The Political Views of America’s Folk Hero, Research Paper Example
Words: 9332Research Paper
The relationship between folklore and historical reality is very difficult to quantify. On the one hand, folklore frequently verges so close to myth that it is more representative of a cultural wish-fulfillment than of actual reality. It may even be the case that folklore exists in order to compensate for the more unsavory elements of historical reality. Frequently, folklore begins with some genuine historical person or event but quickly becomes archetypal in nature, rather than historically accurate. In American history, figures such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin are associated with well-known folklore stories: for example, the chopping of a cherry tree, and the tying of a key to a kite. Another figure who looms large in American folklore is David (or Davy) Crockett.
Although Crockett is most well known in the popular mind as a frontiersman and an icon of the Battle of the Alamo, Crockett actually served in the U.S. House of Representatives and championed a wide-range of political issues. Hi philosophies and beliefs were based on an appraisal of nature, human nature, society, and the social contract. As such, in both folklore and in historical reality, Crockett stands as an important figure that helped to define American character identity in the nineteenth century and beyond. As the following discussion will show, Crockett’s political philosophies are very much germane in today’s world, just as they played a vital role in America’s past.
Crockett in folklore is forever associated with the ideal of the nineteenth century American frontier. Casual observers imagine Crockett as one of the historical “tamers” of the American wilderness, an Indian fighter, and an American hero. Running through all of these attributes is an unspoken bond with nature. In other words, Davy Crockett as a folk myth is an emblem of the American wilderness and more specifically, the ability of American capacity and ingenuity to rise above the various challenges of nature to establish a meaningful and just society. This means that, in actuality, Crockett’s philosophical views about the role of politics and the influence of nature are complex. The popular myth is, of course, that of Crockett the frontiersman, a myth that Boylston and Weiner describe in their study David Crockett in Congress: the Rise and Fall of the Poor man’s Friend (2009).
In this study, the authors note that many of the American ideals about nature are entwined with the myth and folklore that circulate around Crockett. The authors note that “The image of the coonskin-capped, buckskin clad hero swinging his rifle like a Louisville Slugger atop the Alamo is iconic; to most folks Davy Crockett really is the King of the Wild Frontier.”1 As previously mentioned, it is very difficult to separate aspects of folklore from historical realities. In Crockett’s case, the folk iconic status that he holds is helpful in understanding certain crucial elements of his actual political beliefs. This is particularly true in regard to the way that Crockett’s view of nature infused his view of politics. In order to understand how the folk-myth of Crockett intersects with the political reality it is necessary to first take a look at the various components of the Crockett-as-frontiersman archetype.
The first aspect of the archetype is that it represents rugged individualism, rather than a reliance on collectivism. Throughout his entire life and certainly throughout his political career, Crockett was a tireless supporter of individual rights and liberty. Boylston and Weiner affirm this when they state that “Crockett’s most important political objective was the securing for his poorer constituents legal title to the land they had worked and improved” 2. This single issue shows how the real Crockett and the popular myth intersect in meaningful ways. Crockett is perceived in popular myth not only as a tamer of the wilderness but as an individualist. There is also a connotation in the folk myth that Crockett’s connection to the nature is one where man’s needs and talents are exalted when tested against nature.
The same sentiment is shown in Crockett’s policy toward the impoverished homesteaders. He valued their individual labor and freedom to hold the land they tamed through their ingenuity and talents. This fact however should not be confused with the idea of government subsidy or government sponsored charity. One of the things that Crockett is most famous for in terms of his political career is for delivering the so-called “Not Yours to Give” speech which involved Crockett’s opposition to the issuing of government funds to a Navy widow. While such an action may appear callous to some, when viewed at a more profound level, simply demonstrate the fierce belief that Crockett held in the liberty and independence of the individual.
Crockett not only held these beliefs on a theoretical level, but championed them as a politician and embodied them in his everyday career and life. As noted in David Crockett in Congress, the pressure of party and conformity seemed to have little influence over Crockett. The authors note that “Crockett came to view strict party discipline as threat to democracy.” 3 furthermore, Crockett’s view of freedom and individuality also expressed itself in his empathy and sympathy for the cause of Native Americans who faced cruelty in Jackson’s relocation policies. In this regard, “His compassion for the Cherokee and other eastern tribes was genuine and continued long after the war over relocation had ended.”4 All of these elements factor into conceiving a solid view of Crockett’s philosophical vision of nature. It is, as previously noted, a complex perspective and one that exists not only in philosophical abstraction but in pragmatic application on a personal and political level.
The practical extension of philosophy emerges from Crockett’s conviction that there are specific rights that are embedded in nature when it comes to individual freedom and the acquisition of goods. In this respect, Crockett very much falls into a philosophical tradition that is ascribed to the philosopher John Locke. According to Locke, the inherent rights of the individual are a result of nature. That is to say, nature ensures that each individual longs for liberty and also that each person has individual talent and ambition. In his article, “Good Fences and Good Neighbors: John Locke’s Positive Doctrine of Toleration,” (1999) Anthony G. Wilhelm connects Locke’s view of nature to both his philosophical and political convictions.
