Booknotes: Life Stories: Notable Biographers on the People Who Shaped Americaby Brian Lamb, Philip Turner (Editor)
C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb invites readers into a virtual conversation -- via the art of biography -- with the legends and luminaries who have helped define America. This informal dictionary of biography peers into the personalities who have left a
Conversations with the most admired biographers of our time on the people who have forged our contemporary landscape
C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb invites readers into a virtual conversation -- via the art of biography -- with the legends and luminaries who have helped define America. This informal dictionary of biography peers into the personalities who have left a mark on our world -- a Who's Who of American history, and the next best thing to chatting directly with the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, J. Edgar Hoover, Elijah Muhammad, Amelia Earhart, Katharine Graham, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Frank McCourt, Bill Clinton, and many others.
Based on C-SPAN's popular weekly Booknotes program, this absorbing collection of life stories presents illuminating profiles and often surprising details from our favorite biographers. Booknotes follows the evolution of American history chronologically, and covers the lives of writers and thinkers, inventors and scientists, politicians and soldiers. Lamb reacquaints us with the great figures of our times, in an engaging conversation about America.
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Read an Excerpt
Sword of San Jacinto: A Life of Sam Houston was published by Random House in 1993 as a bicentennial birthday tribute to Sam Houston. Houston (1793-1863) died a hero of the Texas Revolution, having served as congressman, senator, president of the Texas Republic, and governor of the states of Tennessee and Texas. Author Marshall DeBruhl detailed Houston's life in a Booknotes program that aired on May 2, 1993.
Sam houston was this great national figure. That's what one has to keep in mind, that he was this extraordinary Virginian who was born in the eighteenth century . . . but who did his great work and achieved his great fame much farther afield than those who went to Philadelphia or Washington. He had two great political careers: one in Tennessee, where he was an attorney general, major general of the militia, a two-term congressman, and then governor--all before he was thirty-four years old, and then he had another career in Texas and in the United States Senate.
houston loved to drink and run around with older men, but he always married young women. All of his male friends were much older than he and were mentors, really. But he always was attracted to young, very, very young women.
His first wife was a young woman from Gallatin, Tennessee, named Eliza Allen. She was the daughter of a prominent Tennessee family. Houston was thirty-six years old; she was twenty. It was an arranged marriage. The family was very ambitious for their daughter. Remember, he was pretty much on the road to being president of the United States at that point. He was a young governor of Tennessee, had already served in the Congress of the United States. He was Andrew Jackson's protégé. There was a very good chance, if this marriage hadn't derailed his political career in Tennessee, that he could have gone on . . . to be president of the United States. . . .
He married her on January 22, 1829. They were married for eleven weeks. Jackson had just been [elected] president and was on his way to Washington to be inaugurated. Houston stayed behind to marry in Gallatin, but the marriage collapsed almost immediately, and she left him in April of that year.
He resigned the governorship. He spent a week or so drinking in the Nashville Inn, where he was living, and then wrote an eloquent and brilliant letter to the people of Tennessee resigning the office. [Then he moved] to the West to rejoin his Indian friends in the Arkansas territory, which is now Oklahoma. He spent the next three years alternately in and out of Arkansas and Washington, drinking; he married the niece of the Cherokee chief Ooleteka. That was his second wife, Tiana Rogers.
He had met her earlier when they lived in east Tennessee, before the Indian removal to the West, . . . and he knew her father and her brothers. They were great friends of Houston's. . . . As a teenager, he had run away from home and lived with the Cherokees. So he just simply picked up with them again when he moved to the West. They lived together as man and wife near Fort Gibson in what is now Oklahoma . . . for almost three years, from 1829 to 1832.
His third wife, Margaret Moffette Lea, was an Alabama belle from Marion, Alabama. When Houston was wounded at the Battle of San Jacinto and was taken to New Orleans for medical treatment, he arrived with this very dramatic entrance. . . . This young girl--she was seventeen then--was on the pier in New Orleans. She was visiting family in New Orleans. She saw him and was taken with him. Then three years later, she met him and married him in Alabama when he was visiting there. He was forty-six and she was twenty. . . .
It was obviously a great love match. You read their letters--there are hundreds of letters. They had eight children, the youngest of whom, Temple Lea Houston, was only two when Houston died at age seventy. She was clearly in love with her husband. She was a very beautiful young woman and very religious--extremely religious Baptist and certainly a teetotaler.
