By Jonathan McCarty, Special Contributor
Not everyone would think that Sam Houston could, or would, have ever not been a popular figure in Texas. But, that would be an incorrect thought. From his fiery youth, until his death, though, Houston was well liked. Just not always popular.
The time of his unpopularity began around his first bid for governor of the State of Texas in 1857. Houston had opened treaties with the United Sates while Texas was still a republic, and had of course, stepped down as President of Texas after the annexation. But, he did not become governor of the state.
Our first governor was James P. Henderson in 1847. By the time Houston tossed his hat into the ring in the late 1850’s, Texas had had four other governors, each with a four year term.
In 1857, Houston was running against Hardin Runnels. They two had agreed to debate along the campaign trail, a practice which other politicians then and now still keep. In fact, our current debate format is named after the most famous of these debaters, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, which would take place in 1858.
Houston and Runnels’ first stop was here in Marshall, Texas; which was the hometown of two of Houston’s most outspoken critics, Louis T. Wigfall and Robert Loughery. Both men were pro-secession, as was most of East Texas and Runnels. Houston, however, was very pro-Union.
They two men met on May 23, under an oak tree that stood on he corner of what is now Burleson at the First Church of Christ. Houston was scheduled to speak first, followed by Runnels.
I can not tell you what was said that day by Houston, but I do know that when he was finished speaking, Runnels declined to even stand up. Houston had been so convincing and so eloquent in his speech, that thought he would lose the election, he still carried 48% of the vote in Harrison County.
Runnels was the only person to ever win an elected office over Sam Houston. And he only won it once. Houston would assume the role of Governor after Runnel’s first, and only, term ended, on December 21, 1859; and was forced out of office when Texas seceded in 1861.
Personally, I imagine Houston’s speech that day to have been very similar to one he would later give in Austin in 1860. He opened with, “The condition of the country is such, the dangers which beset it are so numerous, the foes of the Union so implacable and energetic, that no risk should be heeded by him who has a voice to raise in its behalf; and so long as I have strength to stand, I will peril even health in its cause.”
Sadly, the oak tree is no longer standing today. It was struck by lightning. However, pieces of it were bronzed, and you can find them in most of the school campuses in Marshall, as well as the Marshall Public Library.