Giants of Texas History
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Mirabeau B. Lamar
Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar was born in Georgia in 1798, the son of a successful planter. As a young man, Lamar was multi-talented -- he excelled at horseback riding and fencing, wrote poetry, painted in oils, and read widely, making himself knowledgeable on a range of topics. By the time he was 25, Lamar was serving as secretary to the governor of Georgia. By age 31, he was elected to the state senate.
In 1830, Lamar's wife Tabitha died of tuberculosis. It was a blow from which it took Lamar several years to recover. He composed several of his most well known poems during this time of sadness, but he also found his political career at a standstill. Two bids for Congress were unsuccessful.
In 1834, Lamar decided to visit Texas, where his friend James Fannin had recently moved and begun slave trading in Velasco. Lamar fell in love with Texas and decided that he too would make it his home. Like Fannin, he became a passionate revolutionary. Lamar went home to Georgia to settle his affairs for the move, only to learn of the massacres at the Alamo and at Goliad, where Fannin and 341 other Texas revolutionaries had been taken prisoner and executed by orders of General Santa Anna.
Lamar rushed back to Texas and joined the revolutionary army as a private. He was commissioned a colonel on the field of San Jacinto just before the start of the battle and made commander of the cavalry. During the battle, he distinguished himself by his bravery and quick action. After the Texan victory, Lamar was made secretary of war in the cabinet of President David G. Burnet, and in the fall of 1836 was elected vice-president of the Republic of Texas.
Lamar became a political opponent of President Sam Houston. In 1838, Houston could not by law run for another term. Lamar ran for the office himself and won. On December 10, 1838, Mirabeau B. Lamar was sworn in as president of the Republic of Texas.
Lamar inherited a Texas scarcely any better off than on the day of the victory at San Jacinto. The republic had no money, no commercial treaties, no international recognition except from the United States and no prospects of annexation by the U.S. Texans were under constant Indian attack. Mexico did not recognize Texas independence and threatened invasion and reconquest. Lamar, however, was nothing if not a romantic. In Lamar's eyes, a broke and scarcely viable country would grow into a Texas empire that would stretch to the Pacific Ocean. A collection of log cabins at the westernmost edge of settlement would become a grand new capital, Austin. The children of a rough and hardscrabble population would attend public schools and universities, funded by Texas's vast wealth in land.
Lamar took steps to realize his dreams. Within a month of taking office, he had proposed the system of education based on land that would, decades later, finally blossom into a school and university system for Texas. By October 1839, he had not only begun the building of the new capital, but moved the government to the settlement. And he went on the offensive militarily. Scorning co-existence with the Indians, he drove the Cherokees out of the state and waged war against the Comanches. The war with the Comanches succeeded in driving the tribe from the settlements, but at a great loss of life on both sides.
Lamar's efforts to expand Texas borders proved to be a fiasco. Texas had claimed since 1836 that the Santa Fe territory, including most of present-day New Mexico, rightfully belonged to the Republic of Texas. In 1841, without congressional approval, Lamar sent an expedition of volunteers, military, and merchants carrying 21 wagons of trade goods to Santa Fe to persuade the people of Santa Fe to abandon their Mexican citizenship and join the Republic of Texas. The expedition was poorly planned and suffered many hardships. When they finally arrived in Santa Fe, they were promptly taken prisoner and marched to Mexico City. They were not released until 1842, after Lamar had left office.
When Texas was annexed by the United States in 1846 and war broke out again with Mexico, Lamar joined the U.S. Army. He fought in the battle of Monterrey and helped organize a municipal government in Laredo.
In his later years, Lamar traveled, wrote poetry, and spoke out in support of slavery in the South. Eventually he came to believe that the only solution for the South was to secede from the Union. He found some personal happiness when he remarried in 1851; the following year, he and his wife Henrietta had a daughter, Loretto. From 1857-59, he served as United States minister to Nicaragua and Costa Rica. He died on his plantation in Richmond, Texas, in 1859.
Detail from Portrait of Mirabeau B. Lamar. Prints and Photographs Collection, Texas State Library and Archives Commission. #1990/200-33.