It happened today - March 18, 2016

So close… and yet so far. That’s my feeling about Edward Clark becoming governor of Texas on March 18, 1861.

Well, no. Actually I have no feelings about Clark becoming governor of Texas or anything else about him. Except in this one regard. He became governor because they booted out Sam Houston for refusing to endorse Texas seceding from the Union and joining the Confederacy.

Sam Houston had a very interesting life and not only for winning the pivotal Battle of San Jacinto and securing Texas independence after being repeatedly criticized for lacking fighting spirit. He is the only man popularly elected governor of two different states (both starting with T, namely Tennessee and Texas) and he is the last former foreign head of state to sit in the United States Congress, having been President of Texas twice during its brief period of Independence and then a United States Senator from Texas from 1846-1859. Here’s the “so close… and yet” bit.

Houston was the only governor of a future Confederate state to refuse to endorse secession or take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy. And earlier in his career, including in Congress, he was an opponent of the most egregious abuses committed by the American government against aboriginals. Indeed, his second wife was a Cherokee. You could almost get the impression he was far more decent on race than most of his compatriots northern or southern. Except he was a slave-owner and an opponent of abolition.

He opposed the Civil War primarily on the grounds that the South would lose. Which again makes him more far-sighted than the vast majority of Southerners. A passionate supporter of the Union in principle, vehement in opposition to secession from the late 1840s on, a man who warned that “A nation divided against itself cannot stand” in 1850, eight years before Lincoln immortalized this paraphrase of Matthew 12:25 in this context, Houston also realized the war would be long and destructive without being successful.

In 1854, as one of only two Southern Senators to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he thundered “... what fields of blood, what scenes of horror, what mighty cities in smoke and ruins—it is brother murdering brother ... I see my beloved South go down in the unequal contest, in a sea of blood and smoking ruin.”

If he could see that far, he was far from ordinary in his perceptions and cannot claim simply to have been one among many whose vision was restricted. So why couldn’t he see that the “peculiar institution” that was, despite any amount of Southern apologetics, the central and indispensable cause of the war, was also wrong?

As I’ve noted elsewhere, slavery was an issue too big for politics, one on which the habitual equivocation of the greasy-pole-climbers was ruinous to their own careers as well as their nation. Houston himself, having opposed joining the Confederacy, refused Lincoln’s offer of 50,000 federal troops to put down the rebellion. He loved Texas too much to make war on its white populace who did overwhelmingly favour secession. And yet the result was that he faded from the scene. Honoured as he has been since his death, by a city, naval vessels, an army base and a national forest, he simply withdrew from public life while the catastrophe unfolded around him, and died in 1863 in Huntsville, TX.

For all his flaws, he was a great man. Yet even he stumbled, and fell, on this critical issue of racial slavery, unable to support abolition or secession and with no third option available. It is one of those, rare but not unique, where no amount of equivocation, dissembling or even prudent moderation is appropriate to the occasion. And those who did see better than their fellows on so many points have, I fear, even less excuse for not seeing clearly here.