When Liberty Was More Than Just a Word

“It was a day when liberty was more than just a word.”
-pg. 112, Sam Houston’s Republic, Tagawa


As a native Texan, Texas history has always interested me. Perhaps I’m just biased, but even you non-Texans have got to admit that Texas has a unique and thrilling history, that has captured the hearts and imaginations of thousands of young Americans and even Europeans. But what was it really like to live in that place and time? Whenever an era becomes widely idolized the actual facts of history often becomes romanized and blown out of proportion.

What does King Arthur and Merlin have to do with Sam Houston? What does Robin Hood have to do with the hero of San Jacinto? Or what does the Reformation and the Spanish Inquisition have to do with a group of struggling settlers in a no-man’s land called Texas? Or how does a Baptist Preacher traveling south because of a hemorrhage in his lungs fit in to the story of the Republic of Texas? How did faith impact Texas culture? The Lone Star State harbored a wild menagerie of characters–everything from catholic nuns to desperate desperadoes fleeing from the laws of other states to Indians hostile and friendly to wealthy Europeans seeking asylum to greed-struck adventurers to Mexican immigrants to directionless wanderers. With ideas diverse as its people, Texas has it all. Their fight for liberty was complex, blood-bought and divinely orchestrated.

Learn all this and more in “Sam Houston’s Republic” by Lynne Basham Tagawa.

Sam Houston is a man of small beginnings but lasting impact who stood at the center of a melting pot of people and ideas–Sam Houston with his wisdom, his courage, his integrity, his wrestlings and triumphs, is a man who has taken his place among my greatest heroes.

In Sam Houston’s Republic, Mrs. Tagawa doesn’t merely state the facts and deliver yet another dry history textbook to gather dust on the shelf, she tells a story, speaking not only to the mind but also to the heart.

Mrs. Tagawa begins her book by setting the stage for the upcoming drama, giving an overview of the religious, political, social, and economic circumstances leading up to the settlement of Texas. Careful to distinguish historical fact from speculation, she nonetheless makes use of an educated imagination to bring each event to life, inserting “possible” conversations such as an ancient Celtic immigrant to Ireland might have had with his wife on the voyage across the British Channel, or a young Canary Island immigrant to “Tejas” might have had with his father about the neighboring indians and the necessity of their royal family taking up menial labor to survive in Texas where there is no peasant class.

This book is a biography of Sam Houston but it is more than that, it’s a contemplation of the events and ideas that shaped our beloved state, the state Sam Houston loved.

At first, I found Mrs. Tagawa’s habit of frequently and unexpectedly switching between events and people confusing but I grew used to it as I got deeper into the book and came to appreciate this “novel-style” of writing because it made the story move faster and gave each event a three-dimensional view of the events, people and ideas surrounding each moment in history. Most history books I’ve read organize the chapters by subject; for example, “Sam Houston on Slavery”, “Sam Houston and Religion”, “Sam Houston as President” and so on.

Switching between Sam Houston sitting at his writing desk at Washington-on-the-Brazos, Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis fighting at the Alamo, the disputes of the Texas Congress and the machinations of the Spanish dictator gave texture and real-life complexity and chronological perspective to each historical event, bringing the events to life.

However, it would have been helpful if the text had lines to notify the reader of changes in time or viewpoint.

Do you remember the last time you laughed out loud at something you read in a history book? Yet some parts of “Sam Houston’s Republic” were downright funny, such as when the Spanish Government tried to confiscate the single cannon of Gonzales:

“Texas was a powder keg. [General] Cos supplied the match.

…The citizens of Gonzales had no intention of giving up their cannon, even though it wasn’t the greatest cannon, and even though it didn’t work very well. It did make noise.

…Shots were fired. None of the Texans was injured except one man whose horse reared, throwing off his rider. Landing on his nose, this fellow shed the first blood by a Texan in the cause of liberty. They were fighting for principle. Mostly. Noah Smithwick wrote years later, “Some were for independence, some were for the Constitution of 1824, and some were for anything, just so long as it was a row.”

…A hit! But a cloud of dust obscured their vision, and when it settled, the men on board were probably bitterly disappointed. Unfortunately, the shot had done no discernible damage to the fort. But the impetuous Travis was not discouraged. He proceeded to demand immediate surrender, and when Captain Tenorio asked for a day to consider, Travis gave him one hour. Based on one cannonball and chutzpah.” (Kindle Locations 2179-2216).

Mrs. Tagawa’s book is also unique because of her unashamedly Christian worldview that reveals itself throughout the book.

I learned many things about Texas History and the man Sam Houston, that I had never heard before, some of which I would probably never find in a mainstream biography. One of these was the fact that Sam Houston was a Christian, converted late in life after decades of deep wrestling. Mrs. Tagawa weaves this spiritual battle alongside the physical and ideological ones Houston fought for Texas, portraying a Houston (nicknamed “Big Drunk” by his adopted Cherokee family) who struggled deeply with the reality of his sin and despair of the possibility of redemption even while he fought against the armies of Santa Anna and delivered stunning speeches in favor of the annexation of Texas before the United States Senate.

Interspersing her own narrative with excerpts from letters, Mrs. Tagawa captured not only the passion of Sam Houston for Texas but his wise and balanced perspective on difficult and controversial issues such as slavery, independence and annexation, his unwavering devotion to conviction and standing up for what’s right no matter how few the men who stand behind him are, his commitment to integrity, the tenderness and love Houston had for his wife and family and the joy he eventually found in Christ.

Human and susceptible to temptations, grief and profound pain, Sam Houston was nonetheless a man of honor to the end, worthy of our careful study, admiration and emulation.

His last mortal thoughts were of those he most loved on earth. “Texas! . . . Texas!” “Margaret!” Later he slipped quietly away. The sun was just setting when Margaret Houston and her children were gathered around the still body of her beloved husband. Gently the grieving widow removed an old ring from her husband’s hand, the ring that his mother had given to him so long ago. She showed it to her children. There was a word engraved on the ring that could still be easily read. “Honor.” (Kindle Locations 6744-6751).

Sam Houston is a man worth emulating, his beloved republic, worth studying.


2 thoughts on “When Liberty Was More Than Just a Word

  1. Great article! Makes me want to read the book! The best History class I every took wove ‘dry’ history with well written historical fiction which gave me both the facts and the heart of what was going on. 🙂 Much like this book did.


  2. Pingback: Six Month Anniversary | Living In Heavens shadow

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