the rambling boy
Fireworks and entertainment at the Congress of Texas
By LONN TAYLOR
The Texas Legislature went into its 84th session on January 10 and it will undoubtedly provide fireworks and entertainment until it adjourns at the end of May. Molly Ivins called the Texas Legislature “the finest form of free entertainment ever invented, better than the circus, better than the zoo.” I concur. I worked there in the 1960s and I got to see Senator Charlie Wilson making a speech opposing an increase in the sales tax in which he demonstrated how he had to explain to his dog – “a rather large Great Dane” – why the dog had to pay sales tax on his dog food while dogs owned by corporations were exempt. I got to see Senator George Parkhouse of Dallas throw a water pitcher at Senator Neville Colson, who was an inoffensive old lady from Bryan. I got to see land commissioner Jerry Sadler try to strangle Representative Jake Johnson of San Antonio, a cripple, in the middle of a legislative hearing.
But no matter how raucous or rambunctious a 21st-century session of the legislature gets, it cannot equal a session of its predecessor, the Congress of the Republic of Texas, which took place in Houston in December 1838. In this case the action took place in the Senate, which at the time consisted of 14 senators, all veterans of the Texas revolution and some barely literate. Among them was Robert Wilson, representing the Harrisburg District, who was known as Honest Bob Wilson because of a statement that he had once made that he was “always as honest as the circumstances of the case and the condition of the country would allow.”
Let me set the scene. Mirabeau Lamar was president of Texas, and he had almost bankrupted the young republic with his extravagant schemes of expansion and public improvements. Texas banknotes were worth 10 percent of their face value and the treasury was empty. David Burnett was vice president and presided over the senate. Burnett desperately wanted to succeed Lamar as president and thought he had found a way to do it by leading the republic back to solvency. He had been negotiating with a Mississippi bank to float a million-dollar loan to the Republic of Texas in exchange for an 8% bond issue backed by the Republic’s public lands. The bank was ready to move but demanded that the deal, which required the approval of the senate, be carried out in strict secrecy.
Burnett called a secret session of the senate on Christmas Eve, 1838, intending to bulldoze through a bill approving the loan. But Senator Wilson, who had heard about the pending arrangement from a friend in New Orleans, was dead against it. He knew that the Mississippi bank was unsound and was about to fold (which it did), and felt that the Republic’s public lands were at stake and that the passage of the bill in a secret session was a crime against the people of Texas. When Burnett called the session to order and started to speak about the bill, Wilson stood up and interrupted him and said just that. Burnett was furious. He shouted that Wilson was out of order and told him to sit down and shut up. The Houston Telegraph and Texas Register reported that Wilson said “that he would be God-damned if he would come to order,” and the story continued “. . . the sergeant-at-arms was instructed to compel Mr. Wilson to seat himself and come to order. An attempt was made by the sergeant-at-arms to restore order, which was ineffectual and only tended to excite the member from Harrisburg, who continued violently abusing the members and president of the senate.” Wilson “invoked the vengeance of Almighty God to strike dead any member who voted for the bill or any measure calculated to injure the country” and then stalked out of the capitol onto Main Street, telling everyone he met what Burnett was trying to do. That ended the Christmas Eve session.
The Senate met again on December 26 and Burnett introduced a resolution declaring Wilson’s seat vacant, which passed 10 to 1, and Wilson was expelled from the Senate. But he was a popular man in his district, and two weeks later an election to fill his vacant seat returned him to the capitol. His re-entrance to the senate chamber was spectacular. According to the Senate Journal, the senate’s proceedings were interrupted on January 11 by the sound of a bugle, and a mob of men, many under the influence of alcohol, burst into the chamber carrying Wilson on their shoulders. It was Wilson who was blowing the bugle. The mob ceremoniously placed Wilson in his seat with the admonition to stay there and left the building. Wilson apparently went with them because the Journal records that Burnett then ordered the sergeant-at-arms to arrest the members of the mob and Wilson and bring them back to the capitol to be tried for contempt of Congress. The senate temporarily adjourned so that the members could assist the sergeant-at-arms, and everyone headed for the saloons on Main Street. When the senators reconvened at 7pm, no one was in any condition to conduct business and they quickly adjourned for the night.
The next day it was noon before a quorum could be assembled. Wilson was present, under arrest in the custody of the sergeant-at-arms, and made a speech in which he said that the men who had disrupted the senate were not a mob but “a party of freemen reinstating a man who had been a true and faithful servant.” Nevertheless, Wilson was compelled by a vote to receive a reprimand from Vice President Burnett, which was read to him on the morning of January 14. It said, in part, “. . . you have wrought an abiding disgrace to yourself and your misguided comrades . . . Pause in your silly and thoughtless career . . . Reflect seriously on the error of your ways. . . . Go hence, be wise and do better.” A thousand copies were printed and distributed to newspapers.
Wilson stayed in the senate for the rest of the 1839 term and then retired from politics and made a small fortune in real estate. The public outcry that he raised defeated Burnett’s bill and preserved Texas’s public lands. There are historians who say that Wilson sacrificed his political career and his dignity for that end, but I think that perhaps he was just indulging in the Texas legislator’s propensity for strong drink and hoo-haw. We will see plenty of that in the coming months.
Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.