March 2 is the birthday of Sam Houston. Considered a Texas hero, he is also an American hero as well.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, Houston was a
U. S. Senator, and the most controversial issue of his day was slavery. In 1854, Congress introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act topermit slavery not only in the Kansas-Nebraska area but also in parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, North Dakota and South Dakota. In response, over 3,000 clergymen from New England (which was over three-fourths of New England’s clergy) submitted a petition to Congress opposing the Act and its extension of slavery. Numerous pro-slavery U. S. Senators denounced the actions of the ministers, including Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois who declared:
It is evident that [the ministers] ought to be rebuked, and required to confine themselves to their vocation. . . It is an attempt to establish a theocracy – to take charge of our politics and our legislation. It is an attempt to make the legislative power of this country subordinate to the church. It is not only to unite church and state but it is to put the state in subordination to the dictates of the church.
(With this absurd rhetoric, Senator Douglas certainly could easily have worked with modern secularist groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, or the American Humanist Association, for these groups say today what Douglas said decades ago.)
Many other Senators, however, took the opposite — the pro-Constitution –position. In fact, Northern Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was just about to stand and defend the ministers when Southern Senator Sam Houston arose and shouted, “Sumner! Don’t speak! Don’t speak! Leave them to me!” Sumner yielded; Houston took the floor and declared:
…I certainly can see no more impropriety in ministers of the Gospel, in their vocation, memorializing [petitioning] Congress than politicians or other individuals. . . . Because they are ministers of the Gospel, they are not disfranchised of political rights and privileges and . . . they have a right to spread their opinions on the records of the nation. . . . The great Redeemer of the World enjoined duties upon mankind; and there is [also] the moral constitution from which we have derived all the excellent principles of our political Constitution – the great principles upon which our government, morally, socially, and religiously is founded. Then, sir, I do not think there is anything very derogatory to our institutions in the ministers of the Gospel expressing their opinions. They have a right to do it. No man can be a minister without first being a man. He has political rights; he has also the rights of a missionary of the Savior, and he is not disfranchised by his vocation. . . . He has a right to interpose his voice as one of its citizens against the adoption of any measure which he believes will injure the nation. . . . [Ministers] have the right to think it is morally wrong, politically wrong, civilly wrong, and socially wrong. . . . and if they denounce a measure in advance, it is what they have a right to do.
Sam Houston stood boldly in favor of the free-speech rights of ministers to address any issue the government was also addressing. That constitutional right is just as available today as it was a century and a half ago, and ministers, churches, and people of faith should avail themselves of it.
As we remember our historical heroes such as Sam Houston, we wanted to share with you a document found in WallBuilders extensive library directly related to to this incident. It shows several Senators ordering copies of Houston’s compelling speech so that they could distribute it far and wide.