As the Texas-headquartered Boy Scouts of America moved closer to its vote on allowing openly gay members, Texas Gov. Rick Perry revisited his opposition to such a change, calling for leadership that hews to principles even when they are unpopular.
Speaking May 6 via video as part of the national, conservative Family Research Council’s “Stand With Scouts Sunday” webcast, Perry cited the example of Sam Houston, Texas’ first president and seventh governor, whose portrait hung behind Perry on a wall in the Governor’s Mansion.
“From this library that I speak, he made a powerful decision that cost him his governorship,” Perry said. “He was against slavery, and he stood up and very passionately said, you know, ‘Texas does not need to leave the Union over this issue of slavery. We need to stay. We’ve only been’ — he thought, a terrible decision. He was right. But it cost him his governorship.”
That’s “the kind of principled leadership” we need today, Perry said.
His comments touched off an Internet flurry of debate over whether opposing slavery could or should be equated with opposing gay admission to Scouting, but we wondered about the underlying facts. Did Sam Houston, the leader of Texas’ military insurrection against Mexico, oppose slavery and say Texas shouldn’t split from the United States over it?
Houston did lose his job as governor over secession. Texas’ secession convention removed Houston as governor March 18, 1861, after he refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the Confederate States of America. Historians have written that Houston’s views on secession had earlier cost him his seat in the U.S. Senate.
As a senator, according to the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas, Houston angered pro-slavery factions by voting in 1848 to prohibit slavery in Oregon; supporting the delicately balanced slavery/anti-slavery decisions in the Compromise of 1850; and opposing, in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act that let territories decide their own slavery status, repealing previous law that had banned slavery north of latitude 36°30’.
What guided Houston’s thinking in these disputes was his belief in the “glorious Union” he had worked hard to get Texas into. The Handbook says, “As senator, Houston emerged as an ardent Unionist … a stand that made him an increasingly controversial figure. He stridently opposed the rising sectionalism of the antebellum period and delivered eloquent speeches on the issue.”
Perry spokesman Josh Havens referred us to the 2004 biography “Sam Houston,” in which author James Haley described Houston the politician as treading a fine line on slavery for decades. “He disliked it,” Haley wrote, but “recognized it as a fact of life to be dealt with.”
Haley told us, via email, “Gov. Perry is right that Houston was against slavery, but as a Southern senator he was chained to it and could not openly oppose it.”
Houston’s personal views on slavery are unclear. He was a slaveowner. According to his biography online at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, an inventory of his property upon his death in 1863 listed “12 slaves valued at $10,530.20.”
Yet “almost all acts other than his ownership of slaves support the idea that he disagreed with slavery as an institution,” the university biography said. Among the examples it gives: “While in office as president of the Republic of Texas and later as governor, he refused to permit payments to bounty hunters of escaped slaves. He also prohibited slave ships from trafficking in Texas.”
In an 1858 U.S. Senate speech, Houston described himself by saying, “I was not the enemy of slavery, nor was I its propagandist, nor will I ever be.”
Houston ran for governor in 1859 as a pro-slavery candidate, according to T.R. Fehrenbach’s book “Lone Star: A History Of Texas And The Texans.”
“His platform was clear: he supported slavery, he supported the Constitution, but he pledged allegiance to the Union, come what may,” Fehrenbach wrote.
In a Sept. 22, 1860, speech in Austin, Houston said slavery was not threatened if Southern states stayed in the Union: “We still have the institution of slavery. All the legislation on the subject for the past 20 years has been to secure it to us, so long as we may want it.”
Our ruling: Perry said his long-ago predecessor “was against slavery, and he stood up and very passionately said, you know, ‘Texas does not need to leave the Union over this issue of slavery.’” Houston’s personal views are unclear; politically, he took actions that were viewed as anti-slavery as well as actions that were pro-slavery. But he did exhort Southerners and his fellow Texans not to secede over slavery — an unpopular stance he stuck to in hopes of preserving the Union he revered. We rate Perry’s statement as Half True.
Statement: Says Sam Houston opposed slavery and as governor said Texas should not leave the union over slavery.