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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 13: The Rise of a Mass Democracy, 1824 - 1840


David (Davy) Crockett (1786 - 1836)

Davy Crockett, the frontier congressman and hero who died at the Alamo, has remained a half-legendary symbol of western democracy and humor.

Crocketts father was an Irish immigrant and Revolutionary soldier who frequently beat his son, causing him to run away from home on several occasions. The young Crockett attended school for six months in order to please a girlfriend but left when she jilted him and never returned to school.

He became a legendary hunter in frontier Tennessee, once killing 105 bears in nine months. Crockett also served with Jackson in the Indian wars and became a justice of the peace, though barely able to read and write. He considered spelling and grammar contrary to nature.

The suggestion that he run for Congress was first made as a joke, but he was so popular with his pioneer neighbors that he was elected to three terms. A Whig who strongly opposed Jackson and defended the Indians in the Cherokee removal, he became a national hero during his tour of the North from 1834 to 1835, when he regaled big-city audiences with his frontier anecdotes. He headed for frontier Texas and the Alamo because of disappointment over his defeat in a bid for reelection to Congress.

Quote: What a miserable place a city is.I sometimes wonder they dont clear out to a new country where every skin hangs by its own tail. (Comment during his tour of the North, 1835)

REFERENCE: Walter Blair, Davy Crockett (1955).


John Quincy Adams (1767 - 1848)

Adams was the secretary of state who proposed the Monroe Doctrine, the sixth president, and a noted opponent of slavery in the House of Representatives.

He grew up at his fathers side and early on began keeping detailed diaries that form a memorable record of his thoughts and experiences. In 1794 he became minister to the Netherlands, the first of his numerous diplomatic assignments.

Regarded as a traitor by Federalists for supporting Jeffersons embargo, he also aroused Jacksons hatred, even though he was Old Hickorys only cabinet supporter in the Monroe administration.

After leaving the presidency, he planned to retire to write history but was elected to Congress and returned for eight successive terms. Old Man Eloquent was contentious and sarcastic in his speeches against the gag rule. In 1841 he won the famous Amistad court case on behalf of black slaves who had revolted and taken command of a slave ship.

Quote: When I came to the Presidency the principle of internal improvement was swelling the tide of public prosperity.The great object of my life therefore as applied to the administration of the government of the United States has failed. The American Union as a moral person in the family of nations is to live from hand to mouth, to cast away instead of using for the improvement of its own condition, the bounties of Providence, and to raise to the summit of power a succession of Presidents the consummation of whose glory will be to growl and snarl with impotent fury against a money brokers shop, to rivet into perpetuity the clanking chain of the slave, and to waste in boundless bribery to the West the invaluable inheritance of the public lands. (Letter, 1837)

REFERENCE: Samuel Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Union (1956).


Daniel Webster (1782 - 1852)

Webster, a Massachusetts senator and U.S. secretary of state, was considered the greatest orator and lawyer of his time.

In childhood, fragile health compelled him to stay indoors and read much of the time. When he attended Dartmouth, Black Dan was frequently thought to be an Indian because of his swarthy appearance.

Not only was Websters law practice lucrative, often bringing in $65,000 a year or more, but he was also liberally subsidized by Massachusetts textile-mill owners. He lived in splendor and entertained lavishly at his estate at Marshfield, Massachusetts.

The debate with Robert Hayne came one month after Websters second marriage to New York socialite Caroline LeRoy. His eloquence was so renowned that huge crowds gathered for even minor occasions, and generations of schoolchildren memorized his most famous utterances.

Quote: When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on states dissevered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood! Let their last feeble and lingering glance rather behold the glorious ensign of the republic, now known and honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms and trophies streaming in their original luster, not a stripe erased or polluted, nor a single star obscured. (Webster-Hayne debate speech, 1831)

REFERENCE: Irving Bartlett, Daniel Webster (1978).


Nicholas Biddle (1786 - 1844)

Biddle was the wealthy, learned financier who fought and lost the Bank War with President Jackson.

He graduated from Princeton as valedictorian in 1801, with honors in the classics. Although he became a lawyer, Biddle spent most of his time on literary endeavors, including writing a history of the Lewis and Clark expedition and composing poetry.

