Elections often produce the unexpected. Obscure candidates sometimes come from nowhere to beat well-known and established candidates. And at other times, honest men are bested by scoundrels. The 1838 presidential election in Texas became a tragic contest that saw the deaths of two prominent candidates with promising futures.
President Sam Houston was completing his first term in 1838 amid declining popularity. With Texas flirting with bankruptcy as the result of the Texas Revolution and difficulty establishing trade relations with other nations, Houston had been forced to veto a number of popular measures in an effort to save money. In addition, his policies of peace with the Native American tribes had frustrated many settlers.
Under the terms of the Texas Constitution, the term of the first elected president of the Republic of Texas would only be two years. Each term afterward (though many Texans expected a quick annexation to the United States) would be three years. It would be a straight popular vote without an electoral college. The constitution of the Texas Republic also specified that a president could serve as many terms as the voters would allow, but the president could not serve consecutive terms. As a result, Houston was not able to run for re-election.
No political parties existed in the Republic of Texas, but the politics of the day was divided on a personalist basis: supporters of Houston and opponents of Houston. Vice-President Mirabeau B. Lamar had effectively become the head of the anti-Houston faction. Given the continuing threat from Mexico and memories of how Mexico’s own political divisions had left it in a state of near-constant civil war also fed the pragmatic desire to keep partisanship in check.
Lamar, a Georgia native, hoped to establish Texas as a great, independent power though Texas did not have the means to make this happen at that point. He was fiercely critical of Houston’s policies. As a former newspaper publisher and Georgia legislator, for example, he had supported the expulsion of Native American tribes from the state.
Pro-Houston forces faced one tragedy after another in their search for a successor to Houston. Secretary of War Thomas J. Rusk had attracted a lot of attention for a presidential run. The South Carolina native and future U. S. Senator declined.
Many Houston supporters looked to James Collinsworth. Collinsworth was born in Tennessee in 1806. He rose to become the United States Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee before he headed to Texas. He distinguished himself at the battle of San Jacinto and became the first Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court in 1836. He decided to run for the presidency in 1838, but his alcoholism took its toll. He had gone on a long drinking binge in Galveston before leaping off the top of a steamboat to his death at the mere age of 32.
The third potential candidate was Peter W. Grayson. He was born in Kentucky in 1788 and eventually became a state legislator. However, he suffered from bouts of depression for which at that time were few remedies. He helped raised troops for the Texas Revolution and became Houston’s attorney general in 1837. Grayson reluctantly agreed to run at Houston’s urging. In June, he began a diplomatic trip to Washington, DC, but by July when he reached Tennessee, he shot himself in a tavern near Knoxville.
Texas counties are now named for all three men, who, tragically, were unable to find relief from their personal demons and ultimately committed suicide.
As a result of the deaths of the two prominent Texas politicians, Lamar was effectively the last candidate remaining. Only one candidate opposed Lamar, Sen. Robert Wilson. Wilson was nicknamed “Honest Bob” because he always promised his constituents that he would be just as honest as the circumstances permitted. Lamar won the election by a crushing margin, winning 6,995 votes to only 252 for Honest Bob.
As president, Lamar’s grandiose plans ended in failure. Houston would recapture the presidency in 1841.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.