Sam Houston to H.M. Watkins and Others
November 20, 1860
Politicians who have become household names have an ability to sway public opinion—and they know it. They can use their precious political capital to that end. But it’s a risky proposition. If they see odds they like and place their bets only to lose, they may see themselves fall out of favor, out of office, and out of the public eye. If, however, they read the moment correctly and positioned themselves just right, they may ascend further still—higher in esteem and maybe even earn their place in the collective memory of the nation.
Sam Houston was one such politician. He was the governor of Texas in 1860, but more than that, he was a legend in the state’s lore: he had defended the republic of Texas and seen it take the step of becoming one of 28 other states comprising those United States. He was the embodiment of his state.
After the election of 1860, many in Texas wrote to Houston and asked him about his views of the “present crisis in our political affairs.” He wrote back to them that he would be frank with them, “feeling that this is a time when the plain truth should be spoken by every lover of his country.”
Houston wrote that he would “ask some more weighty reason for overthrowing the Government, than rash enthusiasts yet have given; and that while others are carried away by the impulse of the moment, the men of experience will be calm and decided.” Rather than overthrow the government and “plunge into revolution now,” Houston was determined to stand by the Constitution. “Mr. Lincoln has been constitutionally elected and, much as I deprecate his success, no alternative is left me but to yield to the Constitution,” Houston wrote. Further, there wasn’t a consensus on taking action:
“Those who reside in cities and towns, where masses are carried in crowds and influenced by passionate appeals, may be ready for hasty action, but the working men and farmers, whose all is identified with the prosperity and peace of the country, will ask time to reflect.”
And when they reflected, they would see that the Constitution—with all its flaws—is not so easy to improve upon; the survivors of such a revolution “may find that in the wreck of one free government, they have lost the power to rear another.”
It would be a tragedy of a generation, but it would be even more than that. “[W]ar[,] with its attendant horrors of bloodshed, rapine, and devastation[,] . . . would embitter my last moments, and after living to witness the dissolution of the best government that ever existed, I would sink to the grave without a hope that freedom would be regenerated or our posterity ever enjoy again the blessings with which we have parted.”
Eloquent though Houston had been, the man did not match the moment. As the governor, he had sought to stop a state convention contemplating secession, but January 1861 saw just that; and on February 1, 1861, the convention voted to secede (166 to 8), followed by a popular vote which approved secession by a three-to-one margin. Sam Houston, the hero of Texas, refused to swear allegiance to the newly-minted Confederate States of America—and was promptly removed from office on March 16, 1861. In 1863, about halfway through the Civil War, he died.