Triumph and Tragedy: Presidents of the Republic of Texas

Introduction Growing Up Gone to Texas Path to Power Mister President Later Years

Burnet Timeline

January 16, 1838 - Burnet's infant daugher Gertrude dies

December 1838 - Becomes vice-president of Texas

1839 - Takes part in the fighting during the expulsion of the Cherokees

1841 - William Henry Harrison, old friend of the Burnet family, becomes president

June 1841 - Texas Santa Fe expedition sets out for New Mexico

1841 - Runs for president against Sam Houston

1845 - Texas annexation

1845 - The term "manifest destiny" first appears in print, expressing the belief that the U.S. was meant to expand across the continent

1846-48 - Serves as secretary of state under Governor Henderson

1846-48 - Mexican War

1848 - Mexico cedes most of its western territory to the United States

1853 - Gadsden Purchase of Mexican border territory

1854 - Republican Party forms to promote abolition of slavery

October 30, 1858 - Hannah Burnet dies

March 2, 1861 - Texas secedes from the United States

January 1863 - Battle of Galveston restores island to Texas control for remainder of Civil War

1865 - William Burnet is killed in the Battle of Mobile

1866 - Goes to Washington as Texas senator but is not seated due to Reconstruction issues

March 30, 1870 - Texas readmitted to the Union

December 5, 1870 - David G. Burnet dies in Galveston

David G. Burnet

"King Wetumpka" vs. "Big Drunk"

Burnet had been so abused by his neighbors for his decisions as president that he vowed not to return home. However, he had nowhere else to go. His legal business had evaporated due to his unpopularity, so he was forced to work as a subsistence farmer.

His personal animosity with Sam Houston became a central theme of his life. At one point, he publicly called Houston "Big Drunk" and accused him of being part-Indian. Houston retaliated by calling Burnet a hog thief. Beside himself with outrage, Burnet challenged Houston to a duel, which the president declined. Doubtless Houston was correct when he observed, "I am constrained to believe that the people are thoroughly disgusted with both of us."

Vice-president: In 1838, Burnet was elected vice-president on Mirabeau B. Lamar's ticket. Lamar was ill for part of his presidency, and Burnet ran the government during his recuperation. However, his views and personality continued to be out of step with the majority of Texans. When the Santa Fe Expedition turned disastrous (see Texas Treasures for details), both Lamar and Burnet were threatened with impeachment.

Presidential candidate: Burnet ran for president against Sam Houston in 1841. The campaign was marked by vicious name-calling. Burnet alleged that Houston, in addition to being an alcoholic, was an opium addict who had the "blind malignity of a rattlesnake in dog days." For his part, Houston derisively called Burnet "Little Davy" and "King Wetumpka" (hog thief). Burnet was soundly defeated by the popular Houston; as one San Jacinto veteran noted, "Burnet could not be elected fiddler general to the old chief." When he took office for his second term, as a final act of revenge against his foe, Houston blocked payment of Burnet's salary for his tenure as vice-president.

Secretary of State: Burnet would hold only one more office in his life, a term as secretary of state under the first governor of Texas, James P. Henderson. He helped run Texas, now a state, while Henderson was away fighting in the Mexican War.

"The world is to me a mere blank": Burnet and his wife Hannah struggled financially and personally. They put their hopes for the future in their surviving son, William. To pay for William's education at a military school in Kentucky, the Burnets hired out their slaves and rented out their farm. William became an officer in the United States Army and was stationed on the western frontier to fight Indians.

Burnet spent many years working with Lamar on a history of the republic, which they planned as an exposé of Sam Houston's misdeeds. Burnet wrote most of the book, but he and Lamar were never able to find a publisher. Later, towards the end of his life, Burnet burned the manuscript in the spirit of forgiveness towards his old adversary.

In 1858, Hannah Burnet died after a long illness. William Burnet arranged for his father, infirm at age 70, to move to Galveston to live with an old friend, General Sidney Sherman. After Sherman's death a few years later, Burnet moved in with another friend, Preston Perry.

When the Civil War began, William Burnet resigned his commission and joined the Confederate cause. His father was opposed to secession but embraced the cause to support his son's choice. It was a crushing blow to David Burnet when William was killed near Mobile, Alabama, in 1865. He once wrote a friend, "The world to me is a mere blank, a soiled sheet without an intelligent or interesting trace upon it. May such never be your destiny."

Burnet's final turn on the political stage came the following year, when Texas sent him and Oran G. Roberts to Washington, D.C. as United States senators. Texas had not yet met the requirements to be readmitted to the Union after the war, and Burnet and Roberts were never seated.

Burnet died broke in Galveston at the age of 82. His friends paid for his funeral.

On to Sam Houston's First Term >>

David Burnet to Mirabeau B. Lamar, May 1839

Early Texas leaders wore many hats. In this 1839 letter, Vice-President Burnet accepts President Lamar's appointment as temporary secretary of state for the Republic of Texas.

Edward Hall to Mirabeau Lamar, August 1841

The Burnet-Houston election showdown was the talk of Texas in 1841.

David Burnet to Mirabeau Lamar, August 1855

David Burnet and Mirabeau B. Lamar became life-long friends. Corresponding about the book project that would expose their enemy, Sam Houston, occupied much of their time in retirement.

Page last modified: March 13, 2015