He married Tabitha Jordan of Twiggs County, Georgia, on January 1, 1826, and soon resigned his secretaryship to nurse his bride, who was ill with tuberculosis. In 1828 he moved his wife and daughter, Rebecca Ann, to the new town of Columbus, Georgia, and established the Columbus Enquirer as an organ for the Troup political faction. Lamar was elected state senator in 1829 and was a candidate for reelection when his wife died on August 20, 1830. He withdrew from the race and traveled until he was sufficiently recovered. During this time he composed two of his best known poems, At Evening on the Banks of the Chattahoochee and Thou Idol of My Soul. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1832, helped organize a new party, and was again defeated for Congress in 1834 on a nullification platform. He then sold his interest in the Enquirer and in 1835 followed James W. Fannin, Jr., to Texas to collect historical data. By the time he reached Texas, Lamar's health and spirits began to mend and he decided to settle in the Mexican province. Characteristically, he immediately declared for Texas independence, helped build a fort at Velasco, contributed three poems to the Brazoria Texas Republican, and hurried back to Georgia to settle his affairs.
At the news of the battle of the Alamo and the Goliad Massacre Lamar rushed back to Velasco and inquired the way to the scene of battle. He joined the revolutionary army at Groce's Point as a private. When the Mexican and Texan forces faced each other at San Jacinto on April 20, 1836, Thomas Jefferson Rusk and Walter Paye Lane were surrounded by the enemy. Lamar's quick action the next day saved their lives and brought him a salute from the Mexican lines. As the battle of San Jacinto was about to start, he was verbally commissioned a colonel and assigned to command the cavalry. Ten days after the battle, having become secretary of war in David G. Burnet's cabinet, he demanded that Antonio López de Santa Anna be executed as a murderer. A month later Lamar was major general and commander in chief of the Texas army, but the unruly Texas troops refused to accept him and he retired to civilian life.
In September 1836, in the first national election, Lamar was elected vice president, an office in which he had leisure to augment his historical collections and study Spanish. He spent most of the year 1837 in Georgia being feted as a hero and publicizing the new republic. Upon his return to Texas, he organized the Philosophical Society of Texas on December 5, 1837, and found that his campaign for the presidency of Texas was already under way, sponsored by opponents of President Sam Houston, who by law could not succeed himself. The other candidates, Peter W. Grayson and James Collinsworth both committed suicide before election day, thus assuring Lamar's election by an almost unanimous vote. At his inauguration on December 10, 1838, Lamar declared the purposes of his administration to be promoting the wealth, talent, and enterprises of the country and laying the foundations of higher institutions for moral and mental culture. His term began with Texas in a precarious situation, however: only the United States had recognized her independence, she had no commercial treaties, Mexico was threatening re-conquest, the Indians were menacing, the treasury was empty, and currency was depreciated.
It was characteristic of Lamar to divert the thoughts of his constituents from the harassments of the moment toward laying the foundations of a great empire. Opposed to annexation, he thought Texas should remain a republic and ultimately expand to the Pacific Ocean. For Houston's conciliatory Indian policy, Lamar substituted one of sternness and force. The Cherokees were driven to Arkansas in 1839; in 1840 a campaign against the Comanches quieted the western Indians in the west at a cost of $2.5 million. Lamar sought peace with Mexico first through the good offices of the United States and Great Britain, then by efforts at direct negotiation. When it was clear that Mexico would not recognize Texas, he made a quasi-official alliance with the rebel government in Yucatán and leased to it the Texas Navy. He proposed a national bank, but instead of establishing the bank Congress authorized additional issues of paper money in the form of redbacks, which were greatly depreciated by the end of his administration. Receipts for his administration were $1,083,661; expenditures were $4,855,213.
At Lamar's suggestion, the new capital city of Austin was built on the Indian frontier beside the Colorado River and occupied in October 1839. Another step in his plans for a greater Texas was the Texan Santa Fe expedition, undertaken without congressional approval in the last months of his administration. If it had succeeded, as Lamar had reason to believe it would, this botched venture might have solved many of the problems of Texas; its failure was proof to his enemies that he was "visionary." Lamar's proposal that the Congress establish a system of education endowed by public lands resulted in the act of January 26, 1839, which set aside land for public schools and two universities. Although it was decades before the school system was established, Lamar's advocacy of the program earned for him the nickname "Father of Texas Education." A dictum in one of his messages to Congress, "Cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy," was rendered by Dr. Edwin Fay into Disciplina Praesidium Civitatis, the motto of the University of Texas.
As the national election of 1841 approached, Lamar's popularity was at its lowest ebb, and Texas was at the verge of bankruptcy. The blame cannot be assessed against the president exclusively, however, for most of his policies were implemented by acts of Congress, and economic and political conditions in the United States and abroad blocked measures that might have temporarily stabilized the Texas currency. Forces that neither Lamar nor his enemies fully understood or controlled brought failure to his grandest projects. Smarting under criticism, he retired to his home near Richmond at the end of 1841 and busied himself with his plantation and with the collection of historical materials. After his daughter's death in 1843, he was plunged into melancholia and sought relief in travel. He wrote the poem On the Death of My Daughter, which was later published in the Southern Literary Messenger. At Mobile in 1844 he fell in with a literary coterie that encouraged his interest in poetry. He received callers at the City Hall in New York and was given a courtesy seat in the United States Senate at Washington. Though he had formerly opposed annexation, he had been convinced that Texas statehood was necessary to protect slavery and prevent the state from becoming an English satellite; he therefore lobbied for annexation while in Washington.
With the outbreak of the Mexican War, he joined Zachary Taylor's army at Matamoros as a lieutenant colonel and subsequently fought in the battle of Monterrey. Later he was captain of Texas Mounted Volunteers on the Rio Grande. He organized a municipal government at Laredo and in 1847 represented Nueces and San Patricio counties in the Second Texas Legislature. After 1848 Lamar traveled much and began writing biographical sketches for a proposed history of Texas. He denounced the Compromise of 1850, which convinced him that the interests of the South could be protected only by secession. In February 1851 in New Orleans he married Henrietta Maffitt. Their daughter, Loretto Evalina, was born at Macon, Georgia, in 1852. In 1857 Lamar was appointed United States minister to Nicaragua and Costa Rica, a post he held for twenty months. His Verse Memorials appeared in September 1857. Two months after returning from his diplomatic mission, he died of a heart attack at his Richmond plantation on December 19, 1859. He was buried in the Masonic Cemetery at Richmond.
Lamar had great personal charm, impulsive generosity, and oratorical gifts. His powerful imagination caused him to project a program greater than he or Texas could actualize in three years. His friends were almost fanatically devoted to him; though his enemies declared him a better poet than politician, they never seriously questioned the purity of his motives or his integrity. Lamar County and the town of Lamar in Aransas County were named for him. In 1936 the Texas Centennial Commission placed statues of him in the Hall of State in Dallas and in the cemetery at Richmond. The commission also marked the site of his home near Richmond and the place of his residence as president in Austin, and built a miniature replica of his home on the square at Paris. At his death the Telegraph and Texas Register eulogized him as a "worthy man."
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