An extraordinary new historical novel begins with the great political scandal of the 1970s, then visits the great political scandal of the 1820s
Despite its title, Memories of the Ford Administration, John Updike’s forthcoming novel is equally about two administrations—Gerald Ford’s and James Buchanan’s. The link between their dissimilar epochs is Alfred L. Clayton, Ph.D., a professor of history at Wayward Junior College in southern New Hampshire and a member of the Northern New England Association of American Historians. The book opens with a memo he is writing—in fact, it’s the entire text of that memo—“Re: Requested Memories and Impressions of the Presidential Administration of Gerald R. Ford (1974-77), for Written Symposium on Same to be Published in NNEAAH’s Triquarterly Journal, Retrospect.”
The memo begins with Clayton telling of sitting alone with his children watching Nixon resign. His wife is out on a date; the family has been pulled apart by the historical tides of their particular era as surely as the nation was by those of the 1850s. Later, the children in bed, his wife comes in and chides him for not speaking with them about the impending divorce. The first of two excerpts that follow picks up here, with Clayton venting his deep fondness toward Buchanan. In the second, Clayton takes his man out for a daunting stroll with General Jackson, and his accompanying notes to the Retrospect editors succinctly limn the “bargain and sale” scandal that simmered throughout John Quincy Adams’s unhappy administration.
Having brought me to the point where I wanted to crawl up the stairs and awaken my children and beg their forgiveness, she glanced down at the cracked and oft-glued arm of the chair that I had vacated and idly asked, “What were you reading?”
I had left a book splayed on the arm. It was Slavery Defended: The Views of the Old South, edited by Eric L. McKitrick. “An anthology of pro-slavery views before the Civil War,” I explained. “Some of the arguments are quite ingenious, and compassionate. The slaveholders weren’t all bad.”
“Slaveholders never think so,” she said. I felt in this a feminist edge, newly sharpened by my bad and typically male behavior. She softened it with, “Is this still about Buchanan?”
For the last ten years of our life together I had been trying in my spare time and vacations to write some kind of biographical—historical/psychological, lyrical/elegiacal, the sort of thing Jonathan Spence does with the Chinese—opus on James Buchanan, the fifteenth President of the United States. New Hampshire’s own, Franklin Pierce, had been the fourteenth, but his ambassador to England and then his successor in the presidential hot seat, had caught the corner of my eye. The only bachelor President, the most elderly up to Eisenhower, the last President to wear a stock, and the last of the doughface accommodators, before the North-South war swept accommodation away. A big fellow, six feet tall, with mismatching eyes, a tilt to his head, and a stiffish courtliness that won my heart. He projected a certain vaporous largeness, the largeness of ambivalence, where Pierce had the narrowing New England mind, gloomy as an old flint arrowhead. Buchanan’s mind—people complained he couldn’t make it up, and I liked that. There is a civilized heroism to indecision—“the best lack all conviction,” et cetera. He and his niece Harriet Lane ran the spiffiest White House since Dolley Madison’s, and I liked that too. I felt lighter when I thought about him. The old gent was so gallant, there in the thundering shade of the Civil War. You know how it is, fellow historians—you look for a little patch not trod too hard by other footsteps, where maybe you can grow a few sweet peas. My efforts, never ending as research led to more research, and even more research led back to forgetfulness and definitive awareness that historical truth is forever elusive, had begun at about the time we had decided, after Daphne’s wide-eyed arrival on earth, that for their sake and ours we had had enough children. This was a wise decision, but also a pity, for Norma and I had a natural flair for producing children, our sperm and ova clicked even while our libidos slid right past one another, and the busy-work of pregnancy, birth, nursing, and training toddlers gave us the shared sensation of being an ongoing concern.
“Still,” I had to admit. My attempt at extending our family to the extent of a bouncing book had proved painfully slow and thus far futile. Perhaps Buchanan was the cause of our break-up: I hoped that a change of life might shake free the dilatory, feebly kicking old fetus I had been carrying within me for a decade.
