Texas Icon

by Baylor Line Foundation | September 20, 2019

This article was published in the Summer 2011 issue of The Baylor Line and written by J.B. Smith.

 

One hundred and seventy-five years ago, Texas declared its independence from Mexico. Leading the charge was Sam Houston – a complex, ambitious man who would go on to form strong bonds with Baylor University.

 

On the eve of the Civil War, Texas Gov. Sam Houston sat under a live oak tree with Baylor University president Rufus Burleson and contemplated his political suicide.

On that evening in late 1860, the aging, crippled hero of San Jacinto still had fight in him. He had been stumping the state, trying to keep Texas from seceding. Now he was taking a breather at his family home near Baylor in Independence, Texas.

Outside Independence Baptist Church, he confided his hopes to Burleson, the intense young Baptist preacher who had built Baylor into a leading Texas school and who had baptized Houston six years earlier.

Abraham Lincoln’s election as president in November had brought the call for a statewide secession convention, over Houston’s objections. But Houston thought he could still prevail on the opinion-makers of Texas to stay loyal to the Union he had fought so hard to join.

“I am making my last effort to save Texas from the yawning gulf of ruin,” he told Burleson that night.

At thirty-seven, Burleson revered Houston as a father figure—and as a man whose underdog army had routed Santa Anna and won Texas independence. But he doubted whether Houston’s bravado was enough to turn the secessionist tide. That tide would, in fact, wash Houston away.

Burleson nevertheless pledged to support Houston.

“I assured him I would with all my heart, but expressed great fears that all was lost,” Burleson would recall in a speech to the Texas Legislature three decades later. “It was after midnight. He said, ‘Our only hope is in God. Let us kneel down and pray to the God of Liberty.'”

For half an hour, the most important figure in Texas history knelt with Baylor’s leader and prayed for Texas.

Bound together

That Gethsemane scene captures both the intimate relationship between the two men and the entwined roots of Texas and her longest-chartered university.

It’s a story that’s worth knowing and remembering in 2011, as Texans commemorate dual anniversaries: The 175th anniversary of the Texas Revolution and the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

From the very foundations of the state, Baylor has been one of its key institutions, said Dr. Michael Parrish, a Baylor professor who teaches Civil War and Texas history.

“In the 1850s and 1860s, Baylor was considered the major university of Texas,” he said. “Baylor has always been a lot like a state school. It’s provided so many lawyers, professional people, and people successful in business. The legacy lives on and is evident today.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Sam Houston was an early supporter of Baylor at Independence as he sought to develop Texas as part of the civilized world.

He contributed money and an extensive library to the fledging university and seven of his eight children studied at Baylor or its preparatory school.

Houston and his family moved to Independence in 1853 because of those educational opportunities and because his wife’s family lived there, according to Lois Smith Murray’s book Baylor at Independence. They would live there off and on during the 185os and 1860s.

“Houston deeply regretted not having a formal education himself,” said Mac Woodward, curator of the Sam Houston Memorial Museum in Huntsville. “He advised his wife and children to get that education.”

Houston Hall, a building on Baylor’s Independence cam-pus, was named for Houston, and he gave the commencement address to the male department’s graduates in 186o.

Beyond those connections, Houston’s relationships with Baylor’s earliest leaders guided his spiritual journey and helped the old warrior reinvent himself as a sober statesman.

Houston was a close friend of Baylor’s namesake, Judge R. E. B. Baylor, who swore him in as president of the Republic of Texas in 1841 and liked to debate theology with him.

And to Burleson, Houston was both a role model and a disciple—as well as a friend who wasn’t afraid to argue with him.

“I think they genuinely liked each other,” Parrish said. “They were devoted to each other and trusted one another.”

At the urging of his devout second wife, Margaret Lea Houston, Houston attended Independence Baptist Church, where Burleson was pastor. In 1854, Burleson baptized Houston, who was then at the peak of a thirteen-year career in the U.S. Senate.

