WHILE ON THE BOOK TOUR, as well as during his tenure in Congress, Crockett commissioned portrait artists to capture his likeness. Not a particularly vain man, Crockett certainly did not wish to be remembered as yet another dandified politician clad in a suit and high-collar shirt with a cravat around his neck. That was the Crockett portrayed in Chester Harding’s oil painting executed in Boston during the Whig book tour.1 Crockett’s family liked that depiction as well as a half-length full-size portrait by Rembrandt Peale, brother of Rubens Peale, who started the museum of oddities that Crockett had visited in New York.2 Between 1833 and 1834, he sat for at least six portraits by five different artists. While Crockett was satisfied with the portraits, including the one he lost when he accidentally left it behind on a steamboat, he still hoped for a look that better suited how he actually saw himself in his role as the classic hunter hero.

As soon as he returned to Washington in mid-May 1834, and before the extended session of Congress officially closed six weeks later, Crockett sat for a portrait by artist John Gadsby Chapman.3 It was while Chapman worked on an artistic study of Crockett’s head to be used for the next election campaign that the artist and his subject came up with the idea of a full-length portrait of Crockett getting ready to do what he did best—go bear hunting.

Other artists who had painted Crockett portrayed him, in his own words, as “a sort of cross between a clean-shirted Member of Congress and a Methodist Preacher.”4 Crockett had another idea. “If you could catch me on bear-hunt in a ‘harricane’ with hunting tools and gear, and a team of dogs, you might have a picture better worth looking at,” Crockett told Chapman. The artist wisely heeded the advice and decided to render a likeness of his subject in hunting garb, rejecting the standard Washington politician dress. The result was a full-length, life-size portrait of Crockett clad in a well-worn linsey-woolsey hunting shirt, buckskin leggings, and moccasins.

“I admitted, that I would be delighted to try it, but it would have to be a large picture and, as I never saw a harricane, or bear hunt, I should be obliged to give him a great deal more bother to explain all about them, and to show me what to do,”5 Chapman later wrote.

Besides scouring the city of Washington for the appropriate costume, Chapman had to secure several props, including a butcher knife and a hatchet to make the Crockett painting as authentic-looking as possible. Finding a rifle “to conform to his [Crockett’s] fastidious ideas of perfection proved difficult,” according to Chapman. Finally, “an old sportsman on the Potomac” provided a rifle, and although the barrel was a few inches shorter than Crockett preferred for bear hunts, he was generally pleased.6 Crockett and Chapman even paid a Sunday afternoon courtesy call on the owner at his home in nearby Alexandria, Virginia. The visit was so cordial that Crockett invited the gentleman to “come out to Tennessee for a riproarious bar-hunt.” In return, Crockett left with gifts from his host, including a powder horn, a bullet pouch, and a bit of old leather, which he used to fashion a hatchet sheath.

“A grand old fellow,” Crockett exclaimed to Chapman as they walked back to their hotels. “A grand old fellow that! When I’m President, I’ll be shot if I don’t put him into the War Department, he uttered prematurely.”7

With all the accoutrements of the hunt in place, Chapman then looked for some hounds to add to the painting in order to lend even greater authenticity to the scene. Chapman suggested using his own dog, which he described as “a general sporting animal, of a highly valued breed. With remarkable record for scent, intelligence, courage and endurance—besides being thoroughly trained for service as a model.”8

Crockett would have none of it. He believed thoroughbred dogs lacked the traits needed for best coping with a bear. “There’s plenty of first-rate fellows to be found about the country carts any market day,” said Crockett. “Come with me tomorrow and I’ll show you. It does my eyes good to look at some of them, and think what a team of beauties they would be—with their tails chopped off—in a roll-and-tumble tussle with a big bear.”9

Some stray hounds were found and the portrait completed. Chapman selected a lively pose struck by Crockett one afternoon when he walked into the studio and “gave a shout that raised the whole neighborhood.”10 The striking oil on canvas depicted Crockett standing among three mongrel hounds, his left arm crooked to hold his rifle, his right arm raised and grasping his broad-brimmed felt hunting hat as he waves the dogs on to the hunt. The portrait was one of Crockett’s favorites.11

Over the course of six weeks, while working on the large likeness of Crockett on the hunt, Chapman developed a warm friendship with the colorful congressman and later put his thoughts and impressions to paper. Although it is brief, the nine-page reminiscence offers great insight into the true character of Crockett at that stage in his life.

