08/01/2013 11:32 am ET Updated Oct 01, 2013

Sam Houston, American Hero


As PBS concludes their documentary series on Sam Houston, an Austin historian prognosticates an alternative history, had Houston's choices been different.

But for a few twists of fate, Sam Houston's face might adorn Mount Rushmore. Houston's impact on the course of our nation's history places him in the upper echelon of influential Americans. Subtract Houston from the equation, and Texas might have remained a Mexican state. Alternatively, the new republic might have risked its independence in a second major war with its southern neighbor. A more belligerent governor than Sam Houston might have accepted Abraham Lincoln's offer of federal troops in 1861 and changed the course of the Civil War. In short, the impact of Sam Houston's legacy spreads far beyond the boundaries of modern Texas.

As a young man, Sam Houston suffered a seemingly mortal wound in a heroic, yet ill-advised charge during the War of 1812's Battle of Horseshoe Bend. He surprised physicians not only by surviving, but thriving. After the war, his impressed commander, none other than the great Andrew Jackson, favored the young man with an endorsement for a leadership position in the state militia. Further support from Jackson paved the way to a congressional seat. A few years later, Jackson lent his substantial political clout to the rising star's successful gubernatorial run. As Andrew Jackson assumed the presidency in 1828, many political observers predicted that Sam Houston would follow the great man into the White House.

If you didn't grow up in Texas you likely know little about Sam Houston, for his failure to gain the U. S. presidency consigned him to the fringe of the American historical stage. Every Texan knows of him, though, and there are dozens of streets, public schools, universities, and even a major city that bear his name. When I was a boy, I passed his statue many times as my father drove us to the zoo. Inevitably I or one of my siblings, in reference to the extended bronze arm and pointing finger, would shout, "There they are, boys, let's go thataway!"

Had Sam Houston's first marriage been a happy one he might indeed have succeeded Andrew Jackson as president, but try to imagine the modern United States without Houston's impact on Texas history. If Eliza Allen hadn't rejected Sam Houston shortly after her marriage to the older man in 1829, Houston would have had no reason to abruptly quit the Tennessee governor's mansion and flee to Indian Territory. It thus seems unlikely that he would have made the trip to Texas three years later. Texans rebelling against Mexican rule would therefore have been without the services of the general who led the army away from Santa Anna's wrath after the fall of the Alamo. Many angry Texans charged Houston with cowardice at the time, but the eastward retreat now known as the Runaway Scrape provided time for supplementing and training the inferior force under his command. This vengeful army inflicted a crushing defeat on the Mexicans at the subsequent Battle of San Jacinto that gained Texas its independence.

A happily married Sam Houston would have stayed in Tennessee and not participated in the tumultuous politics of the Republic of Texas. Nicknamed the Hero of San Jacinto by some, Houston cruised to the Texas presidency in the new republic's first national election in 1836. His conservative approach to westward expansion and his restraint toward Mexico and the Indian nations of Texas brought the enmity of his vice president, Mirabeau Lamar. The rivalry between these two men led their contemporaries to refer to each man's supporters as the Houston party and the anti-Houston party.

Houston and Lamar hated each other. Lamar thought Houston a drunken coward while Houston saw his rival as an incompetent bumbler. One issue in particular, where to place the Texas seat of government, sparked the first major political battle in the republic's history. The fight spanned Houston's two-year term of office that began in 1836, Lamar's subsequent three-year presidency, and the three-year Houston presidency that followed. Lamar and his supporters ultimately triumphed. Had Houston had his way, Texas government would likely rule the state from a site on the Brazos River rather than the more western Colorado River city of Austin.

Despite forsaking his excellent chances of attaining the presidency as a Tennessean, Sam Houston still came close to reaching the White House. After Texas was admitted to the Union in 1845, Houston served two terms as a United States Senator. As a vocal pro-Unionist, he earned the respect of other Unionists throughout the country but the enmity of many Texans. After losing his Senate seat in 1859, he nevertheless won election to the governor's chair. Houston's national prominence and strong pro-Union stance put him in strong contention for a presidential nomination in 1860. He hurt his chances by announcing his opposition to the convention system of nominating presidential candidates, but still won nearly enough support to be nominated by the Constitutional Union Party. When Tennessean John Bell gained the party's nomination instead, many thought the weaker candidate had won. According to Houston biographer James Haley, no less shrewd a politician than future president Andrew Johnson believed that Sam Houston would have emerged victorious in the three-way 1860 presidential race.

Texas secession in 1861 killed Sam Houston's political career. With secession a reality, the Texas legislature demanded that public office holders swear an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy. Houston refused. The legislature immediately removed him from office. William Walsh, a land office clerk at the time, later recalled bringing three patents to Governor Houston for signature shortly before his removal. After gathering the signatures Walsh turned to go, caught himself, and said, "Governor, may I ask a favor?"

"Certainly," Houston replied.

"I would ask the privilege of shaking your hand."

When the two men clasped hands Houston placed his left hand on Walsh's shoulder and said, "God bless you, my boy, God bless you."

As Walsh left, he saw the committee approaching to notify Sam Houston that he was no longer governor. Casting a backward glance at the fallen hero, Walsh felt, "as a French citizen must feel as he views the ruined Cathedral at Rheims." William Walsh recognized that not only a Texan, but an American titan's time had passed. It's time for modern Americans to recognize that too.