Center Acquires Two Sam Houston Letters
The Briscoe Center has acquired two letters that Sam Houston wrote in 1850 and 1857 respectively. A famed leader of the 1836 Texas Revolution and president of the Republic of Texas, Houston also served as a U.S. Senator after the annexation of Texas in 1845. The two letters date from his time in Washington and cover both political and personal matters. Together they give a number of intriguing insights into Houston’s family life and the political culture of the national capitol in the decade before the Civil War.
The letter, dated January 8, 1850, is written to Houston’s cousin, Narcissa Hamilton of Virginia. Houston’s tone is chatty, jesting, and candid, providing descriptions of his children (“young highlanders!”) at home in Texas and of the political scene in Washington. Also of note is his reference to a battle wound picked up during the War of 1812—”You will perceive from my hand writing, that the wound in my shoulder has affected my nerves.” As a twenty-year-old private in Andrew Jackson’s army, Houston was wounded in the shoulder by a rifle ball at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. The wound bothered him for the rest of his life.
In his letter to Hamilton, Houston describes his personal transformation in the wake of his marriage to Margaret Moffette Lea, whom he describes as “intelligent, amiable, affectionate, and pious.” The deeply religious Margaret, twenty-six years Houston’s junior, evidently had a profound impact on her husband: “My disposition, as well as my habits have changed, and new cares, with new pleasures, have included all that was useless and I am proud to say some things which were esteemed vicious.” In 1850 they had been married for ten years. By then, Houston was on his way to becoming a teetotalling Baptist (albeit of varying success) and the father of eight children. Margaret never once traveled to Washington during his Senate career. Instead she stayed in Texas, running the Houston household.
In his letter to Hamilton, Houston goes on to describe the “gayeties” of the Washington social scene during the administration of President Millard Fillmore. Houston attended Fillmore’s frequent “levees” — presidential receptions that were bustling productions of political pageantry and intrigue. Houston found them “extremely crowded . . . [more] than since the days of General Jackson,” but found them “agreeable” because of the “becoming” demeanor of Fillmore “and his family.” Houston finishes the letter with tongue-in-cheek references to capitol fashions: “I see (as the saying is in Texas), ‘the Ladies dress to Kill.’ It does seem to me that they dress badly to live! Mrs. Houston don’t wear corsets!!!”
The second letter, from December 24, 1857, is written from the national capital to Mary Allen of Kinderhook, New York, the widow of John M. Allen, a veteran of the Texas Revolution and the first mayor of Galveston. Houston offered to use his influence in regard to the stationing of Mary Allen’s brother, a naval officer who had been assigned for a dangerous mission along the coast of Africa. Houston promised to “prevail upon” the Secretary of the Navy to revoke the orders and instead have him sent “to some station within the U.S. as you request.” Houston also offers to assist Allen with the sale of her Texas lands. “I am inclined to think that it is worth more than the price you have been offered for it,” writes Houston (who personally had little luck with land speculation.) “It will always give me great pleasure to gratify or aid the widow and orphans of my departed friend Major Allen.”
Houston served in the Senate from February 21, 1846, until March 4, 1859. He emerged as an ardent Unionist in the mold of his mentor and benefactor President Andrew Jackson. He was a supporter of the 1820 Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, both of which limited the expansion of slavery in the Western United States. He opposed the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854, effectively ending his Senate career and drawing a public repudiation from the Texas legislature. Despite this, Houston saw out his term and ran successfully for governor in 1859. In 1860, Texas seceded from the Union, and Houston was effectively impeached for refusing to swear an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy. He died in 1863, a political exile.