Free-Stuff Promises; Election Interference; the Myth and the Man
Good morning, it’s Thursday, April 25, 2019. On this date in 1831, popular actor James Hackett strode across the stage at New York’s Park Theatre for the debut of “The Lion of the West,” a play that Hackett produced and supported financially. The “Lion” in the title was Col. Nimrod Wildfire, a thinly disguised version of Davy Crockett.
It was a light-hearted tale set in New York City, where Crockett’s backwoods manner is contrasted with the higher culture of the big city. The entire play is a metaphor and it’s not New York, but Europe, that is the foil for the genuine American man of action: The highfalutin woman who tries to tame the rough frontiersman, Mrs. Amelia Wollope, has recently arrived from England. Audiences on both sides of the Atlantic -- and the play would subsequently be staged in London, Edinburgh, and Dublin, always with Hackett in the lead role -- recognized Amelia Wollope as the fictionalized version of Mrs. Frances Trollope, who’d come from England to Ohio. Never accepted in Cincinnati society (did you know there was such a thing?), the real-life Mrs. Trollope returned to England and wrote a book ridiculing her American cousins.
“The Lion of the West” was America’s rebuttal and would become the most popular U.S. theater production until the 1852 appearance of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
All of this would likely have been forgotten by now, as perhaps would Davy Crockett, if not for Walt Disney’s introduction a century later of a five-part serial starring a coonskin cap-wearing, flintlock-rifle toting Fess Parker as Crockett. It took the country by storm, and at the height of the show’s popularity, some 5,000 coonskin caps were being sold to American boys and girls each day.
In the process, Disney reintroduced Americans to a man whose life really was remarkable: the Tennessee-born Crockett quit school after a few days as a boy, yet read Shakespeare as an adult. Although he fought in combat alongside Andrew Jackson in the Army, Crockett later battled against him in Democratic Party politics. Crockett served twice in Congress, and upon losing the second time, told those in his eastern Tennessee congressional district, “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.” Three months later, he died heroically at the Alamo. At least that’s the story. Is it true?
I’ll explore that question in a moment. First, I’d point you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion columns spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:
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The Free-Stuff Primary: What Democrats’ Promises Will Cost. Phil Wegmann has this assessment of universal child care, debt-free college, guaranteed income, and more.
Trump, GOP Won’t Act on Election Interference Warnings. A.B. Stoddard assails the White House and the party for downplaying the perils and taking few steps to guard against a repeat of Russian meddling.
Drunken Democrats’ Only Sober Alternative to Trump. Alex Castellanos explains why Mayor Pete might be the best challenger to the president.
Presidential Candidates Show Little Record of Legislative Success. In RealClearInvestigations, Max Diamond lays out the thin lawmaking achievements of the Democratic roster.
Why America Needs More Oil and Natural Gas Pipelines. Jude Clemente makes his case in RealClearEnergy.
Democrats Moving Farther More Left on Energy Policy. Also in RCE, Daniel Turner reviews the candidates’ proposals.
If the Chinese Cure Cancer, Is That a Threat to the U.S.? RealClearMarkets editor John Tamny takes issue with a warning from three high-profile academics that China’s rise imperils America’s stature.
Perceptions of American Decline Are Wrong. In RealClearWorld, Cameron Munter lists reasons why the opposite is true.
Streaking “Jeopardy” Contestant Explains His Strategy. RealClearLife has the story on James Holzhauer’s phenomenal success.
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Davy Crockett packed enough action into his 49 years on this Earth to merit several biographies and movies, and there have been many, so I’m not going to try and cover everything here. I’d like to focus on three specific aspects of the Crockett mythology, however, all of them relating to his relocation to Texas in the winter of 1835-1836 and the fateful battle at The Alamo.
First of all, did Crockett really tell his constituents, after losing his House seat, that they could “go to hell” and that he was headed for Texas?
The timing seems a bit off, doesn’t it? Crockett stood for reelection for the 23rd Congress in 1834, losing more than a year before he left to fight for Texas’ independence -- and the famous quote is nowhere in his autobiography.