“During the progressive intimacy that grew out of familiar intercourse with Col. Crockett, while engaged upon his portrait, he rarely, if ever, exhibited either in conversation or manner, attributes of coarseness of character that prevailing popular opinion very unjustly assigned to him,” Chapman wrote.

I cannot recall to mind an instance of his indulgence in gasconade or profanity. There was an earnestness of truth in his narrations of events, and circumstances of his adventuresome life, that made it obvious: while the heroic type of his grand physical development, equal to any emergency of achievement—his clear unfaltering eye, and with all gentle and sympathetic play of features, telegraphing, as it were, directly from a true heart, overflowing with kind feeling and impulse, irresistibly dispelled suspicion of insincerity and braggartism…. The ease and readiness with which Crockett adapted himself to circumstances of personal position and intercourse were remarkable, at times even masterly. He would seem to catch, in the first moment of introduction, the tone and characteristics of a new acquaintance and as well to comprehend, and rarely failed in agreeably confirming preentertained opinions in reference to himself.12

Chapman liked recounting an incident that occurred when he was exhibiting his copies of old masters and original sketches at Mrs. Ball’s Boarding House on Pennsylvania Avenue. While taking a break, the artist was fully engrossed with one of Crockett’s many high adventure stories when there was a rap on his door. It was a sightseeing guide escorting two gentlemen on a tour of Washington City. They were hopeful that they could gaze upon the famed frontiersmen-turned-politician and steal a few moments of his time. Much to Chapman’s surprise, Crockett welcomed them with a “comical air of resignation, at the same time putting on his hat, and throwing one leg over the arm of his chair, and greeting them with cordial extension of hand, but not rising.”13 He urged his guests to take seats and make themselves at home while the guide nervously made formal introductions of his “distinguished friends,” stressing that they had come to the capital expressly to pay their respects to Crockett.

“A lively conversation was very soon improvised,” Chapman wrote.

The colonel told several of his best stories—“hoped the gentlemen would have a safe and pleasant journey home, and find all right when they got there” adding “his best regards to the ladies of their families.” Evidentially highly gratified with their visit, with a cordial hand shaking all around, they took their leave. As the door closed the Colonel shook himself out of dramatic pose, replaced his hat upon the table, and, as it were, thinking aloud, murmured, “Well—they came to see a bar, and they’ve seen one—hope they like the performance—it did not cost them any thing any how. Let’s go take a horn!”14

Chapman’s studio became a place of refuge for Crockett. During the six weeks that he went back and forth for sittings, he used Chapman as a sounding board and father confessor who had no political axe to grind, no favors to ask, and was always ready to listen. One morning when Crockett appeared for a scheduled sitting before going to the Capitol, Chapman immediately noticed “a marked change in his manner and general bearing, his step less firm and his carriage less erect and defiant.”15 He saw a crumpled letter in Crockett’s hand and what he later described as a subdued expression on his face that had never been there before. Chapman asked if he had received some bad news, and Crockett told him that the letter was from his eldest son, John Wesley,16 in Tennessee, who spoke of his own religious conversion, and chastised his father for his public behavior, and his rank failure to tend to the family needs. “Thinks he’s off to Paradise on a streak of lightning,” Crockett told Chapman, adding that the scolding “Pitches into me, pretty considerable.”

It was clear to Chapman that Crockett’s “thoughts and sympathies had been abruptly and touchingly recalled from present surroundings to home and heart memories…. The awkwardness of his efforts to resume his usual dash of manner was painful to witness.”17 No amount of public reverie or public adulation, it was clear, could fully detach Crockett from the family he had abandoned, both financially and emotionally.

