Dawn at the Alamo, Henry Arthur McArdle (1905)
The corn-shuckings and square dances, the fiddles,
The barrels of gin and whiskey, the jerked venison,
Juicy bear meat, hot corn pone, molasses,
And the girls giggling in corners — those are the things
That make life merry. But there came a time
When I neglected them all, and we made merry
(My Betsey and I) at a different kind of party,
Playing with powder and ball at the Alamo
I regret nothing, not even the lies and jokes
I told in Congress. But what is this I hear?
Tennesseans, have you forgotten the songs
Of Old Zip Coon and Turkey in the Straw?
–from The Tall Men, Donald Davidson
It never occurred to me that the phrase “go ahead” actually had a history in the lexicon of authentic Americanisms. It was just a thing one said, especially if someone nearby was expressing hesitation or anxiety about an imminent course of action and was in need of a little encouragement. “Go ahead and jump!” or “Go ahead and do it! I dare ya…” etc. The phrase has a tale behind it.
“Go ahead” was actually coined in the 1830s by none other than David Crockett. Over time, it became his personal motto and even turned into a national sensation, as Crockett was a well-known celebrity—a famous frontiersman turned charismatic populist. The phrase was synonymous with a rough yet laid back, direct, transparent, active, open and moral approach to life, for which Crockett was the ultimate symbol. The way he finally framed it was “Be always sure you’re right — THEN GO AHEAD.” But usually it was reduced to just “go ahead.”
In a sense, the phrase summed up the American spirit as it flourished so vibrantly in the first half of the 19th century when White Americans were “going ahead” across the western frontier and the Age of Andrew Jackson heralded the rise of the common man personified byCrockett. Universal White male suffrage was the talk of the day and opportunities, especially available land, were in great abundance. The country was young, ambitious, but most of all, energetic. “Go ahead” seemed to say it all, and everyone was saying it.
I recently came across this interesting tidbit in William C. Davis’s terrific triple biography Three Roads to the Alamo, which traces “the Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis” as they ultimately converged together on that fateful day of March 6, 1836. That, of course, was when Mexican General Santa Anna’s 2000-man army overran the Alamo and killed all three of them along with 200 or so Texans, immediately sparking the drive for Texas independence.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book and highly recommend it. And it has gotten me to thinking about the relevance of the Alamo to our affairs today, on a macrocosmic scale. It also made me wonder whether our young men today even know anything at all about the Alamo—that it was actually a significant event in our country’s history. Remember the Alamo!’ was originally an exhortation that the men of Texas yelled as they ran into battle at San Jacinto. But these days, I find myself uttering the words more in the form of a question.
It seems that White Western civilization is increasingly outnumbered, distinctly unglamorous, and under siege from all directions. Like Travis begging for reinforcements against Santa Anna’s onslaught, those of us who know and care are asking for help, but no one is listening; and time is running out before the real destruction of our way of life gets under way in earnest. Ironically, we are the world’s greatest superpower but, just like in the era of the Alamo, we are overextended over a wide territory, physically and mentally, and the leaders who could provide badly needed reinforcements are engaged in their own power struggles and self-aggrandizement while our resources are dwindling fast. Either that or they are ignoring us out of downright cowardice or betrayal.
An analysis of this period of American history also offers much to consider in understanding why competing ethnicities just can’t seem to get along, providing us with a solid historical basis for questioning the wisdom underlying many of the policies promoted by our elites in the vastly more pluralistic society in which we find ourselves today. A look at this period legitimates identity politics for Whites in a way that, for instance, looking at the American Revolution itself, might not.
Davis’s book is most certainly not polemical. His focus is on White migration, expansion and development in North America, during this crucial time period. Refreshingly, it lacks any animus and offers an overall positive, even heroic perspective on the key players.
* * *
When Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1824, Texas became a territorial colony within the state of Coahuila. Under the initial Constitution, “Texas was only provisionally attached to Coahuila until its population grew sufficiently to merit its being a state in its own right” (356). Following the previous policy of Spain, Mexico actually invited White settlers or norteamericanos to immigrate with the promises of land and economic opportunity up until just a few years before the battle at the Alamo. Initially, they seemed to hope that the Whites would provide a “buffer between the Mexican interior and the marauding Comanche and other tribes” to the north (103) and perhaps also stimulate the economy.