He was a heavy drinker. It was a serious problem. Presumably his third wife sobered him up, but I'm not convinced of that. He drank bitters and it's eighty proof. It's the equivalent of bourbon, really. . . . [He drank] up until maybe his last ten years, when he became sort of the darling of the temperance movement. That was one of those things that swept the country for a while. He made speeches on behalf of temperance later, but that was when he was sixty years old.
there was a . . . great scandal when he beat up a congressman, Stanbery, from Ohio, who had libeled him on the floor of the House of Representatives. Houston beat him up on Pennsylvania Avenue and crippled him, really. They brought charges against him and Houston was arrested and tried before the House of Representatives. . . . Jackson's famous comment when he'd heard what Houston had done [was that] he wished he had more Houstons to cudgel the brains of Congress. . . .
The great trial in the House of Representatives became almost like the Oliver North hearings; it just transfixed the country. Dispatches went out everywhere, and all the papers were covering it. . . . Houston was [found] guilty. The night before he had been drinking with the Speaker of the House, who was a friend of his, and James K. Polk, and Daniel Webster, and various other people who were all his pals. . . . [He received] just a minor reprimand. But then he was taken before a judge in Washington and fined five hundred dollars. Later Jackson remitted the fine and pardoned Houston. . . . He had friends in high places.
There are several theories [as to why Houston went to Texas]. Americans love conspiracy theories. One theory is that he was dispatched by Andrew Jackson to separate Texas from Mexico. Jackson always assumed that Texas had been part of the Louisiana Purchase and that it belonged to the United States. He thought [the border] extended all the way to the Rio Grande or the Nueces, really. . . .
Llerena Friend, who wrote another biography of Houston years ago [had another theory]: Why was Houston in Texas? To make a living. . . . He had his whole political career collapse in America with the dissolution of his first marriage and the great scandal. He had no future left in Tennessee--or even in Arkansas, for that matter, where he had moved. His future lay somewhere else, and Texas was the place to go.
the beginning of the texas revolution was when . . . Mexico gained its independence from Spain; the trouble began right there. This area called Texas or Tejas was not inhabited. There weren't very many people there, so the Mexican government had a policy of encouraging immigration from the United States. Stephen Austin or his father, Moses Austin, began this enormous land grant in Texas of hundreds of thousands of acres--millions of acres, really--and then recruited colonists to come down there. The seeds were sown then for revolution because you ran head-on into an autocratic government of Mexico and these people who were basically libertarians from the north.
The trouble began in the 1820s when the first colonists arrived. . . . Mexico became more and more despotic under a succession of people, but chiefly under Antonio López de Santa Anna. . . . He decided that this colonization should stop from the north; he was going to tighten the screws on these colonists who were causing him some trouble. But these people were from America and weren't going to put up with it. One thing led to another, and the whole situation rapidly unraveled.
Houston arrived there in 1832 . . . from the Arkansas Territory, where he was living. . . . He crossed the Red River into Texas, went on to Nacogdoches, and then joined up with Stephen Austin's colony in a place called San Felipe de Austin, where Austin's headquarters were. He was given his land grant and set up a law practice in Texas.
Later, when the revolution was heating up, Austin went to Mexico to negotiate with Santa Anna for more civil rights and liberties for the Anglo settlers of Texas. Austin was thrown into prison. He spent over two years in the Mexican jail. When he came back . . . the course had been set for a full-scale war against Mexico. Sam Houston was there and since he'd had all this military experience, he was made commander in chief of the Texas army . . . in late 1835. The revolution was very short; it lasted only a few months. The Battle of San Jacinto was only eighteen minutes.
the battle of the alamo happened in March of 1836. Houston had sent James Bowie and James Bonham there to tell them to blow up the place and abandon the Alamo. It was in San Antonio, Texas. There are five missions, and the Alamo was one of them. The Mexican church had established the missions for pacification of the Indians and to assimilate the Indian tribes. . . . It had been closed down. It was in ruins, really. There was a small fort built around it. The Texans had decided to fortify this place and hold it against the advancing Mexican troops.
