The other day, a friend of mine and I were riding somewhere and talking about Sam Houston, and he said, "Wasn’t he just a drunk?" And stunned and a little surprised, I gave some kind of lame defense. Yes he was a drunk. A big one, during a large part of his life.
He was also a fearless young soldier, wounded in the War of 1812. Before that he had lived for a time with the Cherokee Indians, and was considered a member of their tribe. He was a school teacher, a U. S. Congressman and then the Governor of Tennessee. The General of the Texas Army who pulled off one of the most celebrated upsets in military history, winning independence for his new nation, the Republic of Texas. He would be elected President and later serve as Governor of his beloved Texas. And yes, he got drunk, and divorced, like most men did in those days.
And yet, it is none of these accomplishments which have captured my heart, as much as the one that got him in so much trouble at the very end of his career. All of Texas was eager for war against the United States, her own wet-nurse. Houston stood nearly alone, arguing against the War Between the States. When Texas went for secession, and war, he stepped down as Governor. John F. Kennedy was so moved by his costly and unpopular stand, he told of Houston’s convictions in his book, Profiles in Courage.
Like all great men, Houston had his rivals, who never missed an opportunity to find fault with him. Many were officers who fought under him during his battles, and knew just how kind history had been to Sam Houston. They could not enjoy the fact that some GREATER FORCE had delivered him and smote his enemies. An All Star cast of jealous malcontents and lesser generals nipped at his heels his whole career.
What might have happened, to have turned the brawling, barbarian drunkard into such an unparalleled man of history? Certainly Houston was a man of his times, and that explains his remarkable contradictions to some satisfaction. But he was much more complex than that. There were traits of character that even demon alcohol could not drown. When he became a man and left home, his mother presented him a ring, with the word HONOR inscribed in it. That was the building block of the man that history has failed to do justice. Sam Houston had been in Texas years when a preacher finally counseled with him and satisfied his doubts about Christianity. Sam Houston, the hero of Horseshoe Bend and San Jacinto, the Cherokee known as Colonneh, the Governor of Texas, walked down the muddy banks of a spring-fed creek near Independence, Texas and submitted himself to baptism. He became a follower of Jesus.
No doubt the angels sang an extra verse of Halleleuia. And ol’ General Sam put away the bottle and other childish things, and became the man his last and most influential wife expected him to be.
When the State began to rumble about secession, and whipping the Yankees, Houston went on a whirlwind tour, warning and beseeching Texans to show restraint. In the end, Houston died of pneumonia during the conflict, his son fighting for a cause he refused, his friends numbered on one hand, considered a "traitor to Texas" and the South.
Of course history proved him correct on all counts. He predicted the South would lose, and it would be decimated because of the war, and the price for the institution of Slavery was too high, and Texas should lead the way to Southern Abolition, or be forever punished for her part in the Confederacy. The man that stood against the winds of war, trying to save a State that he had shaped with his own hands, and losing every worldly status he had earned with blood sweat and tears, was not the famous drunk known for laying around with Chief Jolly in Arkansas. He was the man who had the guts to take a dip in the spring-fed creek at Independence, Texas, where he learned the true measure of a man, and his real potential for greatness in God’s eyes.
Even Dr. Lockhart, who undoubtedly had sympathies towards the South, spoke fondly of Houston as the “noblest of men,”: "…But Texas was then a weak and very unpromising child, and was threatened many times with collapse; but when that grand old man, Sam Houston, would put his fingers on its pulse the arteries would commence to flow with renewed vigor. By his great wisdom and judgment Sam Houston brought the tottering child through the many trials which it seemingly had to pass..."
It is hard today for us here in Navasota, who live our mundane lives without much drama or excitement, to imagine that just across the river, less than ten miles as the crow the flies, a nation was born and a man like Houston lived and worked there for a legendary empire, that has inspired the world. When you live here in the Center of the Universe, you take things like that for granted.
I have written recently about our faded cultural memory, the loss of giants in our cultural identity like King Robert the Bruce, how their lives and accomplishments are all but erased from our books and stories and collective consciousness. And I fear that old General Sam will devolve from the old drunk to nothing at all. The fact that we so easily berate our national heroes only feeds the cynisism we suffer from these days. We need to forgive them for their human failures as we study their magnificence. As best as I can tell, our generation is not doing any better, and a man like Sam Houston, someone of vision, courage and unwavering conviction, would be a welcome addition to the political scene today.
When we do not care enough for history that we ignore it, or even scoff at it, we are doomed to repeat it.