Empresarios like Stephen F. Austin, who could be counted on to bring in high numbers of settlers because of their fame and connections, were offered large tracts of land. The only requirements were conversion to Catholicism, no slavery, and, of course, compliance with Mexican law (226). Whites were mainly drawn to Texas by the prospect of fortune. Conversion to Catholicism was pro forma, and those few who had slaves in the area were usually able to get around the restriction.
As more and more White settlers entered Texas in the early 19th century, it became apparent that the two groups could not continue to coexist. By 1830, the regime of Anastasio Bustamente was clearly concerned that the influx of White settlers might shift the cultural paradigm away from Mexican domination and control (344). Imagine that!
Up until April 6, 1830, the Mexican government had been offering each new American settler family a league (4,428 acres) for grazing cattle and a labor (177 acres) for farming, tax-free for six years. A single man could apply for a quarter-league grant from Stephen Austin (226). Even after the prohibition on White immigration, the land grants and speculation continued. Several years later, Austin, despite considerable diplomatic efforts, commented that a separation was “inevitable” (356). Davis writes that “the two peoples of Texas and Mexico simply differed too much, and as Texas continued to grow in population and wealth, it must inevitably resent the more being a vassal to Mexico City” (447–8).
Although Mexico was a republic, mainly modeled on theUnited States, its leaders had a recurrent tendency to assert strong centralized control through military dictatorships and periodic power grabs. Davis suggests that, although the American constitution had significantly inspired Mexican independence, they “had not yet caught the spirit of the document” (254). The ideas of personal liberty, democracy, state rights, the balance of power, and the rule of constitutional law so important to American of the time were quite foreign to the strongman politics of Mexico. Mexicans themselves, perhaps, were not surprised, as this had been the predominant sway of things even before Spanish rule. But it seems to have been difficult for the White settlers, known as “Texians,” to relinquish what they considered to be their fundamental rights, whether they lived within the borders of the United States or not.
Interestingly, General Santa Anna, the man responsible for the attack on the Alamo, was initially the leading proponent for “a looser, more decentralized federalism—“greater local autonomy in the several states” (265). Indeed, many Texians supported Santa Anna in his rise to power and in ousting Bustamente, who was viewed as a centralist responsible for cracking down on immigration and the dispersal of public lands. Santa Anna gained control of Mexico in April 1832 with the blessing of many Texians. He “proclaimed the return of the 1824 constitution and dissolved the former centralist legislature” (351), but by 1834 he was “openly revealed to be anything but republican” and began taking serious military steps “to put down all opposition to his regime,” which directly translated into reducing the size of state militias and surrendering all arms to the central authority (422-3).
By early 1836, Santa Anna was repeatedly issuing “a declaration of vengeance against Texas, promising extermination” (521). Travis’s words in 1835 sum up the situation from the Texian perspective:
I have as much to lose by a revolution as most men in the country. Yet, I wish to know, for whom I labor — whether for myself or a plundering, robbing, autocratical, aristocratical, jumbled up government which is in fact no government at all — one day a republic — one day a fanatical heptarchy, the next a military despotism — then a mixture of the evil qualities of all. (448)
In the end, of course, although Santa Anna did make good on part of his promise, White civilization asserted itself and took Texas away from Mexico. The Alamo was the seminal catalyst or sacrificial lamb in the process that aroused the populace to volunteer and fight. It was the tragedy apparently necessary in order to wake people up. Within two months of the massacre, Sam Houston (who was grossly negligent during the crucial time leading up to the Alamo [p.547ff]) and his army defeated the Mexicans and captured Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto, forcing Santa Anna to relinquish Texas. The immediate result of that victory was the independent Republic of Texas, and eventually, the Lone Star State as it was subsumed into the US.
In addition to the larger cultural dynamics at play, Davis’s in-depth character study of key figures from this period gives an exemplary glimpse at what the original White American character was made of, as it cut its teeth on the frontier, that primitive laboratory of human experiment. Concepts of American identity are constantly fluctuating, as we all know. But as we have matured, it seems that we have also become somewhat confused and forgetful. Analyzing the ingredients, especially of the leading men of that day, can do much to help us to remember and to strengthen our resolve to fight for and defend what is rightfully ours. Indeed, we should be ashamed if we cannot find the courage to make the similar sacrifices.