The observations made by Wilhelm about Locke are illuminating in regard to Crockett’s view of nature. Wilhelm writes that Locke favored the idea of restricting the power of government. The idea of restricting government has as its counterpart, quite naturally, the expansion of individual liberty. Wilhelm observes: “Using a state of nature argument, Locke argues that certain rights are inherent, rooted in the ability of reason to ascertain one’s material and spiritual needs independent of (and prior to) political society.”5 This means, essentially, that for both Locke and Crockett, the role of government was to make certain that natural rights were recognized and protected. It is impossible to overstate how important this component of Crockett’s beliefs about nature is in terms of the way that Crockett’s philosophical ideals influenced his political actions.
Holding a belief that specific rights such as those associated with freedom of belief and the right to property are inherent in nature dictates that a specific vision of the purpose and role of government be formed. In terms of Crockett’s ideals, the best form of government was that which was limited and intended to protect and preserve the rights of the individual. This particular point of view is very influential over not only the kind of political policies and individual will favor, but the way in which they will pursue these policies. For example, Crockett viewed his role as a representative to Congress to be an office of public service rather than a position of personal power and glory. In his book, Davy Crockett, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee, Crockett writes of his sense of public service and humility.
His words might sound strange if not unfathomable to many modern readers who have grown up in a political age characterized by greed and self-aggrandizement. Crockett affirms his role as a servant to the American people: “But you will find me standing up to my rack, as the people’s faithful representative, and the public’s most obedient, very humble servant.”6 The role of government is to serve the welfare of the public not to regulate and control the population. Liberty and the right to material possessions are embedded in nature itself. Therefore it is easy to see that the folk-myth of Crockett as the King of the Frontier is actually quite in keeping with the reality of Crockett’s views about nature. As well as being faithful to the way that those views influenced Crockett’s political convictions.
To state the matter simply: the rugged individualism that is apparent in the King of the Frontier myth can be truly stated to emerge our of Crockett’s true personality and philosophical perspective. This is an interesting aspect of the way that the folk-myths of Crockett and the historical reality of Crockett interact. On the one hand, the popular myth identifies and reciprocates Crockett’s care for and empathy with the common man and even the Native American simply by generating a folk-myth of strength and positivity. The folk-myth that surrounds Crockett acknowledges that Crockett stood as an advocate for the people while simultaneously standing as a staunch advocate for individualism. The historical reality substantiates that Crockett acted on these convictions and pursued political policies as a Congressional representative that reflected his beliefs about nature.
Another factor in the connection between Crockett’s political views and his view of nature is an almost naïve conviction that nature imbues humanity with an innate sense of morality that is perceived through the function of human rationality. An example of this is Crockett’s position on President Jackson’s Indian Relocation Bill. This piece of legislation tested Crockett’s convictions because he was brought under enormous pressure to cave in to the demands of his party and the executive branch of government. Crockett writes that when Jackson’s bill to relocate the Indians came forward, he rose in opposition because he felt a moral imperative to do so. The acknowledgment of this moral imperative is also an acknowledgment that nature provides for a kind of human moral sense. Crockett writes “His famous, or rather I should say his in-famous, Indian bill was brought forward, and I opposed it from the purest motives in the world.”7 That last phrase shows clearly that Crockett not only believed in an inherent morality, but that he strove to remain attuned to it in his role as a public servant.
In fact if Crockett’s own words are to be believed, then his entrance into politics began with his response to a moral imperative, that came to him instinctively, rather than through a sense of personal ambition. Crockett writes that a vote in 1824 about a tariff led to widespread dissatisfaction in Crockett’s congressional district. In response, a great number of people approached Crockett and asked him to run in the next election against Col. Alexander who had supported the tariff law. Crockett’s response to the public cry for his candidacy was both humble and meant to highlight the simplicity of his moral judgment. He writes that “At last I was called on by a good many to be a candidate. I told the people that I couldn’t stand that; it was a step above my knowledge, and I know’d nothing about Congress matters.”8 Crockett’s response implies that he will bring his instinctive, natural rationality and moral sense to his duty of representing the people before Congress. Such a perspective is based not only on an inherent belief in the moral structure of nature, but on the human ability to perpetuate the natural order of morality through a combination of rationality and emotional response.
The preceding remarks about Crockett’s view of morality and human rationality clearly demonstrate that Crockett not only believed in the basic moral structure of nature but in the reality of a human nature as well. This means that Crockett saw in human nature an exalting of nature that used rationality and the human moral sense as its basic building blocks. In modern times, many people are eager to celebrate the rational nature of the human intellect as well as the accomplishments of science and technology. However, modern beliefs seldom include the kind of vision of human nature that was held by Crockett because this view connects rationality to ethics and morality. From this perspective, the moral sense and rational sense work together as a consequence of nature to ensure that human beings have the capacity to enter into just, consensual relationships with one another.
Critics of this kind of viewpoint insist that the capacity for rationality in no way indicates any kind of moral or ethical sense. Furthermore, according to these critics, the moral or ethical responses that are experienced by each individual vary, according to situational particulars, to such a strong degree that deducing any kind of rational or codified moral or ethical system is more or less impossible. This means, obviously, that the view of human nature that was held by Crockett is one that is more or less obsolete in the modern age. However, this view was anything but obsolete during Crockett’s time; it was, in fact, a strong part of the overall vision that had led to the founding of American democracy. As such, it was also an underlying principle behind the structure of the Constitution and the cultural indoctrination of the people. In the nineteenth century, the idea that an innate moral sense, created through nature, existed in all people was common enough and had roots in Biblical ideals. Similarly, the idea that human rationality was “designed” to reveal moral and spiritual purpose to humanity was a common enough idea in the nineteenth century.
