Davy Crockett turned 225 this week, an occasion observed with a commemorative reading Wednesday night at Union Avenue Books.
A new biography of Crockett by Oklahoma writer Michael Wallis is subtitled The Lion of the West.
The Pulitzer-winning biography of Andrew Jackson is called American Lion, and the new biography of Patrick Henry is called Lion of Liberty. If you’re writing a biography of an early American statesman, it helps if you can make him a lion of some sort.
David Crockett: Lion of the West is lively and levelheaded, and offers new detail about Crockett’s often overlooked East Tennessee years. Born in Greene County the same year that James White established the settlement that became Knoxville, Crockett and his family later moved closer, operating a tavern on the Knoxville to Abington Road; folks argue about the exact location, but Crockett spent his adolescence 30 or 40 miles east of here. For most of Crockett’s youth, Knoxville was the capital of Tennessee.
You’d think Crockett and Knoxville would loom large in each other’s stories, but accounts of Crockett showing up in town are rare. He favored the backwoods, where the hunting was better. By the time he was prominent in state politics, Knoxville’s state-capital status had migrated west, and so had Crockett.
Wallis barely mentions what may be Crockett’s closest connection to Knoxville, his late-life alliance with a prominent Knoxvillian.
The presidential campaign of 1834-36 is so hard to explain to children, teachers might be forgiven for skipping it. Jackson was president, in his second term, but many of his former supporters—especially in his home state—were growing uneasy about the old man’s agenda, his imperiousness, and his determination that he should be succeeded in the White House by his favorite toadie, Martin Van Buren.
Congressman Crockett flirted with a run for the presidency, himself, but finally he and several other former Jacksonians concluded America’s best chance to avoid a sort of Napoleonic succession lay in the person of a Knoxville man, Sen. Hugh Lawson White. Former president pro tem of the U.S. Senate, White was one of those figures Tennesseans once assumed would be immortal, “the Cato of America,” subject of a biography, namesake of a new Arkansas county. Today it’s rare to find anyone without a Ph.D. who’s ever heard of him.
A committee including Crockett and U.S Speaker of the House John Bell drafted White to run for president in defiance of Jackson’s agenda. White’s campaign was strongest in the South and Midwest, attracting 26-year-old Illinois attorney Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln and Bell opposed each other for the presidency in 1860, but in 1835 they were both on White’s team.
To further White’s campaign, Crockett signed his name to a withering satirical “biography” of Van Buren, emphasizing White’s superiority as a national leader, and Van Buren’s general ridiculousness.
“He is 53 years old,” it goes, “and notwithstanding his baldness, which reaches all round and over half down his head, like a white pitch plaster, leaving a few white floating locks, he is only three years older than I am. His face is a good deal shriveled, and he looks sorry, not for any thing he has gained, but what he may lose....”
That writer acknowledges, “There are many persons who will call my book perfect trash; will wonder how people of sense can read such nonsense.... There are others who will say that I never wrote this book; that someone else has done it for me; that I have not education and sense enough to put together such a work. To such, and especially if they be good Jackson men, I would say, have a caution how you use such expressions....
“No, no, people must not think that because Me and General Jackson had no education and come from nothing, we can’t write. The very fact that we have risen in the world from such an unpromising beginning shows we have strong minds; and it only requires a little mixing with scholars to get a sharp notion of putting one’s ideas on paper.”
And today, scholars think the text was heavily ghostwritten by a Georgia politician. The short book was indeed Crockett’s idea, and seems to represent his ideology, but its jumble of styles may suggest multiple authorship. In the book’s best passages, Crockett’s laconic wit seems to shine through. “There is a curious likeness in the life and present standing of Mr. Van Buren and me; and our case must hold out encouraging hopes to all sorts of people; for, after our good luck...nobody need doubt the ignorance of mankind, or the ease with which they can be duped.”
Though Van Buren’s the subject, White appears repeatedly. “The very fact that Judge White is the people’s candidate against the office-holders...has very much alarmed Mr. Van Buren and his friends. They thought Judge White could be flattered off.... They called him a patriot, an honest man, a pure man, a very capable man, and one who had never soiled his spotless character with anything like intrigue or selfishness in the pursuit of office. But that device failing, they have altered their tone; and from dark insinuations and deceitful innuendoes, they are proceeding to malicious charges.
“But it will not do; the people will have their way, and the man they support will triumph over a venal press and a corrupt combination of the official caucus.”
It didn’t work out as Crockett predicted. In November, 1836, Martin Van Buren was elected president of the United States. By then White’s campaign had eroded with the addition of regional candidates Daniel Webster and William Henry Harrison. White came in fourth nationally, but carried Tennessee and Georgia.
Crockett never knew he was wrong about the people having their way. Eight months earlier, White’s propagandist had died at the Alamo.
White barely survived the Knoxville plague of 1838, but died in 1840, during the presidential term he campaigned for. Crockett, Lincoln, and Bell’s choice for U.S. president is buried in the First Presbyterian churchyard downtown.