The year was 1854, and the nation was bitterly divided once again over slavery. Sam Houston, now a U. S. Senator for Texas, was in the middle of the debate, faced with a choice between his political career and the future of the nation.
The vote was on the politically explosive Kansas-Nebraska Act. For years, Congress had walked the delicate tightrope trying to balance the interests between North and South. Increasingly, the slavery question dominated every political argument, and Congress tried to avoid discussing it just as much. But this new legislation reopened the festering wound.
The act, introduced in January 1854, was a cynical political ploy by Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois to try to make Chicago the hub of the transcontinental railroad. This meant that all railroads going to the West Coast would be routed through Chicago, meaning a fortune for the city and the state. Other potential hubs included Memphis, Tennessee, and New Orleans, Louisiana, which would include more southerly routes through more populated areas, including Texas.
Douglas initially proposed organizing the entire area from the border of the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) to the border with British Canada into the Nebraska and Kansas Territories. This area was the last unorganized remnant of the Louisiana Purchase, and the 1820 Compromise had forbidden slavery in the area. Douglas called for the compromise’s repeal by allowing slavery into the new territories while territorial voters decided the final status of slavery.
The nation had 16 free states and 15 slaves states in 1854, plus five territories that would come in as free states in the future. Texas was the slave state admitted. With no more pro-slavery territories, southerners were increasingly worried about being outnumbered and surrounded. Immediately, sharp opposition to the bill arose. Southern politicians rallied around it as their last chance to bring a slave state into the union, except Houston. Houston had been a protégé of President Andrew Jackson and was an ardent Unionist. He had fought for the nation in the War of 1812 as a young man, bled for Texas to free it from Mexico and to bring it into the United States, and served Texas proudly as its U. S. Senator and former president.
Houston demanded the 1820 Compromise be upheld and the act rejected. As Houston characterized the choice, “Our children are either to live in after time in enjoyment of peace … or the alternative remains for them of anarchy, discord, and civil broil.”
Houston voted against the demands of Texas and southern politicians — the only southerner to vote against the legislation — and faced bitter criticisms in letters and newspapers across the region.
Houston’s conscience was clear, regardless of the consequences. He told his wife that the criticism “falls off me like water off a duck’s back.”
While Houston was popular with the people of Texas, this was a time before the Seventeenth Amendment and U. S. Senators were still chosen by the state legislatures. Though Houston’s term would not expire until 1858, legislators immediately voted not to return Houston to a third term. In 1858, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Hemphill was elected by legislators to replace him.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act passed — and it was a disaster. It completely destabilized the sense of compromise that existed between North and South. Kansas would erupt into its own civil war with hundreds dead as pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces fought for control of the territory. As it was, 86 members of the House of Representatives in both of the major parties lost their seats because of their support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. America now headed headlong into the coming civil war.
Houston, however, would not be stopped. In 1859, the people elected him as the state’s seventh governor with a landslide 57 percent of the vote.
The story became another example of Houston’s patriotism and legendary integrity. The story was later featured in John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work Profiles in Courage in 1956. Sometimes integrity is more important than ambition or popularity.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com.