George Smith Houston was the grandson of John Houston and Mary Ross, who, in 1760 migrated from County Tyrone in the north of Ireland and settled in Newbury District in North Carolina.
David, their fourth son, and the father of George Smith Houston, married Hannah (Pugh) Reagan, whose mother was of Welch[sic - Welsh] extraction, being of the family of Pughs, who were noted for their love for, and promotion of education.
He removed to Virginia, and afterward settled near Franklin in Williamson County, Tenn., where on the 17th of January, 1808, the subject of this sketch was born [sic – should start new sentence here] in 1824 or 1825, the family settled twelve miles west of Florence, in Lauderdale County, Ala., and engaged in agriculture. His father considered manual labor essential to mental and physical perfection, and reared his sons to work. In his boyhood, educational facilities were not as good as now. Though not possessed of the advantages necessary to the thorough and finished scholar, he received an elementary education in an academy in Lauderdale County. Ambitious and fond of books, he daily added to this foundation, by the close study of standard works.
As a boy he was happy-hearted, bright, high-toned, industrious, self-reliant and noted for his devotion to his mother.
He read law under Judge Coalter, in Florence, and completed his studies in the law school at Harrodsburgh, Ky. In 1831 he was admitted to the bar, and in 1832, was sent to the Legislature. He was there twice elected Circuit Solicitor, in which position he made a decided reputation, being considered one of the ablest prosecutors in the State.
He removed to Athens, Limestone County, Ala., and in 1835, married Mary I. Beaty, the daughter of Robert Beaty. They had eight children, all of whom died before 1860, except David, George S., John P. and Mary E. Houston. David entered the service as captain of a company of the Ninth Alabama regiment. He was afterward a member of General Roddy’s command. He died, unmarried, September 7, 1880.
George S. entered the service as a private in Johnson’s regiment of General Roddy’s command, and was afterward lieutenant of General Roddy’s escort. He married Maggie Irvine of Florence, Ala., and now resides on a farm near Mooresville, in Limestone County.
John P. is engaged in the practice of law in Memphis, Tenn. Mary E. resides in Athens, Ala.
In April, 1861, he married Ellen Irvine, of Florence, Ala., a daughter of James Irvine, one of the leading lawyers of the State. They had two children, Emma and Maggie Lou. Emma is now living with her mother at Athens. Maggie Lou died November 24, 1877.
In 1841 George S. Houston was elected to Congress on the general ticket. With the exception of one term, when he declined to make the race, he served in Congress until January 21, 1861. He was recognized as one of the leaders of the House. He took an active part in the debates on important measures. He was a strict constructionist, or a State’s rights Democrat, believing all legislation should be left to the States “over subjects where they could as amply and beneficially legislate as Congress.”
He was opposed to the tariff system, and held the public land to be a trust for the people, and not for speculative greed. He was so economical and watchful of the public funds, that he was known in Congress as the “Watch-dog of the Treasury.”
His reputation and influence were by no means local. He was particularly influential with Presidents Pierce and Polk. It is stated on good authority that it was the intention of Mr. Tilden to offer him a Cabinet position, had he been declared President in 1876.
Perhaps no member was ever more complimented with committee appointments than he; not only was he placed on the most important committees, but was chairman of Military Affairs, Way and Means, and the Judiciary, an honor rarely, if ever, accorded to any other member. He was several times chairman of Ways and Means, which is perhaps the most important committee in the House. While a party man, he was not such for selfish motives. He did not study to ride into power on a popular wave. He was fearless in his convictions and, while keeping party lines, he directed rather than follwed it. He was earnestly opposed to secession, and probably made the last Douglas speech ever made in Alabama. While in Congress and when secession seemed almost a certainty, he boldly advocated and became a member of the famous committee of thirty-three to devise means to save the Union; but when Alabama seceded, he drafted and presented to the speaker the formal withdrawal of the Alabama delegation from the Federal Congress. He retired to his home, and, though not in the active service, he repeatedly refused to take the oath of allegiance demanded by the Federal authority, and was thoroughly in sympathy with the Confederacy, and contributed to its support. He was never defeated which before the people, and was regarded one of the ablest stump speakers in the South. He was gifted with a commanding person, a deep, full and clear voice, keen repartee and a flow of humor and logic. Though he lacked the nervous and electric current of eloquence, his efforts were always ponderous and convincing, of the grand and eloquent. In 1865 he was elected to the Senate of the United States, but not allowed a seat, because his State was denied representation.
In 1866, he was again offered for the Senate, but was defeated by ex-Governor Winston, the vote being Winston 65 and Houston 61. In 1872, he was again an applicant for the Senate. At this time it was extremely doubtful whether the one elected would be allowed a seat, the Legislature being divided and in session in two places. After many ballots all the names before the Democratic wing of the Legislature, by agreement of the candidates, were simultaneously withdrawn, and the Hon. F. W. Sykes, who had not been before it, was elected.
