Glenn Uminowicz - March 2007
The Davy Crockett Line
Executive Director, Historical Society of Talbot County
There is no question that hatred toward some American politicians like President Bush and Hillary Clinton is becoming an obsession for some people. Much of this bitterness can be laid at the doorstep of an increasingly ideological and irresponsible mainstream media that reports rumor, propaganda, and outright slander on a regular basis. Unfortunately, many people believe what they read and hear, especially if it fits their political disposition. Thus, it is easy to demonize people these days; it is easy to sell loathing.
From Bill O’Reilly, “Why They Dislike Hillary”
(syndicated column from February 1, 2007)
In a recent column about Hillary Clinton, political pundit Bill O’Reilly linked media bias to the disturbing decline in civility in our public discourse. Whatever the relationship of the media to politics today, however, things could be worse. For much of the 19th century, for example, American politicians linked themselves directly to a media, making little claim to being fair and balanced.
The genesis of the modern politician arguably began in the 1820s. Andrew Jackson, for example, was a man of means. In the presidential election of 1828, however, supporters portrayed the former general as a simple citizen of the West and a friend of the common man. Voter turnout ballooned and Jackson was swept into office.
To counter Jackson, the Whig Party cultivated its own men of the frontier. Davy Crockett, for example, served three terms in Congress as a Whig. Yes, that Davy Crockett, who purportedly could wrestle a Grizzly Bear. Nearing the end of his political career, Crockett delivered a remarkable address on the art of politics. His advice to aspiring politicians included the following:
When the day of election approaches, visit your constituents far and wide. Drink freely, in order to rise in their estimation. Do all you can to appear to advantage in the eyes of the women. That’s easily done you have but to kiss and slobber over their children. Promise all that is asked and more. Promises cost nothing, therefore, deny nobody who has a vote. Get up on all occasions, and sometimes on no occasion at all, and make long-winded speeches, though composed of nothing else than wind. When elected, why (care) a fig for the dirty children, the promises, the bridges, the churches, the taxes, and the offices, for it is absolutely necessary to forget all these before you can become a thoroughgoing politician, and a patriot of the first water.
Political leaders took the above advice to heart. In the 1840 presidential race, the Whigs launched a campaign along the “Davy Crockett Line.”
Beginning in 1837, the country descended into a deep depression. In 1840, the Democrats’ Baltimore convention proved a gloomy affair resulting in the renomination President Martin Van Buren. By contrast, the Whigs exuded optimism. Not only could they blame Van Buren for the depression, they now had a candidate that claimed the mantle of a frontier hero.
At the Battle of Tippecanoe, William Henry Harrison defeated a force of Native Americans. Like Jackson, he was well fixed, living in a sixteen-room mansion. Whigs transformed him into a simple farmer and a man of the people. A Democratic editor scoffed that Harrison would be happy to just retire to the front porch of his cabin with a glass of hard cider. The Whigs seized the opportunity and launched the famous Log Cabin Campaign.
As did most Americans, Eastern Shore people viewed elections as a form of entertainment. In 1840, the Log Cabin Campaign rolled into Easton, which hosted a monster meeting of fifteen to twenty thousand Whigs from all over Maryland. Participants enjoyed oysters, rockfish and other Eastern Shore delicacies, washing them down with cider and whiskey.
As Crockett advised, the oratory that day was long-winded and mostly composed of “nothing else than wind.” Whig stump speakers did not focus much on issues. The media provided the message and oratorical prowess was among the most powerful media of the day. The country’s economy had tanked and a little aristocrat sat in the White House eating from gold plates and ignoring the plight of common citizens. What more need be said? In 1840, Talbot County and the nation voted Whig.
In the 19th century, the most effective method to widely broadcast messages voiced at political rallies was the newspaper. In The Story of the Easton Star-Democrat (c.1949), James C. Mullikin noted that big-city editors used their papers as personal vehicles of political expression. Beginning in 1849, the same held true for Thomas K. Robson, editor of what was then the Easton Star.
Mulliken observed that Robson imparted to the Star “his own colorful personality, his unswerving and sometimes blind devotion to the Democratic cause, and his dynamic and sometimes violent partisanship for the cause of the South.” Mulliken noted, “There was no doubt in anyone’s mind where he stood.”
Robson looked favorably on secession long before the creation of the Confederacy and proved an unrelenting critic of the Lincoln administration once the Civil War began. By May of 1863, Robson’s steady stream of anti-Lincoln editorials produced a warrant for his arrest signed by the President himself. The editor was given fifteen minutes to collect his things and bid farewell to his family. Armed guards escorted Robson to Harper’s Ferry and dumped him behind Confederate lines under cover of darkness. He spent the rest of the war working as a clerk in Richmond.
At the conclusion of hostilities, Robson returned to Easton and revived the Star, much to the delight of local Democrats. On both the news and editorial pages, the editor lowered his sights on the Republican opposition. In 1876, Robson’s aim focused on presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes and the corruption-tainted administration of Ulysses S. Grant. By contrast, Robson championed the candidacy of Samuel J. Tilden, who won fame for deposing New York City political boss William Tweed. The editor well illustrated the 19th century approach to journalism by penning the following headlines for a story on the convention that nominated Tilden:
Grant’s Corrupt and Profligate Administration Condemned
A Platform That Any Honest Man Can Stand Upon
The Country Safe if the People are Only True
For Robson, “Grantism” had “ruined the business of this country, filled the land with paupers and tramps, shut up factories, taxed the people out of their whole earnings, and now threatened to destroy their liberties by controlling elections with military force.” He urged all Democrats to vote the scoundrels out. Tilden carried Maryland and received a majority of the popular vote nationwide. Robson ran the headline “Reform Triumphant. The Republican Party Crushed by an Outraged People.”
But twenty electoral votes remained in dispute from Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina. An electoral commission made up of five senators, five congressmen and five Supreme Court justices awarded the election to Republican candidate Hayes on a strictly partisan vote.
Robson railed against this stolen election and bemoaned that a “fraudulent President” was then organizing his “Defacto’s administration.” He satirized that P.T. Barnum desired to acquire the Republican members of the electoral commission as the “most wonderful natural curiosities ever exhibited.” He insisted, “Bigger rascals could not be found if hell was scraped over with a fine tooth comb.”
In Washington, Democratic leaders accepted Hayes’ election in exchange for a promise to remove remaining federal troops from the South. The so-called Compromise of 1877 was made among practical politicians who had cut their teeth following the Davy Crockett Line. The removal of the troops marked the end of armed protection for the civil rights of African-Americans in the South. It ushered in the age of Jim Crow. Unfortunately, in this case, the Crockett Line led directly to lines of segregation.