When listening to political discourse today, the average American can be completely unnerved, wondering if anything will ever get done, or if what does get accomplished should be. It often seems that America has never been in such hard times and that political gridlock has never been so severe. But those visions of a past where government ran well and people in Washington D.C. came together to serve their fellow citizens are seen through rose colored glasses. Washington has always been a divisive, nasty place where elected officials churn out favors to their cronies using the money and power of the American taxpayer.
Political character assassination is not a new phenomenon, and even American hero Davy Crockett, a congressman from Tennessee was often hit broadside with libelous words much worse than those seen in today’s political attack ads. According to Buddy Levy’s excellent biography of the congressman, American Legend: The Real-Life Adventures of David Crockett, during Crockett’s campaigns he was accused of public indecency, gambling addiction and violent drinking binges. Like many of today’s politicians, Crockett was accused of being an adulterer. Also, like many of today’s politicians, Crockett had a religious “awakening” midway through his career.
Unlike today’s politicians, animosity among the candidates of old could bring them to blows. When campaigning for Congress against William Fitzgerald, Crockett became so incensed by Fitzgerald’s lies that, during a candidate forum, Crockett stormed the stage to give Fitzgerald a beating. As Crockett approached, Fitzgerald pulled a pistol, and Crockett was forced through good sense to back down. Sure Crockett was a bear fighter, but bears don’t carry pistols. Politics was a much tougher sport in those days.
Crockett himself was no stranger to playing political dirty tricks. During Crockett’s campaigns he would often travel his district with his opponents, lodging in the same homes and giving speeches at the same halls. During his final campaign for Congress, Crockett was losing badly and, in an attempt to embarrass his opponent, Adam Huntsman, Crockett played a mean, if very funny trick.
“Crockett had stumped and politicked enough not to go down without a scrap, and one trickster ploy, clever and pure Crockett, nearly ruined Huntsman and showed that Crockett never lost his sense of humor. During the Creek War, Huntsman had been badly wounded, one of his lower legs requiring amputation, and from then on he had worn a wooden leg, which served as a reminder of his devotion to his country and allowed him to run on his war record. As often happened, rival candidates billeted together while campaigning, and Crockett and Huntsman spent a night together at the home of a devout Jackson man who just happened to have a beautiful daughter. Late in the evening, with everyone sound asleep, Crockett grabbed a wooden chair and clomped noisily to the daughter’s door, which he rattled and knocked on. When she awoke screaming, Crockett placed one foot on the lower rung of the chair, and holding its backrest hopped loudly across the wooden floorboards, clomping loudly back to the room he shared with Huntsman, a known rake. Crockett dove into bed, pulled the covers to his chin, and fell into a deep, feigned snore. Having heard the commotion, the farmer rushed in, immediately assuming that Huntsman’s peg leg had made the stamping noise across the breeze-way. The farmer threatened to kill Huntsman, until Crockett finally managed to calm the enraged father. The ploy won Crockett the man’s vote and some of his friends’, and completely embarrassed Huntsman.”
Crockett’s time in Washington was spent almost entirely on trying to pass a bill to give the squatters and settlers in western Tennessee legal rights to their land. To his dismay, Crockett was never able to get the bill passed. He was blocked at every turn by moneyed interests, the crony capitalists of the day. They wanted to sell the land their way and use the profits for their own pet projects. Crockett became so tired of the cronyism that he exclaimed on the House floor, “The rich require but little legislation. We should, at least occasionally, legislate for the poor.”
The moral of this story is not that Americans should abandon hope because politics is a dirty game and always has been. The moral is that Americans shouldn’t rely on politicians sent to Washington; they should rely on themselves and the Constitution to guide the country. Politicians, even heroes like Davy Crockett, are prone to dirty tricks and flip flops, character flaws, and personal foibles. The only way to protect Americans from the flawed characters of politicians is to give those politicians as little power as possible. A limited government, with maximum freedom for individuals, is the only answer to political cronyism.
Unlike many politicians, Crockett tried to keep his campaign promises. During the final campaign against Huntsman, Crockett promised constituents that if he lost, he’d move to Texas. And after Huntsman defeated him, Crockett made good and packed up and went. As most Americans know, Crockett would go on to fight and die at the Alamo. After Crockett’s death, his son, John Wesley, would finally force through the land bill Crockett had been so unsuccessful in passing.