April 1829: The Fall of The Raven

Mention 'Sam Houston' in 21st century America and the image conjured by the name is of a giant of the War for Texas Independence, and in the governance of that same republic once independence was won; a man as big as the towering statue of him which overlooks I45 in Huntsville, Texas.

It is worth remembering that he was all of those things, while still being as human--and flawed--as us all. And his darkest moment of failure culminated almost two centuries ago this month.

Houston was an Andrew Jackson man. He fought under Jackson at the Horseshoe Bend of the Tallapoosa River against the Red Stick indians, where he was nearly killed but his relentless courage was noted by Old Hickory; both were promoted from Tennessee militia to regular army as result--Houston to Washington to recuperate from his horrific injuries, where he watched in fury as the British burned the upstart nation's capital in the War of 1812, Jackson eventually to New Orleans, where his makeshift coalition of bayou Cajuns, southern gentlemen, blacks slave and free and Jean LaFitte's pirates shattered those same British, further idolizing him in Houston's eyes--and when the two turned after to politics, they did so as virtual father-and-son, Jackson eventually to the presidency in no small measure due to Houston's relentless support in Congress, and Houston ultimately to follow Jackson to the governance of Tennessee, and commandery of her militia (whence he would take his title, like Jackson before him, of General). As the tidal wave of liberalized 'western' democracy reshaped the face of the establishment 'eastern' American republic in the late 1820s, there were no small few who believed the tall Virginian who had lived among the Cherokee in his youth and earned the name 'colonneh,' or Raven, would continue to follow his mentor on to the presidency.

His resume lacked only the social touch. The Raven needed a wife.

He took one in Eliza Allen, blonde and blue-eyed daughter of a Gallatin, Tennessee colonel. She seemed the perfect fit, embraced by the gentry of Nashville, and Houston, by all accounts, fell deeply for her.

And never recovered--for within three months, it was over, and Sam Houston's rise with it.

It is still not absolutely clear what happened. Considerable aspersions of character were suggested of Eliza, which so provoked Houston that he swore in print to kill any man who questioned her purity. She slipped after into obscurity, and Houston refused publicly ever to speak of it, the rest of his life; most likely, it was the simple, calamitous combination of a man in love with a woman who loved another, which neither could reconcile.

By April of 1829, the marriage was over (Houston not being of either honor or temperament to demand Eliza remain in a loveless union of politics or convenience), Houston had resigned the governorship of Tennessee due to 'overwhelming...sudden calamities'...and The Raven, once destined for greatness in the East, had disappeared, miserable, beaten and failed, into the west.

Fortunately--for Sam Houston and for the many liberty-minded settlers of the next decade--to the west lay Texas. Without the 'calamity' which took him down so completely in disgrace by April of 1829, there likely would not have been a man of his stature west of the Sabine in 1836, a man capable of making the difficult, wrenching decisions which kept the newborn republic alive in the face of overwhelming adversity, of weathering the bitter scorn of the humiliating 'Runaway Scrape' without breaking; he had broken once, and been so tempered by it he would not falter again. By the April of seven years later, the old Sam Houston was reborn...and when the time came to turn and break Santa Anna and Mexico instead, at San Jacinto, in the name of liberty, freedom, the selfsame rights so essential to the democracy of the west that had changed the American nation a decade earlier and borne him to triumph after triumph, this time, Sam Houston was ready.

The Raven had risen, phoenixlike, and borne a nation up with him. A weight he likely would not have been equal to without the tempering of disgrace, in April of 1829.