Man, Myth, Legend
Sam Houston: A Study in Leadership
by Bill O'Neal
Fort Worth: Eakin Press, 2016.
258 pp. $19.95 paper.
Randolph B. Campbell
Historians often marvel at the array of outstanding men who led the American colonies to independence and the creation of a new nation in 1775-1789. There is little doubt that the United States enjoyed great good fortune in its leadership at a critical time. During its revolution and the years of the Republic and early statehood, Texas also had many solid and creative leaders, but none reached the level of Sam Houston. As James L. Haley wrote in his full-scale biography, “One figure only stands like a colossus astride the middle decades of the 1800s: Sam Houston.” Bill O’Neal’s new study of Houston’s leadership reinforces that judgment.
Bill O’Neal, of course, needs no introduction to readers of Texas History. The author of more than forty books and hundreds of articles and book reviews, Bill (a good East Texan will surely forgive the use of his first name here) became the State Historian of Texas in 2012 and is now serving his second term in that position. This study of Houston as a leader grew from a talk that he gave at the Bob Bullock Texas State Museum shortly after being named the state’s historian.
The book focuses on Houston’s life prior to the statehood period, devoting twelve of its fifteen chapters to the years until 1846. Before coming to Texas, he proved his courage and nearly lost his life in battle during the Creek War, became a protégé of Andrew Jackson and began a promising political career that took him to the governorship of Tennessee, suffered humiliation and gave up his office when his marriage to Eliza Allen broke up, and lived for three years with the Cherokees in present-day Oklahoma. When he came to Texas in 1832, most observers recognized his capability for leadership, but few would have guessed just how vital a role he would play.
Houston had shown physical courage before he came to Texas, but as commander-in-chief during the war for independence from Mexico and as President of the new republic from 1836 to 1838 and again from 1841 to 1844, he demonstrated great moral courage. Facing overwhelming odds militarily and unrelenting criticism from other Texas leaders such as interim governor David G. Burnet, Houston remained cautious, retreated strategically, and held his army together until it won the spectacular victory at San Jacinto. O’Neal provides a compelling description of the circumstances that would have overmatched a lesser leader.
As President of the Republic of Texas, Houston dealt with the pressures of a nearly empty treasury, threats of invasion from Mexico, conflict with Native Americans that were largely forced by more belligerent Texans, and an internal “war” between Moderators and Regulators in East Texas. Through it all, he argued that the new nation should hoard its own strength and, in effect, prepare for joining the United States. His cautious leadership was rewarded in 1845 with annexation and the security of statehood.
O’Neal’s study gives limited attention to Houston’s leadership during the years after Texas joined the Union, having one chapter on “Senator Houston” and one on “Governor Houston.” During his tenure in both offices, Houston sought to reduce tension between the South and the North over slavery for both patriotic and practical reasons—he loved the Union, and he believed that the South would lose a war with the United States. Once more he demonstrated moral courage by being the only Democratic U.S. Senator from the South to vote against the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. That vote cost him his seat in the senate. O’Neal hints that had Houston pursued the presidency in 1856, his leadership might have helped avoid the tragedy of secession and Civil War. We can only guess, but it is fascinating to think about Houston in his prime working as a southern slaveholding Unionist to find a way to hold together the Union that he revered so greatly.
The concluding chapter offers a useful survey of the place Sam Houston holds in public memory, not only in Texas but across the United States. Perhaps nothing quite matches the sixty-seven-foot statue on I-45 at Huntsville, but being the namesake of four warships in the United States Navy since World War I, a major military base, a state university, and dozens of schools is an impressive legacy. Finally, the selected bibliography at the end provides an informative list of books for those who want even more of the story of Texas’s greatest leader during the era of revolution, republic, and early statehood.
Randolph B. Campbell is Regents Professor of History at the University of North Texas and Chief Historian of the Texas State Historical Association. Among his books is Sam Houston and the American Southwest, first published in 1993.