David G. Burnet became the president of the Republic of Texas on March 17, 1836, days after the new nation’s birth. His position was only an interim position, but the 47-year-old New Jersey native was overwhelmed with reports of military defeats and retreats. The newborn republic may not have survived.
Fearful of the approach of the Mexican army in its attempt to subdue Texas, Burnet decided to evacuate the government from Washington-on-the-Brazos to Harrisburg (present-day Houston). Hearing of this, civilians panicked, and soon, all of Texas suddenly seemed to be on the move. As the overwhelmed Texas army retreated to the east, a long column of refugees accompanied them, desperate to seek safety, even as far as the United States.
Burnet attempted to enlist the support of the United States but was unsuccessful. He wrote an executive order declaring martial law and ordering all able-bodied men to enlist, but it was Gen. Sam Houston, the overall commander of Texas forces, who had the attention of Texans. Houston criticized Burnet’s decision to leave Washington as untimely and cowardly, making the bad situation steadily worse. After reaching Harrisburg, Burnet moved the government again to Galveston and was prepared to leave Texas altogether. Burnet, in turn, criticized Houston for failing to fight the army of Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Houston, aware of his limited resources and manpower, was waiting for the right moment to strike.
Houston and his forces won the day at San Jacinto on April 21, scattering Mexican forces and capturing a fleeing Santa Anna several days later. Burnet, so far removed from Houston, had lost contact with the army for several days and did not learn of the victory until well after it had occurred. As Texas troops nursed their wounds and basked in their victory, Burnet arrived on the scene, only to criticize Houston’s actions.
By October 22, Burnet’s term as interim president ended. Seven months had allowed Texas to stabilize, but his efforts to raise funds for Texas only had limited success. Sam Houston followed as the first elected president of Texas.
In 1838, Burnet returned to politics as vice-president, elected on a separate ticket from the new president, Mirabeau B. Lamar.
Burnet and Houston continued to clash with each other repeatedly through the years. By any measure, Houston had been far more successful politically and far more popular, but this never stopped the two from their many squabbles. Their arguments, along with Houston’s rivalry with Lamar, became staple features of Texas politics during those years. In spite of these rivalries, Houston towered over both men. Several times, an incensed Burnet challenged Houston to a duel over his insults. Houston always laughed off or ignored Burnet’s challenges.
Burnet supported Lamar’s antagonistic approach to Mexico, hoping to redirect the valuable trade of Mexico’s northern provinces to Texas in the process. The result was one military disaster after another that left Mexico threatening another invasion of Texas and an empty treasury. In 1840, while Lamar was forced to receive medical treatments in New Orleans, Burnet served as acting president. He tried to convince the Texas Congress to launch a raid into Mexico, fearing Texas was about to be attacked. Houston and his allies blocked the reckless move.
In 1841, Burnet ran for president against Houston. He and his allies launched a series of bitter attacks on Houston as an alcoholic. Houston appealed to practical interests, such as stabilizing the finances of Texas through less military spending, easing tensions with Mexico, and encouraging more trade with foreign nations instead of more fighting. He told his supporters, “Our motto ought to be fewer officers and more corn-fields.”
In spite of the spirited support that Burnet received, he and his supporters could not put a dent in Houston’s popularity or reputation. Burnet was soundly defeated in the election, receiving a scant 26 percent of the vote.
After 1841, Burnet never ran for election again. However, he did not stay out of public service. After statehood was achieved in 1845, the state’s first governor, James Pinckney Henderson, appointed Burnet in May 1846 as the state’s secretary of state. He would serve ably until January 1848.
In 1866, Burnet was appointed by the state legislature to serve in the U. S. Senate, but the Senate refused to seat him because of his support of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Burnet’s health continued to decline. His increasingly erratic behavior has led some historians to suggest that he may have been suffering dementia.
Burnet died at his home in Galveston in 1870 at the age of 82. In 1852, the state named Burnet County in his honor and questions over its proper pronunciation inspired the long-running local joke “Burn-et, durn it!” A statue to Burnet was erected in the Northeast Texas community of Clarksville in 1936 as part of the state’s centennial celebrations. Regardless of how his performance may be judged, Burnet was an important figure in a defining era for Texas.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.