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Sam Houston’s Last Fight
At sixty-six his bones ached from the wounds of two wars, but as Southern pressure for secession mounted, “Old Sam Jacinto” battled to keep his beloved Texas in the Union
December 1965 | Volume 17, Issue 1
Such, at any rate, was Houston’s reasoning. It was indeed, as Walter Prescott Webb called it, a “grand plan,” characteristic in its magnitude of the man who conceived it. And, so far as a Mexican conquest was concerned, it was not nearly as fantastic as it may appear in retrospect.
To begin with, American conquest of Mexico was not a new idea. In 1805, Aaron Burr had plotted to seat himself on the throne of the Montezumas. In 1848, there had been a strong movement to keep the United States flag flying permanently over Mexico City, where Winfield Scott’s victorious troops had planted it. And only recently President James Buchanan had openly advocated annexing the upper portion of Mexico. Moreover, filibustering was in the air in the eighteen fifties. In 1851 a band of Americans had invaded Cuba, and in 1856 a pint-sized bravo named William Walker had made himself—for a brief time—master of Nicaragua (see “The Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny” in the December, 1957, issue of AMERICAN HERITAGE ). Houston simply proposed to conduct a filibuster on a giant scale.
Moreover, the chronic political chaos in Mexico provided both an excuse and an occasion for intervention. In his last speech before the Senate, Houston had argued that most Mexicans would welcome an American protectorate as an escape from anarchy; from a strictly military standpoint, therefore, conquest would be easy.
But before he could conquer Mexico, Houston had first to reconquer Texas. In 1854 he and John Bell of Tennessee had been the only two Southern senators to vote against Stephen A. Douglas’ Kansas-Nebraska Bill, the controversial measure that repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had barred slavery in that portion of the Louisiana Purchase that lay north of latitude 36° 30′. Since most Texans believed that the Kansas-Nebraska Bill favored the South, Senator Houston’s opposition to it lost him much of his support. In 1857, when he ran for governor, he suffered a resounding defeat—the first time Texans had ever rejected his leadership. He was returning home in 1859 determined to avenge this loss and regain his customary hold over their minds, hearts, and votes. Once in the governor’s chair at Austin he would, God willing, carry out his Mexican plans.
The prospects were most propitious. The settlers in the southern and western counties blamed Governor Hardin Runnels, the man who had defeated Houston in ’57, for failing to protect them against Indian raids and the depredations of Mexican guerrillas under red-bearded Juan Cortinas. In addition, Texans everywhere in the state had now begun to realize that the Kansas-Nebraska Act had merely led to trouble for the South; in 1859 they were prepared to vote for Houston for the very same reason they had voted against him in 1857—his stanch opposition to the act.
Houston ran simply as “Old Sam Jacinto, the People’s Candidate.” So confident was he of victory that he made only one speech during the campaign, whereas in 1857 he had made dozens. In that speech, delivered at Nacogdoches, he denounced his opponents as secessionists motivated by an unholy desire for office and power. The South, he declared, was in no real or immediate danger from the North; but if it were, it would find safety under the Constitution and within the Union.
When the votes were tallied, the old hero had 36,257 to 27,500 for Runnels. The defeat of 1857 was avenged.
Houston took office in December and immediately began laying the groundwork for his invasion project. Since he had no legal authority for engaging in such an enterprise, he had to proceed covertly and indirectly. But to a man some called the Great Designer, this was no particular embarrassment.
His first move was to increase the strength of the Texas Rangers to nearly one thousand men. The purpose of this build-up, he announced, was to drive back the Indians and to subdue Cortinas. In actuality, he saw the Rangers as the spearhead of the southward thrust across the Rio Grande. At the same time he endeavored to obtain weapons for an even larger army. Early in March he asked the War Department to send 2,000 percussion rifles, 1,000 Sharps carbines, and 3,000 Colt revolvers to Texas—to help it protect itself, he explained, against the Mexicans and Indians.
Here Houston met his first check. The authorities in Washington were aware of his Mexican interests and easily saw through his subterfuge. Moreover, although the Buchanan administration itself favored a Mexican protectorate, it did not care to have Houston establish one, especially in view of his presidential aspirations, which were also well known in Washington. Secretary of War John Floyd politely but firmly declined the request for additional arms.
Houston was disappointed but not discouraged. He had beaten the Mexicans in one war without aid from the federal government, and he could do it again. Besides, if Washington refused to furnish the necessary means, perhaps London would.
British bankers held several million dollars’ worth of Mexican bonds. The Mexican government (if such it could be called) had repudiated its debts, and the bankers faced a total loss on their investment. Houston believed they might be willing to finance his Mexican filibuster in return for a guarantee that their bonds would be redeemed once the protectorate was a reality.