For example, according to Wilhelm, Locke’s views on charity show that interpersonal virtues and rationality were viewed as being extensions of nature. Locke states that “We hold it to be an indispensable duty for all Christians to maintain love and charity in the diversity of contrary opinions … carrying men to a communion, friendship, and mutual assistance one of another, in outward as well as spiritual things”9 This provides for a communal sense of inter-responsibility without sacrificing the liberty of the individual. Human nature is such that individualism takes priority above the needs of society, but individuality also carries with it an inborn capacity to acknowledge and respond to the moral imperatives of living in a collective society.
Trying to grasp this position and this vision of human nature may prove to be very difficult for some observers because they will always tend to view individualism and collective society as being opposed to one another. This is an understandable viewpoint because if one is to grant a certain characteristic of human nature such as selfishness, then it is also logical to assume that this characteristic will remain in conflict with the duties of the individual to society. However, in the perspective held by Locke and Crockett human nature is such that fierce individuality and a sense of communal responsibility of duty are not only able to co-exist, they are ideals that strengthen one another.
Human nature is such that rugged individualists can and will respect one another’s liberty and rights. This is due to the fact that humanity, born into nature, adheres to a natural rational order and a natural moral structure that is embedded into reality itself. The conflict between the individual and society grows not out of the inherent conflict between social obligation and human nature but out of the friction that occurs when government impinges on personal liberty. Again, as an example, Crockett’s opposition to Jackson’s Indian Relocation bill shows that Crockett opposed not only the immorality of taking Indian land from the tribes, but the extreme danger of increasing executive authority by enacting the policy. In the book, Indian Fighters Turned American Politicians: From Military Service to Public Office (2003), Thomas G. Mitchell recounts the multilayered motivations for Crockett’s opposition to Jackson’s bill.
In the first place, according to Mitchell, Crockett conceded that the Indians had done as they had promised under the treaty terms and had turned to farming rather than hunting. The next troubling aspect was that the plan involved the direct coercion of people by the Federal government. Finally, financial aspects troubled Crockett, foremost among them that fact that “the half-million dollars appropriated to finance removal should be spent under congressional, rather than executive, supervision.”10 Obviously, it was not society that human nature found itself in conflict with time after time but power – specifically, the intrusive power of the Federal government. Human nature was such that individuals were able to accept their roles and responsibilities to the larger society so long as their liberty and dignity were respected. Trespassing on dignity and liberty brought only disastrous results.
This is not to say that Crockett viewed the Federal government as being the enemy of human liberty. Instead, what it means is that Crockett held a positive view of human nature; he had faith inhuman rationality and human morality. This faith led him to the long-lasting conviction that government intrusion on individual liberty was not only unnecessary, but it was deeply damaging to both the individual and society at large. This is because anything that impedes human liberty is failure to acknowledge that human nature is not only basically self-sufficient, but morally sound. There is no need for the state to “micromanage” all aspects of an individual’s life because most individuals have both a moral sense and a sense of rationality. Human nature makes it possible for people to enter into willing agreements regarding how to behave in collective settings.
The idea that a strong, central government is needed to police all aspects of human behavior is untenable according to the view of human nature that was held by Crockett. The proposition that all individuals must be regulated and guided by government throughout their lives flies in the face of the basically optimistic view of human nature that Crockett subscribed to and which he evidenced in his personal and professional life. The basic dichotomy between the power of government and the preservation of personal liberty was, in Crockett’s viewpoint, one that pointed out where humanity became estranged from its own basic nature. Far from being utopian, Crockett’s beliefs were still basically affirmative in that they verified the conviction that human nature was inherently rational and capable of discerning right from wrong.
Any view to the contrary diminishes humanity because it posits the idea that humanity is basically helpless without the presence of a presiding power over them. The concentration of this magnitude of power into government distorts the purpose of government which Crockett believed, as mentioned previously, was to protect and provide for the innate human liberty and rational morality that were endowed through nature. Crockett’s view of human nature explains why he affected an “everyman” persona in his political dealings, straining to appear uneducated and simple. This is not to suggest that Crockett advocated any form of primitivism, rather it shows that Crockett advocated the state of human nature described by Rousseau, where an acknowledgment of man’s original existence as being more simple than modern man’s is given, but the focus is held on the need for humanity to continue to evolve. The target of this evolution is to regain the simplicity of humanity in its animal state without resorting to primitivism.
Broome, in his book, Rousseau: A Study of His Thought (1963), describes this essential distinction between Rousseau’s vision of humanity’s past and hoped-for future. Broome writes “Therefore, if man is unhappy in his existing state, but unable to return to his original simplicity, the only alternative is to press forward and complete the historical process by a further revolution which will in some way allow him to be true to his own nature.”11 This clearly indicates that the goal is to reach a point of future evolution where human nature is at one with the needs of the individual and society. Broome goes on to observe that “while Rousseau believes man to have been happy in a negative way, in his original animal-like existence, he does not really believe that the race was intended by the Creator to remain in that condition.” 12 Each of these points must also be brought to bear in relation to Crockett’s view of human nature.
