Excerpt from the Introduction to
David Crockett in Congress: The Rise and Fall of the Poor Man’s Friend
(Bright Sky Press, 11/1/09), by James Boylston & Allen Wiener, hardcover, 336 pages with 16 color photographs, $29.95.
In the mythology of America, the legend of Davy Crockett looms large. As a pioneer, Indian fighter, congressman, and martyr of the Alamo, Crockett’s remarkable life has been the subject of biographies, novels, comic books, plays, songs, movies, and television shows. The image of the coonskin-capped, buckskin-clad hero swinging his rifle like a Louisville Slugger atop the Alamo is iconic; to most folks, Davy Crockett really is the King of the Wild Frontier.
While Crockett certainly was a pioneer and hardscrabble farmer, a soldier in the Creek War, and a hero who gave his life in the fight for Texas independence, he was also an inveterate entrepreneur and a career politician with a talent for hardball campaigning. More Will Rogers than Daniel Boone, more broadcloth than buckskin, David Crockett began his political career as a justice of the peace and magistrate, and served two terms in the Tennessee State Legislature before being elected to the U.S House of Representatives for three terms. Always popular in his district, Crockett nevertheless was a hard-fighting campaigner, as he faced the formidable political machine of Andrew Jackson in virtually every engagement.
Crockett was a masterful campaigner among his frontier neighbors, an amusing jokester, storyteller and speaker. His jokes and stump speeches helped him win elections, but once in office, he proved himself an astute politician and parliamentarian. Crockett understood the issues under discussion and how his colleagues stood on them; thus, he was able to maneuver effectively among them, sometimes gaining victories for himself.
Crockett’s most important political objective was to secure for his poorer constituents legal title to the land they had worked and improved. He never achieved that goal, but his exhaustive efforts to do so illustrate his devotion to the people who elected him and his insistence on serving them rather than a political party or its leaders. Throughout his career he remained, first and foremost, an advocate for the poor, whom he viewed as constantly pushed aside or ignored by wealthier, more influential interests.
He resisted affiliating himself too closely with any faction and believed that party loyalty should never be placed above principle or duty to his constituents. Crockett came to view strict party discipline as a threat to democracy that distanced elected officials from those they represented.
The search for the real Crockett, often lost behind a haze of movie and other fictional images, reveals an independent spirit who rebelled against injustice and government cronyism. He railed against partisan politics, and refused to toe the party line, believing he need only answer to his constituents. He was an egalitarian who bristled at the idea of class privilege and held the belief that people had a right to land they had worked and fed with the sweat of their brow. His roots endeared him to his neighbors and won him elections, while alienating many of his Washington peers. As his motto suggests, when he was sure he was right, he really did go ahead.
Also see author James Boylston’s Alamo Studies Forum