David G. Burnet
"No More Than Tom, Dick, Or Harry"
On the run: Burnet took over during the worst crisis in Texas history. Santa Anna's troops had sacked the Alamo and captured Fannin's forces at Goliad. Thousands of terrified civilians were on the road as refugees in a headlong flight that became known as the "Runaway Scrape." Burnet and his cabinet were no exceptions. They abandoned Washington-on-the-Brazos and fled to Buffalo Bayou, near Harrisburg. Burnet carried important government documents, including the Texas Declaration of Independence, in his saddlebags.
The Texas army seemed in no condition to stand and fight. Barefoot and destitute, Sam Houston's ragtag force was heading eastward towards the Louisiana border. Burnet was deeply angered by Houston's retreat, which he considered cowardice. For his part, Houston considered the flight of the government to be the cause of much of the panic gripping the country. As the crisis escalated, Burnet declared martial law and ordered all men between the ages of 18 and 55 to report for military duty or lose their Texas citizenship.
On April 9, Burnet received a gift from his old home town of Cincinnati--a pair of six-pound cannons that were immediately dubbed "The Twin Sisters." Burnet sent the cannons on to Sam Houston, where they would soon be heard at the Battle of San Jacinto. As events moved towards that climax, Burnet and the cabinet were forced to flee again, this time to the relative safety of Galveston Island.
Victory at San Jacinto: For David and Hannah Burnet, the crisis was more than political or military. It was intensely personal. Burnet rescued his wife and two children from Oakland and escaped arrest within sight of a detachment of Mexican troops. At Galveston, they took shelter in a log cabin made of drift logs, with no furniture but a couple of pallets, some boxes, and a barrel that the president used as a writing table. Crude as the conditions were, they were better than those of a thousand refugees who were camping on Galveston's beaches.
On April 21, Sam Houston and his army defeated the Mexican army at San Jacinto. The government received the news only two days later, but Burnet had to wait almost a week before he received written communication from General Houston. Despite his joy in the victory, Burnet's emotions were dominated by irritation with his commanding general.
Burnet traveled to San Jacinto to meet with General Santa Anna, who was now a prisoner of war. While there, he had an angry quarrel with Sam Houston over Santa Anna's horse, a fine black stallion wearing a beautiful Mexican saddle. Houston claimed the horse as a prize, but the animal turned out to have been captured by the Mexicans from a Texas settler. Burnet forced Houston to return the horse to its owner. Though a minor incident, the argument exemplified the conflict between the flamboyant Houston and the stiff, lawyerly Burnet. Burnet criticized Houston's swearing; the general carped over the president's souvenir-hunting on the battlefield. The animosity would only grow in the years to come.
The Treaties of Velasco: Burnet established himself and the cabinet at Velasco. There Burnet would achieve the most significant accomplishment of his presidency, the Treaties of Velasco (see Texas Treasures for details). Texas troops and the general public were enraged when they learned that Burnet had cut a deal that would allow the hated Santa Anna to return home, supposedly to secure Mexican recognition of Texas independence. As Burnet put it, "Santa Anna dead is no more than Tom, Dick, or Harry dead, but living, he may avail Texas much."
Talk of an assassination attempt swept Velasco. It is said that Hannah Burnet sat up at night with pistols at her side so that her husband could get some sleep. When Santa Anna was placed on the Texas Navy ship Invincible to be taken to Vera Cruz, an angry mob gathered at the temporary capitol and threatened to lynch Burnet. Burnet was forced to back down and remove the Mexican general back to Texas soil.
Several army officers planned a coup against the president in which they would arrest Burnet, seize control of the government, and put Santa Anna on trial. The plot collapsed when loose-tongued soldiers confided in their friends and drinking buddies. A number of loyal citizens and soldiers rallied to Burnet's defense, even though many of them disagreed with the treaties.
A Chance for Recognition Lost: Burnet alienated potential allies in the search for U.S. recognition of Texas independence. He appointed several commissioners to travel to Washington but failed to issue any instructions or correspond either with them or with the several other commissioners who had already been appointed by the Convention. Burnet also contributed to a dust-up in U.S.-Mexican relations when he took part in a scheme to invite a U.S. army general to intervene in Indian unrest in Texas.
A Bitter Departure: In September 1836, Sam Houston was elected president in the first election held in the new-born Republic of Texas. Burnet was exhausted and embittered by the criticism he had received. He and his wife were also personally suffering with grief over the death in September of their infant son Jacob. Burnet wrote in the family Bible that Jacob was "a Victim of the War of Revolution." On October 23, 1836, Burnet resigned under pressure so that Houston could take office before the official start of his term in December.