Friday, May 6, 2016

Ashbel Smith

Ashbel Smith. Photograph published in Daniels Medical Journal, Austin, in April 1886.
A physician named Ashbel Smith, having read in the newspaper about the Texan struggle for independence from Mexico (which, just coincidentally, I'm sure, closely followed the pattern of the American Revolution), fresh off the boat from Connecticut, showed up at a wide open plain alongside the San Jacinto River where the Texans were about to sneak up on Santa Ana's army. Sam Houston immediately appointed Smith as Surgeon General of the fledgling Republic of Texas.

The Mexican camp, anticipating traditional open field battle at dawn with opposing armies suicidally marching into each other's hail of bullets, was taking a siesta. Providentially the Mexicans had not posted sentries. They relied instead on some gentleman warrior's code to preserve the peace until it was time for war.

Rather than waiting overnight, the Texans seized the day, half-walked, half-ran across a mile of open field and into the Mexican camp, and Santa Ana's snoozing men raised no hue and cry. Wanting to keep the noise down and to conserve the ammo, the Texans used the butt ends more than the business ends of their rifles. It was a brutal afternoon, but the Texans felt they were taking revenge for their comrades at the Alamo, so the more brutal, the better. They won the battle with minimal arms fire.

The outcome led to Ashbel Smith's appointment as Ambassador to both England and France. Smith's assets as physician, francophone, and intellectual led to a diversified career in the woolly frontier where such abilities were rare.

After Napoleon, the Bourbon dynasty had been restored to the French throne. Louis-Philippe I, "The Citizen King," granted an audience to Ashbel Smith, who recorded in his diary that when he arrived at court, the Queen was playing whist with a few companions, but the King was nowhere to be seen. Finally the King came in and said, "Ah, Mr Smith, I shall be with you in a moment."

The decisive Battle of San Jacinto had established the mostly white Texans as owners of this former northern province of Mexico. While the heavily damaged Mexican army had to retreat, they did not recognize the Texans as the legitimate owners of Texas. So the Mexicans conducted intermittent raids north of the Rio Grande to harass the Texans, often fatally. It was Ashbel Smith's task at the French court to ask Louis-Philippe, as a go-between, if the issue could be resolved so that Mexico would leave Texas in peace. The French King indicated with a gesture of his hand (a discrete way of avoiding vulgar mention of money) that the Mexicans wanted gold to recognize the new Republic. Texas was land rich but cash poor, so the Republic had to endure Mexican harassment until 1845, when it became a state within the US, at which time Federal troops lined the border and put a stop once and for all to the attacks. The border situation led into the Mexican-American war in which Mexico lost still more territory, "including nearly all of present-day California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico" (The History Channel).

Ashbel Smith served at least one other prestigious office for Texas. As an advocate for establishing the University of Texas, Smith was named its first Chairman of the Board of Regents.

It's appropriate that his papers are housed in the Barker Texas History Center on the UT campus. I read the delicate papers of his diary with his account of meeting Louis-Philippe I. But to my dismay, the papers were literally falling apart: where his cursive writing had closed loops, the long dry ink had eaten through the 150-year-old paper so that the tiny fragments enclosed by cursive L's and O's were falling onto my wrists and onto the desktop. Of course I pointed this out to a library employee, who didn't seem to be too concerned because there was no money allocated to preserve the papers.

"But this dude is like the founder of the University," I said.

"I know," the librarian said sadly.

I know this bit of historical trivia may have only limited interest, but Smith's passage about meeting the King of France, written later that same day, leaves me a bit awestruck. Smith's story came to mind because my friend Jack Lynch's survey of the history of reference books, You Could Look It Up, mentions Edmond Hoyle’s 1742 A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist, and whist (a precursor to bridge) always reminds me of the queen at her table with her courtiers. 

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