- 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
But the breach resisted being closed. The general had mounted his figurative high horse, there in the lacy shade of the bare branches, next to the comatose negro, who would reap pneumonia for his repose. “Indeed you may, Mr. Búchanan,” the general said, in a twanging voice as remorseless as the cut of a pit saw on the downward drag. “You may tell Mr. Clay and his friends that before I reach the presidential chair by means of bargain and corruption I would see the earth open and swallow us all! Why, the Kentucky legislature has already instructed Clay to throw his support to me, and he has made them no response! He is defying them while he finagles! If winning half again as much of the popular vote as my nearest opponent is not enough to secure me victory, then the House will stand exposed as a nest of corruption, and those who profit by its corruption shall face public disgrace.”
Buchanan repeated his bow, this second time suppressing a smile. This grim lean bully wanted them all to squirm. “I understand you, sir. I thank you for your patience and frankness. Good day; duties await us both on Capitol Hill.”
The glittering eye, perhaps seeing the impolitic smile, softened, and Jackson gestured, as they reversed directions and resumed their walk, for the heavier, younger man, also tall, to draw closer. His voice, becoming confidential, put on a thicker backwoods accent. “B’twixt oursel’s, Búchanan. Ye have a future ahead, unless ye waffle it away. The straight path is always the high road. Them that travel the byways of compromise is the ones that get lost.” This allusion to Clay, whose masterful engineering of the Missouri Compromise had won him the glorious title of “the great pacificator,” was a warning Buchanan could inwardly dismiss, knowing the enmity the speaker carried against Clay for the Kentuckian’s objections to the Tennessean’s pre-emptory invasion of Florida in 1819; the operation had been equally ruthless toward Spaniard, Britisher, and Seminole, and only Quincy Adams’s stout defense, in his capacity as Secretary of State, had saved Jackson from congressional censure. West bore no love for West. The general now, as this morning’s walk proceeded toward its termination through the motley sights of the new nation’s ambitious and ramshackle capital, touched the area of, beneath his bulky greatcoat, his slender breast. “In here,” he confided, “I carry Charles Dickinson’s bullet, so close to my heart the surgeons feared to cut it out. I took his shot square in the chest and then I aimed. The villain couldn’t believe his eyes; they had to hold him to the mark. He folded his arms across his chest, so I shot him down below, in the parts of his manhood. He groaned for days before he died: serve the snide fop right, for impugning my Rachel’s honor. More savages and scoundrels have been dispatched by my hand than could be housed in Gadsby’s Hotel. A father’s protection I never knew; two weeks after I came into the world he lifted a log so heavy his insides burst. He was a laboring man from Ireland, back there in the Waxhaws.”
Buchanan reflected upon his own father, a man from Ireland who also died violently, a scant three years before, of striking his head on the iron tire when his carriage horse bolted. Violent ends were as common in the New World as in the Bible.
“Myself,” his suddenly fatherly companion continued, “I should be dead ten times over. As a lad of thirteen I took my first wound; running messages for the Revolution, my brother Rob and me were caught and held prisoner. A swine of a British officer slashed his saber at my skull—see this scar?—when I declined to clean the hog shit from his boots. Then they marched us forty miles to prison with open wounds. In the filth there we caught the smallpox. My sainted mother came and begged her boys’ release and walked us home to the Waxhaws through a hurricane; my brother died of it. My other brother, Hugh, had already met his maker, courtesy of King George Three. Within the year another plague took off my mother; she had gone to Charleston to nurse two cousins on a prison ship of the infernal British. They tossed her body like a dog’s into an unmarked grave, and sent me her clothes in a bundle. I have been alone ever since.”
They were approaching an intersection where they might gracefully part, but Jackson, sensing Buchanan’s wish to be elsewhere, gripped the younger man’s upper arm and steered him further alons the avenue, toward the then red, unporticoed presidential mansion where James Monroe was sitting out in a stolid whiskey stupor the last months of his decaying Era of Good Feeling.
“Alone,” the senator pursued, “and never real well, young man. When in Nashville it came into my head to take a horsewhip to the Benton brothers, one of their bullets broke my shoulder like a china cup; but I pulled a pistol on the doctor when the rogue unsheathed his knife to amputate this arm. I crushed the British at New Orleans still bleeding from the wounds the Bentons gave me; I routed the Creeks and Seminoles so consumed with bowel complaint my fever fried the leather of the saddle. I’ve been there, Mr. Búchanan, and out the other side. You’re still on this side, and that makes a man gingerly. When I was a youngster in the Congress, as you are now, I didn’t go around tiptoeing on errands for the likes of Henry Clay; 1 stood right up on my own hind legs and in a big voice voted nay to a farewell tribute for that sanctimonious old mule General George Washington. Soft on redcoats and redskins, he was, and fancied himself a king besides, and I hated him for it.”