Crockett like Rousseau anticipates the recapturing of the original truth and simplicity of humanity in it animal state, but does so from the point of a futurist. Neither Crockett nor Rousseau is “saying ‘back to nature’, or back to anything; but rather: forward to the fulfillment of human nature, which is something very different from primitivism in a literal sense.”13 This is very important to keep in mind as we move from the issue of human nature to an examination of how Crockett viewed society. The reason that futurism is important in this regard is because it shows that Crockett essentially regarded society as a tool and a construct of a social-contract between the individual and the collective. As the following discussion will show, this belief deeply influence his political; views and actions.
For Crockett, human society represented the culmination of both reason and liberty. In other words, society freed man from his primitive state, but it also posed potential threats to individual freedom. Therefore, as Broome remarks, the purpose of society “is to reconcile order and liberty”14 but in doing so necessitates the emergence of politics. This is a step on the road of transformation away from the state of nature envisioned by Rousseau. The purpose of both politics and society as envisioned by Crockett was to preserve the natural freedoms and rights associated with human nature. At this point it is important to acknowledge certain criticisms of this perspective in order to present a balanced view. The prevailing line of criticism against the view of society that was espoused by Rousseau and also by Crockett is concerned with framing such a vision as being overly simplistic, or even “paternalistic.”
This latter phrase pertains to the criticism that any idealization of the role of society and politics risks positing the state as a paternal figure. The danger of doing this is, of course, that it can tip the balance of power between the individual and the state dangerously into the state’s favor. If the notion of the state as a paternal figure is taken too far, the result is authoritarianism and potential dictatorship. After-all, children, even those born to the most enlightened parents, stand in a position of relative powerlessness to the parents. The relationship between the parent and child is one where all of the power in the relationship rests on the parents’ side. Therefore critics of Rousseau’s ideas often “reduce Rousseau’s political theory to the standard enlightened despotism of his age.”15 This is a specious argument because it fails to take into account the significance of the social-contract in Rousseau’s work. It is only through an understanding of this principle can the conception of society that was favored by Rousseau and Crockett be achieved. However, before moving forward to a discussion of the social-contract, a few additional key points must be addressed. These points pertain to the way that society serves to protect the rights and property of the individual.
The best way to understand this conception of society is to envision organized society as the “penalty” for falling out of the state of nature. However, society is also a steppingstone toward the future evolution of humanity. In his book Jean Jacques Rousseau and His Philosophy (1930) Harald Höfding remarks that according to Rousseau, “Political bondage and social suffering [were] a necessary consequence of having abandoned the state of nature.”16 This perspective is not as cynical as it may first appear because the unspoken part of the statement is that society exists as an emanation of nature and stands as a station in the evolution of humanity. This also means that there is a distinction between power and true authority, just as there is a distinction between government and the state, proper. Government refers to the form of organization that the power of the state takes, whereas the concept of state refers more directly to society itself.
Höfding writes that the distinction between state and government form was an important aspect of Rousseau’s vision of society. For the average observer, the most important element of this philosophy is that it means there can be a government which stands as an obstruction to the “true” state of the people. By the same token, it is not possible for there to be a society that organizes itself without some kind of governmental apparatus and bureaucracy. According to Höfding, Rousseau “distinguished between the form of state and the form of government. There can be but one state form, for the sovereignty is and must ever be with the nation, which never dies, whereas forms of government may change.”17 The true significance of this distinction is that it places a primary emphasis on the people rather than on the particular form of government that is used to support their common welfare.
A solid example of how this conception of the true nature of society and the political process intersected for Crockett is his position on an 1823 bill that was meant to stop electoral candidates from offering free alcoholic drinks to curry favor with voters. On the surface of the argument it might appear that Crockett supported an immoral or even un-democratic practice. Some might even consider the buying of free drinks for voters to be an outright violation of voter ethics. The truth of the matter is that Crockett’s position on this issue can be traced back to the very conceptions of society and human nature that have been previously described in this essay. Because Crockett believed firmly that the common man was the heart and soul of society, he also believed that the true purpose of any political or social system was to protect and preserve the rights of the commoner. The issue of whether or not candidates should “treat” prospective voters rested firmly on the larger issue of just who it was that government served.
For the elites of Crockett’s time, the prohibition against “treating” voters was one that helped to preserve the power of their own electoral strategies which consisted largely of bypassing the common voter through the use of “back-room” deals among a set of power-brokers. This meant that for the rich and influential, the process of elections was something very different than the process that emanated from the common population. The act of buying drinks for common voters was a way of “taking to the stump to get the votes of commoners in a manner that political elites thought was beneath them and denigrating to the political system.” 18 The practice was dangerous not to the system of government, but to the system of nepotism and cronyism that subverted the natural processes of democracy that were intended to exist in American democracy.
For Crockett, such a tradition was a violation of the spirit of the social contract that existed between the American government and its citizens. His reason for opposing the “anti-treating” bill came from his belief that the commoner and not the rich and elite should form the foundation of democracy. In this instance we see, again, the very close connection between Crockett’s philosophical beliefs and his pragmatic actions as a representative in Congress. One has only to review Crockett’s record as a legislator to confirm that he was a tireless supporter of the poor, of the commoner, and of the ideas of preserving personal property, liberty, and power among all social classes and not just the traditional ruling class of the rich and privileged. In every respect, as a man, a politician, and even as a folk-myth, Crockett stands as a symbol of fierce anti-elitism. This speaks to the root of how Crockett viewed society, which was as a tool for the betterment of the common individual.