After the baptism in Rocky Creek, according to some accounts, a well-wisher exclaimed that now all of Houston’s sins had been washed downstream. “If so, God help the fishes below!” the old general is said to have quipped.

The stuff of legend

Sam Houston’s conversion to the Baptist faith must have baffled those who knew his checkered past, including his mysterious abandonment of his first wife and his appetite for whiskey.

Houston’s picaresque life is the stuff of Texas legend. Born in 1793 in Virginia and raised in Tennessee, Houston ran off as a teenager to live with the Cherokee Indians, who nicknamed him “The Raven.”

With less than two years of formal schooling, he was an autodidact who could recite long passages from the Iliad to his Indian friends.

He volunteered in the War of 1812 and was gravely wounded at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in Alabama, suffering arrow and bullet wounds that would cause him lifelong agony.

Gen. Andrew Jackson recognized his courage, promoted him, and made him his protege.

In short order, Houston entered law practice after a mere six months of study and embarked on a spectacular career in Tennessee politics, successively becoming attorney general, congressman, and, in 1827, governor. He seemed destined to follow Jackson’s footsteps to the Oval Office.

But in 1829, he threw it all away.

Shortly after marrying eighteen-year-old Eliza Allen and announcing his candidacy for a second term as governor, Houston boarded a steamboat and left Tennessee politics and his marriage behind. He joined the Cherokee Nation on the Arkansas River, took a Cherokee “wife,” became a diplomat for the tribe, and acquired the nickname “Big Drunk.” He ultimately divorced Allen but would never speak of the reasons.

In late 1832, the restless Houston entered Texas to seek his fortunes among the colonists, and he quickly became embroiled in their rebellion against Mexico, becoming general of the Texian revolutionary army.

On March 2, 1836—coincidentally, Houston’s forty-third birthday—he joined the Texas Constitutional Convention in Washington-on-the-Brazos as it declared Texas independence. Days later, he guided his army to Gonzales, where he learned of the fall of the Alamo.

He led his army in a long retreat, zigzagging eastward, with Mexican dictator Santa Anna’s army in pursuit. On April 21, in the lowlands around the San Jacinto River, his army of eight hundred led a surprise attack on Santa Anna’s force of fourteen hundred, resulting in one of the greatest routs of North American history. Santa Anna lost 680 troops; Houston lost six.

Houston’s left leg was badly wounded in the battle when his horse was shot out from under him, but he remained in command as Santa Anna was captured. He treated Santa Anna graciously but forced him to cede a staggering amount of Mexican territory to the new Texas republic, changing the course of American history.

Houston’s reinvention

As two-term president of the Republic of Texas, Houston struggled for years to persuade the United States to annex Texas, finally succeeding in 1845—the year of Baylor’s charter.

By then, Houston was beginning to put his wild past behind him. In 1840, he married Margaret Lea of Alabama. A devoted wife with a tendency to depression, she went to work on him immediately, cajoling him into sobriety and questioning the state of his immortal soul.

“Oh, my husband, all the transgressions of youth, the iniquity of riper years are before the blazing eye of God, and nothing but the blood of Jesus can wash them away,” she wrote him in a typical letter in 1844. “How long will you vainly dream that the Lord will convert you without requiring any effort on your part?”

During his tenure in the Senate, from 1846 to 1859, he began attending E Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and reading a Bible chapter a day for Margaret’s sake.

“Their letters back and forth are so tender,” said Denton Florian, executive producer of the new public television documentary Sam Houston: American Statesman, Soldier and Pioneer (samhoustonmovie.com). “He’s desperately wanting to be home. He’s out buying dresses for Margaret and writing her about sermons, what he does and doesn’t like. She’s desperately afraid that the lure of power will interfere with her faith.”

Florian said her influence helped Houston reinvent himself. “Houston was a greatly flawed individual,” he said. “That’s what makes him human and real—his battles with alcohol, his failed marriage. But his religious convictions and his wife, Margaret, really helped put the pieces in place.”

