Rusk deserved more than second fiddle to houston
Fri, 2016-02-12 05:00 News Staff
Thomas Rusk stepped out of Sam Houston’s giant shadow on Feb. 16, 1848 to give his first speech in the United States Senate, an impassioned defense of the Mexican War.
When John Salmon “Rip” Ford wrote his memoirs in the 1880’s, the old Ranger paid special tribute to the two original senators from the Lone Star State: “It might justly be said that the infant republic of Texas had two friends on whom she could lean with equal trust and confidence. These two great men placed country before self (and) deserve a warm place in the hearts of Texians for all time to come.”
If the owners of a Georgia mining company in which the 30 year old lawyer invested his savings had not run off with the money, Thomas Jefferson Rusk might never have come to Texas. He caught up with the crooks at Nacogdoches in 1834 but not before they had gambled away their ill-gotten gains.
Rusk decided there was no better place to start over than the bustling Mexican province. The first person the newcomer met was Sam Houston, the ex-governor of Tennessee who had settled in East Texas a year ahead of him. When he took the oath of allegiance required for Mexican citizenship, his new friend acted as a witness.
Rusk jumped feet first into the independence movement. He was at Gonzales in October 1835, when defiant colonists dared government soldiers to come and take their cannon. As a delegate from Nacogdoches at the Washington- on-the-Brazos convention in March 1836, he signed the Texas Declaration of Independence. Two weeks later, the interim rebel regime named him secretary of war.
After the fall of the Alamo, provisional president David G. Burnet sent Rusk after the retreating army with orders to stand and fight. Instead of butting heads with Houston, he listened to his secret plan for sucker-punching Santa Anna and threw in with the general.
At the Battle of San Jacinto, Houston put him in charge of the left wing of the Texas army. Rusk fought bravely on that historic afternoon causing his superior to report that he “was second to none in point of wisdom, courage and effective service.”
After Houston went to New Orleans for treatment of his ankle wound, Rusk took his place as commander-in-chief. He escorted the defeated Mexican troops to the Rio Grande and held a military funeral for the victims of the Goliad Massacre.
Houston encouraged Rusk to seek the highest office in the liberated land, but he came up with a good excuse for not entering the race, just as he would in 1838, 1841 and 1844. His reason in 1836 was the best of all. At 32 he was three birthdays shy of the minimum age for president.
Houston won in a landslide and appointed Rusk secretary of war. After six weeks on the job, he tendered his resignation in order to spend more time with his neglected family and to earn a living practicing law. Even after the tragic passing of Stephen F. Austin in late December, Houston could not talk him into coming back as secretary of state.
But Rusk’s many friends and admirers would not allow him to remain a private citizen for long. They elected him to the Second Republic Congress in September 1837, and he served as the Nacogdoches representative until May 1838.
Rusk first locked horns with Houston in the fall of 1837 by helping to create a militia over the president’s veto. As major general of the civilian force, he strained their relationship to the breaking point by coming down hard on several Indian tribes and driving Houston’s beloved Cherokees out of Texas.
In December 1838, congress presented Rusk with a fresh challenge -- chief justice of the supreme court. He finally rejoined his wife and children a year and a half later.
Except for a six-month encore with the militia in 1843, Rusk succeeded in staying out of the public arena until 1845, when he chaired the annexation convention. The next February, the state legislature chose Rusk and Houston as Texas’ first pair of U.S. Senators.
Rusk always seemed surprised by others’ high opinion of him. In 1852, a presidential election year, he confided to his brother, “You would be a little astonished at the number and respectability of men who wish to nominate me.”
But he preferred to leave the White House quest to his ambitious colleague, even though Sam’s obsession often got on his nerves. “Houston does little else but electioneer for the Presidency and as usual the work falls upon me,” he complained to his brother in 1855.
When Houston ran for governor as a Know-Nothing in 1857, Rusk refused to criticize his old friend. Their accidental encounter at a Nacogdoches rally resulted in an emotional reunion, as the two senators “embraced and sobbed like women. Without uttering a word, Rusk took Houston by the hand, led him to his carriage and to his home.”
Sam Houston wrapped up his whirlwind campaign on Jul. 28, a week before his first and last repudiation at the polls. The very next day, despondent over the death of his wife the previous April and worried sick by a tumor on his neck, Thomas Rusk committed suicide.
Bartee’s three books and “Best of This Week in Texas History” column collections are available at barteehaile.com.