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Jeffery Robenalt

"A Glimpse of Texas Past"

Sam Houston
Mirabeau Lamar:
A Contrast of Visions

by Jeffery Robenalt
Jeffery Robenalt

Former Presidents of the Republic of Texas, Sam Houston and Mirabeau Lamar, differed in many ways. Many of the differences were personal and unimportant in the political scheme of things, like Houstonís love of flashy clothes and his reputation for frontier boldness, and Lamarís somber dress and enjoyment of quieter pastimes such as reading and poetry. However, both men were strong leaders, and their vastly different visions for the new Republic would do much to shape the future of Texas.

Sam Houston bust by Elzabeth Ney

Sam Houston by Elizabet Ney
TE photo

When Sam Houston took office in 1836, as the first elected president of the Republic of Texas, the new nation faced many problems. Foremost among them was Mexicoís refusal to recognize the independence of the new republic. Technically, the two nations were still at war. In addition, the new president faced severe financial problems based on the governmentís inability to pay debts incurred while conducting the Revolution. Native Texans, who had remained neutral during the war, based on promises made by Houston and other Texas officials, also resented the growing number of settlers invading their territory and threatened war. Finally, the question of annexation to the United States loomed large.

Houston believed his primary responsibility as president was to prevent another war with Mexico. In accordance with this policy, he appointed Stephen F. Austin as his Secretary of State. Austin spoke fluent Spanish, and it was hoped that the good relations he had established with many Mexican officials as an empresario prior to the Revolution would aid in the cause of peaceful relations. However, Houstonís hopes were soon dashed when Austin died on December 27, 1836, at the age of 43, after serving less than three months.

Adding to the growing tensions with Mexico, were hundreds of newly arrived United States citizens, eager for battle, though they had come to Texas too late to fight in the Revolution. Instead of calming the situation as his position called for, the commanding general of the Texas army, Felix Huston, incited the new arrivals by speaking out in favor of renewing the conflict with Mexico. To prevent further bloodshed, President Houston sent General Albert Sidney Johnston to relieve Huston. However, when Johnston attempted to take command, Huston challenged him to a duel. Honor required that Johnston accept the challenge, and he was severely wounded, leaving Felix Huston in command. Sam Houston wisely defused the situation by sending all but 600 soldiers home on leave and never calling them back to duty.

Huntsville Tx - Sam Houston Memorial Grave and Monument
Sam Houston Monument
by famed sculptor Pompeo Coppini
in Oakwood Cemetery

Photo courtesy Barclay Gibson, October 2010

President Houstonís decision to disband the majority of the Texas army also saved the government a good deal of money, but it did not resolve the Republicís financial problems. Texas had incurred a debt of more than one million dollars fighting the Revolution, and Houston was forced to cut expenses to the bone, while trying to raise revenue for those items he considered to be absolutely essential by levying customs duties and property taxes. In spite of his efforts, the tax collections resulted in little revenue, and the debt continued to rise.

In 1837, at President Houstonís urging, the Texas legislature authorized the issuance of $600,000 in promissory notes to pay government expenses. The promissory notes represented a government promise to pay a specified sum to the holder at a future date in exchange for the notesí cash value at the time they were issued. Dubbed ďStar MoneyĒ because of the star displayed on the front of the bill, the notes circulated at or near face value, or their actual cost, for most of Houstonís presidency. However, when financial prospects failed to improve, people began to reject the notes as legal tender.

In addition to tensions with Mexico, the new Republic faced growing conflicts with Native Texans, who resented settlers moving onto lands they claimed as their own. Although President Houston was sympathetic toward the Indian population, most Texans failed to share his views. Prior to the Revolution, Houston negotiated a treaty with the Cherokees, whereby they had been promised title to the land they occupied in East Texas in exchange for remaining neutral during the conflict. However, East Texas was some of the richest farm land in the Republic, and many Texans were in favor of removing the Cherokees in spite of the treaty. Although the Cherokees remained relatively peaceful in the face of this threat, other Native Texan tribes, including the fierce Comanches, fought back. Houston enlisted the aid of the Texas Rangers to keep the peace on the frontier, however, the attacks continued.

Of all the problems facing the new Republic, Houston was most concerned with the process of annexation by the United States; a move that he felt would alleviate most of the problems facing the new Republic. During his election to the presidency, a majority of the electorate voted in favor of annexation. After all, many Texans had immigrated from the United States, and their language, customs, and ideas about laws and government were the same as most Americans. The addition of Texas would also allow for the westward expansion of the United States. For all of these reasons and more, most Texans, including President Houston, thought the United States would be eager to accept Texas as a new state.