Apparently, though, Crockett claimed he said it, which is pretty much the same thing. He was talking about his own motivations. Appearing in the East Texas town of Nacogdoches, he drew an approving crowd, to whom he gave a speech. Here’s the money quote, which appeared in local newspapers at the time:
“I am told, gentlemen, that when a stranger like myself arrives among you, the first enquiry is -- what brought him here? To satisfy your curiosity at once as to myself, I will tell you all about it. I was for some time a Member of Congress. In my last canvass, I told the people of my district that, if they saw fit to re-elect me, I would serve them as faithfully as I had done; but if not, they might go to hell, and I would go to Texas. I was beaten, gentlemen, and here I am.”
So that part of the myth seems to be true.
How about the Battle of the Alamo? Was Davy Crockett one of the last men standing and did he go down fighting to the last breath? It’s certainly true that 2,000 Mexican troops under the command of Gen. Santa Anna overwhelmed the 200 Alamo defenders fighting for Texas’ independence, and that the martyred Anglos included William B. Travis, Jim Bowie, and Davy Crockett. But in 1955, at the height of the Disney-fueled Crockett mania, a diary from a Mexican Army officer surfaced. His name was Jose Enrique de la Peña and he wrote that Crockett and a half-dozen other fighters had asked for quarter, been taken alive, but then were executed on orders of Santa Anna.
The timing of this discovery was suspicious, and for many years it was ignored. But in the fullness of time, the diary was investigated, and it seems to be the real McCoy. Not only that, but contemporaneous accounts of the battle mention that six or seven defenders had surrendered and been executed. At the time, this report was cited as evidence of Santa Anna’s cruelty and used to galvanize Texans to fight. Here is one newspaper account:
“Six Americans were discovered near the wall yet unconquered. They were surrounded and ordered by General Castrillón to surrender, which they did under a promise
One of the men, said to be “David Crockett,” stepped forward with a “bold demeanor,” the story added, impressing the Mexican troops with his “firmness and his noble bearing.” And when Crockett came before Santa Anna, he looked him “steadfastly in the face.”
Jose Enrique de la Peña’s diary paints a similar scene. He writes that although Santa Anna’s subalterns were appalled by the general’s order to murder the prisoners, it was carried out by men who’d not been in the battle. As for the prisoners, here is what he wrote: “Though tortured before they were killed, these unfortunates died without complaining and without humiliating themselves before their torturers.”
So the mythology of Crockett’s death isn’t quite accurate, but here’s the thing about this particular debunking: The truth is that this man was even braver than his myth suggests. The same is true about the third and last aspect of the Crockett legend I’ll explore: namely, why did he go to Texas in the first place?
Texans love the quote about the man telling his constituents to go to hell, but if you think about it, that makes Crockett look like a sore loser. The real question is why he lost the election. The answer is that Rep. David Crockett lost his 1834 campaign -- one in which dirty tricks were waged against him, by the way -- because he got crosswise with his old ally Andrew Jackson.
As young men, Crockett and Jackson had fought side by side in the Indian wars, routing the Creeks at the 1813 Battle of Tallushatchee. Two decades later, however, Rep. Crockett bitterly opposed the Indian Removal Act favored by President Jackson, the one that led to the Trail of Tears and the decimation of the Cherokee nation and other native tribes in the southeastern United States.
Yesterday, I wrote about the Turks’ mass murder of Armenians and the continuing controversy over Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge past actions or use the word “genocide.” Can’t the same be said of the United States’ treatment of the Cherokee?
In his autobiography, appearing under the name “David Crockett,” our hero makes plain his view of this notorious policy -- and of his disillusionment that anyone should expect him to follow it out of party loyalty.
Crockett called the Indian policy a “wicked, unjust measure,” and revealed how offended he was at even being asked to support it by party bosses, who told him that his political future depended on it. “I was willing to go with General Jackson in everything that I believed was honest and right,” he wrote, “but, further than this, I wouldn't go for him, or any other man in the whole creation; that I would sooner be honestly and politically damned, than hypocritically immortalized.”
In other words, Davy Crockett was even more worthy of admiration than the mythic version of him. Moreover, he blazed a path for members of Congress that, should they choose to follow it, would even today do themselves proud.
Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics