It’s an old-fashioned study in contrasts, to look at the two of them, Abraham Lincoln and Sam Houston; both political giants, both of them a linchpin around which a certain point of American history turned, both of them men of the frontier. The similarities continue from that point: both of them almost entirely self-educated, as lawyers among other things, and from reading accounts by their contemporaries, it is clear that each possessed an enormous amount of personal charm. In their own time, though, each of them also acquired equally enormous numbers of bitter enemies. In fact, for a hero-founder of Texas, Houston attracted a considerable degree of vitriol from his contemporaries, and a level of published vilification which was not bettered until Lincoln appeared on the national scene as the presidential candidate favored by the north in the 1860 election. And both of them had ups and downs in their political and personal lives, although it’s hard to argue that Lincoln’s personal story arc was anything as eventful as Houston’s – the ADHD child of Jacksonian-era politics.
The summer of 1860 culminated a decade of increasingly bitter polarization among the citizens of the still-United States over the question of slavery, or as the common polite euphemism had it; “our peculiar institution.” At a period within living memory of older citizens, slavery once appeared as if it were something that would wither away as it became less and less profitable, and more and more disapproved of by practically everyone. But the invention of the cotton gin to process cotton fiber mechanically made large-scale agricultural production profitable, relighting the fire under a moribund industry. The possibility of permitting the institution of chattel slavery in the newly acquired territories in the West during the 1840s turned the heat up to a simmer. It came to a full rolling boil after California was admitted as a free state in 1850 . . . but at a cost of stiffening the Fugitive Slave Laws. And as a prominent senator, Jesse Hart Benton lamented subsequently, the matter of slavery popped up everywhere, as ubiquitous as the biblical plague of frogs. Attitudes hardened on both sides, and within a space of a few years advocates for slavery and abolitionists alike had all the encouragement they needed to readily believe the worst of each other.