Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Crockett in Context

One of the things that drove me to do a book on David Crockett was my dissatisfaction with earlier works on the Tennessean. Most of them paid disproportionate attention to his brief involvement in the Creek War in 1813, his even shorter time in Texas and death at the Alamo, and his hunting adventures. Although he spent most of his adult life in politics, those years have typically been given short shrift and were superficially presented, confusing and inaccurate. Crockett was typically seen as a clueless bumpkin who did not understand political issues or process, mindlessly stubborn and easily manipulated by Whig politicians. It was as if nothing he did in politics made any sense.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Crockett had a clear understanding of politics and the legislative process. He knew all about deal-making and alliance building, but he showed one trait uncommon to most career politicians -- he put the interests of his constituents above all else, including his political fortunes and the demands of his party. But this could only be seen if the issues Crockett dealt with were understood in the context of his time. He served during the rise of Jacksonian popular democracy, which spread suffrage and opened elected office to more citizens than had been the case under the more elitist Federalists. His contemporaries were Andrew Jackson, the first non-Federalist president, fellow-Tennessean James K. Polk, who became Jackson’s point man in Congress, and Martin Van Buren, founder and organizer of what would become the Democratic Party, Jackson’s second vice president and his hand-picked successor. These anti-Federalist leaders aimed their appeal squarely at the “common man,” long disenfranchised and subjected to the rule of eastern elites since the country’s birth. Their priorities were to eliminate corruption from government, reduce the central government’s power and spending, and legislate for the general good, not special interests. However, once in power, they showed favoritism toward their own cadre of elites and cronies and often acted against the best interests of the common folk in the name of reducing government interference. And they had zero tolerance for anyone in their party who did not move in lock step with them.

Although Crockett agreed with many broad Jacksonian goals in principle, he had never allied with Jackson in Tennessee politics. He began to oppose the president’s policies when he saw that they were often detrimental to his constituents, mostly poor farmers, despite Jackson’s populist rhetoric. Crockett locked horns with Polk over land reform and opposed Jackson’s cruel Indian removal policy as well as his destruction of the Second Bank of the United States, which dried up badly needed credit that was essential to small businesses and farmers. Crockett viewed Jackson's assertion of presidential power as a threat to the Constitution and the union. Unlike Jackson and Polk, he favored internal improvements because better transportation facilities aided commerce and benefited business. He understood that only the Federal government could manage the job and that the fears of states’ rights advocates, who opposed any exercise of Federal power, were shortsighted and counter-productive. His opposition made him a pariah among Jacksonians, who prized blind loyalty more than integrity. In each of his four bids for reelection, Jackson’s forces did all they could the unseat Crockett, but he still managed to win two of those contests and, when he lost it was by narrow margins, demonstrating his own appeal and the degree of anti-Jackson sentiment in his district. Crockett’s actions, thus, make perfect sense and should be applauded. He often proclaimed his refusal to buckle to party pressure, insisting that his first duty was to the people “whose servant I am,” a view rarely adhered to -- then or now

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