Speeches & Floor Statements
Posted on March 19, 2016
Thanks to Joe Emert, Ed Harmon, Dean Stone, and Joe Swann for having such a big, good idea and pursuing it all the way to the end.
And thank you for including me in this celebration.
For as long as I can remember, Sam Houston has been my hero. As a boy, I was fascinated by this man who grew up both with pioneers and Cherokees. I admired his bravery as a soldier. No one else has ever been elected governor of two states. And he resigned both positions as a matter of principle. He was president of one republic, Texas, and nearly president of another, the United States of America.
He was man of commanding presence, as our statue will soon show. “I stood nearly six feet tall and stood as straight as an Indian,” he said describing himself. But others said he was even more imposing. A Nashville judge said, “Houston stood six foot six in his socks, was of fine contour, a remarkable, well-proportioned man, and of commanding and gallant bearing. He enjoyed unbounded popularity among the men and was a great favorite with the ladies.” And, of course, it didn’t hurt my opinion of Sam Houston one bit that he grew up in Maryville.
In 1979, my first year as governor, I named our youngest son William Houston Alexander. My wife, Honey, said, “Lamar is in his Sam Houston phase.” In 2013, our son named his son Houston Lamar Alexander. I had hoped that both could be with me today, but although they live in Tennessee they are off on a hunting trip in Texas, which I suppose is appropriate on a day when we celebrate the life of Sam Houston.
So, instead of bringing with me a son and grandson named after Sam Houston, I have brought something else: Sam Houston’s walking stick. It has a gold cap with the words Lone Star, Houston, and Texas. This afternoon, at the Sam Houston Schoolhouse, I’m going to tell you the story of Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston’s walking stick, which Houston left on June 8, 1845, when he arrived at the Hermitage in Nashville just after Jackson had died. I bought it in 1985 from a Nashville doctor who thought it was appropriate for the only other Tennessee governor who grew up in Maryville to own Sam Houston’s walking stick.
After leaving the Hermitage in Nashville Houston traveled on to Maryville. According to Inez Burns’ History of Blount County, “in August of 1845 the citizens of Blount County entertained Gen. Houston with a barbecue that became one of the biggest events in local history. About 50 men were appointed to the committee on arrangements and all the surrounding counties were invited. The barbecue was held at the intersection of what is now Harper and Aluminum Avenue. Part of the afternoon’s entertainment was a duel fought near the Broadway Viaduct although no blood was spilled.”
This morning I’ve been asked to tell you the story of Sam Houston’s boyhood. That boyhood began in Virginia. It is a familiar story for native East Tennesseans. A Scotch Irish Presbyterian family travels to Pennsylvania and then down the Shenandoah Valley to Timber Ridge in Virginia. Sam was born March 2, 1793, in a white columned house, not a log cabin. He was the fifth child of Sam and Elizabeth Houston. In 1807, his father, a military man, suddenly died, leaving his mother with nine children and a plot of land in Tennessee. So, when Thomas Jefferson was president, the widow Elizabeth Paxson Houston, age 50, loaded six sons and three daughters into two wagons and traveled from Virginia past Knoxville, past Maryville to a 419-acre farm at Baker’s Creek that her husband had purchased before his death.
The Houston farm lay on the border of the Cherokee Nation. Sam found the life of a young Indian man more appealing than working in the family store in Maryville, so at age 16 he ran away from home to live with the Indians and became known by the Cherokee name Raven.
When he was asked why be left home, he replied that he “preferred measuring deer track to tape, and that I like the wild liberty of the Red men better than the tyranny of my brothers. This running wild among the Indians sleeping on the ground, chasing wild game, living in the forests, and reading Homer’s Iliad seemed a pretty strange business, and people used to say that I would be a great Indian Chief, or die in a madhouse or be governor of the state—for it was certain that some dreadful thing would overtake me.”
One thing Sam and I have had in common was something that was called “deportment” when I was a student at West Side Elementary School on this exact site 65 years ago. Neither of us scored high. The widow Houston said of her fifth son, “I had no hope for Sam. He was so wild.” According to Inez Burns, the first Blount County circuit court in 1810 found that 17-year-old Sam Houston and Capt. John Cusick disturbed the peace by beating a drum. The court fined Houston $5.
According to Houston’s biographer Marquis James, in 1812, Maryville was a town of 40 families, which made it a place of importance. Two stage routes crossed here. There was a blacksmith shop, a shop that made saddles and beaver hats for gentlemen. There were four general stores including the one where the Houston brothers worked and that drove Sam to live in Cherokee country.
