AFTER SAILING INTO the harbor at Newport, Rhode Island, in May of 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville, the renowned French historian and political scientist, began his tour of the United States to both study the prison system and observe American democracy in action. During nine months of traveling from the East Coast to the Mississippi River, Tocqueville filled fourteen notebooks with his observations and interview notes from more than two hundred Americans he met along the way, and his recollections are particularly germane to this story.
“Europeans think a lot about the wild, open spaces of America, but the Americans themselves hardly give them a thought,” Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America. “The wonders of inanimate nature leave them cold, and, one may almost say, they do not see the marvelous forests surrounding them until they fall beneath the ax. The American people see themselves marching through wildernesses, drying up marshes, diverting rivers, peopling the wilds, and subduing nature.”1
Tocqueville’s visit came at a time of great upheaval and change in America’s political system, with the birth of the Democratic Party under Jackson’s leadership and the rise of the anti-Jackson Whigs. The young nobleman, from an aristocratic family that had managed to survive the French Revolution, marveled at “the constant agitation of parties,” and the necessity for party candidates to “haunt the taverns, drink and argue with the mob” in order to attract votes. The lack of a hierarchical social order, so different from Europe, particularly impressed the more patrician Frenchman. When he entered the House of Representatives in Washington City, the effete Tocqueville was “struck by the vulgar demeanor of that great assembly.” He observed, “One can often look in vain for a single famous man. Almost all the members are obscure people whose names form no picture in one’s mind. They are mostly village lawyers, tradesmen, or even men of the lower classes. In a country where education is spread almost universally, it is said that the people’s representatives do not always know how to write correctly.”2
One of the more curious specimens Tocqueville encountered was one of those Americans marching across the wilds—Monsieur David Crockett of Tennessee. Unfortunately, Crockett was no longer in Congress at the time of Tocqueville’s visit to that august body in Washington, or the Parisian would have beheld someone most memorable. It is not unlikely, given the fact that he never mentioned him, that the two men ever met, but once Tocqueville got to Tennessee, it is evident that he heard plenty about Crockett. Tocqueville’s daily diary notes about the “gent from the cane” were both succinct and telling, and describe something that would never have happened in France. “Two years ago the inhabitants of this district of which Memphis is the capital sent to the House of Representatives in Congress an individual named David Crockett, who had received no education, could read only with difficulty, had no property, no fixed dwelling, but spent his time hunting, selling his game for a living, and spending his whole life in the woods.”3
Tocqueville’s description of Crockett was not far off target. In late 1831, following his loss to William Fitzgerald in the congressional election, Crockett’s political and personal prospects appeared to be slim to none. After so many years of being absent and generally derelict in his duties as both husband and father, Crockett realized that his marriage was in a shambles and his relationship with much of his family strained. Back in the spring of 1830, as he prepared to break from the Jacksonians, political obligations had prevented him from attending the marriage of his son William to Clorinda Boyett, followed just four days later by the nuptials of his eldest daughter, Margaret (Polly), to Wiley Flowers.4 A growing circle of Whig cronies, especially Thomas Chilton, the Kentucky congressman who lived in Crockett’s Washington boardinghouse, received more of his time and attention than Elizabeth and their children.
Earlier in 1831, Crockett had been sued yet again by one of his creditors. As a result of the legal action, he sold his house and twenty-five acres of property in Weakley County to his stepson, George Patton, who needed a place of his own after marrying Rhoda Ann McWhorter.5Crockett pocketed $100 in the transaction and then a few months later sold Patton a ten-year-old “Negro girl named Adaline” for $300, to pay off another past-due debt. Just below his signature on the deed and the bill of sale for the slave girl, Crockett wrote, “Be allways sure you are right then Go, ahead.”6 This marked the first-known written record of Crockett’s famous credo, which would become closely linked with his name in the last years of his life and well beyond.
