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Crockett in the Capital

IT’S ASTONISHING how closely David Crockett and Daniel Boone resembled each other. Or at least I thought they did when I was young. That’s because both were portrayed on television by Fess Parker. For my generation, that means the two men have blended together into a single frontier superman, complete with coonskin cap and flintlock musket.

Of course the truth is different, as were the men. Boone, who died in 1820, was the quintessential frontiersman, from the generation of George Washington. Crockett was of the next generation, born in 1786, ten years after his country’s birth. The main political figure of his time was Andrew Jackson, a man under whom Crockett served as a soldier, and with whom he later clashed.

Unlike Boone, Crockett was also a politician. I’ve always found it hard to reconcile the Crockett of legend with the reality of Crockett as a Washington insider, even if his congressional career was less than stellar. He wasn’t willing or perhaps even able to play the game, to make all the compromises, alliances, and strategies necessary for a successful political career. He was certainly no Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson’s vice president, eventual successor, and a man who was so adept at political sleight of hand that he earned the nickname of “The Little Magician.”

We call our story “Mr. Crockett Goes to Washington” for a reason. In the classic 1939 movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, director Frank Capra told the story of another congressman who arrived in the nation’s capital and found himself out of his depth. In the movie the political establishment quickly bands together to protect itself from the naive outsider after he introduces a bill that would build a boys’ camp on land that a corrupt businessman had already earmarked for a federal dam project. Crockett’s case was similar. Just as in the movie, the popular press treated the newcomer as a buffoon, and his own party soon sized him up as a danger to its own interests. Like the fictional Jefferson Smith, Crockett’s political fortunes foundered because of land issues. His chief cause was a bill that would allow poor squatters to buy the land they had settled for a decent price. His party, led by President Andrew Jackson and future president James K. Polk, opposed Crockett’s bill and eventually squashed his political career as well. “I would rather be politically dead than hypocritically immortalized,” Crockett said. He got his wish. Defeated in a re-election bid, Crockett headed for Texas and another kind of immortality. Today we remember Davy Crockett as a frontier hero instead of as a politician.

THE only constant, they say, is change, and long-time readers of this magazine should notice some changes right away. Under the capable supervision of Art Director W. Douglas Shirk, American History has undergone a complete redesign. We have a new logo on the cover, new typefaces inside, and new department headers. Other sections, such as Reviews and the Table of Contents, have been thoroughly overhauled.

A magazine should provide a steady, familiar environment for its readers, but too much familiarity can breed, if not contempt, at least boredom. A magazine that retains the same look for too long runs the risk of becoming a little stale. Periodically it’s a good idea to shake things up a bit. It’s like replacing furniture in the house, or painting a room a different color. It makes everything seem new again.

When deciding on our new look we strove to make the magazine appear lively, fresh, and contemporary. Too often history is unfairly classified as a musty topic full of dust and cobwebs, and the last thing we wanted to do was reinforce that stereotype with a magazine that looked old-fashioned. Our goal was to create pages that would draw people in. History is exciting; we felt it deserved an exciting showcase. Please let us know if you think we’ve provided one.

Tom Huntington, Editor, American History