Austin in the Limelight: The Presidential Inauguration of Sam Houston
In 1838 Mirabeau Lamar shot a buffalo at what became the intersection of Congress Avenue and 8th Street and afterwards proclaimed, “This should be the seat of future empire!”
Thirty-two years later a new Austin City Hall arose just west of the site. It replaced a building in which had beat the heart of the nascent Republic of Texas, one that had formed the core of early Austin’s identity and had served as the nation’s first Capitol in its first permanent seat of government. On December 13, 1841 this building hosted what still ranks as one of the most important political ceremonies ever to take place in the city of Austin, the presidential inauguration of Sam Houston.
This early painting of Austin looking west shows the Capitol at upper right displaying the large Texas flag. (Courtesy of the Austin History Center. Click for full-size image.)
Texas voters overwhelmingly chose Sam Houston is the Republic’s first elected President in 1836. That they selected Mirabeau Lamar as Houston’s Vice President led to one of those delicious ironies that delight readers of history. The pair’s political rivalry spurred contemporaries to speak of the “Houston Party” and the “anti-Houston Party.” Adding spice to the pot, however, was the personal hatred that each man held for the other. Of Houston, Lamar once wrote, “he is an isolated, heartless egotist; incapable of one abiding feeling of attachment to any; artful and intriguing; sometimes apparently candid, but never sincere; a Proteus in form and a chameleon in color.” Houston returned the sentiment in a letter to his wife, “He [Lamar] is a bad man, and utterly impure.”
Mirabeau Lamar led the opposition to Sam Houston's policies in the 1830s and 1840s. His animosity for Houston extended beyond politics into a personal hatred of his rival. (Courtesy of the Austin History Center. Click for full-size image.)
Constitutionally barred from seeking re-election, President Houston yielded his office to Vice President Lamar in 1838. Three years later he trounced Lamar’s Vice President, David Burnet, in a particularly nasty and vitriolic election. Many Austin residents delighted at the prospect of the city hosting its first swearing-in ceremony.
David Burnet shared Mirabeau Lamar's hatred of Sam Houston. His campaign against Houston for the presidency was marked by bitter charges of drunkenness and more. (Courtesy of the Austin History Center. Click for full-size image.)
Mirabeau Lamar had taken his oath of office in Houston, the city on Buffalo Bayou named after the man he detested. No one in government particularly liked Houston, given its foul water, mosquito swarms and muddy streets, and Lamar’s first mission upon assuming office had been to relocate the seat of government out west. Congressman Sam Houston had bitterly opposed the move, not out of love for his namesake city, but because the law establishing Houston as the seat of government had promised that city it would keep its status at least through 1840. He also preferred a more eastern location for the new city of Austin than Lamar’s choice of the Colorado River hamlet of Waterloo on the country’s western frontier. In a playful twist of fate, Mirabeau Lamar proved to be the only Texas President inaugurated in Houston while Sam Houston’s 1841 inauguration was the only such ceremony held in Austin.
Known as a snappy dresser, Sam Houston intended to return to the presidency in style. Long before the election he ordered his inaugural outfit from French Chargé de Affaires Alphonse de Saligny. To be made of green velvet embroidered in gold, the suit would be complemented by a plumed hat and embroidered velvet cape. Startled, Saligny wrote, “It is in this strange outfit that the future Head of the Republic of Texas intends to take his seat in the Presidential armchair."
Sam Houston's green velvet suit has been lost but the accompanying hat is preserved in the Sam Houston Memorial Museum in Huntsville. (Photo by Jeffrey Kerr).
