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Thomas J. Rusk

Thomas Jefferson Rusk
United States Senator
from Texas
In office
February 21, 1846 – July 29, 1857
Preceded by (none)
Succeeded by James P. Henderson
Member of the Republic of Texas House of Representatives from Nacogdoches County
In office
Preceded by John Kirby Allen
Succeeded by David S. Kaufman
Personal details
Born (1803-12-05)December 5, 1803
Pendleton, South Carolina, U.S.
Died July 29, 1857(1857-07-29) (aged 53)
Nacogdoches, Texas, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Mary Frances "Polly" Cleveland Rusk
Profession Politician, Lawyer, Judge

Thomas Jefferson Rusk (December 5, 1803 – July 29, 1857) was an early political and military leader of the Republic of Texas, serving as its first Secretary of War as well as a general at the Battle of San Jacinto. He was later a U.S. politician and served as a Senator from Texas from 1846 until his suicide. He served as the President pro tempore of the United States Senate in 1857.

Early life

Rusk was born in Pendleton, South Carolina to John Rusk, a stonemason, and Mary Sterritt Rusk. After being admitted to the bar in 1825, Rusk began his law practice in Clarkesville, Georgia. In 1827, he married Mary F. (Polly) Cleveland, the daughter of general John Cleveland. Rusk became a business partner of his father-in-law after the marriage. He lived in the gold region of Georgia and made sizable mining investments. In 1834, however, the managers of the company in which he had invested embezzled all the funds and fled to Mexican Texas. Rusk pursued them to Nacogdoches, but never recovered the money.

Texas Revolution

Rusk decided to stay in Texas and became a citizen of Mexico in 1835, applied for a headright in David G. Burnet's colony, and sent for his family. After hearing Nacogdoches citizens denounce the despotism of Mexico, Rusk became involved in the independence movement. He organized volunteers from Nacogdoches and hastened to Gonzales, where his men joined Stephen F. Austin's army in preventing the Mexicans from seizing their cannon. They proceeded to San Antonio, but Rusk left the army before the Siege of Bexar.

The provisional government named him inspector general of the army in the Nacogdoches District. As a delegate from Nacogdoches to the Convention of 1836, Rusk not only signed the Texas Declaration of Independence but also chaired the committee to revise the constitution of the Republic of Texas. The ad interim government, installed on March 17, 1836, appointed Rusk as Secretary of War. When informed that the Alamo had fallen and the Mexican army was moving eastward, Rusk helped President David Burnet to move the government to Harrisburg.

After the Mexicans killed all James W. Fannin's Texan army at Goliad, Burnet sent Rusk with orders for General Sam Houston to make a stand against the enemy. Rusk participated with bravery in the defeat of Santa Anna on April 21, 1836, in the Battle of San Jacinto. From May to October 1836, he served as commander-in-chief of the Army of the Republic of Texas, with the rank of brigadier general. He followed the Mexican troops westward as they retired from Texas to be certain of their retreat beyond the Rio Grande. Then he conducted a military funeral for the troops killed at Goliad.

The men of Texas deserved much credit, but more was due the women. Armed men facing a foe could not but be brave; but the women, with their little children around them, without means of defense or power to resist, faced danger and death with unflinching courage.

— Thomas Jefferson Rusk[1]

Republic of Texas

In the first regularly elected administration, President Houston appointed Rusk secretary of war, but after a few weeks, Rusk resigned to take care of pressing domestic problems. At the insistence of friends, however, he represented Nacogdoches in the Second Congress of the Republic (1837–1838). Rusk was a Houston on December 20, 1837.

As chairman of the House Military Committee in 1837, he sponsored a militia bill that passed over Houston's veto, and Congress elected Rusk major general of the militia. In the summer of 1838, he commanded the Nacogdoches militia, which suppressed the Córdova Rebellion. In October, when Mexican agents were discovered among the Kickapoo Indians, Rusk defeated those Indians and their Indian allies. He captured marauding Caddo Indians in November 1838 and risked an international incident when he invaded United States territory to return them to the Indian agent in Shreveport, Louisiana.

On December 12, 1838, the Texas Congress elected Rusk Chief Justice of the Republic's Supreme Court. He served until June 30, 1840, when he resigned to resume his law practice. Later he headed the bar of the Republic of Texas. He and J. Pinckney Henderson, later the first governor of the state of Texas, formed a law partnership in 1841.

Early in 1843, Rusk was called upon once again to serve as a military commander. Concern over the lack of protection on the frontier caused Congress, in a joint ballot on January 16, 1843, to elect Rusk major general of the militia of the Republic of Texas. But he resigned in June when Houston obstructed his plans for aggressive warfare against Mexico. Rusk then turned his energies to establishing Nacogdoches University. He served as vice president of the university when the charter was granted in 1845 and president in 1846.

State of Texas

Rusk supported Sam Houston and the growing movement to annex Texas to the United States. He was president of the Convention of 1845, which accepted the annexation terms. The first state legislature elected him and Houston to the United States Senate in February 1846. Rusk received the larger number of votes and the longer term of office. The two men forgot past differences as they worked to settle the southwest boundary question in favor of the Texas claim to the Rio Grande. Rusk supported the position of U.S. President James K. Polk on the necessity of the Mexican War and the acquisition of California. In the debate over the Compromise of 1850, Rusk refused to endorse secession, proposed by some in the caucus of Southern congressmen. He vigorously defended Texas claims to the New Mexico Territory and argued forcefully for just financial compensation for both the loss of revenue from import duties as well as the loss of territory.

As an early advocate of a transcontinental railroad through Texas, he made speeches in the Senate and throughout Texas in support of a southern route. He toured the state in 1853 to investigate a possible route. The Gadsden Purchase received his support. Rusk was in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. President James Buchanan offered him the position of United States Postmaster General in 1857, but had turned it down. (Buchanan instead gave the post to Aaron V. Brown)

During the special session of March 1857, the Senate elected him President pro tempore. While Rusk attended the spring session of Congress, his wife died of tuberculosis on April 23, 1856. Five of their seven children were still living at the time. Despondent over the death of his wife and ill from a tumor at the base of his neck, Rusk committed suicide by a self-inflicted gunshot wound on July 29, 1857. He was 53 years old.[2]


See also




  • Handbook of Texas Online
  • Biography on Thomas Jefferson and Mary Cleveland Rusk

External links

  • Find A Grave
  • Sketch of Portal to Texas History.
Political offices
Preceded by
Secretary of War of the Republic of Texas
17 March 1836 – April 1836
Succeeded by
Mirabeau B. Lamar
Preceded by
John Austin Wharton
Secretary of War of the Republic of Texas
22 October 1836 – November 1837
Succeeded by
Barnard E. Bee, Sr.
Legal offices
Preceded by
John Birdsall
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Texas
13 December 1838 – 30 June 1840
Succeeded by
John Hemphill
Preceded by
United States Senator (Class 1) from Texas
February 21, 1846 – July 29, 1857
Served alongside: Sam Houston
Succeeded by
J. Pinckney Henderson
Honorary titles
Preceded by
James M. Mason
President pro tempore of the United States Senate
March 14, 1857 – July 29, 1857
Succeeded by
Benjamin Fitzpatrick


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