Woodward, the Sam Houston museum curator, agreed that Margaret was a sobering and stabilizing influence when Houston most needed it. “There’s no doubt but that she changed him,” he said. “I don’t think he could have been the statesman he became without her.”

Through this period, Houston made his mark for his efforts to steer the country away from the brink of Civil War. A slaveholder himself, he angered many Southerners by opposing the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which allowed the expansion of slavery into new states.

Into Houston’s political and spiritual storm stepped Rufus C. Burleson.

Burleson burned with as much ambition and zeal for Texas as Houston, thirty years his elder. The day he arrived in Texas in 1848 to become pastor of First Baptist Church in Houston, he proclaimed: “Give me Texas for Jesus, or I die.”

Three years later, he was installed as president of Baylor and set about the ten-year project of turning the fledgling institution into a real university. During that time, he separated the men’s and women’s departments, enlarged the curriculum, expanded the physical campus fivefold, and increased enrollment from 52 to 480 students.

Burleson raised money, promoted the university statewide, and coined the Baylor motto, “Pro Texana, Pro Ecclesia.”

Over the next few years, as Houston periodically visited his family in Independence, he and Burleson became confidants. Sometimes Houston would discomfit the preacher with his unorthodox views, such as his beliefs in omens from hawks and eagles.

Once, after a late-night argument on religion, Burleson continued his side of the debate in the next morning’s sermon, and Houston rose in rebuttal.

In a lengthy biographical speech he gave to the Texas Legislature in 1893, Burleson recalled one meeting in the church’s oak grove after Houston’s Nebraska Act in 1854.

With eerie detail, Burleson said, Houston had prophesied how the new law would lead to the election of an Abolitionist president and then to secession: “Each section, in profound blindness and ignorance of the other, will rush madly into war, each anticipating an easy victory. . . . I see my beloved South go down in the unequal contest in a sea of blood and smoking ruin.”

When Houston returned to Independence in October 1854, Margaret was busy nursing her sixth child, Andrew Jackson Houston. But she ramped up her campaign to win her husband to Christ. The two struggled for weeks over the matter, writes James Haley in the biography Sam Houston. “Surrender was a foreign thing to him,” Haley notes.

Margaret recruited the Rev. George Washington Baines—a Texas Baptist editor and later Baylor president—in her battle. Houston accompanied Baines on a trip to Brenham, and the two men discussed Houston’s main spiritual difficulty: Communion.

As a ten-year-old boy at a Cumberland Presbyterian service, Houston had heard a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon on First Corinthians that convinced him he’d be damned if he took Communion with insufficient reverence.

“That sermon scarred him and scared him and stayed with him,” said Florian, the documentary producer.

Baines told Houston the old preacher had made a “fearful mistake,” and that St. Paul had not meant to condemn believers who struggled with sincere questions about the faith.

Houston promised he would reread the passage and pray about it. Soon afterward, he announced to Eliza that he would accept baptism.

Woodward, the Houston museum curator, said Houston had always believed in a creator, but he took his time before committing to Margaret’s version of evangelical Christianity. “He wouldn’t have committed to it unless he really believed it and determined it was right for him,” he said. “His belief system was pretty well thought out and unshakeable.”

A great crowd gathered in Independence on November 19, 1854, for the baptismal ceremony near a waterfall on Rocky Creek. Independence Baptist Church still uses the site for baptisms today in memory of the occasion, said Dr. Thomas Charlton, former director of The Texas Collection at Baylor.

As Houston emerged from the water, his teeth chattered and Margaret shouted for joy. Said Houston to Burleson: “Well, pastor, now you’ve baptized my wallet.”

Growing tension

Returning to Washington, Houston found the sectional conflict was increasingly dire. He became a spokesperson in the North for what was seen as the Southern moderate point of view: that slavery could be preserved and contained in the South, and that slaves would in the distant future be emancipated and sent back to Africa.

But back home in Texas, Houston’s stock was plum-meting. The Texas Legislature voted in 1857 to replace Houston in the U.S. Senate upon the end of his term two years later. That same year, the Texas Democratic Convention in Waco denounced Houston as a “traitor” and a “knave,” a rhetorical overreach Houston would later use to his campaign’s advantage.

