Sam Houston's improbable victory at San Jacinto 175 years ago, on April 21, 1836, opened the way for emigrants from the South to pour into the new Republic of Texas. Although not yet a state of the Union, Texas was another vast territory beckoning settlers who were eager for land, a natural extension of the Louisiana Purchase of 1804.
Like his mentor Andrew Jackson, Houston knew that the influx of U.S. citizens into Texas would lead to statehood. Both hoped the annexation of Texas would work to strengthen the Union rather than weaken it.
One great irony for Sam Houston was that the 1845 annexation of his beloved Texas, made possible by the earlier victory at San Jacinto, re-ignited the sectional argument over slavery that had been dormant since the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Annexation led to war with Mexico only four months later. That brought more territory into the Union, much of it south of the Missouri Compromise line and therefore open to slavery.
A young congressman named David Wilmot, D-Pa., proposed in 1846 that any new territory acquired as a result of the Mexican War not be open to slavery.
Houston, in the U.S. Senate after annexation, found himself arguing against the Wilmot Proviso, ironically in the same camp with his great enemy John C. Calhoun, D-S.C., the famous nullifier who had already opposed the nationalism of Jackson.
Debate over the Wilmot Proviso ran into 1848 when the Mexican War ended. Houston opposed it for a variety of reasons, but Calhoun used the issue to rally Southern Democrats to the cause of slavery, which he had already called a “positive good.”
Did the old Unionist Sam Houston believe that the flames of sectional enmity, having been fed by Calhoun and other radicals on both sides, could still be reduced by wise and skillful moderates? Never intimidated by Calhoun's brilliance, Houston as a senator was capable of besting the Senate giant in debate.
If so, he must have been heartened by passage of the Compromise of 1850, which gave the Union a reprieve. Houston argued against Calhoun — and against Southern interests — when he supported the compromise in a famous speech. In words that Abraham Lincoln would use a decade later, Houston told the Senate that “a nation divided against itself cannot stand.”
Houston won the Battle of San Jacinto, dreaming Texas would soon be a crown jewel of the Union he loved. The ultimate irony was that, when he died, this champion of both Texas glory and national greatness had been cast aside by most Texans as they disdained further compromise and rushed headlong to the doomed Southern cause.
Houston didn't live to see the full fruits of his victories on and off the field of battle or to enjoy the vindication of being right about the Union. But he did leave much for us to honor in his name.
John Willingham is author of “The Edge of Freedom,” a novel about the Texas Revolution. He divides his time between Portland, Ore., and Austin.