The Social Contract
Crockett’s view of society was based partially on his views of nature and human nature, and partially on his conviction that rationality was a means by which humanity could establish a social and political climate that was just and moral. In this regard, as we have seen previously, he viewed the connection between the individual and government as being based on placing the individual in a consensual, rather than oppressed, position to government. As Höfding mentions, Rousseau’s conception of the social contract was based on Locke’s groundwork. That said, Rousseau had definite ideas about the specific ramifications of the social-contract. He viewed it as the unspoken consent given by each individual to the rules and systems of their government.
Höfding describes Rousseau’s take on the concept of the social contract in great detail, emphasizing certain potentially overlooked elements. For example, writes that, according to Rousseau, “The social contract need not necessarily be thought of as entered into in full consciousness, at least not by those made citizens after the first foundations were laid. Whoever settles within the realms of the state agrees tacitly to obey the laws.”19 This may seem to actually restrict the freedom of the individual by “forcing” them into a contract with their government without choice. This criticism is, in fact, sometimes used by those seeking to argue against social contract theory.
The reality is that the agreement entered into between the individual and the government in social contract theory does leave the individual in a position to consent or to refuse to give consent to be governed by any particular system. The form of non-consent is protest or revolution “on the other hand, the government, when no protest is raised by the people against any plan, may rightly accept the general silence as agreement.”20 A close reading of this position shows that rebellion and revolution against unsuitable or undesired government is not only natural, but is actually an aspect of social contract. When an individual or a society as a whole enters into a social contract to be governed under a particular system or by particular rulers, there is also an unstated power reserved by the individual and by society at large to reject particular governments and specific rulers. The function of popular consent is what makes any given government of ruler legitimate.
Social contract theory fails to diminish the power of individual consent and, in fact, elevates popular will to a much higher position of authority that governmental power. Under social contract theory and particularly under the kind of social contract envisioned by Crockett, “The executive power must constantly seek certainty of its agreement with the common will, whose organ it shall be, through popular assemblies.”21 Under social contract theory the focus of government is on preserving and serving the popular will, not on thwarting or obstructing it. To tie this back to earlier comments on nature, human nature, and the purpose of society, Crockett’s particular philosophy provided for the tacit understanding that society’s function was to provide for individual opportunity and happiness. This corresponds to Locke and Rousseau, both of whom believed in “the idea of society as founded on a mutual contract assuring individuals happiness and freedom.” 22 This does not mean that any of these thinkers believed with pie-eyed innocence that society always acted in such a way as to serve the individual or that government responded to the will of the common people.
Rather, what can be accurately stated is that those who believed in social contract theory regarded the actions of society and government that sought to oppress of obstruct the individual as by-products of immoral and unethical behavior. For example, if an American President sought to circumvent Congress in order to wage a foreign war without Congressional consent, this would not only be an illegal action, but on that violated the social contract. Any president who attempted to assert their will over that of the populace would be regarded as being a fraudulent ruler. The same can be said for all systems and individuals who failed to serve the populace: “all institutions whose workings went counter to idea were rejected as the products of imperiousness and imposture.”23 Factoring into this philosophical framework was the then-current philosophical idea that the universe itself, as well as all other minor systems, could be explained through rational and mechanical means.
If the universe itself was a great “clockwork,” then societies and political systems were also clockworks that moved in determinate and even foreseeable ways. In this respect, a self-interested or power-mad politician is best thought of as a stripped gear or otherwise broken component of the machinery. Instead of dwelling on the causes for the broken component, the component is quickly replaced before it goes on to do damage to the larger machine. While it is true that such analogous conceptions tend to both simplify and dehumanize the processes of political and social evolution they are meant to describe, the analogy remains useful. It is useful because it reminds us that government is a tool rather than an end in itself. It is also a useful analogy because just as it is possible to replace or change parts in a machine, it is entirely possible to change or repair parts of government. For Crockett, the “broken” parts of the machinery that is government are those which are connected to elitism and the self-servingpursuit of power.
The social contract requires not only that each individual honor their pledge to obey and respect the laws of the land, but that each individual remain vigilant in keeping an eye on the potentially disastrous increase of governmental power. In other words, according to social contract theory, both sides of the equation; the individual and the government are expected to live up to the points of the contract. When the contract is not being met, the side who is failing to honor their promises is considered to be in breach of the contract and the contract is then considered to be broken. The most important part of these ideas is that each person is capable of deciding for themselves what constitutes a breach of the contract. Society as a whole is also free to decide that a particularincarnation of government is in breach of the social contract and must therefore be taken down or replaced. It is in this specific area of the nature of the social contract that Crockett as a historical figure and Crockett as a folk-myth begin to converge.
The way that Crockett pursued his political career shows that he was genuinely committed to the precept that all real power and authority resides in the people greater than in the offices of government. This was an approach that Crockett used not only in determining his positions as a voting representative of the people, but in his campaigning as well. During a time when, as mentioned, the main method of campaigning was to curry favor and monetary contributions from the elite class, Crockett reached out to the common people because he believed that was where the true power and purpose of any politician truly resided.
