Sam Houston's Spectacular Farewell

175 years ago, the Hero of San Jacinto ruined incoming president Mirabeau Lamar's biggest day.

By John Lomax December 10, 2013

Sam Houston circa 1838.

The race to succeed Sam Houston as president of the new Republic of Texas was one of the most spectacular in the history of democracy, at least measured by body count. Eager to prevent his loathed nemesis Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar from acceding to his office, term-limited Houston chose not one but two hand-picked potential successors in Peter Grayson and James Collinsworth. 

Since there were then no political parties in Texas, the election revolved around what voters thought about Sam Houston. Were they for his policies—annexation to the United States, allowing the Cherokee to remain in East Texas, and keeping the capital in Houston—or in favor of a Texas Republic extending to the Pacific, expulsion (or extermination) of the Cherokee, and moving the capital west, as Lamar favored?

It's a bit hard to say because neither Collinsworth nor Grayson lived to see Election Day.

Said to be at his wits' end over a romantic heartbreak and the calumny of Lamar's vicious campaign, Grayson ate a pistol in a Tennessee tavern while ostensibly en route back to Texas and the stump. That was on July 8, 1838.

James Collinsworth: Epic bender lead to early grave.

Meanwhile, on that very day down in Galveston, Collinsworth was 96 hours (and likely a dozen or so bottles of rotgut) deep into a Fourth of July bender that culminated in him falling off a ship and drowning in Galveston Bay on July 11.

Some said he was just drunk. Others called it suicide. Modern-day conspiracy theorists have their own take: Lamar did away with both of his opponents. (Intriguing but highly unlikely: Grayson left a suicide note apologizing to the tavern-keeper for the mess he was about to make, and half of Galveston saw Collinsworth's seaside Hunter S. Thompson routine.)

In any event, Lamar then faced only token opposition. Houston went into one of his trademark alcoholic sulks, one that only intensified when Lamar triumphed in a landslide.

Houston knew then that his namesake town would not remain the capital for long. The Cherokees with whom he had lived off and on for years and some of whom he regarded as family would be expelled at gunpoint amid bloodshed. Texas would not be joining his beloved Union anytime soon.

What to do?

Well, if you can't beat 'em, spite 'em. Houston would see to it that the first day of Lamar's presidency would be among the worst of his life.

Houston rolled out of his last night in the presidential bed, donned a sort of George Washington costume complete with powdered wig, and headed down to Lamar's coronation near the site of today's Rice Lofts, an event to which he was uninvited. Insisting on his right to give a farewell address, Houston strode past the eager Lamar and started talking about how he, Sam Houston, had been right about everything he'd done the last two years and beyond and how Lamar was about to mess everything up. Houston kept on talking and talking and talking in the vein for three hours, all while Lamar first fidgeted, then fumed, and finally boiled over, or melted down, or something.

Saligny: "Zut alors, Monsieur President!"

Here's an eyewitness account courtesy of the Texas Senate chaplain, the Rev. Samuel Y. Allen: “By the time he was done, Lamar had become so nervous that he could not read his inaugural, and had to commit it to his private secretary, Algernon Thompson, to be read to an exhausted audience.” 

So went the first and last presidential inaugural ever to take place in Houston. Lamar moved the capital to Austin, as predicted, and it was there, ironically, that Houston would be inaugurated as president two years later. If ever there was a man determined to get the last word in an argument, it was Sam Houston.

Houston's attire in 1840 was even more splendid that it had been at Lamar's inaugural: he rocked a gold-embroidered green suit and cape, all in velvet and exported from Paris, and topped the whole thing off with a plumed hat that can only be described as pimpin' before pimpin' was cool.

Austin's most prominent resident Frenchman of the time, chargé d’affaires Alphonse de Saligny, was appalled. “It is in this strange outfit that the future Head of the Republic of Texas intends to take his seat in the Presidential armchair," he wrote.

At least Houston didn't bust his leopard-skin vest out of his closet. 

Someone once asked Houston why he occasionally sported this beaut of a leopard-skin vest. "Because a leopard never changes his spots," he replied. Love him or hate him, it's hard to dispute the truth of that self-assessment. 

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