Let me say that again: we should be ashamed if we cannot find the courage to make the similar sacrifices.
Like the Texas rebels, we are confronted with the fact that our ideas and opinions are no longer respected or approved by the contemporary ruling establishment, particularly our ideas on the central importance of race and ethnicity in human affairs. There are, of course, many other aspects of the current situation in the U.S. that are ‘out of jive’ with the egalitarian version of liberal democracy that Francis Fukuyama has envisioned triumphant at the “end of history.” Therefore, studying these men may give us fresh approaches to question the dynamics that continue to unite us and distinguish us as White Americans economically, politically, socially, and ethnically.
I have no doubt that Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William B. Travis, not to mention 99% of their peers and the luminaries of that day (Andrew Jackson arguably at the head of the troops), would not even make it to a public stage in the contemporary politically correct straitjacket in which we find ourselves, without being burned to a crisp at the stake of political correctness. Crockett, showing no remorse, shot down helpless Creek Native Americans in response to the Fort Mims massacre in 1813 (25–28). Bowie engaged in smuggling slaves in connection with the notorious Jean Lafitte (53–4) and was probably the largest criminal land speculator that Louisiana (99) and Arkansas (159–160) ever hosted. And Travis owned slaves and helped Americans recover lost “property” that had escaped into Texas. He saw absolutely no contradiction between his fight for independence from Mexico and the inferior legal status of the Negro (264–5). Indeed, he was by all appearances, a Calhoun Democrat (584).
But by studying these significant leaders and understanding that they were men of their times, we can also appreciate their complexity as human beings and, being able to see somewhat from their perspectives, perhaps at least be able to resist some of the shame and thought control that the powers that be continue to impose upon White Americans. Each one of these men, in his own way, had valuable masculine qualities that have, unfortunately, largely ceased to resonate with White American males, to their detriment. A book like this can go far in remedying that. Studying their styles of personality offers a stark contrast to destructive forms of feminism that permeate our culture. Despite their flaws—and they certainly were flawed, at the end of the day, they are more than redeemed by their heroism and the supreme sacrifice that they made to willingly risk their lives, not only at the Alamo but throughout their lives.
* * *
Davis brings the time to life with rich descriptions of the places they lived in and all of the issues of the day. Consider this account of New Orleans:
Bowie, as was his custom, wintered in New Orleans that year, and again in 1824, where the century-old Creole custom of the Boeuf Gras on Shrove Tuesday had by now become an annual festival. Oxen pulled a huge bull’s head on a cart down the Rue Royale and the Rue Dauphin in the Old Quarter, as masked celebrants followed in train, drinking, singing, and dancing. The Carnival, or Mardi Gras, in early March 1824 was the biggest and best since the one that celebrated the victory over the British in 1815. … There were also the tavern and gaming tables.Bowie liked gambling, especially faro and something called “bucking the tiger,” and it was one of the ways that money easily made just as easily left his purse. He relished the comradeship and bustle of the grog house. Wine, beer, rum, and a “mean” whiskey were the social beverages of the time and place. Milk was for children, and thanks to the danger of typhoid fever, few people drank water. The quantities that even sober men consumed sometimes startled foreigners, and if Bowie occasionally had more than he should — well, so did almost everyone else (104).
Davis tells the tale as a narrative fugue beginning with Crockett who was the oldest of the three, born in what is now Tennessee in 1786, right at the close of the American Revolution. Next it goes to Bowie who was 10 years younger, born in 1796 and growing to maturity in the swampy delta and bayou country of Louisiana. Finally he moves to Travis who was 23 years younger, born in 1809 in South Carolina but really growing up and passing the bar as a young lawyer, in southern Alabama. Davis goes back and forth, as each of them makes his way towards Texas. Of course, the story converges at the Alamo, where all three ended up, right as Halley’s Comet was flying overhead (believe it or not!) (462). They all just barely knew each other.
