Divorce and politics do not mix, a fact made abundantly clear during this political season. Nevada’s governor, Jim Gibbons, was the state’s first incumbent governor to lose his party’s primary. His tumultuous divorce might not have been the only reason for his loss, but it was certainly a major factor. South Carolina’s governor, Mark Sanford, was prohibited from running for re-election due to term limits, but even without that prohibition there is little doubt that his political career is about as dead as Juan Peron’s. Last week, Americans were hit with another divorce shock when Al and Tipper Gore announced their separation.
It’s not that Americans will not elect a divorced candidate. They will. Ronald Reagan is a case in point, the first (and only) divorcee to be elected president. But Americans do not want politicians to get a divorce while they are still in office. We want our First Families to be wholesome, happy, and respectable.
All this talk of divorce among our politicians made me think of another divorce, one that resembles those recent ones in South Carolina and Nevada in that it happened while the elected official was still in office. The one I am thinking of happened a long time ago, however -- 181 years ago, to be exact.
In January, 1829, Tennessee Governor Sam Houston married the beautiful Eliza Allen. Houston was a hard-living, often rowdy frontiersman who had nearly died from wounds received in combat against the Creek Indians. He felt just as comfortable living in a military tent or frontier tavern as he did living in a plantation mansion, probably more so. Houston had known many women – the white trash and mulatto whores of New Orleans, the lonely and unfaithful wives of frontiersmen, and several Cherokee women he met while living among that tribe as a young man. Eventually, Houston settled down, a little bit, and entered politics. He owed his political success to his experience in war, when he served under Andrew Jackson and became one of the famous general’s protégés. It was Jackson’s patronage that enabled Houston to win the governorship of Tennessee, Jackson’s home state.
Eliza Allen, Houston’s new wife, was believed to be a prim and proper Southern Belle from a well established and wealthy family of Tennessee’s landed aristocracy. Just 20 years old when they married, she was 16 years younger than Houston, but was very poised and intelligent, and she had much more formal education than her new husband. She was far less experienced in life than her suitor, but not completely so. In fact, Eliza had been in love before. A man much closer in age to Eliza named Will Tyree had courted her, and the two had probably secretly agreed to marry one another. That was a doomed affair, however. Will Tyree suffered from tuberculosis, and he died at roughly the same time that Houston began to show interest in Eliza.
Houston most likely would have been perfectly happy to remain single, but Andrew Jackson warned him that his political future was at risk if he were to remain unmarried for much longer. Houston needed a wife. Eliza needed a husband of stature. The die was cast.
The couple married on January 22, 1829. It was one of the grandest social occasions ever to have taken place in Middle Tennessee. There was a delightful formal dinner, and all of Nashville’s finest citizens offered toasts and tributes to what appeared to be a very happy couple. Their happiness would not last through the wedding night.
No one knows what happened that night. Perhaps Houston tried to introduce his new bride to some of the more exotic sexual practices he had learned while living among the Indians, or while visiting the bordellos of New Orleans. One thing is almost certain, though. Eliza was probably shocked and disgusted at the sight of Houston’s naked, or near naked body which still showed the ravages of Creek Indian arrows and rifle balls. Houston’s shoulder was permanently discolored from the infection he suffered from lead shot. His thigh was severely damaged by a Creek arrow, and that wound continued to discharge fluid his entire life.
Whatever the details of that first night, something went terribly wrong. Eliza remained strangely quiet the next day as they travelled through the snow to stay overnight with friends outside of Nashville. The second morning of their marriage, Sam Houston rose early and challenged the young daughters of their host to a snowball fight. Eliza came downstairs late in the morning. Their hostess suggested that Eliza should go outside and help her husband in the snowball fight. The young girls, she said, seemed to be getting the best of him.
“I wish they would kill him.” The hostess looked at the young bride with astonishment.
“Oh, don’t be silly,” she said.
