by Rod D. Martin
August 17, 2014
This is a big weekend for historic births and essential Americans.
On this day in 1807, an American farm boy named Robert Fulton changed the world as thoroughly as the Wright Brothers would a century later by sailing, nay steaming his Clermont (aka North River) from Greenwich Village to Albany and back again. Bystanders were terrified as the ship’s great engine belched smoke and fire, but in the words of one of the passengers on the return trip down the Hudson, “From every point on the river whence the boat, announced by the smoke of its chimney, could be seen, we saw the inhabitants collect; they waved their handkerchiefs and hurrahed for Fulton.”
Naysayers had derided the ship as “Fulton’s Folly.” Earlier, Fulton had proposed steam propulsion to the Emperor Napoleon as a technological leap over his foes. Napoleon famously replied, “You would make a ship sail by lighting a bonfire under its deck? I have no time for such nonsense.”
Fortunately Robert Livingston, a member of the Committee of Five who drafted the Declaration of Independence and the diplomat who negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, greatly disagreed, and put his capital behind Fulton’s brilliance. And on the 17th of August 1807, no one laughed forevermore.
Thus was inaugurated the first commercially successful steam-based passenger service. Comparing this to the Wrights is almost unfair to Fulton: from time immemorial to that very day, mankind’s travels had been chained to the limitations of foot, animal, oar and sail. Fulton’s vision and determination gave man dominion over the physical world instead of the other way around, and soon there followed great steamships mastering oceans, railroads tying together vast continents, and factories creating the world we know today.
But for Livingston, Fulton might never have succeeded; but without him you might also never have heard of Meriwether Lewis, born tomorrow in 1774, best known as leader of President Jefferson’s Corps of Discovery, the men and women of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Few moderns appreciate the magnitude of that endeavor. For the first time in history, global population reached one billion souls in 1804, but of that number, barely five and a half million lived in the seventeen United States. Precious few of those lived west of the Appalachians, where just three states had been formed: Kentucky, Tennessee and, only a year earlier, Ohio. The period of migration over the Wilderness Road through Martin’s Station at the Cumberland Gap was still in full swing: 300,000 pioneer settlers would pass through that outpost’s gates by 1810. Beyond the Mississippi in the newly purchased, almost completely unexplored Louisiana wilderness there were no steamboats, no telegraphs, no towns, no stores or forts at which to resupply, not even so much as a map. In many respects, an expedition to Mars today would be a lesser undertaking.
Lewis, a younger neighbor of Joseph Martin and Thomas Jefferson in Albemarle County, was born for this very thing. Like Martin, as a young man he spent considerable time among the Cherokee. He graduated from Liberty Hall (now Washington and Lee University) in 1794, immediately joined the Virginia Militia (over which Martin was still a commissioned General), and helped put down the Whiskey Rebellion. He joined the small, professional U.S. Army and rose to Captain before mustering out to become Jefferson’s personal aide in 1801, actually living in the White House and interacting regularly with the great men who inhabited the capital. He was 30 when the President named him to command the country’s most important-ever expedition.
Lewis was ordered to explore the new Louisiana Purchase, with particular emphasis on the upper reaches of the Missouri; to collect scientific data and information on the indigenous nations; to map the vast expanse before them; to establish trade with and sovereignty over the natives they encountered; and beyond the Louisiana Territory, to claim the Pacific Northwest and Oregon Country for the United States before European powers could do so. It was a complex and difficult agenda, with significant geopolitical implications everyone understood might determine the fragile Republic’s future.
The expedition endured deadly hardship, traversed what was then called “the Great American Desert,” crossed the Rockies with but the most primitive equipment, established relations with more than two dozen indigenous nations, and reached the mighty Pacific itself. And then it returned, victorious, the entire mission completed on foot and by canoe in just two and a half years.
Jefferson named Lewis Governor of the Louisiana Territory, which he governed from St. Louis. Just three years later he died, an apparent suicide. But the man whom Jefferson termed “a luminous and discriminating intellect” and a man “of courage undaunted” left behind an incalculable contribution to science, to exploration, and to the advance of the American republic.
Lewis’s early years among the Cherokee were spent not far from the childhood homes of our third hero, Colonel and Congressman David S. Crockett, “King of the Wild Frontier.” Born this day in 1786 in that part of North Carolina which was then the renegade “State of Franklin” but not yet the State of Tennessee, “Davy” Crockett was a legend in his own time, and long before he became one of the heroes of the Alamo.