“Maybe you should give up and try somebody else,” the Queen of Disorder wickedly, if diffidently, suggested. “He’s too dreary.”
“He’s not dreary,” I monogamously insisted. “I love him.”
Somehow—I knew it would—this stung her; her cheeks showed some pink in the room’s sickly, tasseled lamplight. Her blush made her eyes seem greener. In her hurt she sipped the glinting vermouth. I felt sorry for her, and minutely repentant.
“You missed Nixon’s resigning,” I told her.
“We heard some of it on the car radio.”
[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.”
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.
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.
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; I 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.”
Buchanan, whose mother used to put him to bed with pious stories of Washington’s glorious deeds, took in breath to make a courteous protestation, but thought better of it. This other man’s force was like that of a river which frothingly redoubles its fury wherever a rock would pose an obstacle. By choice, we Americans are not the enjoined and harmonized servants of a king who is God’s earthly appointee but instead form a contention of free wills and selfish interests, set loose in a wilderness to survive or fail. General Jackson, out of some compassionate or edificatory impulse, was trying to urge upon his deferential inquisitor a guiding philosophy.
“Young man,” he said, a wheeze beginning to declare a certain weariness, “ye mistake where the power in this country lies. It’s not in the wits of the politicians, and never was in such a set of weasel holes. Mark my words: Any bargain Clay and Adams strike’ll be the ruin of ‘em both. When ye’ve passed through to the other side as I have, and slaked yer appetite for hollow flattery from those around ye, ye’ll know where the power lies in God’s own country: it lies in the passions of the people.” With the vigorous arm once marked for amputation he thumped not his breast but lower down along the lapels of his greatcoat, toward the softer part of his abdomen. “It lies in their guts. They can smell ye out, false or true. With the people in yer belly, ye can do no wrong. Otherwise, wriggle as ye will, ye can do no right. Take your stand on principle, Mr. Búchanan, and never fear to make yerself enemies.”
Seeing the senator at last decided to leave him, Buchanan bowed, and ventured a pleasantry. “I shall not so fear, General Jackson, as long as you are never counted among them.”
[But, as we historians know, in 1826, even as Buchanan in weasel fashion was attempting to slip the inconvenient Federalist label, under which he had won his fourth term in Congress, and to create in Pennsylvania a so-called Amalgamation party of Federalist German farmers from the east and Scots-Irish frontiersmen from the west, all firmly pro-Jackson, the “bargain and sale” controversy tainting Adams’s Presidency mounted to include that open-air conversation with Jackson nearly two years earlier. Buchanan received in October a letter from Duff Green, John Calhoun’s campaign manager, bristling with friendly menace: The part taken by you on the occasion referred to, is known to me; and a due regard to your feelings has heretofore restrained me from using your name before the public. The time, however, is now approaching when it will become the duty of every man to do all in his power to expose the bargain which placed the Coalition in power. Will you, upon the receipt of this, write to me and explain the causes which induced you to see Genl. Jackson upon the subject of the vote of Mr. Clay & his friends a few days before it was known that they had conclusively determined to vote for Mr. Adams; also advise me of the manner in which you would prefer that subject to be brought before the people. The people! Buchanan took four days to frame a circumspect reply, fending off this inimical ploy by the pro-Calhoun, anti-Clay, and anti-Jackson forces, which in his own state were centered in the “Family” party, of rich and interrelated eastern Pennsylvanians, who in their correspondence spoke vindictively of Mr. Buchanan, who has for some years past been fond of being considered a Democrat in the liberality of his principles, whilst he desired the support of the federalists as their Magnus Apollo, and who dreaded the possible day when Mr. Buchanan would have “bestridden our narrow world like a Colossus” with the patronage and power of Pennsylvania at his feet . His reply to Green invoked the people: I must therefore protest against bringing that conversation before the people, through the medium of the Telegraph or any other Newspaper. The facts are before the world that Mr. Clay & his particular friends made Mr. Adams President, & that Mr. Adams immediately thereafter made Mr. Clay Secretary of State. The