Why you should care
Because Sam Houston predicted Civil War horrors before the first shot was fired.
When the Marquis de Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolutionary War, returned for a tour of the young United States in 1824–25 — just ahead of the 50th anniversary of independence — he resided in the Washington area at Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria, Virginia, across the Potomac from the nation’s capital (the tavern still stands). There, he often socialized with another guest, Tennessee Sen. Andrew Jackson, as well as Jackson’s protégé, a young congressman from Tennessee named Sam Houston.
During one of their evenings at Gadsby’s, the old French nobleman told his American hosts that the civilized world was forsaking the institution of slavery, and America should follow suit — even though emancipation would come at a high cost, destroying the economy of the South and hobbling the North with the burdens of slavery’s aftermath.
If you go to war with the United States, you will never conquer her … If she does not whip you by guns, powder and steel, she will starve you to death.
Texas Gov. Sam Houston, 1860
The “nation’s guest” also had words of caution, according to James Haley, historian and fellow at the Texas State Historical Society: “No matter how serious the sectional differences” became among the states, the Union must be preserved “because every tyrant in Europe would celebrate” the failure of America’s experiment in democracy. Houston, it seems, took the marquis’ warnings to heart.
Hard-drinking, thrice-married Houston was born in Virginia in 1793. After his stint as congressman, he was elected governor of Tennessee in 1827. He resigned in 1829 and eventually relocated to what was then the Mexican province of Texas. During the war for Texas independence, Houston became a hero when he famously routed the much larger force of Mexican Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto. Houston was elected president of the new republic and then became a U.S. senator from Texas when the Lone Star State joined the Union. Finally, in his political twilight, Houston served as governor of Texas.
During the Republic of Texas years, Houston was “an ardent supporter of annexation,” says Kenneth Howell, director of the Central Texas Historical Association. However, annexation by the U.S. meant probable war with Mexico and would upset the delicate balance between slave and free states. “Admitting Texas as a slave state would give the South control of the Senate,” notes Haley.
During Houston’s second presidential term, “he hit upon the stratagem of pretending to lead Texas into the British Empire as a protectorate,” Haley explains. This cunning ploy gave the U.S. a powerful incentive to acquiesce to Texas statehood (despite the slave question). The tactic worked, and chronically broke Texas joined the Union in 1845 — yet the scourge of slavery remained.
Houston, a bafflingly complex man, owned slaves but fought against reviving the slave trade (the importation of slaves had been outlawed in 1807) and opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and opened the way for slavery to expand north and west. He also supported the Compromise of 1850, admitting California as a free state. Houston backed the measure “because it was good for the Union,” says Robert Wooster, professor of history at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi. Plus, the compromise contained provisions allowing Texas to “pay off its public debts,” even though the 1850 agreement — and Houston’s opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act — proved unpopular among most Southerners.
On Nov. 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. Houston’s prickly relationship with slavery, love for Texas and loyalty to the Union crashed into one another. “Houston saw Lincoln not as a radical, but as a moderate,” Wooster says, and he took seriously Lincoln’s campaign promise not to interfere with slavery where already in practice, believing Lincoln’s election was not a legitimate cause for secession. Furthermore, Houston foresaw the grisly horrors an internecine conflict would visit upon Texas. “He basically argued that Fire-Eaters [pro-slavery Southern secessionists] were leading the South down a path of destruction,” Howell adds.
Gov. Houston embarked on a statewide speaking tour in 1860, arguing against secession, with such ominous proclamations as, “If you go to war with the United States, you will never conquer her … If she does not whip you by guns, powder and steel, she will starve you to death.” Houston’s ardent speeches failed to sway the public, or the Texas Legislature. In 1861, Texas voted for secession. And when Houston refused to swear an oath to the Confederacy, because, in his own words, “I love Texas too well to bring civil strife and bloodshed upon her,” the 67-year-old was promptly booted out of office, effectively ending his political career.
After failing to save Texas from more war, Houston “declined Lincoln’s offer to lead troops in Texas to preserve the Union,” Howell says. “If Texas won’t turn and go with me,” the ex-governor said, “I will have to turn and go with her.” His son’s enlistment in the Confederate Army likely led to his eventual lukewarm support for Texas’ role in the war — even though he still seemed to detest the Confederacy.
Sam Houston died in July 1863, shortly after the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi, a crucial Union victory that essentially split the Confederacy in half. All that the hero of San Jacinto had predicted and tried to prevent had come to pass, including, as he foretold, “the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives.” Houston had lost his final battle — to keep Texas out of the Civil War.