Sam accumulated some debt while living in Indian country, returned to Maryville in May, 1812, and opened a private school. By 1813, the War of 1812 was in full swing. In Maryville, Sam took a silver dollar from the recruiter’s drumhead and enlisted. In February of 1814, his regiment received a call to go to the aid of General Andrew Jackson at Horseshoe bend in Alabama. For the next 31 years, Sam Houston was a friend and protégé of Andrew Jackson.
But these are stories that come after the boyhood of Sam Houston. Others will tell those stories today.
What I want to say is that, whether or not he had grown up in Maryville, Sam Houston is my American hero.
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This morning I talked about Sam Houston’s boyhood. Now I would like to tell you the story of Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston’s walking stick.
In 1813, the War of 1812 was in full swing. In Maryville, Sam took a silver dollar from the recruiter’s drumhead and enlisted. In February of 1814, his regiment received a call to go to the aid of General Andrew Jackson at Horseshoe bend in Alabama. For the next 31 years, Sam Houston was a friend and protégé of Andrew Jackson
Jackson taught Houston how to fight a duel. In 1823, he helped Houston be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. The next year, Houston helped Jackson in his unsuccessful bid for the presidency. With Jackson’s help, Houston became Governor of Tennessee in 1827. With Houston’s help, Jackson was elected president in 1828. One biographer of Houston said that for Houston “to be governor of Tennessee with Old Hickory in the White House was as close to being the Prince of Wales as American blood could approach. Houston was the all-but anointed heir of the most popular president since Washington himself.
As governor, Houston often visited the Hermitage, sometimes picking flowers in Rachel Jackson’s garden. He was chief pallbearer when Rachel died on Christmas Eve of 1828 just after Jackson’s election to the presidency. The next month, Governor Houston, then 36 years of age, married Eliza Allen of Gallatin, who was 18. In March, Jackson became President. A month later, on April 16, 1829, distraught over some still-unexplained trouble with Eliza, Houston resigned the governorship and went to live with his old friends, the Indians who by then had moved west. He married again and made his way to Texas in 1832.
In April of 1845, Houston, his wife Margaret, and their two-year-old son Sam began a trip from Texas to New Orleans and up the Mississippi River to see 78-year-old Andrew Jackson who was dying at the Hermitage.
The Houstons’ river passage was delayed when their steamboat ran aground. Finally, at about 6 p.m. on Sunday, June 8, 1845, the steamboat tied up at the Nashville landing on the Cumberland River. The Houstons were told that Jackson was near death. They hired a coach to race to the Hermitage. A few miles outside Nashville, their coach met the Jackson family physician. He told them that Jackson had died at about the same time the Houstons had arrived in Nashville. Proceeding on to the Hermitage, Houston lifted his two-year-old son and said, “Try to remember that you have looked upon the face of Andrew Jackson.” Houston then put his head on Jackson’s chest and wept. At midnight, he wrote to President Polk, “I have seen the corpse. The visage is much as it was in life.”
The Houstons were guests at the Donelson plantation, Tulip Grove, for several days after Jackson’s death. Houston led the funeral cortege as he had as governor when Rachel Jackson died. When Houston left Nashville to travel on to Maryville, he left his walking stick at Tulip Grove. It is made of mulberry wood and has a solid gold cap. The stick is split and has been glued together, which may have been the reason Houston left it.
How do we know this stick was Houston’s stick?
For one thing, the words “Sam Houston” and “Texas” and “Lone Star” are engraved on the gold cap.
For another, we know from photographs and historical accounts that Houston carried walking sticks. We also know that he knew how to use his stick. In March of 1832, while visiting Washington, D.C., Houston encountered Congressman Stanberry from Ohio who had criticized the Jackson Indian policy. Houston confronted Stanberry, and said, “You are a damned rascal!” and whacked him multiple times over the head with his hickory cane cut from the grounds of the Hermitage.
In 1985, I bought Sam Houston’s walking stick from Ben Caldwell and Baker Duncan. Ben said it would be appropriate for the second Tennessee governor from Blount County to own the walking stick of the first. So he arranged a three-way purchase swap that worked this way. I paid money to Mr. Horn’s daughter for a sword that belonged to General Stonewall Jackson and then traded that sword to Baker Duncan for his half of the Houston stick. I also paid the daughter for a bird bath sculpted by Will Edmondson and then traded that to Ben for his half of the cane.
I have since displayed Sam Houston’s walking stick in the offices of Tennessee’s governor, the president of the University of Tennessee. The story of the stick always produces good conversation as well as several attempts by Texans to run off with it.
For the last 12 years, Sam Houston’s walking stick has been displayed in my United States Senate office in Washington, D.C. It is beneath a photograph of Houston taken when he was United States Senator from Texas. In that photograph, Sen. Houston is standing with a walking stick much like the one he left in Nashville 166 years ago when Andrew Jackson died.