Most Americans know Davy Crockett as a 19th-century folk hero, the heroic soldier and rugged frontiersmen with a coonskin cap, thanks mostly to television and movie portrayals. The real Davy Crockett preferred to be called David, dressed elegantly and was a passionate defender of Indian rights. He was also a savvy and ambitious politician who often locked horns with Martin Van Buren.
Crockett’s renown as a soldier under Jackson in the Creek War earned him a seat in Congress from his native Tennessee. Elected as a Jacksonian, he had a bitter falling out with the Democrats over land legislation and Indian Removal and was soon courted by the Whigs, who were eager for an answer to Jackson’s frontier image. Crockett lost his bid for reelection in 1834 and saw the hand of Van Buren behind his defeat. He vowed revenge. When the 1836 election approached, Crockett got behind the candidacy of Tennessee Senator Hugh L. White, grabbing a pen and lending his name to several books and pamphlets attacking the pseudo-democratic principles of the Jacksonians. His most popular work by far was a campaign biography of Martin Van Buren.
Campaign biographies were a new phenomenon in American elections. Then, as now, they were highly partisan, but Crockett’s tome was unusual for its venom. The book—still in print, in fact, and available as a free download on Google Books—was called Life of Martin Van Buren, and the subtitle is hilarious: Heir-Apparent to the “Government,” and the Appointed Successor to General Andrew Jackson, Containing Every Authentic Particular By Which His Extraordinary Character Has Been Formed, With a Concise History of the Events That Have Occasioned His Unparalleled Elevation; Together with a Review of His Policy as a Statesmen. Crockett didn’t care for the man.
Life of Martin Van Buren is a highly entertaining piece of propaganda. “A more scurrilous document has not been penned against a candidate for the Presidency,” Dennis Tilden Lynch wrote in his laudatory 1935 biography of Van Buren. He may still be right. “Van Buren is as opposite to General Jackson as dung is to a diamond,” Crockett wrote. He accused the vice president of being a fraud, a dandy, an effeminate fop and an incorrigible snob. He “travels about the country and through the cities in an English coach; has English servants, dressed in uniform—I think they call it livery.” Crockett didn’t like Van Buren for many reasons, but he seemed particularly appalled that Jackson was anointing his successor, which he found to be a gross violation of democratic principles. Whatever legitimate issues Crockett had with Van Buren were lost in a sea of calumny, however. “When he enters the Senate chamber in the morning, he struts and swaggers like a crow in a gutter,” he wrote. “He is laced up in corsets, such as women in a town wear, and, if possible, tighter than the best of them. It would be difficult to say, from his personal appearance, whether he was a man or woman, but for his large red and gray whiskers.”
The book caused quite a stir but obviously not enough to stop Van Buren from winning the presidential election of 1836. (The exact authorship of the book is in some dispute, it should be noted. Many believe the book was written by A.S. Clayton and that Crockett merely lent his name to the project, given his popularity and burning hatred for the then-vice president.) “Before I submit to his government,” Crockett said of Van Buren. “I will go to the wildes [sic] of Texas.” That he did, dying at the Battle of Alamo in 1836, further ensuring his iconic status.