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The Rise Of The Little Magician
Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson’s right-hand man, was a master of political intrigue who let nothing block his one unwavering ambition—the Presidency. But sometimes he was too smart for his own good
June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
A new and momentous issue now rose to restore Martin Van Buren’s still uncertain fortunes. While the Eaton affair was running its merry pace, the country’s attention was turning to the infinitely more complex and menacing issue of nullification. Nothing less than the safety and future of the Union turned on the outcome. The igniting spark had been provided by the Tariff Act of 1828—“the tariff of abominations” it was called in the South—the last of a series of acts discriminating strongly against that region. In Calhoun’s own state of South Carolina, men spoke openly of declaring the act to be null and void and making Charleston a free port; Calhoun himself was nullification’s most articulate advocate.
Andrew Jackson was slow to speak out publicly on the great issue until it squarely confronted him. The occasion was Thomas Jefferson’s birthday anniversary—April 13, 1830. In the four years since his death it had not been the object of any special celebration, however much Jefferson was venerated by his countrymen and the party he had founded. Now, however, Senators Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and Robert Hayne of South Carolina proposed a grand subscription dinner, ostensibly to remedy this oversight. To Van Buren, the plot was clear. The celebration, he told Jackson, would be used as “a stalking horse” for linking Jefferson’s prestige to the current doctrines expounded by Calhoun and Hayne.
When Van Buren, with Jackson and Donelson, joined the nearly one hundred celebrants in the dining hall of Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel on April 13, they found the atmosphere already decidedly chilly. Van Buren quickly discovered the cause when he picked up from one of the tables a card on which had been printed the formal toasts to be offered in the course of the evening. It was clear at a glance that the banquet hall would resound with sentiments dear to the nullifiers. Only a few minutes before the arrival of the presidential party, the Pennsylvania delegation, taking one look at the toast cards, had walked out in a pique. Several other delegations were feverishly conferring on the same decision. The Marine band, meanwhile, was blaring away with extra vigor to drown out the rising tension.
Somehow the meal began and passed without incident. Then, after what seemed interminable preliminaries, the toast of the President of the United States was called for. The room crackled with expectation. The short-statured Van Buren, his view hopelessly blocked by the crowd, climbed up on a chair to observe the President. Jackson at last rose. In a voice rough with defiance, he declared, “Our Union: It must and shall be preserved.” Without a word more, he lifted his glass as a sign that the toast was to be drunk standing. Chairs scraped and there was a hum of excited whispering as the company rose. Calhoun stood with them. “His glass,” noticed a nearby participant, “trembled in his hand and a little of the amber fluid trickled down the side.”
The fight was now in the open. A visitor to the Senate gallery observed, not long after, that the Vice President seemed “more wrinkled and careworn than I had expected from his reputed age.… His voice is shrill.… His manners have in them an uneasiness, a hurried, incoherent air.” With the stealth and evil grace of the fox, Van Buren came in for the kill. His route was typically circuitous, and the weapon he counted upon to destroy Calhoun was a letter. It was a very special letter, solicited by Van Buren’s trusted aide, James A. Hamilton, and written long ago by William H. Crawford while serving as Secretary of the Treasury in the Cabinet of James Monroe.
Secretary Crawford’s letter centered upon a climactic episode of the Seminole Indian War in 1818, when Jackson as commanding general in the field invaded Florida without consulting President Monroe and seized the Spanish forts of St. Marks and Pensacola. To the nation, Jackson was instantaneously a hero; to the President he was arrant and insubordinate. Monroe took up the problem with his Cabinet. There, according to the Crawford letter, John C. Calhoun, then Secretary of War, forthrightly recommended that General Jackson be arrested and punished.
The letter, which had been retrieved from an old trunk in Crawford’s Georgia home, reached Jackson via a number of trusted hands, including those of Van Buren’s faithful White House ally, W. B. Lewis. Through Lewis, the letter finally came to Donelson and thence to the President. Jackson, to whom the disclosures were not altogether a surprise—only recently he had discussed the entire incident with ex-President Monroe himself—was still seething from the Jefferson Day dinner. The evidence is impressive that he desired to strike further at Calhoun, and Van Buren’s conveniently timed skulduggery gave him a pretext for doing so. The President, accordingly, lost no time in dispatching a peremptory request to Calhoun to explain his conduct in the Monroe Cabinet. In a painstaking answer of some fifty-two pages, the Vice President freely admitted the charges, defended his own conduct, and condemned Crawford for betraying the secrets of the Cabinet. Evidently eager to keep the fight going, Jackson tartly informed Calhoun that his reply was unsatisfactory. Their break was now complete.