On December 8, five days ahead of the inauguration, Sam Houston arrived in Austin. He was met two miles east of town by the Travis Guards, whose captain made a short welcoming speech before delivering the honored guest over to the cavalcade of citizens standing in readiness. After Austin Mayor Moses Johnson officially greeted the President, a group of local and national dignitaries led him into town. Vice President-elect Edward Burleson, House Speaker Kenneth Anderson and numerous Senators and Representatives led the way, while a long line of curious citizens, including several ladies borne by carriage, trailed behind. The parade stopped at Angelina Eberly’s boarding house in the 100 block of West Pecan, where the President-elect’s room awaited. The day ended with an informal dance held at the inn.
On the morning of the inauguration a notice in the Daily Bulletin informed the paper’s readers that outgoing President Lamar planned to forego the opportunity of making a speech at the day’s ceremony. He likely remembered being upstaged at his own inauguration three years earlier when Sam Houston had entertained the crowd for three hours while Lamar waited anxiously for his turn at the podium. Instead of attempting to follow the great orator, Lamar had dejectedly handed his prepared speech to his secretary and fled the scene. Few spectators stayed to witness the secretary’s flat delivery of President Lamar’s message.
The Texas Capitol in Austin witnessed two of the most important ceremonies in the history of the Republic of Texas, the 1841 presidential inauguration of Sam Houston and the annexation ceremony of 1846. This drawing was rendered by Julia Robertson in the late 19th century as directed by the recollections of her aunt, Julia Lee Sinks, who lived in Austin at the time of Houston's inauguration.
The Capitol sat in the western half of the block bounded by Congress Avenue and Hickory (8th), Colorado and Ash (9th) streets. Spectators began gathering early in the morning for the midday ceremony. A temporary covered stage had been constructed at the rear of the building facing Colorado Street. Behind this stage loomed battle flags captured at San Jacinto and a large portrait of Stephen F. Austin. Chairs distributed in front and to the sides of the stage were reserved for members of Congress and ladies in attendance.
The former Austin City Hall occupies the one-time site of the Texas Capitol. This view north on Colorado Street shows what would have been the rear of the Capitol in 1841, scene of Sam Houston's inauguration. (From the book The Republic of Austin by Jeffrey Kerr, Waterloo Press, 2010.)
Perhaps in deference to his new and more conservative wife Margaret, Sam Houston did not wear his fancy French velvet suit to the ceremony. Accompanying the conventionally-dressed President-elect onstage were the Vice President-elect, President Pro Tem of the Senate, Speaker of the House, President Lamar, Vice President Burnet and the American Chargé de Affaires Joseph Eve. The Travis Guards made a show of marching smartly to their places, after which R. E. B. Baylor offered a prayer. The Daily Bulletin dryly noted that the minister, “in a lengthy supplication to the Most High, asked the kindly protection of that Power for all around, and for the well-being of the country.”
Baptist minister R. E. B. Baylor delivered the invocation at Sam Houston's second presidential inauguration and later helped found Baylor University.
House Speaker Kenneth Anderson administered the oath of office. At the precise moment that Houston accepted his charge an artillery barrage delivered from the arsenal several blocks away surprised and baffled the crowd. Few in attendance knew of the telegraph signal from the Capitol that had triggered the salute. With everyone still buzzing with excitement, the new President delivered his own lengthy speech.
Never fond of life in Austin, President Houston seized upon the opportunity presented by two separate Mexican army raids on San Antonio in 1842 to remove the seat of government to Washington-on-the-Brazos (simply called Washington in those days). The move insured that Houston’s would be the only Texas president to receive his oath of office in Austin. Houston’s successor Anson Jones assumed the presidency in Washington and it was President Jones who, in 1846, struck the Lone Star Flag in favor of the Stars and Stripes in the last official ceremony held in the Republic of Texas. With annexation by the United States Jones moved Texas government back to Austin. That last official act therefore occurred in front of an excited group of Austin residents at the one building they felt to be the rightful Capitol of the new state, the log structure at the intersection of Congress Avenue and Hickory Street.
President Anson Jones lowering the Texas flag and raising the flag of the United States at the official annexation ceremony held at the Capitol in Austin. (Courtesy of the Austin History Center.)