When he was with Chapman, however, Crockett could be himself. There he had no need to “shake out” of the dramatic pose he often struck when dealing with his doting fans or his foes. Chapman recalled the afternoon he happened upon Crockett at the foot of the great descent to Pennsylvania Avenue looking “very much fagged” and not at all his usual jovial self. He told Crockett how tired he looked, as if he had just delivered a long speech to the House of Representatives. Crockett exclaimed, “Long speech to thunder, there’s plenty of ’em up there for that sort of nonsense, without my making a fool of myself, at public expense. I can stand good nonsense—rather like it—but such nonsense as they are digging at up yonder, it’s no use trying to—I’m going home.”18

By “going home,” Crockett meant that he was going back to his quarters at the nearby boardinghouse, not back to his estranged family in Tennessee. Yet even as he trudged down the avenue, forces were hard at work to ensure he would indeed go home to those canebrakes where his detractors thought he belonged and should forever remain.

Everyone in Congress, including Crockett’s Whig friends, noticed a change in him after the book tour. Many historians and biographers agree that going on the tour with Congress still in session was possibly the greatest political blunder Crockett ever committed. They maintain it gave his enemies in the Jackson camp plenty of fodder to use against him. All that had to be done was to point out that, as a duly elected representative of the people, Crockett missed important votes, floor debates, and other congressional business while he traipsed around the country having a high time with his Whig pals. Although he would not be the last American politician to evade his legislative duties, his constituents in Tennessee felt they had been taken advantage of. The man supposed to be looking out for their interests was busy peddling books and speaking out against America’s laudable commander-in-chief, a Tennessee man himself. It was a point well made, and when Crockett offered feeble excuses for his absence by blaming it on illness, it only compounded the severity of the situation.19 Everyone in the country, let alone Washington City, had been reading about Crockett’s junket for weeks.

Crockett’s frustration was evident in his verbal assaults on Jackson, Van Buren, and their followers, as they became more caustic and breached all sense of decorum, even for the already raucous House of Representatives. There were several instances in the chamber when the sound of the gavel rang out like a rifle shot as the Speaker of the House tried to bring the out-of-control Crockett to order. The sergeant-at-arms and his underlings stood at the ready and legislators pushed their brass spittoons beneath their desks in case a scuffle erupted in the aisles between feuding members, especially the demonstrative gentleman from the cane.

The book tour had clearly diminished his political effectiveness. Crockett was fully aware that his entire political future hinged on the passage of his land legislation, and he knew the chances of that ever happening receded with each passing day. To say that Crockett was distraught would have been an understatement. His hatred of Jackson grew to uncontrollable excess, and he eagerly let those feelings be known to his colleagues in Washington and to his constituents.20 The spectacle suggested a man out of control, as events moved increasingly into public view.

In Tennessee, concerned voters began to make inquiries about the land bill. Crockett had no real answers. Any pleasant memories of the recent tour had evaporated. He felt trapped and more and more alone. “I now look forward toward our adjournment with as much interest as ever did a poor convict in the penitentiary to see his last day come,”21 he wrote. “We have done but one act, and that is that the will of Andrew, the first king, is to be the law of the land. He has tools and slaves enough in Congress to sustain him in anything he may wish to effect…. I thank God I am not one of them. I do consider him a greater tyrant than Cromwell, Caesar or Bonaparte…”

In the end, Crockett did not even stay for the rest of the session but bolted the day before the official close. He did not head out west to Tennessee but instead boarded a stagecoach bound for Baltimore and then on to Philadelphia. There he was to meet with his publishers, accept some promised gifts, and deliver a July Fourth speech at Independence Hall along with Senator Daniel Webster and some other resolute Whigs. The anti-Jacksonians, while politically smart enough to figure that Crockett had no real chance of ever becoming president, still considered him a useful weapon to unleash at staged events and political rallies.