In 1874 the Radical party had control of this State. Efforts to dislodge it had been repeatedly made, but were fruitless. After a careful survey of the field, George S. Houston was deemed by far the most available man to make the race against David P. Lewis for Governor.
Some of Houston’s more intimate friends urged him not to make the race; they said the success of the party was extremely doubtful; that he had earned sufficient reputation as a statesman, and had served the people long enough to be entitled to a discharge from further service.
At that time the State’s indebtedness amounted to about $32,000,000; the rate of taxation for State purposes was not less than three-fourths of one per cent.[sic]; the treasury was empty; her people were impoverished; her obligations were almost worthless, and the State was entirely without credit – so much so, it is said, the funds necessary to hold the constitutional convention of 1875, could not be raised until Governor Houston pledged his honor that the same should be repaid.
To protect the honor and credit of the State, and not confiscate the property of her citizens, seemed a herculean task. He was told it would be impossible; that the people could not and would not pay the indebtedness as it was then; that the creditors would not accept less, but would consider any effort to settle at less than the full amount claimed, repudiation; that it would be impossible to satisfy both the creditors and the taxpayers, and that whoever tried it would find himself politically dead. Though warned that this rock would wreck the vessel laden with the fruits of his earlier years and labor, and at his time of life he could not hope to repair the injury which would be wrought by a failure to satisfactorily handle this perplexing problem, he was not deterred but accepted the nomination which the convention be acclamation tendered him.
The State was thoroughly canvassed and the leading issues discussed and fairly put before the people by the ablest speakers in the party. The Radical majority of ten to fifteen thousand was overcome, and the Democratic ticket elected by a like majority.
As Governor, he advocated a policy which converted the penitentiary, that had previously been a considerable charge to the State, into a source of State revenue. He favored aiding the public schools to the full capacity of the State, but not to the extent of crippling her ability to meet her just obligations.
He urged economy in every department of state, setting the example by saving more than $10,000 of the $15,000 set apart for contingent expenses.
While Governor, he was in thorough accord with the Legislature, having confidence in the honesty and ability of the members, and inspiring their confidence. So thoroughly were they in accord, the veto power was not used oftener than four times during one term, if so often.
The most important measure for their consideration was the State debt. In a message to the Legislature, he recommended the appointment of a committee to investigate and make some adjustment of it. The committee was composed of T. B. Bethea, Levi W. Lawless and George S. Houston, who was the chairman.
Their management of it is considered one of the grandest achievements of the age; the creditors were fairly dealt with and were satisfied; the State’s honor was not tarnished; the taxpayers were protected, and now her bonds are far above par; the interest in paid with perfect regularity; property has greatly enhanced in value, the rate of taxation has been greatly reduced, and taxes are cheerfully paid.
In 1876, and shortly after his re-election as Governor, Geo. S. Houston was balloted for in the caucus for United States Senator. He developed a strong following, but meeting with considerable opposition he determined to withdraw his name, serve another term as Governor, and come before the Legislature at the expiration of his second term.
His successful competitor, the able and generous John T. Morgan, this spoke of his candidacy: “At the expiration of his first term as Governor, the people were ready to honor him still further by electing him a second time to the Senate of the United States, but they had again chosen him Governor of the State and they would not consent to relieve him of that service until he had completed fully, the wise course of policy inaugurated during his first term.”
At the expiration of his second term he was sent to the United States Senate. He served in the extra session of 1879, but did not return to Washington on account of ill health. On the 31st day of December, 1879, he died at his home in Athens.
The Hon. Luke Pryor, his former law partner, bosom friend and successor in the Senate, thus spoke of him: “He was a man free from deformity of mind, body and heart. He was a man impressive and imposing in his personal appearance. His mind was vigorous, analytical, quick of perception, sufficiently inquisitive, detective and discriminative – a mind that came to conclusions slowly but certainly; not because of its dullness, but because of its caution, its prudence, its sense of rectitude, and when reached, never found unjust, prejudiced, biased or partial, and rarely incorrect, standing and withstanding the severest tests.
“Added to this was a judgment sound, well-defined and trustworthy, and which, when once formed, was firm and immovable. He was a man of foresight and judgment profound. He was a safe counselor, sagacious, well-trained, and admirably versed in the principles of wise statesmanship and public policy; an instructive, judicious and adhesive friend, unselfish, never withholding his views, but promptly and fully disclosing the same to his associates. He could not be unduly persuaded, and was beyond seduction to do a wrong.
“As a debater he was sagacious, ponderous and convincing; a man emphatically of argumentation. He had no superiors and few equals when dealing with questions of facts; his powers of separation and condensations of facts and their application were wonderful.
“On questions of law, discriminating clearly and forcibly, with great capacity to present singleness of point. In debate his manner was courteous, becoming earnest, attractive and respectful, especially toward his adversary, with a marked toleration in respect to those differing with him in views or sentiments.