people will draw their own inferences from such conduct & from the circumstances connected with it. They will judge the cause from the effects. But the issue of his conversation as an aspect of the “bargain and sale” kept surfacing. The following year, Jackson himself stated, in a public letter to Carter Beverly of Virginia, that a congressman had sought to make a corrupt bargain with him in Clay’s behalf. He did not name the congressman, but soon must, as Samuel Ingham of the Family party gloatingly wrote to Buchanan in July of 1827: Shd Clay demand of Genl Jackson his author he will have no alternative, nor could he have had from the first....You will therefore be joined into the battle under a fire,—but I see no difficulty in the case if you take your ground well and maintain it boldly. This was irony, no doubt, since Buchanan was not known for boldness and from his point of view the case presented nothing but difficulty. His alternatives appeared to be confessing involvement in a bargain attempt or calling General Jackson a liar. A week after Ingham’s letter Jackson was writing Buchanan, saying, I have no doubt when properly called on you will come forth & affirm the statement made to Major Eaton*, then to Mr. Kreamer [sic]† & then to me, & give the names of the friends of Mr. Clay who made it to you. Less than a month later Jackson named Buchanan as the propositioning congressman in an address in Cincinnati, and Buchanan on the eighth of August composed for the Lancaster Journal a detailed account of his conversation that morning of December 30, 1824, upon which my own account above is largely based, save for the general’s descant upon his life and philosophy, which is my invention. In that curious way of fiction and reality, it came to life as nothing in the reported conversation did, save possibly Jackson’s sudden claim that these were secrets he would keep to himself—he would conceal them from the very hairs of his head; that if he believed his right hand then knew what his left would do on the subject of appointments to office, he would cut it off, and cast it into the fire. This leaps out with an unreal force, as vehement beyond the needs of the occasion. Composing history is like packing a suitcase with objects that persist in overflowing, or underfilling, the space. Buchanan ventured to contradict the General only very mildly: I do not recollect that General Jackson told me I might repeat his answer to Mr. Clay and his friends; though I should be sorry to say he did not. The whole conversation being upon a public street, it might have escaped my observation. His critical statement was: I called upon General Jackson, upon the occasion which I have mentioned, solely as his friend, upon my individual responsibility, and not as the agent of Mr. Clay or any other person. His letter to the editor continued, I have never been the political friend of Mr. Clay, since he became a candidate for the office of President, as you very well know. Jackson, accustomed to having soldiers risk death at his command, seems oblivious of the fact that to bear him out Buchanan would have to incriminate himself as a conspirator with the Clay forces. Contemporaries remarked variously upon the contretemps. It places Jackson in a most awkward predicament , said a letter received by President Adams. But what surprises me more than anything else is the situation in which the general places his friend....Buchanan is ruined if anything can ruin a man who is a partisan in party times. William Rawle of Philadelphia confided to his diary that Jackson appears to great disadvantage unless we discard all that is asserted by Buchanan. Henry Clay avowed vindication. Buchanan vented his own irritation to Ingham: You will have seen General Jackson ‘s letter to the Public in which he has given up my name. It will at once strike you to be a most extraordinary production so far as I am concerned. But his pacificator’s temper strives for control: I have not suffered my feelings to get the better of my judgment but have stated the truth in a calm & temperate manner. If General Jackson and our editors should act with discretion the storm may blow over without injury.
[It appeared to. In 1828 Buchanan, running as a Jackson Democrat, won his fifth term in Congress, and Jackson swept Adams aside in the presidential election.]
† George Kremer, congressman from Pennsylvania and Ingham satellite, whose letter to the Columbian Observer of Philadelphia the January after Buchanan’s interview with Jackson claimed that Clay had offered to vote for whoever would give him the State Department; Clay’s challenge to a duel was retracted after it was rumored that Kremer proposed to duel with squirrel rifles. Jackson’s reference here assumes that Kremer’s basis was a conversation with Buchanan describing the epochal interview of December 30th.