Reaching Philadelphia on June 30, Crockett was again escorted to the United States Hotel on Chestnut Street and given the sort of pampered treatment a prized gladiator received before entering the arena. On the evening of July 1 at a special ceremony near the old state house, he was given a special custom-made rifle that had been promised to him during his earlier book tour by the young Whigs of Philadelphia. J. M. Sanderson, the renowned local gunsmith the Whigs had commissioned to create the weapon, presented it to Crockett, along with a silver tomahawk inscribed with the words “Go Ahead Crockett,” a butcher knife, a shot pouch, and an ornate gilded liquor canteen shaped like a bound book and filled with first-rate sipping whiskey. There also was a powder horn with silver mounts inscribed “Tho. H. Benton to David Crockett 1832.”22 The inscription was curious, since by 1832 Crockett was a known Jackson enemy and Tom Benton, despite earlier differences, was one of Jackson’s staunchest supporters. Soon the room broke out in laughter when it became known that it was a bogus inscription etched by some of Crockett’s Whig friends as a political prank.

The richly ornamented rifle was a treasure to behold. The inscription in gold read: “Presented by the Young Men of Philadelphia to Hon. David Crockett of Tennessee.” On the stock, a silver plate depicted an alligator with its open jaws, a deer, and a possum. Sanderson also inlaid a gilded arrow into the barrel near the muzzle, and the words “Go Ahead” were etched near the front sight. Crockett was visibly moved with the gifts, especially the rifle. He vowed to use it in defense of his country and to hand it down to his sons for the same purpose. As was the common custom of most hunters of the time, Crockett gave all his rifles names. The well-used rifle he had been using for many years was called “Betsey,” his favorite moniker for guns, and so he told the crowd that this newest weapon in his arsenal would be called “Pretty Betsey.”23

The following day Crockett and Sanderson traveled just across the Delaware River to nearby Camden, New Jersey, and spent part of the day test-firing the weapon. Crockett was pleased with the gun and told those with him that it operated every bit as well as it looked. “I shot tolerable well, and was satisfied that when we became better acquainted, the fault would be mine if the varmints did not suffer,”24 he wrote.

Back in Philadelphia for Independence Day, Crockett was in fine form, mingling with Daniel Webster and other Whig luminaries. He delivered his standard speech attacking Old Hickory and received thunderous applause. Crockett departed a couple of days later, after acquiring an elegant pitcher imported from China for his wife Elizabeth (Betsy) and meeting gunpowder manufacturer E. I. du Pont, a director on the board of the Second Bank of the United States, who gave him a dozen canisters of powder for the new “Pretty Betsey” in his life.25

After a circuitous journey mostly by train and steamboat, and several stops in Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, Crockett finally set foot nearly three weeks later in Tennessee on July 22 at the Mills Point boat landing, where his son William waited with a wagon to make the thirty-five-mile trip home.26 Family members, especially those who had seen the comings and goings of Crockett for so many years, provided a lukewarm reception, and no sooner had he unpacked than he was forced to face what had become the constant round of legal actions over promissory notes past due. Sales of his autobiography had yielded some relief, but Crockett’s poor fiscal judgment and lack of money management skills trumped any easing of his financial miseries.

In this aspect of his life, Crockett had become his father, the debt-ridden John Crockett who had eventually followed his son and other family members to the land of the shakes, where he died in September of 1834.27 Just as had happened in the case of his father-in-law’s passing, David was named the administrator of his father’s estate, which not surprisingly amounted to very little. Prior to leaving that fall of 1834 to return for the next session of Congress, Crockett had to borrow even more money just to make the trip.

Besides his financial problems, Crockett was aware that he would face strong opposition in the approaching congressional elections in August of 1835. Word on the streets of Washington City and in the hills and canebrakes of Tennessee was that one of Crockett’s main political enemies, Adam R. Huntsman, was ready to do battle for the Twelfth Congressional seat. Nicknamed “Old Black Hawk” by Crockett and a lawyer by trade, Huntsman, after having lost a leg in the Creek War in 1813, had gone on to become a powerful figure in the fledgling Democratic Party in Tennessee. He was a close friend of Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk, and was reputed to be a forceful campaigner, practical joker, and excellent speaker.28