Houston ran for governor in 1857 but lost to the Democrats’ candidate, Hardin Runnels. By the time Houston finally won the governor’s seat, in late 1859, Texas and the rest of the South were hurtling toward the secession crisis.

In 186o, Houston nearly won the Nation-al Union Party’s nomination for president, but he was more interested in a scheme to put Mexico and Central America under a U.S. protectorate—a far-fetched attempt to summon national unity.

Houston came back to Independence that summer for some much-needed rest. But there was no peace in Independence, despite the progress of Baylor University.

A long-simmering power struggle be-tween Burleson and Horace Clark, principal of Baylor’s female department, was beginning to boil and presaged the university’s own secession crisis.

On June 29, 1860, the day Houston gave the commencement address to the male seniors, Burleson and Clark appeared before the Baylor trustees to submit written grievances against each other.

The conflict escalated when a Burleson supporter attacked Clark in a pamphlet and was subsequently put on trial before the church in July, facing expulsion. The Rev. M. Ross of Independence Baptist Church presided over the trial, and Sam Houston was among the crowd.

An otherwise adoring biography of Burleson written by Harry Haynes in 1901 described the scene as shameful.

“During the progress of this trial, Dr. Burleson and Prof. Clark both became wrought up [and] lost self control,” he writes. “Trouble was expected, and it is recorded with sincere regret that men went to the church armed.”

When the verdict went against Burleson’s supporter, the Baylor president shook his finger in Ross’s face and accused him of rigging the election, adding that “nothing but your gray hairs protect you from the punishment you so justly deserve.”

The meeting was dismissed without a benediction.

Later that night, Burleson came to see Sam Houston, and the governor refused to shake his hand.

“[D]uring all my public life I have never seen such improprieties in the proceedings of any body as you were guilty of this morning … when you shook your finger in Bro. Ross’ face,” Houston told him. “I cannot, I will not take your hand until convinced that you have sincerely repented.”

It was strong medicine from a bare-knuckled politician who had once caned a congressman, but Burleson took the reprimand to heart.

At a church meeting soon afterward with the Rev. Ross and Sam Houston present, Burleson prostrated himself in the aisle and asked God for forgiveness for all whom he had offended. Afterward, Houston approached him and offered his hand.

But for the university and the nation that Houston loved, the die had been cast. Less than a year later, Burleson would resign from Baylor to become the head of Waco University, taking the male faculty with him. Baylor would survive the Civil War, but its reunification would take longer than the nation’s.

A principled stand

After that anguished night of prayer with Houston under the oak tree in late 1860, Burleson decided to help Houston’s cause by staging a debate on the proposition “to remain in the Union and fight for our rights under the Stars and Stripes.”

After passionate debates, “the affirmative was carried overwhelmingly, and the Stars and Stripes were suspended from a liberty pole fifty feet high,” Burleson recalled. But a few days later—probably after the secession convention of January 28, 1861—Burleson received word from Houston: ‘All is lost.”

A few days later, the mayor of Independence cut down the flagpole, “and the Stars and Stripes lay tattered and torn in the dust,” Burleson recalled.

On March 4, as Lincoln was sworn in as U.S. president, Houston announced that the referendum for Texas to secede had passed. The next day, the secession convention declared Texas part of the Confederate States of America. The convention announced that it would require all state officeholders to swear an oath to the Confederacy.

On March 15, the night before the oath ceremony, Houston spent a sleepless night at the Governor’s Mansion. “He had given the oath to preserve the Union and refused to go back on his word,” the filmmaker Florian said. “Margaret was downstairs and heard him pacing, then stopping to kneel and pray. He told her, ‘Margaret, I’ll never do it.'”

The next day, Houston sat silently and whittled when his name was called and called again. The convention quickly removed him from office. Houston left the post without a struggle, but first he penned a proclamation declaring the convention unconstitutional and its doings “null and void.”

