Dallas — For about a month in 1832, at least, it must have seemed to some like the trial of the century.
Sam Houston, the victor of the Battle of San Jacinto that won independence for the Republic of Texas, endured a trial conducted by the United States House of Representatives in April and May of that year for using a hickory cane to club a member of Congress who accused him of fraud.
The trial turned into a magnet for the era’s top political celebrities, including not just Houston but President Andrew Jackson, former president and anti-slavery leader John Quincy Adams, future president James K. Polk, and Houston’s attorney Francis Scott Key (the composer of “The Star-Spangled Banner”). Playwright Aaron Loeb spins the tale of that incident in The Trials of Sam Houston, which has its world premiere by the Dallas Theater Center, with an opening night on April 27 and running through May 13 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
Directed by Kevin Moriarty, the cast includes Brierley Acting Company members Steven Michael Walters, Ace Anderson, Kieran Connolly, Liz Mikel, and Alex Organ; as well as stage, film and television actor Charlie Robinson (of NBC’s Night Court), and actors David Coffee Kate Wetherhead.
The play centers on the House trial, which took place just three years after Sam Houston had resigned as governor of Tennessee after Eliza Allen, the daughter of a wealthy planter, left him to return to her parents after only eleven weeks of marriage. Until that point, Houston had been considered a prospect for the presidency, but now rumors swirled of adultery and domestic abuse.
Unwilling to talk about the reasons for the breakup or to speak ill of his wife, Houston abruptly quit as governor, and went into “voluntary exile” to live among the Cherokees in modern-day Oklahoma, where he reportedly earned the nickname “Big Drunk.” He became an agent for the Cherokees and was in Washington, D.C. in that capacity when Rep. William Stanbery of Ohio made a speech accusing Houston of committing fraud when he received a contract regarding rations for the indigenous Cherokee nation.
Outraged at the insult, Houston confronted Stanbery near the House cloakroom and the two almost got into a fight, before Polk, Houston’s fellow Tennessean, intervened. On the night of April 13, Houston finally got his vengeance and assaulted Stanbery with a cane. The House voted 145-25 to arrest Houston and put him on trial. Houston hired Key, who proved to be incompetent, and the House eventually voted to fine the former governor and reprimand him. Houston, however, made a stirring speech in his defense and, in the violence-saturated and hyper-macho culture of the time, his caning of Stanbery won him fans across the nation.
Once politically dead, Sam Houston made a miraculous comeback. Soon after the trial, he headed to Texas where he successfully led the Texas Revolution, twice became president of the Texas Republic and, in the 1850s, won elections to the U.S. Senate and the governorship of the state he helped create.
Illinois native Aaron Loeb delved into history in a previously well-received off-Broadway play in 2010, Abe Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party. That production presented the tale of a grade school teacher put on trial for contributing to the delinquency of minors after including rumors about Lincoln’s sexuality in a school pageant. In a phone interview Sunday, Loeb said he was inspired to write Trials after seeing U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shout out ‘You lie!’ during a television broadcast of President Barack Obama’s speech on health care on Sept. 9, 2009.
Loeb said he was curious about whether any similar breakdowns in political civility had happened in U.S. history, leading to years of research and a play. Loeb talked to TheaterJones about this project over the weekend. Excerpts from the interview follow:
TheaterJones: What was the origin of this play?
Aaron Loeb: When Joe Wilson yelled, 'You lie!' I thought, 'That is horrifying. I can’t imagine that that has happened.'
Of course, I had known about how [South Carolina Rep]. Preston Brooks had caned [Massachusetts Sen. Charles] Sumner in 1856 over slavery. I knew that it hadn’t always been a distinguished body that was always civilized but I also found myself wishing that someone who was in the House had punched Joe Wilson in the head. I ended up researching the history of when something like this happens in the House of Representatives. When has this happened before? … I had no idea that Sam Houston had been involved in something like that … because he’s such a fascinating American figure. I had no idea about this chapter in his life.
That incident happened at a tough time in Houston’s life, didn’t it?
Houston’s mother has just died… He’s still mourning his mother at this time when he beats up Stanbery. He is deeply tied to the Cherokee and he has this real dispute with Jackson over how the Cherokees are being treated.
