Houston’s ‘hard to get’ strategy works with Washington

For months his maneuvers kept everyone guessing — in London, Washington and in Texas

This Week in Texas History

Concerned over Texas’ increasingly cozy relationship with the British, the U.S. Secretary of State informed the Lone Star minister on Nov. 10, 1843 that Washington was ready to reopen annexation talks.

Instead of telling Abel P. Upshur that it was about time, Isaac Van Zandt played it cool by simply saying he would see if his president was interested. Reading over the diplomat’s report a few days later, Sam Houston smiled at his success in shaking up his complacent former countrymen.

How the tables had turned in five years! Led by cantankerous ex-president John Quincy Adams, the abolitionists had poisoned public opinion against the Texas Revolution and made annexation a taboo topic. Infuriated by such shabby treatment, Houston broke off negotiations and swore the next move was up to the Potomac politicians.

To be snubbed by their homeland cut Texans to the quick. Anson Jones spoke for the vast majority when he wrote, “Annexation is at an end and for the present Texas can if she will get on without it. How glorious will Texas be standing alone, and relying upon her own strength.”

U.S.-Texas relations remained at a low point until Houston returned to office in December 1841.

Under President Mirabeau Lamar, who regarded membership in the Union as a fate worse than death, the vision of an imperial Republic stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean won widespread support. Texans were not about to go knocking on a door already slammed in their faces.

Since the War of 1812, the United States and Great Britain had remained suspicious foes. Houston in his second term cleverly exploited this tension by playing the antagonists off against each other. For months his intricate maneuvers kept everyone guessing in London and Washington as well as in Texas.

No one knew for sure where Houston stood. His acceptance of a British offer to mediate a truce with Mexico sent paranoid American leaders right up the wall and alarmed his old mentor. Andrew Jackson warned, “I see you are negotiating with Mexico, but be careful of the designing British.” Even Old Hickory could not figure out what Sam had up his sleeve.

William S. Murphy, the new U.S. charge d’affaires, was no sooner on the job than he filed a disturbing dispatch. Houston, he insisted, was a housebroken pawn of the British and dead-set against annexation.

Sticking to his devious strategy, Houston revealed the contents of the Van Zandt report to England’s man in Texas. Houston assured the eavesdropper that all the British had to do to permanently derail annexation was to convince the Mexicans to recognize Lone Star independence.

Meanwhile, J. Pinckney Henderson, the top Texas diplomat, took charge of the Washington talks. After a meeting with President John Tyler, he chuckled to a friend, “All things really prove now the very great desire of the U.S. to annex us. You would be amused to see their jealousy of England.”

Houston was skeptical of the American pledge to protect his vulnerable country against any wrong moves by Mexico during the lengthy discussions.

Requiring more than vague promises, he demanded that the U.S. Navy start patrolling the Gulf Coast no later than March. In a blunt message to charge d’affaires Murphy, Houston wrote, “The United States must annex Texas — Texas cannot annex herself.”

The cause of annexation suffered a seemingly serious setback on Feb. 28, 1844, when Secretary of State Upshur was killed in a steamship explosion on the Potomac River.

His replacement by John C. Calhoun, who hated both Houston and Andrew Jackson with a passion, looked like the kiss of death. But for once Calhoun rose above his petty prejudices and quickly put the finishing touches on a treaty that granted Texas territorial status. The agreement was signed on Apr. 12, 1844 and rushed that same day to the Senate for ratification.

But by May the disappointing outcome was a foregone conclusion. Down in the dumps over the imminent defeat, Houston complained to Henderson, “We must regard ourselves a nation to remain forever invincible.”

As expected the Senate rejected the treaty by a vote of 35 to 16. An odd alliance of New England abolitionists and die-hard defenders of Dixie’s “peculiar institution” shut out Texas for a second time. The abolitionists still saw the Lone Star Revolution as a sinister pro-slavery conspiracy, while many southerners felt the sister Republic deserved nothing less than full statehood.

However, the most decisive factor was that the Senate show-of-hands came on the eve of a presidential election. As usual, the politicians preferred to pass the buck rather than stick their necks out on a red-hot issue.

The American voters would have the final say on Texas.

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For months his maneuvers kept everyone guessing — in London, Washington and in Texas

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