Sam Houston vs. William Stanbery

Trivia fact: Texas legend Sam Houston is the only person to be governor of two US states, Tennessee and Texas.

Houston was also an adopted citizen of the Cherokee nation, and in the time between his Tennessee governorship and his time in Texas, he went to Washington to protest the government’s defrauding of the Cherokee. While he was there, congressman William Stanbery gave a speech in the House that implied Houston himself was involved in the fraud.

Houston read about the remarks and sent Stanbery a letter asking for verification. Apparently, this was the first step of a dueling challenge, which Stanbery refused by refusing to even read the letter. Ten days later, the two men happened upon each other on Pennsylvania Avenue.

In the colorful –and I would guess, not entirely accurate — language of 1928’s Sam Houston: Colossus in Buckskin:

“Are you Mr. Stanberry?” asked Houston, and when the Ohio congressman answered in the affirmative, Houston shouted, “Then you are a damned scoundrel,” and catching the squirming congressman by the collar, proceeded to give him the caning that had been promised.

It has become much the custom for historians to brand the encounter as a brutal, atrocious assault, “barbarous and ruffianly” in every respect, but the fact remains that not only was Stanberry a man as powerful as Houston, but he had the added advantage of being armed. Almost with the striking of the first blow, he drew his pistol and pulled the trigger when the barrel was pressed against Houston’s heart. The weapon missed fire, however, and wrenching it from Stanberry’s hand, Houston calmly went on with his caning, only halting when the agonized legislator broke down and whimpered.”

Houston was put on trial, and Francis Scott Key was his attorney. Key gave a mediocre opening statement and may have been too hung over to give the closing statement, so Houston did it himself — allegedly, also hung over. He was found guilty and fined $500, which he did not pay, instead heading to Texas.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted September 7, 2014 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

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  2. Posted February 18, 2016 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Actually, there were two trials. One was held in Congress, the other in the D.C. courts. Key, a close Andrew Jackson adviser, represented Sam Houston in both. The congressional trial went on for weeks. One reason was that Key was ill. There is no evidence that he was hung over. Another is that both he and Houston were very (very) long-winded. Houston was convicted in the criminal trial, as you say, and fined and did not pay it. That was President Jackson’s doing. It’s all in my biography of Key, What So Proudly We Hailed, Francis Scott Key, A Life, which came out in 2014, the first bio of Key in 75 years.

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