Wednesday, June 3, 2009

This Day in Texas History (Sam Houston in Last Campaign for Office—and the Union)

June 3, 1859—Just three months to the day after he left the Senate, rejected by the voters of the state he had helped bring into being, Sam Houston announced his intention to run for governor—throwing the entire political applecart of Texas out of whack by taking on the secessionist who’d defeated him for the office two years before.

In a sprawling state filled, then as now, with characters that yearn to fill every inch of their vast space, nobody has ever loomed larger, I would argue, than Houston—certainly not Bush I and II, and not even Lyndon B. Johnson. Houston trumped them all—in military service, charisma, faults, and, finally, passion for his state and country alike.

The odds facing Houston as he strove to re-enter public life were enormous in June 1859, and it was barely a consolation that he’d faced equally stiff challenges throughout his life: life-threatening (and unhealed) battle wounds, divorce and scandal, fall from public office, naysayers in the Texas independence movement, and alcoholism.

This time, the 66-year-old Houston—a longtime Jacksonian Democrat who, at least for a decade, had been prominently and credibly mentioned as a Presidential candidate—found himself without the backing of any political party, any newspaper, or even any organization. What he did have in his favor was the man who beat him previously, Hardin Runnels, whose lackluster record as governor included unsuccessful attempts at reopening the African slave trade and quelling Native-American unrest.

Six days after announcing his intentions, Houston made his only speech of the campaign. Hating longwinded oratory, he liked to whittle toys for his own and other children while listening to preachers or Capitol Hill politicians. But when he spoke, he made every word count—and sting, if necessary. Senator Louis Wigfall became better known as “Wigtail.” As for one unfortunate soul who he felt had betrayed him, Houston held off an angry crowd with these words: “Don’t be too hard on him. I was always fond of dogs, and he has all the virtues of a dog except his fidelity.”

Two months after throwing his hat into the ring, Houston reversed the results of his prior loss by beating Runnels by 10,000 votes. He now proceeded to take on the state political power brokers by pulling a Jacksonian move: holding his inauguration on the steps of the Capitol, where the people could see him directly, rather than at a joint session of the legislature.

Houston would tangle with secessionists throughout the next two years. As recklessly as he had once charged into the line of fire, despite an already gaping wound in the thigh, at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (an action that quickly caught the eye of General Andrew Jackson), Houston now attempted to quell rising Confederate sentiment (albeit balancing heated attacks on secessionists with equally annoyed urgings of abolitionists to stop stirring things up with their agitation).

The nomination of Abraham Lincoln at the Republican Convention, along with scattered unsolicited votes for Houston on that occasion, gave the secessionist “fire-eaters” a field day and increasingly isolated the governor. Immediately after one of his anti-secessionist denunciations, a powderkeg blew up behind the hotel where he stayed. After an ordinance of secession was adopted, he criss-crossed the state in an unsuccessful attempt to bring the voters to their senses, warning correctly of the North’s determination to keep the Union intact and the bloodshed that would follow.

When the secessionist movement proved too strong, the aging hero of San Jacinto refused to take the oath of allegiance to the new Confederate government, but also refused to order military action against the citizens he had served for nearly 30 years. He withdrew from his office—the first official ever to be forced out of the governor’s office in two different states (he’d resigned as governor of Tennessee in 1829 when, for unexplained reasons, his marriage to a 19-year-old woman collapsed almost immediately after the marriage).

Why hasn’t some movie actor put a script into development on Houston’s life? Think of all the stage business involved with this hugely colorful politico: a man who wore a huge sombrero and Mexican blanket, even into the most formal settings of our nation’s government; whose six-foot-plus height, lean frame, helmet of white hair, and sometimes crude manners made him an unlikely amalgam of ancient Roman senator, Cherokee Indian (which, of course, he was, in adolescence and in his post-first-marriage, middle-age-crazy period) and what one observer called "a magnificent barbarian"; and a figure who contained all the promise and contradictions of a Hamlet.

Well, someone did realize his dramatic possibilities: then-Senator John F. Kennedy, who made him one of the half-dozen figures from his chamber on Capitol Hill that he profiled in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage.

But, aside from Houston’s relatively tangential part in the Alamo drama (he actually ordered the doomed fort abandoned), this amazing figure has seldom, if ever, been depicted on the big screen. When he has dramatized, it’s been on TV, in the following now-almost-forgotten fare:

* Profiles in Courage, a TV series that ran in the 1964-65 season, based on Kennedy’s bestseller, included an episode on Houston, starring J.D. Cannon as the Texan;
* The Honorable Sam Houston (1975), a TV movie starring Robert Stack ;
* Houston: The Legend of Texas (1986), starring Sam Elliott.

When is a major studio going to give Houston’s life the treatment it deserves? Or, if Hollywood won’t go that route, why doesn’t a cable TV network offer a mini-series on his life instead of a relatively short TV film? This colorful but endlessly complicated Texan deserves at least this much.

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