“I stand the last almost of a race . . . stricken down because I will not yield those principles I have fought for,” he wrote.

Soon afterward, Lincoln offered him fifty thousand troops to help him keep Texas in the Union. But Houston threw the letter in the fire, telling his trusted advisors he would not fight against his own people. Houston and his family, including newborn Temple Houston, packed up and headed toward Margaret’s mother’s home in Independence for a few days.

On the way, he made a poorly received speech in Brenham, declaring that “the hiss of the mob and the howls of their jackal leaders cannot deter me nor compel me to take the oath of allegiance to the so-called Confederate government.”

But in a speech to Baylor students, he took a more measured tone. “Whether the convention was right or wrong is not now the question,” he said. “Burying in the grave of oblivion all our past differences, let us go forward determined not to yield until our independence is acknowledged, or if not acknowledged, wrung from our enemies by force of valor.”

On May 10, Houston declared for the Confederacy while repeating his warning that “I and you will sink in fire and rivers of blood.” Houston failed to discourage his eldest son, Sam Jr., from enlisting in the CSA Army. The young man would be taken prisoner and nearly die of his injuries in the bloody Battle of Shiloh.

Houston moved his wife and children to Huntsville in 1862. They rented a house and ran short on money. Rumors aside, Houston said he was done with public life, and he was right. On July 26, 1863, he succumbed to pneumonia, never knowing whether his beloved Union would be restored.

His funeral was sparsely attended. A group of Union sailors, whose treatment in a Huntsville prison Houston had decried, built his coffin. He left his family nearly broke, and Margaret would struggle to raise the family until 1867, when she died of yellow fever and was buried in Independence.

In the meantime, Rufus Burleson had gone to serve as a chaplain in the Confederate Army and had urged his students to fight, even if it caused “rivers of blood” to flow.

The blood flowed, and the South suffered a ruinous loss—just as Houston had foretold.

“There never has been or will be another character as powerful as Sam Houston,” said Baylor regent Clifton Robinson ’63. A Waco insurance businessman and chair of Robinson Media Company, which owns the Waco-Tribune Herald, Robinson is a Sam Houston buff. He recently spoke to the Baylor Alumni Association’s Lifelong Learning group about his hero.

Robinson said he has long admired Houston’s integrity and vision and believes Houston’s importance in American history should be more widely recognized. “I can see all the reason in the world why Sam Houston is the greatest Texan—and one of the greatest Americans—who ever lived,” Robinson said.

Perhaps Houston’s connections to Baylor have been largely forgotten, but you can find traces of him if you look. A piano that Houston gave his daughter, Baylor graduate Nancy Houston, is in storage at the Mayborn Museum. In addition, freshmen who participate in the Baylor Line Camp orientation program visit Independence and, among other activities, check out the pew Houston sat in at Independence Baptist Church—as well as the initials he carved into the pew in front of him.

And at Baylor’s commencement ceremonies, Houston still plays a prominent role in Baylor’s life. That’s because being carried at the front of the graduation processional is the University Mace, which among other objects includes Houston’s gold-headed walking cane inscribed with the date of 1836. Another component of the University Mace is a walking cane that belonged to Rufus Burleson—a fitting token of the bond between the two men and their places in Texas history.

After the war, as Texas rebuilt, so did Baylor University and Waco University. In 1886, the two schools merged in Waco under the leadership of Burleson, who would serve as president until 1897. In the last decades before his death in 1901, Burleson also became a premier advocate for public education in Texas and for black schools nationwide.

By the time of his 1893 address to the Texas Legislature, Burleson once again affirmed his old friend Sam Houston’s prophetic wisdom in warning against secession, and he hailed Houston as the greatest of Texas heroes.

And so he is remembered today.

 

J.B. Smith, a sixth-generation Texan, has been a staff writer for the Waco Tribune-Heraldsince 1997. His series on immigrant deaths on the U.S.- Mexico border won the Texas Headliners Star Investigative Report award in 2009.

 

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