Eliza looked back her sternly, and then peered out the window. “Yes, I wish from the bottom of my heart that they would kill him.”
Sam and Eliza Houston had been married less than 48 hours.
The couple arrived at their new home a few days later. There was no fancy governor’s mansion yet. They moved into a small set of rooms in a Nashville inn. The comfortable, but cramped quarters were a far cry from what Eliza had been accustomed to at Allenwood, her family’s plantation estate.
On March 18, not quite two months into their marriage, Eliza’s youngest brother Charles died. The newlywed left her husband to stay with her parents and siblings for the funeral. She returned to the Nashville inn a week or two later, a distraught and fragile young woman.
By April 8, Houston had reached his wit’s end. He confronted his wife, and accused her of loving someone else, perhaps even questioning her sexual innocence. The next morning, Houston apologized for doubting her, but Eliza welcomed the confrontation. She used the accusations against her as an excuse to leave her husband and return to her parents’ estate. Houston wrote a letter to Eliza’s father, imploring him to send her back to Nashville. In the letter, he stated that he firmly believed in his wife’s virtue, and would, in fact, kill anyone who made salacious claims about Eliza’s previous sexual experience. Eliza’s father never answered the letter.
By the second week of April, rumors of a scandal involving the governor and his new wife were spreading throughout Tennessee. Houston rode to Allenwood and fell to his knees, begging Eliza to come home with him. She refused. As he returned to his duties in Nashville, he heard stories that he was being burned in effigy throughout the state. A demonstration was held near the capital denouncing the governor for his dishonorable behavior toward his virtuous and beautiful young wife. Rumors spread that a drunken Houston was seen wandering the streets of Nashville dressed only in calf skins.
On April 16, Houston resigned as governor of Tennessee. He closed himself up in his apartment and went on a week-long drinking binge. All but a few of his friends abandoned him. (One that remained true and did not abandon him was Davy Crockett.) On April 23, three months and one day after his wedding, Sam Houston left his Nashville apartment and boarded a steamboat. He left Tennessee to begin a new life out west.
Sam Houston’s divorce was a history-altering event. At first, Houston went to live with the Cherokees along the border of present day Arkansas and Oklahoma. He stayed there a few years and even married an Indian woman. Little is known of that marriage, or even if there were any children from it. After a few years, of course, Houston moved on and eventually took command of the fledgling army of the Republic of Texas. Under Houston’s leadership, Texas achieved independence from Mexico. That state’s annexation by the United States precipitated the Mexican War, an event that made our nation the unrivaled powerhouse of North America.
What would have happened if Houston’s marriage not ended as it did? He likely would have remained in Tennessee, and may have ended up as Andrew Jackson’s successor as president rather than Martin van Buren. Texas, most likely, would not have defeated Santa Ana’s army, and would have remained a province of Mexico. Would the United States and Mexico still have come to blows without Texas’s independence? Probably. But the outcome of that conflict may have been far different, and the spark to ignite it would have come much later.
America’s Civil War may not have happened when it did, either. One of the main factors leading up to that war was whether slavery would be allowed in the new territories that had been gained after the Mexican War. In fact, it was that very question that proved the raison d’etre for the new Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. If there were no new territories won at the end of the 1840’s, then one of the main causes of the Civil War would not have existed in 1860.
Even if the Civil War still broke out at about the same time that it did, but without the issue of slavery in the new territories of the Southwest, Mexico may have been able to take advantage of the troubles in the United States to consolidate and strengthen its hold on California, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Texas. When the two rival continental powers finally came to blows, their relative strengths and weaknesses might have been a lot different than they were in 1845.
I’m always a little bit sad when I hear of a couple getting divorced. I’m glad, however, that Sam and Eliza Houston’s marriage ended. If it hadn’t, this Texas-born history buff may not have ever been conceived.
*Most of the details of the months following Sam and Eliza Houston's marriage are taken from the biography Sword of San Jacinto: A Life of Sam Houston, by Marshall De Bruhl.