four sons and four daughters.
Margaret's campaign to reform her husband reached its high point in 1854. At the age of 61, Sam Houston was baptized and became a member of the Baptist Church. He joked that the fish probably died when the water washed away all his sins. He also became involved in the temperance movement, much to the amusement of his old friends.
Texas annexation finally passed the Senate in 1845, and Sam Houston became one of Texas's two United States senators. He served in the Senate until 1859. As a passionately pro-Union southerner, Houston won many admirers. He was one of the most popular speakers in the country and was frequently mentioned as a presidential candidate. Though he was a slave owner and defended the practice of slavery, Houston was hated by many of his fellow southerners for his willingness to compromise in the interests of preserving the Union.
In 1855, the Texas legislature officially condemned Houston for his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a bill that repealed the Missouri Compromise and set the stage for the Civil War. Houston knew that he would not be selected again for another term in the Senate (in those days senators were chosen by vote of the legislature). In 1857, he ran for governor of Texas but was defeated by Hardin Runnels.
Texas, like the rest of the nation, was deeply divided over disunion, slavery, states' rights, and secession. In 1859, running as a "Democrat of the Old School" and promising to prevent the calamity of secession, Houston was elected governor in a rematch against Runnels. Houston warned that secession would lead to civil war, a Northern victory, and the destruction of the South. But even Sam Houston could no longer stand in the way of events. Despite Houston's effort, Texas voted to secede and leave the Union that Houston had fought so hard to join. When he refused to take a loyalty oath to the Confederacy, he was deposed as governor.
During the Civil War, age and time finally caught up with Sam Houston. He, Margaret, and their younger children moved to Huntsville. Their oldest son, Sam Jr., joined the Confederate Army and was wounded at Shiloh. He was taken prisoner but later exchanged and allowed to return home.
Old Sam restlessly rambled around east Texas, visiting friends in defiance of travel restrictions imposed by martial law. Challenged once by a young sentry who demanded to see his travel permit, Houston said, "Go to San Jacinto and learn my right to travel in Texas." As his health deteriorated, he was forced to stop traveling, but often spent time visiting a Union prisoner of war camp that had been set up in Huntsville at the Texas State Penitentiary.
He lived to see the South defeated at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. There was no joy in knowing he had been right. On July 26, 1863, Houston died of pneumonia with his wife by his side. According to legend, his last words were, "Texas--Texas--Margaret--"
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