Any digging into the past dredges up shameful events and ideas. In 2020 this is especially true in the South. A mix of racism, cruelty, xenophobia, tribalism, and more is immediately obvious. That’s no secret. There are bright spots, though. People like Sam Houston remind us that even in dark times one has the ability to stand up for principles and humanity. Therefore, this book contains some hypertimely encouragement for summer 2020.
The first lesson I took is that Houston did what he wanted to, despite social norms. He didn’t take over his family business as a young man and instead moved west to forge his own trail. He befriended various First Nations when it was political poison. He defended peace when many Texians were literally herding others towards violence.
The next major lesson I extracted from this biography is that you can take unpopular stances while remaining respected. Houston wasn’t lacking in ambition (he was, after all, the governor of TWO states). However, he wasn’t afraid to stand for things like peace, annexation, fighting the expansion of slavery in the US, and First Nations rights. Even though he made a habit of supporting unpopular views, he was still popular for much of his life. Leadership was thrust upon him as much as he sought it. People trusted in him as a person if not on every view.
A final lesson is more nuanced: Good people aren’t perfect. No one is immune from having blind spots or character defects borne of the time and culture. Houston struggled with alcoholism for much of his young life and this led him to burn many bridges. (I’m not picking on alcoholics – we all know that the fallout from this disease can be ugly.) He cautioned the South to avoid fighting to expand slavery, but he did “own” slaves and saw the need to keep “his” humans in line. He sometimes spoke disparagingly of Mexicans. The cautionary lesson here I think is that we need to try and see beyond our context to ultimate good. Surely we’ll fail, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t obliged to live with integrity.
Overall I appreciated reading this short and accessible book in 2020. It’s good to remember to stand up for what we believe in. We’ll either bring people along with us, agitate enough to temper otherwise more damaging policies, or at least live authentically.