Sunday, April 22, 2012

Joint Reading: Lions of the West, Chapter 5


The fifth chapter in Robert Morgan’s Lions of the West was my favorite from this past week. I’ve always associated Sam Houston 100% with Texas, and I enjoyed leaning more about him outside of that.

Catch up on the first four chapters of our joint reading:

Chapter 1: Thomas Jefferson
Chapter 2: Andrew Jackson
Chapter 3: John Chapman
Chapter 4: David Crockett

Chapter 5, Sam Houston: The President Who Loved to Dance

Kari: This chapter was by far the most interesting to me! Naturally, I knew of Houston’s associations with Texas, and that is what he’s always been linked with in my mind. I never knew that he had such a history in Tennessee, though…and that’s my state! (In fact, three out of these five chapters have strong ties to Tennessee. Guess we were just instrumental in western expansion!) Throughout this chapter and the Jackson and Crockett chapters, there are many individuals whose names I recognize because they are used in Tennessee geography—Jackson, Old Hickory, Grundy, Polk. But I don’t know of anything using the Houston name in Tennessee, which is why Houston’s associations with this state and the city of Nashville really surprised me. I thought after reading the chapter that it probably has something to do with his somewhat shameful exit from Tennessee politics. Perhaps the state decided its former Governor was not worthy of a Tennessee legacy? It is surprising, and unfortunate, though, that such history has not been as widely shared. 

Aarti: So much about history in that way makes me sad. We like to present history as series of unblemished heroes instead of presenting the more accurate, tarnished accounts, and that makes it seem like no one ever made a bad decision or wavered over an issue before in the world, which I think is a really dumb way of teaching history. I agree that this was a FASCINATING chapter. I really knew NOTHING about Houston going in. I am astonished at everything about him, including his very Indian upbringing, his crazy marriage (all of his crazy marriages, really), his ridiculous habit of duelling with people, his alcoholism….

Kari: We realize that there is much more to the stories of each of the individuals we have read about so far. They all seem complex, somewhat contradictory; we’re not fully sure from these brief snippets if Morgan is depicting them in a realistic light or not. Houston, though, seems to me to be the first individual who is extremely conflicted within his own self. He’s not only conflicting with society or persons around him; he just strikes me as a guy who has a lot going on in his own head. It’s like he can never really figure out quite where he belongs. 

Aarti: Right, and Houston is also the first person (besides Crockett, to be fair) that we really see in a long-term light. Jefferson and Jackson were presented to us in a very “spotlight on this particular period” way, whereas Crockett and Houston had a more long-term perspective to their chapters that gave us much more of the nuance and complexity that we missed in the earlier chapters. Houston seemed like he was haunted by a lot of devils, particularly that of drinking too much. It was so sad to see his life slip away so quickly through addiction. Though he seemed very well able to strike right back up again! That made me feel a bit better, really- sometimes I get really upset by how quickly people forget the horrible actions of famous people, but it looks like they did the same thing in the past, too.

Kari: Oh you’re right, I didn’t even think of that long-term versus short-term perspective. Morgan really did show a lot more about Houston’s own history and experience which helps when trying to explain/justify his actions and beliefs. We don’t get that full perspective for some of the figures in this book. 

I thought his history was fascinating, how he ran off to live with the Cherokee Nation for three years as a teenager, and this influenced his behavior for his entire life. As a young man, he took a path that society expected—law degree, politics, marriage—but he struggled in making it all work. His marriage fell apart because, it seemed, he and society pressured a young, immature girl that didn’t love him into the marriage. It’s like he wanted the ideal life but it didn’t quite work for him. He had eccentricities; he had a prolific personal life. And for him, the West was a place to start again. 

Aarti: That’s such a good way of putting it. He wanted a clean slate, so he literally went somewhere that had no history (at least, no history in the way Americans defined it) and set out to create one for himself. I also thought his history with the Cherokees was fascinating, though he seems to have used it to his advantage.

What interested me most about Houston’s history with the Indians was that he believed so strongly in displacement, for the good of the Indians. “As a defender of Indian rights, especially Cherokees’, he would be expected to resist their loss of traditional lands and relocation to a strange place. Instead, he had come to see the future of the eastern-dwelling Cherokees as bleak at best.” He really seemed to think the national government had Cherokee interests at heart. Put this way, I can somewhat (but not really) understand Jackson’s refusal to enforce the Supreme Court ruling that the Cherokees had the rights to defend and keep their homeland, if he truly thought they would be safer in the west. But it’s hard with hindsight to believe the US government would ever keep its word when it so badly wanted to take over the entire country. It is important to remember that, at the time, perhaps westward expansion from coast to coast didn’t seem quite as inevitable as it does now.

Kari: That’s true, and it might just be that Indian Removal was the beginning of America’s trend of using altruistic justification to get what they want! Sure, we’re totally doing this for their own safety, not just because we want their land and resources! (I’m not buying it!) 

The Jackson and Crockett chapters spoke greatly about the West as a place for the poor to settle and purchase land. The idea seemed to be, if they can conquer it, they can have it. But Crockett and Houston themselves represent another type of draw of the West; it’s a place for the people who have had it with America’s “old world” rules and lifestyle. The renegades, the disgraced, the ones who don’t quite fit in. The West is a place for them to start over and make their own rules that don’t need to conform with the strict standards of eastern society. 

Aarti: Well, if anyone didn’t conform, it was Houston! I know I’ve said this in every chapter, but I just want SO MUCH MORE DETAIL on all these marriages! He must have been a truly horrible husband- drunk, abusive, cruel and so much more. And it seems like his wives just got progressively younger, too, so he clearly wanted someone that he could dominate… and yes, the more lax rules of the west worked well for him. But I wonder what else it was about eastern society that really bound him. He did so well in Texas, so I wonder if he just really needed the ability to make decisions in a somewhat dictatorial manner, with no one allowed to question him and the opportunity to control every aspect of what he wanted. I think he really thrived on being in charge of every detail, and the west gave him that option.

Kari: Oh wow, that is definitely a perspective I didn’t see! I just viewed him this whole time as this pathetic, sorry drunk, not some cruel domineering husband! Since Morgan has a habit of only showing us one side of these people, I’ll just assume Houston was really somewhere in the middle. 😉

1 comment:

Aarti said…

Ah, this reminds me that I am behind in starting our discussion on the next section of the book!  I have read it, I promise, but I do not have time to comment on it at this time.  It's graduation week, and things have been crazier than I expected.  But I promise to at least finish the book, if not get all of my thoughts down in a Google doc, by the end of the week!