May 2011

Behind the famous ‘king of the wild frontier’

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One of America’s first celebrity heroes, David Crockett (as he always wrote his name) declared in his autobiography, “I stood no chance to become great in any other way than by accident.” He was born into a poor family and grew up in harsh circumstances in the back woods. As chance would have it, however, he became a mythical figure in his own lifetime, and the myth has continued to grow since his death as a martyr at the Alamo in 1836.

Crockett first became legendary for his expertise and passion as a hunter and masterful storyteller, and then later in life as a populist member of the Tennessee state legislature and the U.S. Congress. In the authoritative, fast-paced and very readable David Crockett: Lion of the West, Michael Wallis adroitly separates fact from fiction and shows us both the flawed human being who led a colorful life and the symbolic figure who represented the poor and downtrodden as well as the country’s philosophy of “Manifest Destiny” (a concept that did not have an official name until after his death).

As one of Crockett’s early hunting companions characterized him, he was “an itchy footed sort of fellow,” always ready to move on and take the next risk, without much concern for his family. His first wife died soon after they married and his second wife, Elizabeth, grew tired of her husband’s failure to keep the family out of debt and put the blame on his poor business judgment, his strong inclination to drink and his inability to cultivate any kind of spiritual life.

Of particular interest here is Wallis’ discussion of Crockett’s political career. He was a new kind of politician, a backwoodsman wanting to help people like himself who had not been able to purchase property of their own. He offered a contrast to his fellow Tennessean, Andrew Jackson, who presented himself as a populist but was really a patrician with large holdings in land, cotton, tobacco and slaves. As a legislator, Crockett was independent and frequently at odds with members of his party, a stance exemplified by his vote against Jackson’s Indian Removal Act.

Although Crockett had fought alongside Jackson in the Creek Indian War, he was one of the few men in government to oppose him. In doing so, he voted against a president from his own political party, all other members of the Tennessee congressional delegation and the vast majority of his constituents. Years later Crockett wrote that his opposition was a matter of conscience and described the bill as “oppression with a vengeance.” Some of his critics claimed that he was motivated by his escalating hatred of Jackson and the favorable attention Crockett was receiving from the Whig Party, which saw him as a possible presidential candidate. Overall, in fact, his refusal to compromise made him an ineffective legislator.

Wallis, author of acclaimed biographies such as Billy the Kid and Pretty Boy, has given readers a superb account of the real David Crockett, helping us to appreciate his place and time in American history.

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