He beats Stanbery two weeks after Andrew Jackson refuses to honor the United States Supreme Court decision Worcester v. Georgia, which says the Cherokee have the rights of a sovereign nation. Jackson had been his political mentor but Jackson is going to ignore the Supreme Court decision and allow Cherokee land to be violently taken. He’s in real turmoil.
There is this famous moment at the end of this trial. He’s been dressed in Cherokee garb the entire time. Jackson finally agrees to see him and he goes and sees Jackson and nobody knows what passes between them but Jackson gives him $20 to get a suit and he comes to Congress dressed in that suit. I speculate that it is in that meeting that Jackson says, “You’re going to go to Texas, right? You’ve beaten a Congressman. You’re going to get the hell out of town.”
Finally, the reason he’s in Washington is because he’s in disgrace after his wife, Eliza Allen, left him. This is the moment in Houston’s life where you are easily able to see the many, many major threads of Houston’s life in this moment in 1832.
Why do you think his marriage to Eliza Allen broke up?
I think that his wounds from the War of 1812 were horrible and that Eliza’s a young woman and in their conjugal bed for the first time she sees this guy with a horrible groin wound and a still seeping arm wound and… and it just horrifies her. She wonders what she has gotten herself into with this older man.
I think that Marquis James argues in his biography of Sam Houston that she was cheating on him. I just don’t think that’s right. I think that because Houston said so little about it in his life. He refused to talk about it, but he says very clearly every time that, “She’s a woman of honor and if anyone says otherwise, I’ll challenge them.” Maybe he said it to protect his own dignity or something like that, but I just don’t buy it.
What do you think is the key moment in the play and how did your conception of it change as you wrote and rewrote it?
I was focused very heavily on the night in 1861 when Houston is governor, a Texas convention has voted to secede from the union, and he’s supposed to swear the oath to the Confederacy. The story is that he paces alone in his house all night trying to figure out what he’s going to do — and that’s not very dramatic.
The trial itself takes place in Washington, D.C. and is a story essentially about nothing but white men. I’ve never in my life written a play that is nothing but white men. I don’t know what the topic would be where I would cast a play that is only white guys. It’s not a thing that interests me. I like my plays to represent the world I live in and feel relevant.
What finally unlocked the play for me was discovering the biography of Jeff Hamilton, who was Sam Houston’s slave in 1861. Reading that, I found in Jeff a character who could get me into the story and enable me to tell the story through his eyes and not render the play monolithically about famous white guys in 1832. Over time, Jeff has become the center of the play.
The structure of the play starts on a day in 1936 when Jeff Hamilton has just come back from the Texas Centennial where he’s just given a speech on what Sam Houston was like. And a woman from the WPA who is out in the South recording the narratives of former slaves has heard the speech and says, “You were with Sam Houston during the secession crisis and you’re a living witness to that in 1936. Everyone else has been dead for 50 years. Tell me about it.”
And then it goes from just being the story of Sam Houston in 1861 to being Jeff Hamilton’s story of that night in 1861. It makes the play relevant to a broader audience. It’s not merely about giant white guys in history.
What surprised you in your research about the time period?
I was surprised in part by the candor with which everyone in their speeches talk about issues of the day and essentially talks about their direct fear of tyranny. In the House of Representatives, in the political speech of the day, this was in no way cloaked the way we do now.
We have this sort of hazy, loving view of history and what surprises me is how utterly screwed up these people were, as screwed up as we are. You see all of the conflicts of today writ large back then. You don’t have to dig hard. All the things we were arguing about then, we are arguing about now, just with bigger speeches.
Does the play say anything about politics today?
I think that has to do with how agitated you are about today’s politics. If you are comfortable right now and think everything is going pretty normally, I’m not sure that with this play, you’d say, ‘Huh, what should I learn from this play about what’s happening today?’ But other people are seeing nothing but resonances with today. John Quincy Adams says, ‘I used to think this Union would last forever, but seeing Andrew Jackson ascend to the presidency, I doubt its continuance for 20 years, perhaps even five.” You can’t hear that and be as upset about Trump as many are, and think that you’ve not thought the same thing.
» Dr. Michael Phillips is an historian and author of White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001, which won the T.R. Fehrenbach Award for best book on Texas history in 2007. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin in 2002. He lives in Plano.