- Historic Sites
A Short And Scary Walk With Andrew Jackson
An extraordinary new historical novel begins with the great political scandal of the 1970s, then visits the great political scandal of the 1820s
October 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 6
[Retrospect: Buchanan runs and wins unprecedented third term as Lancaster congressman on “Federal-Republican” ticket in 1824 election, wherein Jackson sweeps Pennsylvania but whose 99 electoral votes against John Quincy Adams’s 83, William Crawford’s 41, and Henry Clay’s 37 fall short of majority, throwing presidential election into House—apparently takes upon self, as an already prominent Pennsylvania “fixer,” the delicate task of sounding out General Jackson on the matter of his intentions if the House elects him—Washington’s rumor mill claims that Adams if elected with Clay’s help would make Clay Secretary of State, whereas Jackson would keep on Adams, who was already serving in the post, with great distinction, under President James Monroe.]
On the morning of December 30, 1824, young James Buchanan outstayed all the other guests at a gathering in General Jackson’s apartments and was rewarded for his patience bv an invitation to take a walk with the former backwoodsman, now the senator from Tennessee. More than tall and lean, Jackson appeared emaciated, even skeletal; not since his impoverished boyhood had he been entirely well. His eyes were a glittering blue. Unruly locks of ashen-yellow hair framed his parched face. A greasy pigtail behind was tied with an eelskin. To Buchanan’s nostrils Jackson smelled faintly rancid, and smoky, like beef hung too long in the curing, or like the warmed inside of dogskin gloves. In the open air, this unpleasant impression dissipated: Washington City on this bracing winter morning breathed, beneath its bare sycamores and locust trees, an atmosphere cleansed of the long summer’s scarcely tolerable heat. The mudholes in the avenues wore a thin glaze of ice, and the ubiquitous sense of incompletion—of ill-financed starts at marmoreal grandeur thrusting aside the shacks wherein the negroes (then so styled) and the less fortunate class of whites found shelter, with occasional charred proofs of the savage British destruction in 1814 still permitted to stand—was softened by a picturesque mist come up from the swamps by the Potomac. Compared with Lancaster, it was a raw city, a grand design but as yet sketchily given embodiment.
The Hero of New Orleans did not waste much time on pleasantries. “You tarried this morning, Mr. Búchanan,” he said, accenting the first syllable of the name in the frontier fashion, “with a gleam in your eye, as of one with a message to impart.”
“No message, sir, but merely a question,” the thirty-three-year-old politician answered, taken aback but locating courage in the sound of his own voice, a faithful friend, clear and untiring if a little high-pitched, which had seen him through many a court case and stump speech, and which carried even in the abysmal acoustics of the House chamber. “However,” he went on, “before I trespass upon your forbearance in posing my question, let me petition in advance for a guarantee of your continuing friendship, which I value most highly among all my claims to public service, saving only my love of the Constitution and the great Christian people which it serves.”
“That is nicely said, young man,” said Jackson, little concealing his impatience but hoarsely letting escape the words, “You have your guarantee.” Nowhere did Jackson fever run higher than in Pennsylvania, so this popinjay from the Keystone State must be allowed his rigamarole.
Still, Buchanan did not dare charge ahead. “My question would be asked on behalf not of my own curiosity but that of many others, all friendly to your interests, and concerns a subject upon which, typically, and to your great honor, you have expressed a determination to remain silent. I recognize that, deeming my question improper, you may refuse to give it an answer; believe me that my only motive in asking it is friendship for yourself, and anxiety that this Republic have as its Chief Executive the man best qualified to lead it—that is, General Jackson!”
In the midday foot traffic along Pennsylvania Avenue, with its rows of freshly planted saplings and its distant termini of an incomplete Capitol and a freshly repaired White House, a small negro urchin darted out and pointed at the two men’s dusty boots, offering a fresh application of goose grease, to be polished on a much-trodden wooden box he carried as a tool of his humble trade. Jackson, with a visionary’s sure sense of proportion, gave the little petitioner a quick glance relegating him to his place, a low and inconsequential one, whereas Buchanan felt himself inopportunely tugged by pity for the child, and by an irrational sense of obligation to him. The child’s need to earn a penny seemed a claim upon him, as the baby’s cry is a claim upon the mother and gets the milk to flowing in her breast. But he could hardly allow a shoeshine to interrupt a verbal negotiation upon which the Presidency might hinge!
The general was urging, “Speak on, Mr. Búchanan. From your respectability as a gentleman and a Congressman, I do not expect you would lend yourself to any communication you suppose to be improper. Your motives being pure, let me think what I will of the communication.”