With the assistance of several Texans, including William H. Wharton and Anson Jones, members of the U.S. Congress who favored annexation introduced a bill to admit Texas into the Union, but former United States President John Quincy Adams, now a member of the House of Representatives, blocked its passage. Adams, an avowed abolitionist, was determined not to admit any state that supported slavery, and many other politicians opposed to slavery agreed with this view. The issue dragged on until Houston, not wanting Texas to be embarrassed by any more foot-dragging, reluctantly ordered Anson Jones to withdraw the request for annexation.

Mirabeau Lamar
Mirabeau Lamar

The Texas Constitution limited the first president of the Republic to a term of two years, and no president could be elected for two consecutive terms. Therefore, in 1838, Houston was forced to hand over the reins of government. Later Texas presidents would serve for three years. In the subsequent election, Mirabeau Lamar, Houstonís popular vice-president, announced his bid for the presidency. Houston, who thought little of Lamar or his policies, handpicked first Peter Grayson, and then James Collingsworth to run against his much disliked vice-president. Unfortunately, both men died before the election.

However, Lamar would have most likely won the election, without the untimely death of his opponents, because he offered a new vision for the future of Texas, one in sharp contrast to that of Sam Houston. Houston had worked to maintain peaceful relations with Mexico and the Native Americans, spent as little money as possible, and promoted the annexation of Texas. Lamar, on the other hand, stood ready to confront Mexico and drive all the Native Americans out of Texas, and he was willing to borrow large sums of money to support his efforts. He also wanted Texas to remain independent from the United States and expand its territory all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

President Lamarís aggressive approach to policy making can best be summed up in his inaugural address where he stated, ďIf peace can be obtained only by the sword, let the sword do its work.Ē In 1840, he heightened tensions with Mexico by sending Commodore Edwin Moore and the Texas navy to assist Yucatan rebels in their revolt against the Mexican government. Lamar further angered Mexican officials with his interpretation of the Treaties of Velasco signed by Santa Anna in 1836. The secret portion of the treaty set the boundary between Mexico and Texas at the Rio Grande River. Lamar insisted that this provision included the full length of the Rio Grande, as far north as its headwaters in Colorado, which meant that Santa Fe and half of New Mexico belonged to Texas.

In 1841, President Lamar sought authority from the Texas legislature to send troops to New Mexico to enforce his view, but Congress refused. Undaunted, Lamar exercised his own authority, by sending General Hugh Mcleod and 270 men to Santa Fe under the guise of a trading expedition, with orders to convince the New Mexicans that they were Texans. However, after straggling across the dreaded Llano Estacado, the men arrived in Santa Fe dying of thirst and nearly starved. With no other choice, the Texans surrendered and were immediately put in chains and marched to Mexico City, where they were imprisoned until 1842. The disastrous expedition resulted in needless loss of life and the expenditure of money Texas did not have.

When the financial situation continued to worsen, Lamar turned to the ill-fated solution of printing more paper money. The money, known as ďredbacksĒ because of the color of the ink used on the reverse side of the bills, was backed by nothing but empty promises and fell steadily in value, until a Texas dollar was only worth about 12 U.S. cents. Nevertheless, Lamar continued to seek additional credit for such things as the Santa Fe expedition and battles with the Native Americans. As a result, the public debt increased to almost $7 million dollars by the end of his term in office.

Unlike Sam Houston, who had been sympathetic toward Native Americans, Lamarís policy called for the Indians to be either removed from Texas or exterminated. He began by ordering Chief Bowles to lead his Cherokee people out of East Texas. When Bowles refused, Lamar sent General Kelsey Douglass and the Texas militia to drive the Indians out. Bowles was killed during a militia attack near the Neches River on July 16. 1839, and the Cherokees were forcibly moved to Oklahoma. Lamar had similar plans for the Comanches, but "the Lords of the Plains" proved to be a much superior foe.

After a few skirmishes with the Texas Rangers in 1839, some Comanche leaders consented to hold peace talks at the Council House in San Antonio on March 19, 1840, where they agreed to surrender their white captives. However, the Texans became angry when the Comanches returned only one mutilated white girl, fifteen year-old Matilda Lockhart, and fighting broke out. Many of the Comanche leaders were killed in what became known as the Council House Fight. When news of the fighting reached the villages in the Comancheria, the Comanches were furious. They tortured and killed the remaining Texas prisoners and launched the Great Comanche Raid of 1840 deep into the heart of central Texas, attacking the town of Victoria and burning the Gulf Coast town of Linnville to the ground. The Texans met the Comanches returning from the coast at the victorious Battle of Plum Creek on August 11, killing more than 100 warriors, but the bad feelings and bloody warfare continued for decades.