In the end, one realizes that one has not only been reading about three actual historical figures but also simultaneously following the course of American frontier settlement from three symbolic angles, three generations representing different facets of White American civilization.
This is a representative look at the three distinctive kinds of men who were responsible for pushing White American civilization west of the Mississippi, and at the same time of those sorts who ever appeared at the forefront of the move across the continent. Their involvement in Texas settlement and revolution, and their apotheosis at the Alamo, only magnified them as exaggerated portraits of hundreds of thousands of others. They were all products of the Scots-Irish migration; they were all the kind of men the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville had in mind when he wrote in the 1830s of the American penchant for “improvisations of fortune.” Crockett stood for the thousands who were always on the edge of the wilderness — the men for whom no home was ever permanent, not itinerants so much as seekers, their gaze always cast westward. Bowie epitomized those who invariably followed the Crocketts, the entrepreneurs and exploiters — the men who came and profited, often outside the law, and moved on to the next potential bonanza, their addresses almost as temporary as Crockett’s. And then arrived Travis, the man of community and society, the lawgiver, town builder, even founder of a state or nation — one of the millions who came and stayed to create. … The lives and fortunes of Crockett, Bowie, and Travis reveal the full complexity of a people who were at once plunderers and patriots, and offer a stark repudiation to any who would see them or their era in a single dimension (6–7).
David Crockett is presented as a jovial, adventuresome and sincere “man of the people.” It seems to have been lost to the ages just how powerful a grip he exerted on the American imagination and how influential he was in creating a particular style of politics. He emerges from this narrative as the best known player among those who would become entwined within the tragedy of the Alamo. Yet, he was the least invested there. Crockett’s presence in Texas at that time seems to have been due to nothing more than a whim that he indulged after he lost his final attempt to run for Congress in 1835 (404). On the few occasions in his fascinating political career when he did get beaten, he had developed a pattern of taking off into the wilderness for long spells (116). The trip to Texas, therefore, was to be an extended adventure, a big hunting trip and an investigation into the possibility of land grants. He literally wandered up to San Antonio completely oblivious to what was about to happen.
It is true that he had enlisted as a Texas volunteer in January of 1836 after learning about the developing fight for independence and increasing problems with the Mexican government. Also, Crockett being Crockett, he certainly would have entertained prospects of becoming a leader at an early stage of the game. But, his orders, at that time, were rather vague. He was told to see where Sam Houston needed him most. It seems that the general consensus in Texas was that Santa Anna was marshalling an army somewhere south of the Rio Grande but that it had not really begun to materialize yet. The Texians were also still divided over the prospect of a campaign to Matamoros (416–7).
Of course, Bowie and Travis were glad to see the celebrity even though he had only a handful of men with him and described himself as a “high Private,” when he suddenly appeared just a couple of days after Travis showed up, on February 5 (516–9). If nothing else, his presence boosted the morale of the men. He was also able to effectively mediate when Travis and Bowie were quarreling for leadership (520).
Crockett never really spoke of Texas until 1834, not long after he had probably become enamored with the prospect after meeting with Sam Houston in Washington (389). By the time he actually reached Texas late in 1835, Crockett had this to say:
I am told, gentlemen, that, when a stranger, like myself, arrives among you, the first inquiry is — what brought him here? To satisfy your curiosity at once as to myself, I will tell you all about it. I was, for some years, a member of Congress. In my last canvass, I told the people of my District, that, if they saw fit to re-elect me, I would serve them faithfully as I had done; but, if not, they might go to hell, and I would go to Texas. I was beaten, gentlemen, and here I am (413).
What we really see here is one of the earliest incarnations of an authentic American populist. Davis pays special attention to the amazing phenomenon of his appeal and goes so far as to suggest that Crockett was “a natural aristocrat, a truly new character on the world stage, the first truly and uniquely original American character” (183). He even argues that Mark Twain derived his humorous style from character traits that Crockett first and best exemplified (576).
Crockett’s early life was taken up with migrating west from one end of Tennesseeto the other. He was a volunteer in the First Creek War under Jackson as his father had volunteered to fight at King’s Mountain, during the Revolution. He was an expert hunter, marksman, woodsman and scout. He had also begun to raise a family that he took with him as he periodically moved deeper into the wilderness, never staying too long in one place. According to Davis, “Crockett was simply one of a generation of men with a spirit in their feet telling them: ‘Go’” (69).
