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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
Buchanan had not used the word communication, with its implied insult of regarding the speaker as a messenger for higher-placed others, but thought it best not to contradict. Nor did he hear his avowal of friendship reciprocated. Nevertheless, he proceeded, with the words he had anticipatorily framed to the point of memorization: “We live, General, in times of intrigue and rumor; would that we lived in a better, but we do not. A report exists in circulation that, if—as I fervently hope and trust—you are elected President by the House, you will continue Mr. Adams in his present office as Secretary of State. You will at once perceive how injurious to your election such a report might be. It rises, I think you will also perceive, from the friends of Mr. Adams, as a reason to induce the friends of Mr. Clay to accede to their proposition—which has been distinctly forwarded, of that I have been assured—to the effect that Mr. Adams’s election will bring with it the appointment of Mr. Clay as Secretary of State.”
At the convenient pausing-place of the curb, where both men hesitated as the elegant equipage of the French legation spun past in a coruscation of plumes, hooves, and ebony spokes trimmed in sold paint, Buchanan gathered himself to pose the obvious crux: could General Jackson, then, hold out to the friends of Henry Clay hope of the same office, in return for the votes of the Ohio and Kentucky delegations? With the safety of the opposite curb secured, he pitched his voice to a more meaningful, though still casual register, in saying, “I think you will not be surprised to hear that the friends of Mr. Clay do not desire to separate West from West.” In case this was too subtle for the whip-thin apostle of backwoods America, whose wild pure eyes were surveying, above his interrogator’s head, the transparent treetops and slate rooftops of Washington City as if gauging the limits of a cage in which he was held, the deferential young congressman asked, “Do I mistake in supposing your view of the matter to be not unlike mine, which is that in this Republic there are many able and ambitious men, among whom Mr. Clay might be included, who would not disgrace the first cabinet post?”
“Our views of the matter have some correspondence, Mr. Búchanan. Mr. Clay has considerable ability and is second to none in the ambition department. Was this the question you proposed to ask? If so, it seems unworthy of its long preamble.”
Thus challenged and stung, Buchanan lunged, so to speak, at the exposed chest of the matter. “Senator, my question is merely this: Have you ever intimated the intention ascribed to you, that is, to continue Mr. Adams as Secretary of State? If it could be contradicted, under your authority, by you expressly or by one of your confidential friends, that you have already selected your chief competitor for the highest office within your gift, then I have reason to believe that the presidential contest can be settled within an hour.” The obstinate fool, Buchanan thought, the Presidency was his for a nod.
I TOOK DICKINSON’S SHOT SQUARE IN THE CHEST AND THEN I AIMED.”
The general, feeling his turn had come to speak, pulled himself erect, so that Buchanan had to twitch his head to keep his revered companion’s face in focus. Their stroll halted beneath a scabby-trunked sycamore, near a bench of weathered slats where a negro in threadbare blue field clothes had fallen, with the aid of rum, into an oblivious doze, cold as was this, the penultimate, day of the year. “I have not the least objection, Mr. Búchanan, to answering your question. I think well of Mr. Adams. He stood by me when the Indian-lovers would have had my hide for cleaning out the damnable Seminoles. But I have never intimated that I would, or would not, appoint him my Secretary of State.” A fury of righteousness now stiffened Jackson’s slender frame, as if there were an audience beyond his lone auditor, a ghostly vast audience stretching to the frontiers of the Republic. His talk became rhetorical, biblical. “There are secrets I keep to myself,” he said, the ever-latent fury of the man finding sudden vent. “I will conceal them from the very hairs of my head! If I believed that my right hand knew what the left would do on the subject of appointments, I would cut it off and cast it into the fire! In politics as in all else, Mr. Búchanan, my guide is principle alone. If I am elected President, it shall be without intrigue and solicitation. I shall enter office perfectly free and untrammeled, at liberty to fill the offices of government with the men I believe to be the ablest and best in the country!”
Buchanan could hardly suppress a sigh of disgust, at such peculiar and high-flown hypocrisy, such madly inspired ignorance of negotiation. He made a bow. “Your answer is such a one as I had exoected to receive. I have not sought to obtain it, sir, for my own satisfaction; may I ask, am I at liberty to repeat your response to others?” For with only a little shift, Jackson’s declaration that he had not decided to appoint Adams might be made to declare that he had decided not to appoint him. Still, Clay’s men would want more, slightly more, so slightly much more that a twist of a word might close the breach, and the young congressman’s mission could be accounted an unqualified success.