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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
[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.