“Adam Huntsman is out in opposition to David Crockett for Congress, in the district represented by the Colonel,” announced a front-page blurb in the Gettysburg Adams Sentinel of November 24, 1834. “We take it the Colonel will care very little about such a ‘varment as that are.’ He will ‘chaw him up in a flash.’”29

However, before he could concentrate on another political campaign, Crockett once more had to get his finances in order. His publishers denied him any further cash advances, so he schemed with another of his boardinghouse friends, Pennsylvania Congressman William Clark, to write yet another book—this time a work based on the event-packed Crockett tour of the eastern cities. After a good deal of cajoling, Crockett was able to convince Carey and Hart to publish such a book and Clark to write it. The agreement with Clark was for Crockett to provide him with a collection of newspaper accounts, speeches given on the tour, and any other odd notes and documents that could be organized and cobbled together to form a book.

Yet at the expense of his congressional duties, including efforts to pass his notorious land bill, Crockett spent almost all of his time working on the book. Throughout his years spent in Congress, his top priority had been to make sure that the land of western Tennessee was made available and affordable to the settlers who had tamed it. Still unrealized, that unattainable dream seemed further jeopardized because of the financial exigencies of turning out another book.

Laboring under the unrealistic hope that it would be published by January 1835, Crockett quickly fulfilled his part of the agreement. He was rewarded with some advance money from the publisher, but Clark, his aging and ailing co-conspirator, fell ill, and the book did not hit stores until March. It was issued with a title suggested by Crockett—An Account of Col. Crockett’s Tour to the North and Down East in the Year of Our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred and Thirty Four. The lengthy title caused some to speculate unkindly that Crockett must have been paid by the word.

Even before the book was released, Crockett, realizing that publishing could pay him more handsomely than politics, had come up with yet another idea for his publishers. He proposed writing a satirical biography of Martin Van Buren. Carey and Hart were skeptical. They feared that Crockett would turn out a libelous attack that would put them in court facing slander charges. Crockett persisted. His hatred for Van Buren was equal to or greater than his hatred for Jackson. In a letter to Charles Schultz, of Cincinnati, penned on Christmas Day 1834, Crockett stated, “I have almost given up the ship as lost.”30 He went on to write that if Van Buren were elected as the next president, Crockett’s only alternative would be to leave the United States, “for I never will live under his kingdom.” He then added that he would “go to the wildes [sic] of Texas,” where living under Mexican rule would be “a Paradise to what this will be.”

After much hand wringing, Crockett’s Philadelphia publishers released the Van Buren book in June of 1835, although without listing the firm’s name on the title page. The biography was given a less than catchy title, The Life of Martin Van Buren, Hair-apparent to the “Government,” and the Appointed Successor of General Jackson. Most sources theorize that the misspelling of the word Heir as Hair was an intentional mistake to give the book a bit of backwoods flavor or was meant to ridicule Van Buren’s famously smooth and hairless pate.31 The book, as scurrilous as everyone thought it would be, was attributed to Crockett, but any contribution he actually made was minimal at best, since it was once again ghostwritten, penned this time by Augustin Smith Clayton, a jurist who represented Georgia in Congress from 1832 to 1835.32

By the time the vitriolic biography appeared, the question of Van Buren becoming the Democratic candidate for president was purely academic. In May 1835, at the second national convention of the Democratic Party in Baltimore, Van Buren had become the unanimous choice of the delegates and was nominated.33 Crockett continued to hold out hope that he could still be defeated in the general election, but he finally admitted that he was not the man to do it. By then the Whigs agreed. They concluded that Crockett had served his purpose and outlived his usefulness. Crockett had sensed their waning support for some time, and it was not a surprise when he joined the majority of the Tennessee delegation in signing a letter asking Tennessee senator Hugh Lawson White to run as the Whig candidate in the next presidential election.34 White, the son of General James White, the founder of Knoxville, had been Jackson’s friend and succeeded him to the U.S. Senate in 1825. Since then, however, he had been twice reelected, but not without becoming disillusioned with Jackson and the charges that Old Hickory had over-stepped his authority. White also felt slighted when Jackson asked Van Buren to be his running mate and then made it obvious that he wanted the Yankee dandy from New York to become the next president.

