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To Serve Once Again- Sam Houston Becomes Governor of the State of Texas

December 13, 2013

Sam Houston (1793-1863) is often known as the Hero of San Jacinto. He certainly loomed large as General and Commander in Chief during the Texas Revolution and as President of the Republic of Texas. He was also, however, a congressman and a senator for Texas after its annexation into the United States in 1846. After his Senate term, Sam Houston was sworn in as governor of the state of Texas in 1859. He believed in the Union, but during his term as governor of the state of Texas, he was forced to confront Texas’ secession from the Union in 1861.

This image shows Sam Houston in about 1861 while he was governor of Texas. It was painted by Gustavus Behne (1828-1895). SC90.097, General Photo Collection, Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library.

This image shows Sam Houston in about 1861 while he was governor of Texas. It was painted by Gustavus Behne (1828-1895). Photograph, [General Sam Houston by Gustavus Behne, 1861], General Photo Collection, DRT Library.

Houston served as a Texas Representative and Senator from 1846 to 1859, going up against such giants of American politics as Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas in the Senate.  Houston first ran for Texas governor in 1857, losing to Hardin R. Runnels by only a few thousand votes. He returned to his Senate seat after the loss. In a letter to his wife, Margaret Lea, he reported upheavals in Congress toward the end of 1857 stemming from the 1854 debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Houston remained firmly against secession throughout his time as a Senator, writing to Margaret in January of 1858 that although developments moved toward disunion, he stood “for Union, and our Union, as it is” (Sam Houston: The Personal Correspondence, Madge Thornall Roberts, 275).

Houston appeared the ready to return to the family home in Huntsville and retire when his thirteen-year career in the U.S. government ended in 1859. On February 28, he reported to Margaret that he was relieved to have delivered his last official speech on the gallery floor (Roberts, 340). As late as March 5, Houston unequivocally repeated that he “learn[ed] from Texas, that there [was] a general wish, that [he] should again enter the Arena of Texas politics. [He was] poor, but Texas [couldn’t] buy [his] services” (347). He even purchased some sheep to begin a flock that he would tend during his retirement from public life.

Houston soon changed his mind. The governorship of Texas was the one office (besides the Presidency of the United States, a role to which Houston did at one time aspire) that had eluded him. Shortly after he arrived in Texas, Governor Runnels was re-nominated on a secessionist platform. Houston decided not to go into the “sheperdizing business” but instead, when Governor Runnels was re-nominated, “announced his candidacy as an independent ‘opposed alike to the Black Republicans and the little less dangerous fanatics and Higher law men at the South.'” (The Raven, Marquis James, 392). He would run on a relatively moderate platform as what he called a “Union Democrat” (396). He managed to scrape out a victory this time, 33,257 to 27,500, despite the increasing unpopularity of his stance against secession. The Fire-eating Southern Democrats decried his election.

According to Marquis James in his biography of Houston, The Raven, the extremists in the Texas legislature reacted negatively to the new governor. He writes, “In the legislature an appropriation for furnishings for the Executive Mansion was obstructed by a controversy whether Sam Houston, who had lived in a wigwam, should be surrounded by civilized luxuries at public expense. The House debated whether it should offer its quarters for the inaugural ball and, if so, whether the carpet should be removed” (393).

Invitation to Sam Houston's Inaugural Ball, 1859. Due to partisan interference, the inauguration was held publicly on the steps of the Capitol in Austin. A full formal ball was the popular way to celebrate an official occassion. DRT 2, DRT Library, San Antonio, Texas.

Invitation to Sam Houston’s Inaugural Ball, 1859. Due to partisan interference, the inauguration was held publicly on the steps of the Capitol in Austin. A full formal ball was the popular way to celebrate an official occasion. Invitation to Inaugural Ball, DRT 2 Ephemera, DRT Library.

James continued, “Houston made his own inaugural arrangements. Instead of taking the oath in the House chamber before the Legislature and a select few, he delivered his inaugural address on the portico of the Capitol” (393).

“[I] made the state of Texas, but [I] did not make the people.”- Sam Houston, quoted in the San Antonio Herald, April 17, 1858.

Once in office, Houston continued to oppose secession. As rhetoric ramped up throughout 1860 and leading to the firing of shots at Fort Sumter in 1861, he stuck to his guns. His position ultimately led to his ouster from office. You can read more about the secession crisis and Houston’s response to public pressure in this previous blog entry.

References and Further Reading:

James, Marquis.  The Raven: A Biography of Sam Houston, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, 1929.

Roberts, Madge Thornall. Sam Houston: The Personal Correspondence, Volume IV, 1852-1863, University of North Texas Press, Denton, 2001.

VF-Biography–Sam Houston, Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library, San Antonio, Texas.

Click here for a full citation of the documents and images included in this entry.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 15, 2013 12:03 am

    During the 1857 campaign for governor Jeff Hamilton drove Sam Houston around East Texas by buggy for over 1,500 miles, camping at the side of the road in the blistering summer heat. The 64 year-old Senator gave dozens of speeches during this period, each speech lasting 2-4 hours, but lost to Hardin Runnels anyway.

    His Senate seat was yanked away from him by the Texas Legislature and he was mocked by other southern Senators in Washington. This is when he wore the famous “leopard skin vest” and told them (regarding his Unionist views), “Gentlemen, the Good Book says a leopard can’t change his spots.” In 1859 he made only one speech during the campaign for governor and won the election. It was 30 years since he had served as the Governor of Tennessee and he remains the only person ever to have governed two states.

  2. drtlibrary permalink*
    December 17, 2013 5:00 pm

    Thanks for these interesting points about the difference between the two elections.

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