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Author Pens Biography of Sam Houston
The Huntsville Item
In the preface of his new biography on Sam Houston, author James L. Haley bows in deference to the people of Huntsville's knowledge about their most famous resident.
"Anyone who writes about Sam Houston had damned well better know it all, or when the locals get hold of him, he will find himself trapped in a scene from 'Night of the Living Dead,'" Haley said.
After 16 years of research, more than 250,000 words and 400 pages, Haley may not know it all about Houston, but he comes pretty close. His book, simply titled "Sam Houston," published by the University of Oklahoma Press, contains a lot of information overlooked by previous biographies and tells a story of a complex individual.
"Every now and then, someone puts it all together. Sam Houston was one of those people. He was such a driven, complicated, magnetic creature that it's no mystery why he was the leading political figure between Jackson and Lincoln," Haley said. "Of course, it came at a terrible cost, with bouts of alcoholism and depression. To me, that is the central story of Sam Houston: how did he do all that he did in spite of that?"
Haley did a great deal of his research in the Andrew Jackson Houston collection at the University of Texas' Center of American History. This is what many Houston biographers do, but Haley stumbled onto another treasure trove of information.
"Someone told me that some of Sam's papers were at the Catholic Archives of Texas, but I put it at the back of my mind. What would they be doing there, anyway?" he asked. "Finally, I went over there, and they said they did have some of his papers. I expected they'd have a manila file folder, and they came out with 13 boxes. They went back to 1818, when Sam was a 25-year-old Indian agent. I just about had a stroke.
"These are one of the moments historians live for," Haley said. "You are going through Sam Houston's mail."
Haley's research helped him discover a man that was much more than the cowardly, drunken philanderer portrayed by many recent Houston biographies. Instead, Haley takes historical revisionists to task in his book and in conversation.
"We're in the new history of revisionism and political correctness. These people are being very accusatory," Haley said. "I'm not sure that one book can stop a train, but enough's enough."
Haley blamed unflattering portrayals of Houston to "a herd mentality."
"A lot people want to be accusatory because criticizing is popular now," Haley said. "They're looking to write an indictment. It's just like with the law: when you write an indictment, you write the most slanted, persuasive story you can. It doesn't have to be totally accurate.
"(Houston) doesn't fit any of the molds set for him. He doesn't fit the marble hero mold of the 1920s, or the 'everyone died of syphilis' group of the 1970s," he said.
Haley feels if Houston had not had such a great distaste for the political process, American history could have come out much different.
"I wish he had just gotten over his aversion to the presidency and had just gone for it," he said. "The most astute observers said if he had gone for the nomination in 1860, he would have walloped Lincoln."
Haley said the man regarded as the greatest U.S. President and Sam Houston shared many views, including their stance on slavery.
"There wasn't five cents worth of difference between what Houston was saying and what Lincoln was saying," Haley said. "Houston said repeatedly that slavery has to end in the South, and but has to be done within the context of the Union in a way that would not destroy the South economically."
Haley suspects Houston may actually have had some influence on Lincoln.
"In 1848, Houston gave his 'Nation Divided' speech in the Senate, and it sounded a lot like what Abe Lincoln said in his famous 'House Divided' speech much (10 years) later," Haley said. "One hesitates to accuse Abe of plagiarism, but a lot of things Houston believed gave Abe his ticket to the White House."
In the end, though, Houston and his family needed Huntsville more than they needed Washington.
"Margaret (Houston's wife) was lonely and isolated out at Raven Hill (14 miles outside of Huntsville), so Houston either bought or traded for the land the Woodland house is on," Haley said. "This house was always Margaret's domain. She maintained that estate as a refuge for him.
"Houston could have become President, but he needed Huntsville for his psyche."
Haley will be giving a brief speech at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum on Saturday afternoon. The remarks and a book signing will follow the dedication of a new exhibit, "The Tallest Texan: Sam Houston and the Republic of Texas." The dedication will begin at 2 p.m.
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