Today in 1836: Sam Houston sworn in as the first president of Texas

October 22, 2010

Today in Legal HistoryAfter winning independence from Mexico, Texas spent the next decade as its own country – the Republic of Texas – complete with its own president, lawmaking body and court system. And the first person to lead that brand-new nation was Sam Houston.

Sam Houston is one of those American heroes whose life story is so amazing that it sounds made up.

In addition to being a two-term president, Houston was a brilliant military leader and war hero, a protégé to President Andrew Jackson, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, and the only person to serve as governor of two states.

Sam Houston’s family moved from Virginia to Tennessee in 1807, the same year his father died. Two years later, when Houston was 16, he left home and was taken in by the Cherokee Indians of eastern Tennessee, where he was made the honorary son of the tribe’s chief.

A few years later, he returned to white civilization and joined the U.S. Army to fight the British in the War of 1812. After fighting bravely in that war and subsequent Indian skirmishes, he worked briefly for President Jackson on an Indian resettlement project, then quit in protest and took up law. In 1818 he was elected attorney general for the Nashville district.

Sam HoustonIn 1823, Houston won election to Congress, and after two terms in Washington he decided to run for governor of Tennessee – and naturally, he won. However, Houston became disillusioned with life in the governor’s mansion and resigned midway through his term. He returned to his adopted Cherokee people, who were now living in Arkansas.

During the early 1830s, Houston left Arkansas for Texas, then a part of Mexico. Now in his 40s, the seasoned politico was drawn to the independence movement, and in 1835 he accepted a commission as a general in the Texas Army. During the Texas Revolution in 1836, he led a surprise attack against Mexico’s ruthless general, Santa Anna, and won independence for Texas.

The war hero was elected as the new republic’s first president and was sworn in on October 22, 174 years ago today. Not surprisingly, he favored peaceful relations with Native Americans, along with annexation to the United States.

After Texas joined the Union in 1845, Houston was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he emerged as a strong unionist. During the run-up to the Civil War, he became governor of Texas, and he used the office to campaign against seccession. When seccessionists forced the state to join the Confederacy in 1861, Houston refused to swear allegiance and resigned instead.

“Let me tell you what is coming,” he said in a speech a short while later. “While I believe with you in the doctrine of states’ rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.”

Sam Houston statue near Huntsville, TexasHis prediction proved accurate, but he didn’t live to see it come true: Houston passed away on his farm in Huntsville in 1863. Of course, he lives on in many ways, including the name of the biggest city in Texas – and fittingly, the tallest free-standing statue of an American: A 67-foot monument near Huntsville.