Houston, the Emancipator

Sam HoustonEight years before Abraham Lincoln used the phrase "a house divided against itself cannot stand" Sam Houston said: "A Nation divided against itself cannot stand." Lincoln freed the slaves and became known as the Great Emancipator. But Sam Houston was also an emancipator.

Houston owned 12 slaves. Texas legend says that he freed them before he was legally required to do so. This position is backed by the recollection of one of the slaves who said that Sam read the Emancipation Proclamation to them from the steps of the house in which the Houstons lived at the time and told them they were free.

Written records seem to contradict the legend, with an inventory of Houston's property after his death listing 12 slaves valued at $10,530.20.

Perhaps Houston's best claim as an "emancipator," however, was the evidence that he educated his slaves along with his own children, even though it was against the law to do so, and what one of them was able to accomplish after Houston's death.

Houston's relationship with one of his slaves, a man named Joshua, is the subject of the book: "From Slave to Statesman," by Jane Monday of Huntsville and Pat Prather of Houston.

Houston biographer Marquis James described Joshua as "the gigantic Joshua," and his carriage driver. Monday said he was much more--"wheelright, carpenter, blacksmith, architect, gardener, and trusted servant."

"The relationship of Houston and Joshua defies the stereotypical images of black/white relationships of the time," said Monday. "He was taught to read and write, allowed to keep his family close by, and allowed to keep the money he earned."

When he was freed, Joshua took the last name of Houston.

During Reconstruction Joshua bought land, served as a city councilman and county commissioner, was trustee of three churches, and founded a college.

"It was a violent and chaotic time," said Monday, "and Joshua Houston was a tireless worker for the cause of peace between the two races."

It was a legacy for which Sam Houston, who had worked to preserve the Union, must have been at least partly responsible. Ironically, while he could not be stopped physically by arrows and musket balls, his political career was stopped by the slavery issue.

Houston ruined his chances to be elected president of the United States with his principled vote against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which permitted the westward spread of slavery and which Southerners favored. Even with that political liability, he was elected governor of Texas, but was forced from office for refusal to take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy.

Sam Houston, Jr. fought for the Confederacy, however, and Houston said after he had lost his attempt to keep Texas in the Union that he supported the land "for whose defense my blood has been spilt."

On the question of whether any race was innately superior to another, Houston was probably a century ahead in his thinking, and almost all acts other than his ownership of slaves support the idea that he disagreed with slavery as an institution.

While in office as president of the Republic of Texas and later as governor he refused to permit payments to bounty hunters of escaped slaves. He also prohibited slave ships from trafficking in Texas.

Former Sam Houston State University history professor Gregg Cantrell has written that "it is highly likely Houston believed that under different historical circumstances (for instance, in a world without white prejudice, or in a country where blacks had not been enslaved for 200 years) blacks' innate abilities could have placed them on an equal basis with whites and Indians."

Cantrell believes that an indication of how Houston felt may have come from abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner. In 1852 Sumner told an associate, "He (Houston) really is against slavery..."

The best evidence of how Houston treated his own slaves may have come in the form of an act credited to Joshua Houston, and indicating Joshua's regard for the Houston family. After Joshua had been freed and Houston had died, and Margaret and the eight children had moved to Independence, Joshua paid them a visit.

"The Confederacy was crumbling and within a year they were pressed for cash," wrote James. "One day the slave Joshua, who had been left at Huntsville, appeared, riding a mule, and laid a heavy leather pouch at his mistress's feet.

"It contained two thousand dollars in United States gold and silver--a fortune in the Confederacy in 1864--representing Joshua's lifetime savings at extra work as a blacksmith. General Houston had always allowed his servants to keep their outside earnings.

"Joshua told his mistress the money was hers. Margaret insisted, however, that he keep it and spend it on 'Christian educations' for his children."

Text by: Frank Krystyniak