Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 11: Sam Houston and secession

John Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage (1956) had a couple of chapters, the one on Andrew Johnson's impeachment and the one of L.Q.C. Lamar, an anti-Reconstruction Senator from Mississippi, that reflected a seriously deficient understanding of Reconstruction, as Kennedy himself later realized.

But his sketch of Texas hero, Senator and Governor Sam Houston (1793-1863) made Houston's loyalty to the Union and opposition to the slaveowner's revolt and secession the center of his portrait of Houston. As a Senator in 1854, Houston voted against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the disastrous law that repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise restricting slavery in new territories and set off the mini-civil war that created "Bleeding Kansas".

Sam Houston was a Jacksonian Democrat who believed in his friend Andrew Jackson's brand of Democratic nationalism. He had opposed the pro-slavery measures pushed by Old Hickory's nemesis John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who he (rightly) accused of having had "long-cherished and ill-concealed designs against the Union". He memorably described the future Confederate President Jefferson Davis as "ambitious as Lucifer and cold as a lizard". (No Dick Cheney comparisons, please!)

Although the proslavery press and politicians attacked Houston bitterly for voting against the proslavery Kansas-Nebraska Act, Houston said it was "the most unpopular vote I ever gave" but he considered it "the wisest and most patriotic". Kennedy quoted from Houston's Senate speech on the bill:

This is an eminently perilous measure; and do you expect me to remain here silent, or to shrink from the discharge of my duty in admonishing the South of what I conceive the results will be? I will speak in spite of all the intimidations, or threats, or discountenances that may be thrown upon me. Sir, the charge that I am going with the Abolitionists or Free-Soilers affects me not. The discharge of conscious duty prompts me often to confront the united array of the very section of the country in which I reside, in which my associates are, in which my affections rest.... Sir, if this is a boon that is offered to propitiate the South, I, as a Southern man, repudiate it. I will have none of it.... Our children are either to live in after times in the enjoyment of peace, of harmony, and prosperity, or the alternative remains for them of anarchy, discord, and civil broil. We can avert the last. I trust we shall.... I adjure you to regard the contract once made to harmonize and preserve this Union. Maintain the Missouri Compromise! Stir not up agitation! Give us peace!
But peace wouldn't expand the Slave Power, so the slaveowners pressed for other solutions.

The proslavery Texas legislature voted in 1857 to oust Houston from the US Senate, Senators being elected at that time by state legislatures rather than the general electorate. But he wasn't done with politics. Kennedy wrote:

Returning to his ranch in Texas, the doughty ex-Senator found he was unable to retire when the Governor who had defeated him two years previously was threatening to lead the state into secession. So in the fall of 1859, the aging warrior again ran as an independent candidate for Governor, again with no party, no newspaper and no organization behind him, and making but one campaign speech. He would rely, he told his audience in that still fascinating voice, "upon the Constitution and the Union, all the old Jacksonian democracy I ever professed or officially practiced.... In politics I am an old fogy, because I cling devotedly to those primitive principles upon which our government was founded."
I find this particularly interesting because of my own fascination with Jacksonian democracy. My admiration for Andrew Jackson himself comes in large from the fact that when events forced him to choose between his own personal and class interest as a slaveowner and a Southerner, on the one hand, and his devotion to democracy and the Union, on the other, he made the chose for Union and against Calhoun and the secessionists of South Carolina.

Sam Houston

And in doing so, he defined and embodied a new sense of American democratic patriotism, a sense of America as a nation based on democracy more than a collection of states based on local loyalties. It's not that he created those notions out of nowhere. But he articulated and defended those principles in a new way in response to the challenges which he found himself facing as President.

It would be pure speculation to guess where Jackson would have stood on secession in 1860-61. Well, theoretically. I know darn well he would have opposed the slaveowners' treason. But the movement of Jacksonian democracy carried its own strong contradictions, the central one being that between the democracy demanded by white men and the absolute despotism practiced by slaveowners on their human property.