Crockett, in an election battle of his own, knew that unless he kept his seat in the House of Representatives there would be no chance for him ever to run again for the presidency. His book schemes, travel junkets, and congressional floor antics had taken a toll on his credibility among the voters. To add to his miseries, he had once again come home without having passed the Tennessee Vacant Land Bill.

Huntsman proved to be a vigorous campaigner, with no lack of barbs to fling at Crockett. Many people saw Huntsman’s peg leg as a symbol of his courage and service to the nation as an Indian fighter. On at least one occasion during the campaign, Crockett found a way to turn his opponent’s wooden limb to his own advantage. The incident in question occurred during the heat of the campaign battle, when both candidates traveled the circuit together making stump speeches along the way. Often they stayed under the same roof, as was the case on this evening when they were quartered at the home of a prosperous farmer who happened to have a comely daughter. In the wee hours, after everyone was asleep, Crockett crept out of bed, took a wooden chair, and rattled the knob of the door of the young woman’s room. She woke up screaming, and Crockett put one foot on the rung of the chair and used it like a crutch to hobble back to his own bed. The farmer mistook the sound for the tapping of Huntsman’s wooden leg and, aware of the politician’s penchant for beautiful women, burst into his quarters and demanded an explanation. Crockett acted as peacemaker and intervened. He calmed down the farmer but not before getting his vote and a promise that he would tell everyone about the lecherous one-legged Huntsman.

If the farmer kept his word and voted for Crockett in the August election, it was not enough. It turned out to be a close race, but in the end Crockett picked up 4,400 votes compared to 4,652 cast for Huntsman.35

Defeat did not come easily to Crockett. As was the case in past losses, he was bitter and angry. “I have no doubt that I was Completely Raskeled out of my election,” Crockett wrote to his publishers on August 11, just five days after the voting. “I will be rewarded for letting my tongue Speake what my hart thinks…. I have Suffered my Self to be politically Sacrafised to Save my Country from ruin and disgrace and if I am never again elected I will have the gratification to know that I have done my duty.”36

Many newspapers took Crockett to task. The colorful frontiersman always made good copy, no matter if he was portrayed as a superhero or, as the Arkansas Gazette now called him, that “buffoon, Davy Crockett.” When his forty-ninth birthday came around on August 17, there was not much to celebrate. On August 31, the editors of the Charleston Courier offered their assessment:

Col. Davy Crockett, hitherto regarded as the Nimerod [sic] of the West, has been beaten for Congress by a Mr. Huntsman. The Colonel has lately suffered himself to be made a lion, or some other wild beast, tamed, if not caged, for public shew [sic]—and it is no wonder that he should have yielded to the prowess of a Huntsman, when again let loose in his native wilds. We fear that “Go ahead” will no longer be either the Colonel’s motto or destiny.37

The newspaper was wrong, for “Go ahead” was exactly what Crockett had in mind. Soundly defeated in Washington and in his home state, he looked now for solace elsewhere, having heard for a long time stories about the opportunities that waited in Texas. He had repeatedly declared that he would head to Texas and live under Mexican rule if Van Buren ever became president. Crockett decided he could not wait for that election.

During this period of the 1830s and for several years to come, it was not uncommon to see the letters G.T.T. painted or carved on the doorways of cabins in Tennessee and other parts of the country, especially the South. It was a sure sign that the occupants had picked up and were, as they said, “Gone to Texas.” The slogan was first seen in print in 1825, and had become a popular expression for those people who had committed crimes or owed money or just did not want to be found.38 When bill collectors went looking for defaulters and found an empty house, they realized those they sought had absconded and had gone to Texas. It became common that when a grand jury returned indictments but the sheriff had no luck bringing in the accused, he would report back that they had gone to Texas. When a banker rifled the vaults of his institution and made a successful getaway, he, too, was gone to Texas.

And when a man had a broken marriage, lost his job, but hoped to start fresh as a land agent on the Mexican frontier, he, too, was gone to Texas.

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