Soon after his election loss, Crockett was forced to “go ahead” and sell off the rest of his property to cover campaign debts and living expenses. He then leased a twenty-acre tract of heavily forested land adjoining the low grounds of the South Fork of the Obion. Before he signed the six-year contract, Crockett promised Dr. Calvin Jones, the wealthy physician who owned the Carroll County land, that he would make improvements by clearing for crop fields; building a cabin, smoke house, and stables; digging a well; and setting out some fruit trees.7
Elizabeth, Crockett’s wife, had reached her limit. She could no longer tolerate Crockett’s behavior—all the hunting, excessive drinking, and his chronic pattern of abandoning his family. The ebullient public person contradicted the reckless personal one. She packed up and moved with those children still at home to Gibson County to reside with Patton kinfolk. “She had endured enough of Crockett,” wrote William C. Davis, in Three Roads to the Alamo. “Relations with David remained amicable but distant. Perhaps it seemed fitting. His constituents had abandoned him, and now so had his wife.”8
Elizabeth briefly returned to Buncombe County, North Carolina, to visit other family members, including her father, Robert Patton, now a widower. When she returned to Tennessee, her father decided to go back with her and take up residence on some of the land he still owned there. Shortly after arriving, the prosperous yeoman farmer purchased another 1,200 acres and distributed the land among his five daughters and sons-in-law living in the area.9 Described as “a sturdy Presbyterian” and a “fond and beneficent parent,” Patton only lived in Tennessee for about a year; he died on November 11, 1832, and was buried on a bluff overlooking the Obion River.10 The elder Patton maintained his fondness of Crockett, despite the conflict between his son-in-law and daughter. Crockett always addressed Patton as “Father,” and it was no surprise that both Crockett and George Patton, a son of the deceased, were named as executors of Robert’s last will and testament drafted just prior to his death.11
Throughout 1832, Crockett lived a solitary life at the cabin he built on the leased land, dabbled a bit in farming, and took to the canebrakes and thickets as often as possible, his hounds the uncomplaining companions his wife could no longer be. Occasionally visitors and family stopped for a visit, and he made a few forays out in the district and further just to stay connected to political friends and allies.
Guided solely by his natural instincts, Crockett had become, in the words of Shakespeare, the wise fool. From his failures, he learned not to fear the contempt and derision of others but to mock his enemies as well as himself. He recognized that, in many instances, the untutored could penetrate to more profound truths and insights than those burdened with learning and convention. Crockett embodied the Shakespearean truth, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”12
Ironically, while Crockett contemplated his future and continued, almost single-handedly, to reduce the black bear population in West Tennessee, his star was rising higher and higher back east. Tantalized by the many newspaper accounts, most of them outrageous and exaggerated tales planted by political opponents and seldom denied by Crockett, the press and the public, as if he had become a broadsheet celebrity, clamored for more. Crockett was clearly missed. His rapidly growing audience of fans and followers hungered for his return to the limelight of Jacksonian society. There was a steady buzz about Crockett from the plush Indian Queen Hotel in Washington City, where lobbyists treated lawmakers to lavish meals, to the phalanx of steamboats flanking the docks on the tawny Mississippi at St. Louis.
One newspaper, lamenting Crockett’s absence from Congress, labeled him “an object of universal notoriety” and went on to report that “to return to the capitol without having seen Col. Crockett, betrayed a total destitution of curiosity and a perfect insensibility to the Lions of the West.”13 Prior to the last election, a man in the galleries of Congress who had heard the Tennessean speak from the floor flatly stated, “Crockett was then the lion of Washington. I was fascinated with him.” Others who knew Crockett believed, however, that perhaps “Sly Fox of the West” would have been a more appropriate moniker.
The American public had no knowledge of the private Crockett and his lifelong struggle to rise above his station and remain debt free. They saw only the Crockett that appealed to them—the new kind of American who embodied the most attractive qualities of the literary heroes created by James Fennimore Cooper and Sir Walter Scott.