Having left the scholarly life for government service in 1819 at the request of his friend President Monroe, in 1822 he became president of the Second Bank of the United States. The charges of corruption against him arose partly because he represented the interests of the banks private stockholders as well as the government.

After losing the bank battle, he retired to Andalusia, his Delaware estate, and pursued his interest in classical Greece. He also wrote works on economics, in which he advocated such progressive policies as shorter hours and higher wages for workers.

Quote: My own course is decidedall the other Banks and all the merchants may break, but the Bank of the United States shall not break. (1834)

REFERENCE: Thomas P. Govan, Nicholas Biddle (1959).


Black Hawk (1767 - 1838)

Black Hawk was the Sauk chief who led his people to defeat in Black Hawks War of 1832.

His bitterness toward Americans developed when William Henry Harrison obtained a treaty ceding the Indians land along the Mississippi by getting two lesser Sauk chiefs drunk. Black Hawk fought beside Tecumseh in the War of 1812 and after the war continued to seek British aid against Americans.

In 1831 he formed a war alliance with a Winnebago shaman, White Cloud, but when U.S. troops were called up, Black Hawk withdrew to Iowa. After his attempted recrossing of the Mississippi ended in disaster, he was imprisoned and taken to meet President Jackson. Those who saw them together claimed that the two old chieftains resembled each other.

While in federal custody Black Hawk dictated his life story to an interpreter. A journalist wrote it up, and it became a minor classic.

Quote: I surveyed the country that had caused us so much trouble, anxiety, and blood, and that now caused me to be a prisoner of war. I reflected upon the ingratitude of the whites, when I saw their fine houses, rich harvestsand recollected that this land had been ours, for which I and my people had never received a dollar, and that the whites were not satisfied until they took our villages and our grave yards from us and removed us across the Mississippi. (Autobiography, 1835)

REFERENCES: Donald Jackson, ed., Black Hawk: An Autobiography (1964); Cecil Eby, That Disgraceful Affair: The Black Hawk War (1973).


Sam Houston (1793 - 1863)

Houston was the military hero of Texas independence and later president of the Texas Republic.

He grew up with his widowed mother near Cherokee country in Tennessee, learning the Cherokee customs and language as a boy. Throughout his life he had a strong sympathy for Indians.

In 1827 he became governor of Tennessee. In 1829 he married, but his bride returned to her parents after three months, and the subsequent scandal and divorce ruined his political career.

Houston first headed to Indian territory, where he became an Indian trader and married an Indian woman. In 1835 he moved to Texas and became commander of the tiny Texas army. Only 6 of his 783 men were killed in the decisive Battle of San Jacinto; Houston was badly wounded in the leg.

As U.S. senator from 1846 to 1860, he was almost the only southerner to support sectional compromise, even on slavery. As governor in 1861, he refused to recognize the authority of the secession convention or to swear allegiance to the Confederacy; he was therefore forced to resign the office.

Quote: While an enemy to your independence remains in Texas the work is incomplete; but when liberty is firmly established by your patience and valor, it will be fame enough to say, I was a member of the army of San Jacinto. (Message to Texas army, 1836)

REFERENCE: John Hoyt Williams, Sam Houston (1993).


Martin Van Buren (1782 - 1862)

Van Buren was the New York politician who helped engineer Jacksons presidential victories in 1828 and 1832, before being elected to his own unsuccessful term as president.

A tavern keepers son, Van Buren rose to power amid the fiercely competitive factional politics of New York. His own political machine, the Albany Regency, eventually achieved dominance by perfecting the techniques of patronage and spoils.

Van Buren was Jacksons most intimate political associate and the only cabinet member to back him completely in the Peggy Eaton affair. In 1830 Jackson suggested that if Van Buren would become his vice president, he, Jackson, would resign and let Van Buren become president.

Although badly beaten in 1840 after his unsuccessful presidency, Van Buren probably could have been renominated in 1844 if he had not come out against annexing Texas. In 1847 he and other Barnburner New York antislavery Democrats broke away from the proslavery Hunkers who controlled the party. In 1848 he accepted the nomination of the Free Soil party for president.

Quote: Why the deuce is it that they have such an itching for abusing me? I try to be harmless and positively good-natured, and a most decided friend of peace. (Comment on newspapers, 1822)

REFERENCE: John Niven, Martin Van Buren and the Romantic Age of American Politics (1983).



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