President Mirabeau Lamar is best known for his far-sighted education policy. A public education system had always been at the forefront of Texas thought. In fact, the Texas Declaration of Independence listed the failure of the Mexican government to establish public schools as one of its major grievances. In 1838, Lamar spoke of the importance of public education, ďIt is admitted by all that the cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy, and . . . is the noblest attribute of man.Ē The Texas legislature responded to Lamarís words of wisdom by setting aside 18,000 acres in each county for public schools and 220,000 acres for two universities. Lamar became known as the ďFather of Education."

Huntsville Tx - Sam Houston Statue
The 67-foot Sam Houston Statue
On I-45 near Huntsville, Texas

Photo courtesy Barclay Gibson, October 2010

In the election of 1841, Sam Houston was once again eligible to run for president. Although Texas did not have political parties, a clear division in the electorate stood forth between those individuals who supported the policies of Houston and those who supported the policies of Lamar. Houston easily carried the election, defeating Lamarís Vice-President and choice of candidate, David G. Burnet, on a platform of preventing war with Mexico, cutting government expenditures, and seeking annexation to the United States.

President Houston wasted no time in implementing his policies. First, he concentrated on government spending by cutting salaries, including his own, reducing the size of the army, and tackling the problem of the Texas Navy. He ordered Commodore Moore to return to Texas from Yucatan, but Moore defied Houstonís orders and sailed to New Orleans to repair his ships and supply his crews. In answer, President Houston declared Moore a pirate and invited other countries to sink his ships. Moore quickly returned home, and Houston disbanded the navy and sold the ships, adding the money to the treasury. As a result of these actions, Houston spent less than $600,000 in his three year term.

Finally, Houston turned his attention to annexation. Though he had withdrawn an earlier request during his first term, Houstonís representatives in Washington thought that annexation was now a good possibility. John Tyler of Virginia had assumed the presidency after the death of William Henry Harrison, and in April 1844, John C. Calhoun, Tylerís Secretary of State, agreed to a treaty that would have accepted Texas as a territory of the United States. Texas voters reluctantly accepted, but the treaty failed by one vote in the U.S. Senate.

In the Texas election of 1844, Houstonís candidate of choice, Anson Jones, defeated Edward Burleson, and annexation became a key issue in the U.S. presidential election. The Democratic Party, which called for the annexation of Texas, nominated James K. Polk of Tennessee. Polk won the election, and the United States Congress approved a joint resolution on February 26, 1845, accepting Texas as the twenty-eighth state in the union. Houstonís long dream of annexation had finally become a reality.

Although the visions of Sam Houston and Mirabeau Lamar stand in sharp contrast, both men made vital contributions to the fledgling Republic of Texas. Lamarís aggressive approach to Texas policies helped steer the Republic through troubled times, and has come to represent the bold image for which Texans are known throughout the world, while Houstonís level-headed brand of leadership added credibility to the new nation, and his persistence in gaining annexation secured the future for Texas and all Texans.

© Jeffery Robenalt, May 1, 2012 Column

More "A Glimpse of Texas Past"

Related Articles:

  • Remembering Lamar by Mike Cox
  • Sam Houston
  • Stephen F. Austin
  • Anson Jones

  • References for "Sam Houston and Mirabeau Lamar: A Contrast of Visions "

  • Brinkley, William C. (1979), The Texas Revolution, Texas State Historical Association, ISBN 9780876110416.
  • Davis, William C. (2006), Lone Star Rising, College Station Texas: Texas A&M University Press, ISBN 9781585445325 originally published 2004 by New York Free Press.
  • Fehrenbach, T.R. (2000), Lone Star: A History of Texas and Texans, Cambridge: Da Capo Press, ISBN 0-306-80942-7.
  • Haley, James L. (2004), Sam Houston, University of Oklahoma Press, ISBN 9780806136448.
  • Ramsay, Jack C. (1984), Thunder Beyond the Brazos: Mirabeau B. Lamar, a Biography, Eakin Press, ISBN 0890154625.
  • Siegel, Stanley E. (1977), The Poet President of Texas: The Life of Mirabeau B. Lamar, President of the Republic of Texas, Austin: Jenkins Publishing Co., ISBN 0836301536.
  • The Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association, Sam Houston, (http://www.tshonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fho73), accessed Nov 15, 2011.
  • The Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association, Mirabeau Lamar, (http://www.tshonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fla15), accessed Nov 15, 2011.

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