Crockett’s growing fame was further demonstrated on April 25, 1831, when a farce in two acts, written by James Kirke Paulding and entitled The Lion of the West, or a Trip to Washington, opened at the Park Theater in New York, the largest city in the nation and America’s theatrical capital.14 Within moments of the opening-night performance, it became apparent that the drama’s peculiar hero, Colonel Nimrod Wildfire—decked out in buckskin clothes, deerskin shoes, and an outlandish wildcat-skin hat—was none other than David Crockett, the original gentleman from the cane.
“Colonel Wildfire…[is] an extremely racy representation of Western blood, a perfect non-pareil, half steamboat, half alligator, and etc.,” read an early newspaper review.
[He] possesses many original traits which never before have appeared on stage. The amusing extravagances and strange features of character which have grown up in the western states are perhaps unique in the world itself…. Of the play itself…we cannot speak too highly of it. Possessing all of the peculiar points, wit, sarcasm and brilliancy of Paulding, it shows him in a quite pleasing light—that of a successful delineator of native manners and indigenous character. There are materials enough in this wide country to construct a school of comedy peculiarly our own. Why not collect them? Mr. Paulding has set an example worthy of being followed up.15
A native of the state of New York, Paulding was a prolific and talented writer of mainly satirical plays and novels. His confidant, early collaborator, and brother-in-law was Washington Irving, another highly acclaimed early American writer and the author of such enduring tales as “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”16 Both men were associated with the Knickerbockers, a group of authors who, by 1832, ruled the literary community in New York City. Included in their ranks were James Fenimore Cooper, Fitz-Greene Halleck, and William Cullen Bryant. Another well-known Knickerbocker, and a possible source of Paulding’s interest in Crockett as a lead character, was Gulian Crommelin Verplanck. He was the New York congressman who had written a letter of support for Crockett in the wake of trumped-up stories about his behavior at a dinner with President John Quincy Adams, who by 1831 had been elected to Congress.17
Paulding had written The Lion of the West in 1830 for a competition sponsored by James Henry Hackett, a noted actor who put up a cash prize for a new and original American comedy. Hackett, considered one of the finest Shakespearean comedians of his day, coveted a leading role for himself and was delighted when he learned that his friend Paulding was gathering material based on the experiences of frontiersmen. Paulding wrote the portrait painter John Wesley Jarvis, asking him for some “sketches, short stories, and incidents of Kentucky or Tennessee manners, and especially some of their peculiar phrases and comparisons.” He also suggested that Jarvis “add or invent, a few ludicrous Scenes of Col. Crockett at Washington.”18
Not surprisingly, Paulding’s play was the one Hackett selected for production. Months before Lion premiered, word got out that Hackett’s portrayal of Nimrod (a synonym for hunter) Wildfire was a caricature of Crockett loosely based on episodes from his colorful life.19Paulding and Hackett, most likely fearful of legal action, emphatically denied any connection between Wildfire and Crockett. On December 15, 1830, Crockett himself received a note from Paulding reassuring him that there was absolutely no intentional use of Crockett’s image and life experiences in the comedy. At first Crockett accepted Paulding’s denial as the truth. “I thank you…for your civility in assuring me that you had no reference to my peculiarities,” Crockett wrote to Paulding on December 22. “The frankness of your letter induces me to say a declaration from you to that effect was not necessary to convince me that you were incapable of wounding the feelings of a strainger [sic] and unlettered man who had never injured you.”20
However, when the play opened in New York in late 1831 and audiences saw Hackett in full frontier regalia and heard him utter his first words, the Crockett influence was unmistakable. “My name is Nimrod Wildfire—half horse, half alligator and a touch of the airthquake—that’s got the prettiest sister, fastest horse, and ugliest dog in the District, and can out-run, outjump, throw down, drag out, and whip any man in all Kaintuck.”21
Throughout the drama Wildfire spouted a stream of backwoods witticisms, such as “You might as well try to scull a potash kettle up the falls of Niagara with a crowbar for an oar,” or the insensitive boast that he was “primed for anything from a possum hunt to a nigger funeral,” reflecting the racist language of the day. Newspaper articles about Crockett may have inspired much of the play’s language, but many of the frontier epithets were straight from the pen of Paulding and not from the tongue of Crockett. Some of the news stories were of dubious origin, such as one published in late 1828 that called Crockett “one of the most eccentric and amusing members of Congress,” and said that his family coat of arms included a rifle, a butcher’s knife, and a tomahawk.22 The article went on to tell of Crockett’s boast that he could whip any man in the House of Representatives and also “could wade the Mississippi, carry a steamboat on his back and whip his weight in wild cats.”