But Houston had told them to get out of there, then to blow it up and bring the available ammunition and horses to join his army in the east. He was trying to organize a full-scale army, you see. Well, Bowie and Bonham got to the Alamo and [Commander William B.] Travis and they decided that they would hold it; that they would defend it against the Mexicans, which was folly. It led to this terrible disaster . . . 180 men were killed at the Alamo and . . . 340 men killed at Goliad. That's quite a number of able-bodied men shot down. Houston would have had that force, plus their ammunition and their armaments for his army. But it was lost to him because of this folly.
his enemy santa anna called himself the "Napoleon of the West." He had, indeed, had great successes as a soldier in Mexico against the Spanish forces for the revolution against Spain. Then his march across Texas was one victory after another. He won the battles and then he shot everybody afterward. . . . At the Alamo, after they had surrendered, he executed people--there were a few survivors, including Davy Crockett. Then a few weeks later, at this place called Goliad, Texas, they overran James Fannin and his men. They marched 342 men out and executed them there--just shot them down in cold blood.
Houston had retreated across Texas before the Mexican army, and that's another subject of great dispute: Was he really running or was it a strategic retreat? My feeling is it was a strategic retreat. He was drawing Santa Anna farther and farther into what was Anglo Texas. That's where all the people were, in east Texas. He ended up on this place called Buffalo Bayou, just outside of present-day Houston. There, with his back to the water, he decided to attack the Mexican army, which outnumbered him two to one. On the afternoon of April twenty-first of 1836, they stormed across that field there and in just eighteen minutes conquered the Mexican army. . . . What it did was eventually give Texas to the United States; annexation came later. And it led directly to expansion all the way to the West Coast. All or part of six states resulted from this great battle. It was one of the great battles in history.
austin, texas was named after Stephen Austin, who is rightly called the Father of Texas. People say Houston was the Father of Texas--[but] he was actually the father of Texas independence. Austin is the man who [first] got the colonists there. . . . Houston was named after Sam. It was a place called Harrisburg, but it was burned during the revolution, and when they rebuilt this new town and laid it out, they named it after the victorious general, Sam Houston.
he's one of these great american figures who deserves to be known more than he is. People know who he is, but Americans don't realize what a great national figure he was. For example, he was in Washington for thirteen years in the United States Senate [representing Texas]. The two great issues of the time were . . . secession and the slavery issue.
He absolutely was adamant in his defense of the Union, that we could not allow this great calamity of secession to happen. He warned the people of Texas what would happen to their young men and to their farms and plantations and to the whole South, for that matter, if they pursued this folly of secession. Lincoln offered to send fifty thousand troops into Texas to keep it in the Union. Houston refused to do that because there would be even more bloodshed; that puts him right up there with the American heroes. . . .
Anything that threatened to break up the Union, Houston was absolutely opposed to. . . . Earlier, he had gone through the great battles against the Nullifiers with Jackson in Washington in the 1830s. . . . [It was clear even then] that this issue was not going to go away. Houston [opposed] the whole idea of the extension of slavery into the territories. He had voted against the Kansas-Nebraska Bill and the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which made him anathema to the slaveholders in Texas.
He was [a slaveholder himself], but he was opposed to extension of slavery and the reopening of the slave trade. He was convinced that it was a dying institution and . . . felt it should be allowed to die out gradually. Because there were almost four million slaves in the South, it was an issue that certainly was not going to go away. He went back to Texas and was elected governor because the common people adored him. . . . But he still would not go along with the rest of the South in the secession movement, even refusing to call a secessionist convention till he was forced to do so. Then in March of 1861, just after the Lincoln inaugural when everybody was seceding, he wrote this famous letter to the people of Texas that he could not and would not go along with [secession]. The next day--this was March 15--he was called in front of the Texas legislature to swear an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy. But he refused to leave his office and go up to swear the oath. He was deposed from the governorship then and went home to Huntsville.
he died in huntsville, Texas, [when he was seventy] in this rather eccentric house that he and Margaret had rented. They had no money. They had land, like most southerners. They were land poor. They'd gone back there after he was deposed from the governorship of Texas; [it was] a place that he had liked and where they had lots of property. It was called the Steamboat House, this rather strange-looking building that looked like a Mississippi riverboat. This eccentric man had built it in Houston. It appealed to Sam, and so he rented it. He and Margaret and their children were living in the house when he died.
He had been asked, or people were forever talking about, doing biographies of Houston. In a letter to a prospective biographer, he said, "Your idea of writing a book about me interests me. I have not sought to live in vain." . . . I thought that that was a wonderful epigram for him. . . . He certainly did not live in vain.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Brian Lamb is the founding CEO of C-SPAN. He has been the host of C-SPAN's Booknotes since its debut in 1989, an experiment that quickly became an oasis of literary programming on television. The author is directing all of his royalties from the sale of this book to the not-for-profit C-SPAN Educational foundation.
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