When Houston was 14, his father died and his mother moved her nine children to the frontier village of Maryville, Tennessee. After working for a time in the Maryville general store, Houston joined the army at the age of 20. There he attracted the admiring attention of his commanding general, Andrew Jackson, and established a distinguished record in the War of 1812.
In 1818, intrigued by politics, Houston decided to abandon the military for the law. He completed an 18-month law course in six months. By the following year, he had become a district attorney in Nashville, where he could make important political connections. Five years later, he ran for Congress and won. The people of Tennessee reelected him for a second term and twice made him their governor. Houston's personal life, however, suffered as his political fortunes soared. In 1829, his wife abandoned him. Despondent, he resigned the governorship and went to live with Cherokee Indians in Arkansas, serving for several years as their spokesman in Washington.
Houston's interest in the fate of the Arkansas Cherokee led him to make several trips to the neighboring Mexican State of Texas. He became intrigued by the growing Texan movement for political independence from Mexico and decided to make Texas his new home. In 1836, he signed the Texas declaration of independence. Because of his previous military experience, his fellow rebels chose him as commander-in-chief of the revolutionary Texas army. Although his first efforts as a military strategist were failures, Houston led the Texan army to a spectacular victory over superior Mexican forces at San Jacinto in April 1836.
Celebrated as the liberator of Texas, Houston easily won election later that year as the first president of the Republic of Texas. He immediately let it be known that Texas would like to become part of the United States. However, American fears of war with Mexico and questions over the extension of slavery into the new territory interfered with annexation for a decade. Finally, the aggressively expansionist President James Polk pushed Congress to grant statehood to Texas in 1846. Again an American citizen, Houston served for 14 years as a U.S. senator, where he argued eloquently for Native American rights.
The divisive issue of slavery finally derailed Houston's political career. His antislavery beliefs were out of step with the dominant southern ideology of Texas, and he staunchly resisted those who argued for southern secession from the Union during the 1850s. Nonetheless, his enduring popularity won him the governorship in 1859. When Texas voted to break from the Union in 1861, Houston refused to swear allegiance to the Confederacy. The Texas legislature voted to remove Houston from office and replaced him with a pro-Confederacy governor.
Disillusioned, Houston retired to his farm near Huntsville. He died two years later, in 1863, while the fratricidal war he had sought to avoid continued to tear his beloved state and nation apart.