What is certain is that the national mythologizing of Crockett had already begun, even in his lifetime, making it difficult to separate what Crockett actually said from what others made up about him. The Paulding play was replete with backwoods lingo and bastardized words that, over time, several sources erroneously attributed to Crockett. He did, in fact, use much of the slang, idioms, and sayings of the time in his daily lexicon and various writings, but he did not coin the more colorful words uttered by Nimrod Wildfire, such as catawampus, jubus, tetotaciously exflunctified, gullywhumping, flutterbation, and the popular ripsnorter, which probably originated in 1840, four years after Crockett’s death.23 But it was sockdolager, a word that meant the ultimate or decisive, as in a knockout punch, that became most associated with Crockett as a result of its usage in the Paulding play. While preparing for a duel, Wildfire in speaking of his opponent brags, “He’ll come off as badly as a feller I once hit with a sledge hammer lick over the head—a real sogdolloger [sic]. He disappeared altogether; all they could ever find of him was a little grease spot in one corner.”
Interestingly, the term sockdolager was widely used for many years, including by Mark Twain, who, as a young Samuel Clemens, was taken with frontier stories. Twain was influenced by reading Crockett’s 1834 autobiography as well as the fictionalized accounts of the buckskin hero in the many Crockett almanacs that appeared for more than twenty years after his death. In fact, sockdolager actually appears in Twain’s classic work The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Like Twain, Abraham Lincoln was yet another historical figure who fell under the spell of the mythical Crockett, incorporating his style of self-effacing humor into the fabric of his political life. Lincoln admired Crockett, a man, like himself, who grew up in poverty and became a national icon. Both Crockett and Lincoln also had gregarious personalities and a penchant for telling humorous stories, though Lincoln had a brooding, introspective side that Crockett, a more unselfconscious sort, could not have appreciated. Ironically, the humorous word sockdolager figured in one of the most tragic moments in American history. On April 14, 1865, during a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre, in Washington, D.C., John Wilkes Booth was poised outside the box where Lincoln, his wife, and their guests sat watching the action below. A veteran thespian who knew the play well, Booth waited for the line to be spoken that always got the most laughs: “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal—you sockdologizing old man-trap.”24 As the audience roared in delight, Booth stepped inside the box and fired his small pistol.
Thirty-two years before the first presidential assassination, when Lincoln was a young Whig politician, Crockett had his own memorable moment in another Washington, D.C., theater. On the evening of December 21, 1833, at a benefit performance of The Lion of the Weststaged at the Washington Theater, Crockett, who had returned to the capital, was escorted to a special reserved seat in the front row, stage center.25 The capacity audience cheered and hollered in recognition. Then the curtain slowly rose and James Hackett sprang onto the stage, dressed in the leather leggings and wildcat-skin hat of Colonel Nimrod Wildfire. He walked to the edge of the stage and ceremoniously bowed to the smiling Crockett, who, in turn, rose from his seat and returned the bow to Hackett. The crowd responded with a volley of thunderous applause. All the while, the actor portraying the legend and the real man continued to bow and smile.