The son of John Crockett, one of the Overmountain Men unleashed by Joseph Martin to turn the tide of the Revolutionary War at Kings Mountain, the future legend in his teenage years repeatedly traveled on foot from eastern Tennessee to Virginia across the Appalachian mountains, developing skills and achieving feats for which he’d become so well known later. He served under General Andrew Jackson in the Creek War and in Jackson’s campaign, late in the War of 1812, to drive the British out of Florida. By the age of 32 he’d been appointed a justice of the peace, elected lieutenant colonel of the Tennessee Militia, and started several successful business enterprises.
In the Tennessee legislature and in the U.S. House during Jackson’s Presidency, he fought untiringly against Congress’s overspending and unconstitutional expansion of its powers. He also vociferously opposed Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act, the only member of the Tennessee delegation to do so. For this, the voters of Tennessee sent Crockett home. Undaunted, he ran again two years later and returned to the House, resuming his previous crusades and also collaborating with Kentucky Congressman Thomas Chilton to produce his autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, Written by Himself.
Crockett embarked on an extensive book tour which, combined with larger-than-life stage productions such as Lion of the West and mythologized biographies like Sketches and Eccentricities of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee, cemented in the national mind his legend as a pioneer and frontiersman. Everywhere he went, from New York to Little Rock, adoring fans swarmed him. More and more, he took the opportunity they afforded him to speak against the military threat and growing tyranny of Mexican dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and the need to support an American-style revolution in Texas.
By the time the voters back home dumped him again in August 1835, Crockett’s heart was consumed with the Texian cause. No longer seeing Washington or the pettiness of politics as desirable, he famously told his erstwhile constituents, “You all can go to Hell, I’m going to Texas.” And he went.
He arrived in Nacogdoches with a company of volunteers just five months later in January 1836, swearing an oath to the Provisional Government of Texas. Barely a month later he and his group were in San Antonio de Bexar, with fellow Texian heroes Jim Bowie, Antonio Menchaca and Don Erasmo Seguin, a Founding Father of the Mexican republic who helped feed and finance the Texas Revolution (Don Erasmo was also the father of Juan Seguin, a defender of the Alamo who survived to become a hero of San Jacinto and a Senator of the Republic of Texas).
Less than a month later, Crockett died defending the Alamo.
Again, moderns appreciate little of the importance of this. Some (outside Texas at least) see the Alamo as a minor incident at most. Many today view the Texas Revolution as an Anglo brutalization of a victimized Mexico: they ignore, willfully or otherwise, the multilingual, multi-ethnic nature of the affair, the many prominent Mexican statesmen who, loyal to the principles of their lost republic, took up arms in favor of the Revolution: men such as Erasmo Seguin and his friend Lorenzo de Zavala, the first Vice President of Texas, who was born in Yucatan and had previously served as Mexico’s Minister of Finance. These revisionists also ignore the widespread opposition throughout Mexico to Santa Anna’s dictatorship and scrapping of the 1824 Constitution: in addition to Texas, both Yucatan and the Mexican states immediately across the Rio Grande from Texas formed republics and seceded from Mexico, albeit unsuccessfully.
But beyond the unquestionable rightness of the Texian cause, the successful Revolution served to answer the burning geopolitical question of that era, namely, would America or Mexico — and would liberty or tyranny — dominate the New World?
Santa Anna had proclaimed himself “the Napoleon of the West”: his ambitions were vastly greater than just holding a few farms on the Brazos. Had he imposed his tyranny on the Texians, he would have been liberated to threaten — and possibly conquer — New Orleans, the continent’s single most strategic point, thus reversing Jefferson’s achievement in securing the Louisiana Purchase and thus achieving what the British could not in 1815: the reduction of the U.S. to a servile state. And with all commerce in the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi river basins bottled up at Santa Anna’s mercy, not only might America never have generated the capital, industrial strength and military might needed to become a great power, but an authoritarian Mexico might well have supplanted it, expanding throughout the West and the Caribbean Basin as well.
But for Houston’s victory at San Jacinto — but for Davy Crockett’s death at the Alamo, enabling Houston’s triumph — the American experiment might well have come to nothing; America might even have been recolonized in that era of global European expansion (as indeed Mexico was for a time, during the 1860s); and with the coming of the 20th Century, freedom might well have perished from the Earth.
Fulton. Lewis. Crockett. Three great men who made our world. Three men every American should celebrate this and every day.