Other Jacksonian democrats wound up siding with the Slave Power against democracy. Chief Justice Roger Taney, appointed to his office by President Jackson, did more than most single individuals to make the Civil War inevitable through the Dred Scott decision.

But Sam Houston represents the other time of Jacksonian democrat, who chose the democratic Union over secession and the "lords of the lash", the slaveowners. And in doing so, he represented the progressive core of Jacksonian democracy, and made the same choice Jackson himself did during the Nullification Controversy over South Carolina.

As Governor, Houston actively opposed the secession movement in 1860-61. Apparently, a proslavery terrorist even tried to assassinate him in 1860:

[W]hen the town of Henderson mysteriously burned in August, the Governor could do nothing to prevent the wave of lynchings, vigilante committees and angry sentiment which followed rumors of Negro uprisings and arson. Houston's speech in Waco denouncing secession wasanswered by the explosion of a keg of powder behind the hotel in which he slept unharmed.
In early 1861, the legislature nevertheless approved a secession ordnance that was submitted to Texas voters, eventually to be approved. In a speech of September of the previous year, he declared his Jacksonian position:

I ask not the defeat of sectionalism by sectionalism, but by nationality.... These are no new sentiments to me. I uttered them in the American Senate in 1856. I utter them now. I was denounced then as a traitor. I am denounced now. Be it so! Men who never endured the privation, the toil, the peril that I have for my country call me a traitor because I am willing to yield obedience to the Constitution and the constituted authorities. Let them suffer what I have for this Union, and they will feel it entwining so closely around their hearts that it will be like snapping the cords of life to give it up.... What are the people who call me a traitor? Are they those who march under the national flag and are ready to defend it? That is my banner!... and so long as it waves proudly o'er me, even as it has waved amid stormy scenes where these men were not, I can forget that I am called a traitor. (my emphasis)
I wonder how many Republican candidates for President the next couple of years when asked about their views of the Confederate flag being flown today will be willing to say something like what Houston said then, "Are they those who march under the national flag and are ready to defend it? That is my banner!" I remember back during the last Presidential election that Wes Clark said something very much like that when confronted with a Confederate flag fan in Mississippi.

But, back to the old days. Having been defeated in the legislative vote, Houston campaigned actively against the referendum on slavery:

Ugly crowds, stones and denunciation as a traitor met him throughout the state. At Waco his life was threatened. At Belton, an armed thug suddenly arose and started toward him. But old Sam Houston, looking him right in the eye, put each hand on his own pistols: "Ladies and Gentlemen, keep your seats. It is nothing but a fice barking at the lion in his den." Unharmed, he stalked the state in characteristic fashion, confounding his enemies with powerful sarcasm. Asked to express his honest opinion of the secessionist leader, Houston replied: "He has all the characteristics of a dog except fidelity." Now seventy years old, but still an impressively straight figure with those penetrating eyes and massive white hair, Old Sam closed his tour in Galveston before a jeering and ugly mob. "Some of you laugh to scorn the idea of bloodshed as the result of secession," he cried, "but let me tell you what is coming. You may, after the sacrifice of countless millions of treasures and hundreds of thousands of precious lives, as a bare possibility, win Southern independence, if God be not against you Put I doubt it. The North is determined to preserve this Union."
Once the state seceeded, Houston's governorship came to an end. He didn't resign. He simply refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Rebel state government. His final message as Governor explained to the people his refusal to take the oath as Governor in the Rebel regime:

Fellow Citizens, in the name of your rights and liberty, which I believe have been trampled upon, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of my own conscience and my own manhood... I refuse to take this oath... [But] I love Texas too well to bring civil strife and bloodshed upon her. I shall make no endeavor to maintain my authority as Chief Executive of this state, except by the peaceful exercise of my functions. When I can no longer do this, I shall calmly withdraw from the scene.... I am... stricken down because I will not yield those principles which I have fought for.... The severest pang is that the blow comes in the name of the state of Texas.

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