Wanted: Fresh Biographies of Early Republic Tennesseans

Originally posted on March 16, 2011

Bloggers Mark Cheatham and Michael Lynch (whose history blogs I would definitely recommend) point out the lack of scholarly biographies for several essential figures of the Early Republic, many of whom happen to be Tennesseans. While men such as John Sevier, William Blount, and John Bell have had biographies written about them, none has recent a modern treatment in almost sixty years. Others such as Hugh Lawson White and William Carroll–both significant figures in Tennessee political history–have been neglected altogether. (The lack of a biography for Carroll, the state’s longest serving governor, really surprises me. Aside from Andrew Jackson, he was Tennessee’s most influential politician of the 1820s and 1830s. ) Hopefully these men’s lives will interest historians in the near future and help fill the biographical void.

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Happy Birthday, Adam Huntsman!

Adam Huntsman, the subject of my latest book project, would be 223 years old today.

I grew up in Jackson, Tennessee, where he lived the last 26 years of his life. He will always be best known as the man who beat David Crockett for Congress in 1835, which led Crockett to Texas and his heroic death at the Alamo. But there’s a lot more that should be known about this colorful and eccentric frontier lawyer and politician.

His most distinguishing feature was a wooden peg leg. He used the artificial appendage to his advantage during his legal and political career. When he delivered a speech, he would pound it on the floor to emphasize a point he was making. It was also a visiable reminder of the sacrifice he made for his country, much to the chagrin of his political opponents. How he lost the limb has been the subject of speculation for many years: Crockett claimed it was lost “in an [I]ndian fight during the last war,” implying that it happened during the Creek War or the War of 1812. I have my own theory that I will share in my upcoming book.

Huntsman was born in Charlotte County, Virginia on 11 February 1786. I’ve tried in my research to identify his parents, but the best I’ve come up with is circumstantial evidence that points to Adam Huntsman (senior) and Jeane Francis of Charlotte County. (I can’t even prove–aside from the fact that she had married a Huntsman–that they were even married.) It’s certainly one of the more frustrating aspects of the project.

He left Virginia for Knox County, Tennessee, settling there about 1809. He studied law under John Williams and obtained his license, but he never hung his shingle there. It may have had something to do with his paternity of an illegitimate daughter in 1811. He moved to Overton County and practiced law in that area of Middle Tennessee until 1823. During this time, he served three terms in the Tennessee state senate representing Overton, White, and Jackson counties.

By 1823, Huntsman was married to Sarah Wesley Quarles and had moved to Madison County, where he settled four miles east of Jackson in the Cotton Grove community. He practiced law and was engaged in various civic and business activities. In 1827, he was elected as West Tennessee’s first senator to the General Assembly and served one term. He later represented Madison County at the state constitutional convention in 1834.

Huntsman was a staunch supporter of President Andrew Jackson and the fledgling Democratic Party in Tennessee. He enjoyed the game of politics and played an active role in various campaigns in West Tennessee throughout the 1830s and 1840s. In 1835, he opposed incumbent congressman David Crockett’s re-election bid in a lively campaign pitting masters of the stump speech and tall tale telling. (Huntsman was regarded as the better speaker of the two.) Huntsman won the election by 2,000 votes and served one term in the 24th Congress (1835-37). He stepped aside rather than seek re-election: his opponent would have been John Wesley Crockett, a fellow attorney and eldest son of his former opponent.

Huntsman corresponded for 13 years with fellow Tennessean James K. Polk, an exchange of letters that continued into Polk’s presidency (1845-49). He was nine years older than Polk and acted as an advisor to him while he served as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, governor of Tennessee, and president of the United States. Huntsman first met Polk while serving as a state senator and Polk was its clerk. When Polk received the Democratic nomination for president in 1844, Huntsman congratulated him in his own humorous way:

“I suppose miracles will not cease in the land. To have supposed it possible that such a Possum looking fellow as you were twenty five years ago, would ever have [been] nominated for President of the United States would have been deemed Quixotism[.] But so it is, and we must make the best we can out of you.”

Huntsman noted that three former presidents–George Washington, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson–had no children. If Polk were to win (he too had no children), Huntsman noted “the World will believe that the qualifications of an American President lies all in his head, and none in his Breeches.”

Adam Huntsman died at his home on present-day Cotton Grove Road near Jackson, Tennessee on the evening of Thursday, 23 August 1849. He was 63 years old.

My book project on the life and political career of Adam Huntsman will be published later this year. If you would like to be notified when it is available, please send me an email here.

Adam Huntsman and His Entertaining Wooden Leg

While searching the online newspapers for articles related to Adam Huntsman, I came across this gem published in the Baltimore Patriot and reprinted in the Adams Sentinel (Gettysburg, PA) on Jan. 25, 1836. At the time, Huntsman had served only one month in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Tennessee’s 12th Congressional District. Initially, he attracted attention as the man who beat the celebrated frontiersman David Crockett for the seat; his humor and unique speaking style, however, quickly made their own reputations in the halls of Congress.

“…You know DAVY CROCKETT is said to have declared that he would not have so much minded his defeat in running for Congress last year if he had not been beaten by ADAM HUNTSMAN.

“But ADAM is not to be sneezed at after all. He made his maiden speech to-day [Jan. 15], upon the subject of extending the charters of the banks in the District [of Columbia], and I assure you the members more generally crowded round him than they have ever been known to crowd round MR. JOHN Q. ADAMS even. ADAM spoke low, it is true; but then, when he brought his grinning powers into full play, and brought his heavy hickory iron-shod leg–for you must know that the hero who beat CROCKETT, besides being short and thick, has a powerful wooden leg–down upon the floor in confirmation of a position, he produced an astonishing effect. From the distance where I stood I was unable to hear what he said; but from the crowd he drew about him, and from the peals of laughter which arduous suppression only prevented from reverberating through the Hall, I am anxious he is destined to become no less a Lion certainly than was his predecessor.

“Why, I am told that at some of the great dinner parties he has attended, the originality of his genius and notions far surpasses any thing ever manifested on such occasions by the renowned COL. CROCKETT. At a wine party, at the President’s, the other night, he declared the Champagne the best he ever drank. He said he could feel it go all over him even into his very toes, throwing up his wooden understanding at the same time, and taking hold of his iron shoe at the bottom. He was doubtless right; for if the President [Andrew Jackson] keeps Champagne that won’t penetrate hickory, he ought to abdicate in favor of the heir apparent [Martin Van Buren] forthwith.

‘I have heard many curious things about General HUNTSMAN–he certainly ought to be General, and I presume he is–which will not probably see the light before his life is got out in two volumes, duodecimo.”

Adam Huntsman’s 222nd Birthday

Today marks the 222nd birthday of Adam Huntsman, the man responsible for the legend of David Crockett at the Alamo.

Had the peg-legged lawyer and politician from Jackson, Tennessee not defeated him for re-election to Congress in 1835, Crockett would have returned to Washington and missed the Battle of the Alamo and the legendary stature that he enjoys today.

Huntsman was born today in Charlotte County, Virginia in 1786, six months and six days before his famous opponent. He lost his leg at some point during the War of 1812 and wore a wooden prosthesis the rest of his life. It added to his colorful character and emphasis to his speeches; while serving in Congress, he stomped it on the floor to make a point! “He was a man of great ability, fully equal to Crockett in native intellect, and much his superior in education and mental training,” recalled Peter H. Burnett, a Hardeman County, Tennesse resident and later the first governor of California.

In honor of Adam Huntsman’s birthday, I’ve created a new website at www.adamhuntsman.com