Insights from Three Roads to the Alamo

I am devouring this book.  It is far more interesting than I anticipated; Davis presents a lot of facts, but dwells on the ones most pertinent to the different eras in the lives of Crockett, Bowie, and Travis.  (Or rather, Crockett and Bowie; I haven’t gotten to Travis yet.)  Davis also provides their family histories, detailing them so thoroughly that I mentally nicknamed the ancestors “Grandpa Crockett” and “Pa Bowie” and “Uncle Bowie” in order to remember who all these people are.

The book also offers gems about frontier life, law, and politics (or lack thereof).  For example:

Following the purchase of Louisiana, almost all the region was public land, unavailable for purchase until it was properly surveyed and townships and ranges were laid out.  That would be the work of years to come.  The only more immediate ways to take possession of a tract were either to buy it from a confirmed occupant or else to acquire a Spanish grant owned by a grantee who never actually took possession.  –pg. 43

Now [Crockett] was nearly thirty, with three small children, one of them still an infant, all of them needing care and he with a failing farm to work.  In like circumstances men often broke up their families, placing the children in the homes of friends and relatives, but Crockett felt too attached to his sons John and William, and to baby Margaret.  –pg. 63

Soon [Crockett] added to it other titles in Lawrence County, including town commissioner of Lawrenceburg, court referee, and road commissioner.  For the next two years, he adjudicated in land disputes, took censuses of voters and taxpayers, oversaw the improvement of country roads, and performed whatever small tasks came in the way of a rural functionary. –pg. 69

In 1823 Americans had no folk heroes as yet.  They were too new a people, their only household gods the Founding Fathers, men too lofty and remote to become the stuff of legend.  But the common man was rising now, and he would want one of his own for an icon.  –pg. 86

Ahead of them lay what boatmen called a sawyer, a huge driftwood tree snagged in the bottom mud, its trunk pointing upstream.  Sawyers rose out of the water in response to the current until their weight in the air countered the water’s resistance, and then they crashed down again, repeating the process endlessly until eventually they washed away.  –pg. 117

You may notice from the sequence of the page numbers that every other page contains something interesting, insightful, and informative.  I keep peppering my copy with Post-Its, and this selection of quotes is only a portion of the ones I marked.

It’s amusing to note that very little has changed politically.  I always thought that early 19th century America was morally purer than today; and in some ways, perhaps it was.  But when Bowie gets involved in local politics, and Crockett in local and national politics, we get statements like this:

Brent also promised men appointments if he was elected, even though they would be to offices a congressman had no power to fill; one of Johnston’s friends admitted that some influential men “were completely bamboozled by him.”  –pg. 102

When the House bogged down in debate on the tariff in March, [Crockett] looked on in dismay as a largely partisan element tried to reshape the duties in a way that would align the West, the South, and the mid-Atlantic states against New England, the home of President Adams.  Critics charged that the House was concerned not with protecting manufacturers but manufacturing a president, and Crockett became so frustrated that he determined to vote against every single tariff amendment and against the tariff bill itself.  –pgs. 129—130

David believed he was seeing evidence of bipartisan support, honest men favoring an honest measure, but the more subtle Polk recognized that they were taking the “opportunity to use Crockett, and to operate upon him through this measure, for their own political purposes.”  –pg. 138

“What a state of things,’ [Overton] exclaimed.  ‘The most corrupt & daring are the most successful.”  –pg. 157

Did you think that fighting and backbiting over a political position was a modern problem?

No sooner did Crockett return to Washington for this new session, however, than he read a Nashville newspaper account published while he was on his way east, saying that he had behaved with unforgivable boorishness at the meal, demanding more food when his plate was removed, even licking his fingers, and drinking out of all six cups attached to the punch bowl. … [A]ny one of the other five attendees, including the president, could have put the lie to the story. … The story had to be a lie made up by someone who knew the dinner took place and who gave it to the Clay-Adams press, yet who must have known that at least half the guests present who could refute the tale were themselves National Republicans.  In other words, a fantasy concocted to embarrass Crockett must inevitably be embarrassing to the National Republicans as well, when the truth came out and men like Clark and Verplank were forced to refute what appeared in their own party organs.  –pgs. 134–135

Such calm was hardly likely in an election year, however.  Brent stood for reelection again, and the campaign proved if anything even more bitter than those before.  Charges swirled of Brent’s heavy engagement in forged Spanish grant business, and that in Washington he received money for claims on behalf of his constituents but failed to turn it over.  –pg 155

How about fights in social media?

Crockett took up the fight in the press, and replied in temper that Lea was a “poltroon, a scoundrel and a puppy,” suggesting that if Lea would identify himself, Crockett would “resent” the insults with a challenge.  Lea did identify himself in responding, declining the invitation to duel but repeating his charge that his colleague had made himself the “willing instrument of political, sectional and personal malignities” opposed to the interests of Tennessee, on the part of men who wished to “induce him to act with them in future.”  The correspondence went back and forth in the press for several days…  –pg 141

The author points out that Crockett was not a man prone to violence, but the article in the press had attacked his integrity.

And though back then there weren’t solid political parties as we’d think of them, there was division of voter support:

Everyone expected [Brent] to be easy prey after his part in electing Adams the year before, but the Jacksonians in Louisiana fell apart this year and fielded two candidates, dividing the opposition vote.  –pg. 155

I keep subconsciously comparing the information I read to the portrayals in The Alamo film.  And have to remind myself to wait until I reach those chapters of their lives, because the men they were at age 15 or 20 could be radically different from their personalities at ages 26, 33, and 40-something.

But their personalities thus far are interesting to assess.  Bowie is a complex case study: sometimes, I do not want to read the chapters about him because of his underhand dealings and violent tendencies.  On the flip side, he had an interesting and intelligent (mostly) personality.  He had self-control enough to wait for his frauds to succeed, but not enough to control himself in the presence of insults or enemies.  He was intelligent enough to maneuver into the society of influential men, but not enough to research his schemes thoroughly.  He apparently had no qualms defrauding the government out of its public land and smuggling slaves into Louisiana, but he was fiercely loyal to his family.  His character seems to be on a level with Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights—complex, yet reprehensible, yet fascinating.  Like a tornado—you want to get out of there, but you can’t look away.

On a lighter note, Bowie’s first name was James, and he had a brother name John.  I got a hilarious mental image of their parents getting the names mixed up, stuttering when calling one kid or the other, and finally resorting to “Come here, boy.”  The thought amuses me.

Crockett is also a puzzling case sometimes.  While the author—and Crockett’s own actions in Congress—declares him an honest man, he seems to have had no qualms deliberately appealing to what his backwoods constituents liked best, and exaggerating (or de-exaggerating as the situation required) his own knowledge and abilities.  It doesn’t seem to have been a malicious or intentionally deceptive tactic—and Crockett definitely stood his ground, regardless of consequences, once he was elected to Congress—but it seems a little odd in the face of his honesty elsewhere, and his (initial) naïve belief in the sincerity of his fellow delegates.  It does, however, make accurate Crockett’s statement in The Alamo film: “I was never afraid to stretch things a bit…but I never learned to lie.”

On a totally different note, there will be no Picture Saturday today.  Mainly because I have nothing prepared, and I may be getting sick.  On the bright side, it might give me more time to read Three Roads to the Alamo.  🙂

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