Houston & Austin: The Men

Stephen F. AustinFriends or Rivals?

Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin. Two great names in Texas history. But did they work together or were they bitter political enemies?

Houston once wrote that Austin "showed the disposition of a viper without its fangs." Later he defeated Austin for the first presidency of the Republic of Texas.

But Gregg Cantrell, former professor of history at Sam Houston State University, believes that over the years the relationship between Houston and Austin has been misunderstood, and that it was really better than many have believed.

Sam HoustonThe idea that the two native Virginians were rivals or even enemies probably grew out of an 1833 convention that Austin opposed and Houston supported, said Cantrell. Houston voted for an old friend instead of Austin as chairman.

Houston wrote later, however, that "Col Austin and myself harmonized on most subjects." Houston supported Austin as a delegate to carry the complaints of the colonists and the new proposed constitution to Mexico City.

"Houston and Austin had developed the beginnings of a good working relationship," said Cantrell, "and apart from an honest disagreement about how best to secure separate statehood for Texas, they were supportive of one another and personally friendly." Before they left the San Felipe convention site, Houston requested a meeting with Austin and assured him of his support.

In Mexico City Austin became frustrated at Mexican inaction and wrote a letter urging the formation of a state government in Texas. He was arrested and imprisoned for a year.

He became suspicious that political enemies in Texas were working to keep him in prison, and wrote letters which said as much and became known to Houston. The result was the Houston letter with its "viper without fangs" comment.

"It appears from this exchange that Austin had come to believe that the ambitious Houston was plotting against him, and that Houston resented Austin for thinking such a thing," said Cantrell. "But again, appearances can be deceiving."

He cites Austin's frame of mind because of the imprisonment, the fact that he did not name Houston, that the "viper" comment was in a private letter, and that Houston promised to withhold public comment until he could verify the facts.

By the time Austin returned to Texas in 1835, "all agreed that the time had come for united resistance to Mexican aggression," said Cantrell.

In the fall of 1835 the Mexican general Cos was beseiged in San Antonio by Texan volunteers commanded by Austin. Houston and Austin agreed that a frontal assault was unwise, that a convention should be held to form a government and create a real army, and that a declaration of independence was premature.

At the meeting Houston supported Austin for provisional governor, but lost. Houston was elected commander-in-chief of the regular army, which was logical because of his military background. Austin, with the support of Houston, was chosen to go to the United States to seek aid for the Texan cause.

After the Texan victory at San Jacinto in April, 1836, Houston and Austin again agreed. Captured Mexican president Santa Anna should not be hanged.

In the election for first president of the new republic, Houston entered the race with just two weeks left in the campaign, defeating Austin and Henry Smith. He painted himself as a compromise between factions.

"Houston was not closely identified with either faction in Texas," said Cantrell. "And when he won the election in a landslide over Austin, he made good on his promise to form an administration of national unity."

The most critical office in the new government was secretary of state, because that person would seek diplomatic recognition of Texas and annexation. Houston's first act as president was to appoint Austin to that post.

Austin died in December of 1836. Throughout the remainder of Houston's life, which lasted until 1863, he praised Austin, calling him in a Philadelphia speech in 1851 "the real father of Texas."

The 200th birthday of both men was celebrated in 1993--Houston's in March, Austin's in November.

"For Texas, Sam Houston took a musket ball in the ankle at San Jacinto," Cantrell said. "For Texas, Stephen F. Austin spent a year in prison and sacrificed his health and eventually his life."

The Houston and Austin 200th birthday celebrations honored them but also all Texas pioneers, said Cantrell.

"Texas was made not by one man alone," he said, "nor by two, but by men and women working, struggling, and sacrificing together for the common good."

Text by: Frank Krystyniak