By the time he reached thirty, he slowed down a little bit and wound up in Lawrence County, Tennessee. Davis meticulously maps his political rise from this point as he was first nominated as a justice of the peace in 1817 through a variety of positions, including Lieutenant-Colonel in the militia, town commissioner, assemblyman, all the way up to his becoming a U.S. Congressman with presidential aspirations. Despite his humble origins, Crockett rose to become a force to be reckoned with on the national stage. His crowning achievement was a brilliantly original autobiography that was published less than two years before his death at the Alamo.
In his very first real electoral contest, he was asked to run for the position of major in the Lawrence County militia by a man named Matthews. As it turned out, Matthews was trying to set up Crockett, really intending to back his own son for the candidacy. Instead of falling for the trap, Crockett challenged Matthews himself for his position of Lieutenant-Colonel in the militia. Then he made a speech that ultimately took Matthews’ position from him.
That speech typified virtually every electioneering address he would make for the rest of his life — a bit of self-deprecation, a bit of prankish frontier wit in which the tables were turned on an opponent, and a modest protestation that he did not seek the office but rather that it sought him. In fact this contest itself set a pattern, at least in the way Crockett saw his public service. When someone else suggested or offered that he should seek office, he accepted out of naïve belief in the integrity of the offer. Then he found himself deceived, but rather than withdraw he confronted his deceivers and exposed their actions in defense of his own, winning the election by gaining the sympathy of the voters (68).
Besides the fact of Crockett’s considerable personal charisma, the times were conducive to his success because by 1821, “the common man was beginning his rise, like Crockett himself, as an expanding, newly franchised electorate reacted against the aristocratic and moneyed classes that had dominated state houses and Washington alike until then” (71–2). Andrew Jackson could claim success for the same reason. Davis’s account gives a fascinating glimpse of the original American folk mentality and, I would argue, is still useful today for populists trying to resonate with working class Americans. The chapters on Crockett’s political rise are some of the best in the book.
However, Crockett was very different from “Old Hickory,” the national war hero, and they ultimately became political enemies. In perhaps his most illuminating description of the man, Davis claims that Davy Crockett had gotten hold of a unique bigger-than-life archetype:
Crockett certainly did not know it, but his electioneering practices, especially as he and others remembered them in later years, unconsciously cast him firmly in the mold of an ancient folk hero, the so-called Trickster. The character — dating back to the semimythical Merlin and beyond in Western culture — had his counterparts in other societies, including among the native populations of America. He was an outward buffoon, yet inwardly calculating for effect. He played outlandish pranks, some of them mean, and took pleasure in fooling others, though he seemed often to be easily fooled himself. He knew good from evil, could do both at will, yet at times seemed wittingly or unwittingly to trust his fortunes to the dictates of others. He both molded events and lived as the hostage of fortune. Above all he combined a mischievous nature with an unbending sense of justice, and saw himself- and wanted others to see him — as an example to the common people. He was never entirely assimilated into society, but always on its edges, where freedom from restraint gave scope to his extrahuman appetites. Scores of real and mythologized folk heroes through the ages fit the mold, each slightly sculpted to fit the culture of the moment, and each generally needing only a popular movement of some sort among the lowly masses to come to the fore. In 1823 Americans had no folk heroes as yet. They were too new a people, their only household gods the Founding Fathers, men too lofty and remote to become the stuff of legend. But the common man was rising now, and he would want one of his own for an icon. The recently deceased Daniel Boone nearly fit the requirement, yet he was too contemplative, brave but quiet, with none of the roughness and outlandishness, tinged with violence, that resonated with the common folk. They admired Boone, but he lacked the stuff of a human talisman. The ancestral practices of their culture for millennia, and seemingly human instinct itself, would compel them when the time came to look for the Trickster. And out in West Tennesseea man pranked and played and spread his little mayhem, all the while pressing for the freedom of his kind, even as he acted as the prisoner of the prejudices and fears of his class. In David Crockett, though yet he knew it not, there were the makings of the folk hero (85–6).