The date was April 13, 1832. Sam Houston, a former U.S. congressman and one-time Tennessee governor, was walking along a darkened Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. But Houston, at the age of 39, is considered a political has-been.
For the past three years, he has been living with his Cherokee Indian friends in Arkansas territory. He has been slowly drinking himself to death, trying to forget his broken marriage and the hints of scandal that forced him to resign his Tennessee governor’s post in 1829.
And if that weren’t enough, now an Ohio congressman named William Stanbery has insulted Houston on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Stanbery has accused Sam of bribery to get a fat government contract to supply Indian rations.
It seems that even though Sam didn’t submit the lowest bid, Secretary of War John Eaton had given hiim the contract anyway. It raised such a furor that Eaton eventually had to resign his cabinet post.
By this time, Houston was drunk, depressed and fightin’ mad.
And wouldn’t you know it? Who should Sam chance upon walking late that night of April 13, 1832, but William Stanbery. Yes, the same Rep. William Stanbery who had accused Houston of illegal activity.
Well, after a couple of comments about Stanbery’s ancestry, Houston pulled out a hickory cane and began to give the Ohioan an old-fashioned whipping. The two men rolled around in the dirt for awhile, and then Stanbery, by now a bloody mess, retreated into the Washington, D.C., night.
A congressman’s comments on the floor of the U.S. House are privileged, Stanbery said after recovering from the thrashing. Houston was arrested and ordered to stand trial in the House for contempt of Congress and breach of privilege.
The House trial began April 19, 1832. Houston was wearing his buckskin garb. He picked a Washington, D.C., lawyer named Francis Scott Key to defend him. (In 1814 Key had written a poem he called “The Star-Spangled Banner.”)
Houston soon took over his own defense. The trial changed the life of Sam Houston and the history of Texas.
“I was dying out,” Sam wrote years after the trial. “And had they taken me before a justice of the peace and fined me $10 it would have killed me. But they gave me a national tribunal for a theater and that set me up again.”
On May 6, Houston rose to give his closing defense. The House chamber was packed and the Tennessean talked for an hour. At first he spoke softly, but pretty soon Sam’s voice was bouncing off the chamber ceiling.
“When a member of this House, entrenched in his privilege, brands a private citizen in the face of the whole nation as a fraudulent villain, he renders himself answerable to the party aggrieved … It is not my rights alone, but the rights of millions that are involved here,” Houston boomed.
“When you shall have destroyed the pride of American character, you will have destroyed the brightest jewel that Heaven ever made!” he said.
The chamber ovation was deafening. An exhausted Houston dropped into a chair while spectators rushed to shake his hand.
He got off with only a mild reprimand from the speaker of the House.
More importantly, the Stanbery incident changed Houston’s life. The despair and depression were gone. Not a loser anymore, once again Houston was a leader. He was somebody important … again.
His enthusiasm for living restored, Sam decided he needed some more adventure in his life. So he saddled his horse and headed for Texas.
By October 1836, Sam Houston was president of the new Republic of Texas.