Another crucialelement of Crockett’s approach to social contract is that he not only embraced the idea associated with social contract theory on an intellectual level, he accepted them as an aspect of his very personality and world-view on completely practical terms. So, for example, when his political colleagues and opponents were making the round of the upper-crust parties and social gatherings in Washington DC and elsewhere to gain influence in elite circles, Crockett focused his energies on being among the people and listening to their concerns. The book Crockett in Congress mentions that “On the campaign trail, Crockett joined the locals in barbecues, squirrel hunts, anddances, and cast himself as aman of the people, which he certainly was, pretending ignorance of the law and formal politics in his speeches.”24 This approach was not an act, but an actual articulation of Crockett’s real feelingsabout the nature of society and government. Obviously, such a position was a powerful component of what later evolved as the Crockett myth. The often overlooked reality is that the folk-myth about Crockett as the King of the Wilderness could just as easily be modulated to Crockett the King of the Common man as both mythic personas relate to the same populist impulse toward freedom and self-government.
It may seem to many observers that the social contract was a natural fit for American democracy. To many people, the ideathat the individual and the state enter into a rational, mutually respectful agreement would seem to be one of the foundations of democracy itself and therefore, one of the central pillars of America. However, as tempting as it is to make this natural assumption, the assumption is not entirely accurate. This is precisely why the myth of Crockett has proven to be so powerful and provocative over the intervening centuries since he lived and worked. The general, superficial conception of democracy in America is that the people vote for representatives who then endeavor to create policies and laws that reflect the popular will. The reality of the situation is that individuals who serve in government are often little more than representatives of specific interests and causes. So, for example, a block of Senators might represent the interests of the coal industry and their votes enable certain kinds of mining practices to continue that create pollution for the entire country. It might be the case that a majority of the American population supports limiting pollutants but a small number of highly influential politicians and businessmen are able to circumvent the popular will through the power of their elite influences.
In a case such as this, the government has technically abdicated its end of the social contract and has begun to act in way that is self-perpetuating rather than populist in motivation. Does this mean,according to Crockett’s view of the social contract, that the people should engage in a full-scale revolution against the government? Obviously not. What it means is that citizens should remain aware that the social contract between individuals and their government is something that requires monitoring and vigilance. When leaders and representatives begin to stray, they must be held accountable. When laws and regulations become slanted toward preserving the power of special interests above the popular will, they must be resisted and ultimately repealed.
Crockett’s dedication to the common can scarcely be overemphasized and his understanding of the meaning of the social contract stands as one of the key principles of his political career and personal life. There is an element of rebellion or subversion that seems to issue from Crockett’s understanding of social contract that is not actually as radical as it might first appear to be. If Crockett opposed the imposition of government on the lives of average citizens, he even more strenuously opposed any semblance of an American aristocracy that connected political capacity and leadership potential with the circumstances of an individual’s family or status in society. This marked a dramatic sea-change from the way politics had traditionally been pursued in America. The fact remains that on a personal and political level, “Crockett was the perfect choice to represent frontier settlers. Up until then, government had been dominated by eastern elites and wealthy southern planters who chose candidates from their own class, while ordinary citizens, especially the poor, had little influence.”25 This state of politics was, by Crockett’s reasoning, a poor model for adhering to his vision of the social contract. it was as though the wealthy elites had determined that the social contract actually only existed between themselves and the government and the social contract was structured so that they, the elites, were the benefactors of all government laws and policies.
Because this actually goes against the idea of even a limited democracy, most Americans, even to this day, are unaware of the fact that a democratic system of government does not, in itself, guarantee a democratic society or laws based on democratic representation. It is entirely possible for any given democratic government to become corrupted to the point that there has become an irreparable breach in the social contract on the government’s behalf. At these times it befalls on the people to stand up and right the wrong, to step out of the confines of the social contract and demand a form of government that upholds the ideals of true democracy. The careful observer will not that all aspects of Crockett’s view of democracy and the social contract place the people’s needs and rights above the power of the government. the government’s only true power lies in upholding the will of the populace.
In modern times, it may be difficult if not impossible to fully understand the complete ramifications of social contract theory as it was understood in centuries past. What is also important to remember is that the social contract idea was one that was relatively new in Crockett’s time, emerging as it had from the unabashedly royalist conceptions of the past. Democracy and the social contract can both be considered methods that were meant to help humanity break with its tradition of monarchy and autocracy. The idea that some people (elites) have either a God-given right or a right granted by nature to oppress and exploit others is one that persists even in modern industrializedsocieties in the twenty-first century. Elites and power-brokers are self-aggrandizing, highly self-interested individuals who have bought into the delusion of a social hierarchy that is based on material wealth. Furthermore, these types of extremists have severely crippled, if not outright nullified, the traditions of American democracy that werefiercely championed by Crockett and many others who advanced the theory of the social contract.
American Character Identity
As the preceding examination shows, the figure of Davy Crockett is as an important influence over American political history as a figure of folk-myth and legend. The “two Crocketts” are, if not conjoined twins, flipsides of a coin. This coin, to extend the analogy, is what might be called the American character identity. It is the nature of the American character identity to possess dissimilar and sometimes even opposing qualities. For example, most Americans would identify themselves as individualists and yet these same Americans bristle at the idea of breakaway individualist traditions such as Satanism. In America it is entirely possible to find majority support in certain voting districts for completely divergent issues such as abortion and capital punishment. There is duplicity to the American character that is evident in many mainstream historical traditions, but which is also manifested in its traditions of folklore and myth.
