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Big Sam vs. Little Davey
in Hot Election, 1841

by Wanda Orton
Wanda Orton

Presidential campaigns can get rough and rowdy, riddled with name calling and sophomoric temper fits.

For example, the Republic of Texas election in 1841. That was the year of the big face-off between longtime foes Sam Houston and David G. Burnet.

Those two absolutely loathed one another, their animosity going back to pre-San Jacinto.

Burnet called Houston a “big drunk” while Houston’s label for Burnet was “wetumpka,” translated “hog thief” in Indian. And speaking of Indian, Burnet accused Houston of being part Native American, a claim that – although not accurate – Houston accepted as a compliment.

During the volatile campaign, Houston and Burnet penned newspaper articles, using pseudonyms, and spread wild and crazy stories about one another in letters and speeches. One might say they set the standards for today’s blogging and twittering. Just think what they could have done with (and to) the Internet.

Houston’s ghost writer/campaign manager was his best friend, Dr. Ashbel Smith, who had urged him to run in the first place. From his plantation on Evergreen Road, Smith traveled the short distance to Houston’s home at Cedar Point to plan campaign strategy and help him compose the diatribes against Burnet.

Houston was fortunate to have such a capable cohort; the pioneer medical doctor/statesman was an extraordinary wordsmith.

In the heat of the verbal battle, Burnet challenged Houston to a duel.

“I never fight downhill,” responded Houston, an imposing figure who stood over 6 feet. In contrast, Burnet didn’t measure up. He was quite short and – based on his photos in history books – seemed rather out of shape.

In addition to hog thief and other names, including some not printable, Houston called Burnet “Little Davey.”

Finally, Houston became weary of it all, stating, “I am constrained to believe that the people of Texas are thoroughly disgusted with both of us.”

The two presidential contenders had served previously. Burnet had been the interim president of the Republic of Texas, elected at the convention in March 1836 when independence from Mexico was declared, and he served until the following October when Houston won the general election.

Mirabeau Lamar succeeded Houston, serving from late 1838 to 1841, with Burnet as his vice president.

In the role of vice president, Burnet gained additional experience as president, running the government several months when Lamar became ill. Based on his work in the Lamar administration and his earlier stint as provisional president, Burnet considered himself well qualified to be elected in 1841, but Texas voters thought not. Houston won in a landslide.

In the two years between his first and second term as president, Houston served in the Texas Congress, criticizing every move that Lamar and Burnet made.

There was one issue, however, that placed Houston on the same page with Lamar and Burnet. Lamar, who is remembered today as the Father of Education in Texas, initiated a system of free public education, and Houston was all for it.

Well, at least they could agree about something.


© Wanda Orton Baytown Sun Columnist, April 7, 2014 column
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