“Was the late secretary of war removed in consequence of his attempt fraudulently to give to Gov. Houston the contract for the Indian rations?” an Ohio congressman asked on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on Mar. 24, 1832.

Three years had come and gone since Sam Houston resigned as governor of Tennessee following the scandalous breakup of his marriage to a teenaged debutante. During his self-imposed exile among the Cherokees, he lobbied for a contract to feed several tribes on their western relocation under the Indian Removal Act. But the potentially profitable plan hit a snag, when war secretary John Eaton froze the bids.

Houston happened to be in the nation’s capital on Apr. 3, 1832, the day that a Washington newspaper published the text of Rep. William Stanbery’s speech. The former two-term congressman headed straight for the House to confront his accuser, but friend and future president James K. Polk persuaded him not to go off half-cocked.

Instead, Houston sent a formal note to Stanbery inquiring whether he had been quoted accurately in the press. The Ohioan added insult to injury by refusing to reply and, interpreting the message as the prelude to a duel, armed himself with two pistols and a dagger.

Ten days later on Friday the 13th, Houston was strolling along Pennsylvania Avenue with a senator and a representative, when the latter spotted Stanbery and changed course. Houston politely asked the stranger his name and, upon learning he was indeed the character assassin, shouted at the top of his lungs, “Then you are a damned rascal!”

Houston struck the first blow creasing Stanbery’s skull with a hickory cane. Only after taking several more licks to the head and shoulder did the lawmaker try to flee, but Houston hopped on his back and pinned him to the ground.

Screaming bloody murder, Stanbery pulled a pistol and shoved the barrel against his powerful opponent’s chest. He squeezed the trigger, but the gun misfired.

Houston tore the weapon from his grasp, jumped to his feet and resumed the thrashing. He continued to cane the congressman even in the presence of police, who ordered him to stop. Houston warned the officers at knifepoint not to interfere explaining he was “whipping a scoundrel who had insulted him but did not intend to kill him.”

Stanberry suffered a severe concussion, broken hand and numerous cuts and bruises in the one-sided encounter. His detailed description of the incident was delivered to Speaker Andrew Stevenson, who in spite of his long association with the assailant had no choice but to put the matter to a vote.

Angered by the violent retaliation against a colleague for an opinion expressed on the floor of the House, members voted 145-25 in favor of arrest. Accompanied by attorney Francis Scott Key, author of The Star Spangled Banner, Houston came in person two days later to plead not guilty to a charge of assault.

The sensational trial began in the House on April 19 and brought Capitol Hill to a complete standstill. Chairs had to be placed in the aisles to accommodate the overflow crowd, which packed the chamber for every session.

A week or so into the election-year circus, President Andrew Jackson summoned the defendant to the White House. “It’s not you they are after, Sam,” Old Hickory explained to his protégé. “They wish to injure your old commander.” He gave Houston several gold pieces with instructions to trade his buckskin garb for tailored attire befitting a gentleman.

The night before Houston spoke on his own behalf, he entertained a few close friends in his hotel room. The guest list included Speaker Stevenson and Polk, “a victim of the use of water as a beverage,” who retired at a reasonable hour. The rest, however, drank themselves into the customary stupor.

Before losing consciousness, Houston told a barber to bring him coffee and his “shaving traps” at sunrise. Pointing to a pistol and a stack of coins, he joked, “If the coffee does not stick when I drink it, take the pistol and shoot me and the gold is yours.”

The carouser saved his life by keeping down his third cup and hurried to the House where all Washington was waiting. He was at his oratorical best, despite a head-splitting hangover, and paused often to acknowledge applause from the adoring audience. During an especially enthusiastic ovation, a woman in the gallery tossed a bouquet at his feet and cried out, “I would rather be Sam Houston in a dungeon than Stanbery on a throne.”

The House debated the case for four days before finding Houston guilty by a vote of 106 to 89. The punishment was the lightest possible – a reprimand from Speaker Stevenson, which sounded more like a pat on the back than a slap on the wrist.

Sam Houston frankly admitted years later than the Stanbery Affair was the best thing that could have happened to him. “I was dying out, and had they taken me before a justice of the peace and fined me 10 dollars for assault and battery, they would have killed me. But they gave me a national tribunal for a theater and set me up again.”

Bartee Haile writes This Week In Texas History which appears every Sunday. He welcomes your comments and questions barteehaile@gmail.com or P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393 and invites you to visit his website at barteehaile.com .

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