In regard to Crockett, the first contradictory ideathat is associated with the folk-myth of Crockett is the idea of Crockett as a man of the wilderness. As much as any of his contemporaries, Crockett was informed about urban realities and modern ideals. His persona of being one of the common people was both authentic and contrived. However, the association of Crockett with the wilderness is one of the most significant aspects of the way that Crockett has emerged as an icon of American character identity. Why is this the case? Because the strong identification with nature that is associated with Crockett’s legend is the way that Crockett’s historical association with individuality and natural philosophy is preserved in folklore. Additionally, the association of Crockett with nature is also a way of showing that Crockett’s allegiance was to the people and the land. After-all, what was the frontiersman a symbol of in Crockett’s time if not that of man’s rational ingenuity and fortitude.
The urge to translate history into myth may be motivated by the desire any society has to define itself, or more accurately to define its ideals. In the case of Crockett, the historical facts of his life indicate that in addition to functioning as a frontiersman, Crockett was an able businessman, a capable self-publicist, and a canny politician. While it is no exaggeration to state that Crockett voted his conscience on many occasions as a state representative and as a Congressman, it is also true that Crockett availed himself of both populism and opportunism. Fundamental to everything that Crockett stood for was his faith in the power of liberty and self-determination. This ideal derived partially from the philosophical ideas of Rousseau, as described previously in the present discussion
One thing that Rousseau made clear was the fact that the social contract that exists between a nation and its citizens is derived from nature and dependent on specific characteristics of human nature, foremost among them individuality and rationality. Religious conviction also played a role, but this, too was derived from nature, and meant to be understood from a universal perspective. In fact, Rousseau’s ideas about the way religious conviction should coexist with politics remains faithful to his central idea that personal freedom and liberty is the most important right. As Höfding writes, “The only political solution conceivable by Rousseau is the institution of the ‘minimum’ citizens’ creed, which should be compatible with any reasonable private belief, and comprises, as we know, the existence of a powerful, intelligent, beneficent, foreseeing and provident God”26. This, too, feeds into the iconic status of Crockett in that he represents the ideal man in response to Rousseau’s conception. This is not to say that Crockett is a religious figure. Instead, it means that Crockett stands as the moral ideal in folk myth and that this ordeal derives from an underlying religious impulse in American society.
Just as Crockett believed that government was dispensable while the people themselves were to be preserved, he also was able to reconcile the difference between the relative and absolute in terms of politics and human existence. In other words, for Crockett, just as for Rousseau, the tension that arose from oppositions or even contradictions were indicative of certain specific qualities in nature. For example, “It was this opposition of the absolute and the relative that Rousseau meant by the opposition of nature and civilization.”27 By abstracting this kind of insight to the area of politics, it is easy to understand the way that Crockett approached his populist agenda. He was one of the first politicians in America’s history to place his fortune and destiny with the common man, even when doing so meant bucking the established elite. Of course this renegade attitude lends historical validation to the folklore notion of Crockett as a rugged individualist.
The reconciliation of the populist ideal and the urge toward individualism that took place in the Crockett myth and in his political persona is remarkable. It is also a testament to Crockett’s talent of accepting oppositions and even contradictions in thought and emotion. He was able to embrace this capacity in himself and to tune into its mass influence. Beneath it all, he stood for a fundamental principle of self-determination. He believed that “The fundamental urge of man he finds to be that of self-preservation and self-assertion, a striving to live himself out fully with all his possibilities.”28By remaining imbued with this belief at almost an instinctive level, Crockett was able to remain rooted in the popular will. Doing so was a validation of his essential view of politics as a whole, which was, of course, that any political system was, at best, a mere extension of the people’s will.
This brings to mind another strong reason why Crockett has come to symbolize the American character identity and that is due to the nature of his life and death. Because Crockett lived a life of public service and died in the famous defensive Battle of the Alamo, he is known in folklore as a military hero. While Crockett certainly served terms in the military and even saw limited action, his career as a businessman and politician was much more central to his life and legacy. The reason that folklore embraces Crockett as an icon of military service and self-sacrifice is because this is precisely the philosophy that Crockett brought to his political work and other dealings. Crockett’s embracing of humility and selflessness is as important a part of his historical life and folk-myth as his association with nature.
In order to fully understand the way that Crockett approached the idea of service in his political career, Rousseau’s thoughts on the differences between “love of self” and “selfishness” must be considered. For example, one crucial idea is that “Our love of self … is contented when our real needs are satisfied, but selfishness is never contented and can never be, since it not only prefers ourselves to others but also demands that others should prefer us to themselves, something which is impossible.” 29 The split between the two types of self-perception is also the line that marks the morally upstanding person from the morally corrupt person. It is also the line which, politically, divides a true populist with a self-aggrandizing politician.
Crockett’s political record is one that demonstrates a total immersion in populist causes. From the issue of homesteading to the previously discussed issue of “treating” for votes, Crockett chose political positions which advocated for the poor and otherwise unrepresented. Because the ideal of American democracy is such that it is believed to be universally and equally representative, this aspect of Crockett’s political career makes it easy to understand why he persists as an icon of American character identity. It is not necessary that a person know any of the historical facts of Crockett’s life to understand that Crockett was a populist. In fact a great many people who know of the Crockett myth will be unaware that Crockett ever even served as a politician in any capacity. The populist aspect of the folk-myth is that which casts Crockett as a “tamer” of the wilderness and as an Indian fighter because these qualities, even in mythic proportion, show that Crockett was fighting on behalf of the people. The historical facts of Crockett’s life actually show that his populism was even more pervasive than folklore is capable of expressing.He turned his back on the system of elitism that had defined American politics for its entire history.
