- "A Sea of Blood and Smoking Ruin":Reflections on Sam Houston and Slavery
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The institution of slavery in the United States, the holding of people of African descent as chattel property, was a curse and a tragedy to everyone involved. The "Peculiar Institution," as southerners called it—not because it was strange, but because it was largely limited in the United States to the South and therefore defined the South—was wrong. It was wrong not primarily as a political matter and not as an economic matter, but wrong as a matter of morality. Well before the middle of the nineteenth century, many societies in the western world had generally concluded that the practice of one human owning another human as a piece of chattel property and treating that human the way any other chattel could be treated—for example, buying and selling it at will—was wrong.1
Nothing could make slavery "right." The way slaves were treated mattered, of course. For example, slaves' hours of labor, their food, their housing, and the punishments inflicted by their owners—every aspect of their day-to-day lives—obviously mattered in determining what life was like for those who had to endure slavery. However, it must always be understood that no amount of "kind" treatment could make slavery anything but wrong. Certainly, those who were enslaved knew it. [End Page 135]
William Owens made this point perfectly in his memoir of growing up in North Texas, This Stubborn Soil. As a youth Owens visited two aged former slaves in Lamar County. Having been taught that slavery was an essentially benign institution, he believed that his hosts had been well taken care of in terms of food and shelter and said, "You'd a been better off staying slaves." One of the former slaves replied, "Don't say that. You don't know what you saying. Somebody else done said it and you believed 'em. … Don't let anybody tell you nothing about slavery … You don't know nothing about being a slave until you been one."2
So, take that old man's word for it, nothing could make slavery more than a wrong to be endured. The institution came with a huge price, the largest part of which certainly was paid by the enslaved, but in reality it exacted a price from virtually every human in the antebellum South, no matter how important or powerful they were. Consider the relationship between the greatest of all Texas leaders—Sam Houston—and the institution of slavery.
Sam Houston was born into a slaveholding family in Rockbridge County, Virginia, in 1793, and he remained entangled in the peculiar institution for the entire seventy years of his life. When Sam Houston was born, his father, Major Samuel Houston, was too busy with his military career to place much emphasis on building a plantation, but the biographer Marquis James wrote that a slave named Peggy cared for Sam as a toddler and that at least five slaves accompanied the family members when they moved to East Tennessee in 1807 following the death of Major Houston. Sam Houston knew slavery from his infancy. It was always a fact of his life.3
During the twenty-five years from 1807, when he moved from Virginia to Tennessee, until 1832, when he first went to Texas, Sam Houston led a wild and reckless existence that only a very fortunate person (such as his hero Andrew Jackson) could have survived. Sam refused his family's demands that he settle down to a steady occupation, ran away, lived with the Cherokee Indians for almost three years, and joined the United States Army. He fought in the War of 1812 and nearly lost his life at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. After the war, he became a lawyer in Nashville and began a highly promising political career that took him to the governorship of Tennessee in 1829, but the breakup of his ill-fated [End Page...