Crockett was a revolutionary in this sense, but he was a revolutionary who struggled for a decidedly conservative cause. In fact, all of Crockett’s most significant political positions can be regarded as emerging from a conservative mind-set because Crockett believed that the only true barometer of society was the people themselves. This point of view is so conservative that it posits populism and the will of the people as being transcendent beyond any specific government. Crockett tried to advocate for the true will of the American people while working through the flawed political system he encountered in his lifetime. That said, he never lost sight of the fact that it was the will and security of the American people that comprised the top priority for the government, not the other way around. In doing so, he must be regarded as a trailblazer who opposed traditional oppressive ideals of elitism and the concentration of power.
The folk-myth of Crockett always carries with it a certain dimension of conflict, and even the notion of outright violence. It is easy to see that this part of the folk-myth relates to the social contract theory aspect of Crockett’s political philosophy. As will be remembered, according to Rousseau’s interpretation of the social contract, the government as well as the individual must be held accountable to the terms of the contract. When either party defaults or falls into breach, the other party may seek redress. This means that when the populist will is denied, circumvented, or otherwise thwarted by the government due to individual selfishness and corruption, the government emerges as being in breach of the social contract and the people then have a right to rebel, even to the point of violence. Crockett’s myth reminds the American people that rugged freedom and even violent resistance to government control are part of the American heritage.
It is this last aspect of Crockett’s status as an icon of American identity that is most urgently evident in modern times. With so many incursions being made against individual liberties in modern America, it is important for all Americans to remember that America has a proud tradition of populist power. It is well within our rights constitutionally and morally to resist the erosion of our freedoms and personal rights. Another powerful point of the Crockett myth and historical reality is: strength of character and persistence of vision. Rousseau reminds us that individualism can be honed and fortified through conflict. He acknowledges that “Not alone through successive stages, but in direct strife’ with conditions, limitations, and opposition, can the self be preserved.”30 The folk-myth of Crockett is strongly evocative of this capacity to grow individual strength and resolve through conflict. This same vision can be brought to bear in light of large-scale political conflicts, even those necessary to wrest freedoms back from tyranny.
As this brief examination has demonstrated, the connection between the folk-myth of Davy Crockett and the historical reality of Crockett’s service as a political figure and American icon is very strong. The myth is drawn from the historical record which reveals Crockett to have been an idealist and a populist as well as a fighter and an unrelenting advocate of individual liberty. Because of these correspondences, Crockett’s folk-myth is an unusually potent symbol for many strands of the American character identity. His myth endures because it reminds us all of certain fundamental principles that we associate with being Americans. Among these values are: liberty, rationality, moral sense, self-reliance and spiritual conviction. Crockett the myth embodies the American ideal; Crockett the man embodies the kind of political awareness and activism that help to preserve the democratic tradition.
- Boyston, James R.; Wiener, Allen J. David Crockett in Congress: the Rise and Fall of the Poor Man’s Friend. Houston TX. Bright Sky Press, 2009. p.7.
- Ibid. p. 8.
- Anthony G. Wilhelm, “Good Fences and Good Neighbors: John Locke’s Positive Doctrine of Toleration,” Political Research Quarterly 52, no. 1 (1999)
- Davy Crockett, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), 211.
- Ibid, 205.
- Ibid. 182.
- Anthony G. Wilhelm, “Good Fences and Good Neighbors: John Locke’s Positive Doctrine of Toleration,” Political Research Quarterly 52, no. 1 (1999).
- Thomas G. Mitchell, Indian Fighters Turned American Politicians: From Military Service to Public Office (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003), 167.
- J. H. Broome, Rousseau: A Study of His Thought (London: Edward Arnold, 1963), 48.
- Ibid. 141.
- Harald Höfding, Jean Jacques Rousseau and His Philosophy, trans. William Richards and Leo E. Saidla. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1930), 132.
- Boyston, James R.; Wiener, Allen J. David Crockett in Congress: the Rise and Fall of the Poor Man’s Friend. Houston TX. Bright Sky Press, 2009. 19.
- Harald Höfding, Jean Jacques Rousseau and His Philosophy, trans. William Richards and Leo E. Saidla (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1930), 133.
- Ibid. 134.
- Ibid. 50.
- Boyston, James R.; Wiener, Allen J. David Crockett in Congress: the Rise and Fall of the Poor Man’s Friend. Houston TX. Bright Sky Press, 2009. 15.
- J. H. Broome, Rousseau: A Study of His Thought (London: Edward Arnold, 1963), 106.
- Harald Höfding, Jean Jacques Rousseau and His Philosophy, trans. William Richards and Leo E. Saidla (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1930), 103.
- Ibid. 106.
- Ibid. 109.
- Ibid. 117.
Boyston, James R.; Wiener, Allen J. David Crockett in Congress: the Rise and Fall of the Poor Man’s Friend. Houston TX. Bright Sky Press, 2009.
Broome, J. H. Rousseau: A Study of His Thought. London: Edward Arnold, 1963.
Crockett, Davy. A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
Höfding, Harald. Jean Jacques Rousseau and His Philosophy. Translated by William Richards and Leo E. Saidla. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1930.
Mitchell, Thomas G. Indian Fighters Turned American Politicians: From Military Service to Public Office. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.
Wilhelm, Anthony G. “Good Fences and Good Neighbors: John Locke’s Positive Doctrine of Toleration.” Political Research Quarterly 52, no. 1 (1999): 145+.
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