Read 1824: The Arkansas War Online

Authors: Eric Flint

Tags: #Fiction

1824: The Arkansas War (37 page)

The president shrugged. “It’s impossible, for any republic that lasts for more than a few decades, to avoid the occasional Alcibiades winning the favor of the populace for a time. That matters little, so long as the republic does not come to see Alcibiades as a man of principle.”

He waved his hand at the window, through which nothing could be seen except the reflection of the chamber’s own light. “Let Clay enjoy—if that’s the term—his four years of triumph. I think he’ll find it turns sour on him, soon enough. Even faster—if men of principle stand their ground—will he find the nation’s favor turning sour also. It’s one thing to gain office by pandering to prejudice, unreason, and blind fury. Quite another, to guide a nation based on them. The first can be done, yes. The second, not at all.”

CHAPTER 24

Washington, D.C.

N
OVEMBER 8, 1824

 

Fortunately, Jackson was still awake. Adams had hesitated disturbing the senator so late at night. But he’d feared the consequences of waiting till the morrow. Far too easy, even for a Puritan, to find that morning’s glow sapped resolve. Some things were best done in the middle of the night, not for the sake of its secrecy but simply because darkness had no false auras. Mornings were always treacherous times, with their ever-returning promise.

“My apologies for the hour, Senator,” he began, as soon as a black servant ushered him into the salon where Jackson was waiting for him. “It’s just—”

“Not at all, Mr. Secretary.” Jackson was standing in the middle of the room, his posture that familiar ramrod one. But it was simply erect, not stiff at all. He was smiling broadly and seemed inclined to be as gracious as he could often manage, sometimes to everyone’s surprise.

“Some cordials, perhaps?”

“No, thank you, I…” Adams peered at the row of bottled spirits on a cabinet against the wall. He waged a regular battle with himself to maintain temperate habits, and when he did drink he preferred wine, not whiskey.

Then again, new times.

“Well, perhaps a small whiskey.”

“Of course.” The servant headed for the cabinet, but Jackson waved him off. “I’ll manage it, Pompey, thank you. You may retire for the evening.”

After the servant was gone and the whiskey poured, Jackson waved Adams to the divan. “Please, have a seat.” As Adams did so, Jackson perched himself on a nearby chair.

There was no point delaying it. If a man was to fall on his sword, it was best to do it quickly and firmly.

“Senator Jackson, I have come to inform you that I shall be urging those who are supporting me for the presidency to vote for you instead.”

There. It was done. No way to retract anything now. Not even the meanest scoundrel in America could do that. And Adams had always allowed, whatever else, that he was very far from that. A sinner, yes; a scoundrel, no. Certainly not a mean one.

Jackson’s eyes widened. Slowly, he set his untouched whiskey down on a low table next to the chair.

“Well. I will be dam—ah. Well. Tarnation, sir!”

At least he hadn’t completed the blasphemy. Adams’s gloom lightened a bit.

“Tarnation,” Jackson repeated. “That comes as quite a surprise. I wouldn’t have thought…”

He paused, his bright blue eyes peering at Adams intently. “It was the speech, wasn’t it?”

“To a degree, yes. The murder that came before it, perhaps as much.”

The famous blue glare entered Jackson’s eyes. “Yes, that too. I’ll see that man hanged if I do nothing else in my life. Be sure of it, sir. If the laws allowed, I’d have him drawn and quartered first.”

Adams wouldn’t flinch from that, either. “I must, however, tell you that while I admired the speech itself—greatly, in fact—I took considerable exception to the ending. I felt that was most unfortunate. Uncalled for.”

For an instant, the fury fell on Adams. But only for an instant. The blue eyes simply became blue, a color like any other. Jackson even smiled a bit. Even ruefully.

“Well. I’m not sure I’d agree that it was uncalled for. But, ah, perhaps unfortunate.”

The smile returned, now with more humor in it. “For sure and certain, all my friends have been berating me for it since, I can tell you that! Still…”

He shrugged and took a first sip of the whiskey. “What’s done is done, and I’m not a man given to fretting over the past.”

No, that he wasn’t, for good or ill. And Adams would also allow that, in these times, that was probably to the good. For the most part, at least.

Suddenly Jackson chuckled. “You do understand, I trust, that you just made a promise you might not be able to keep.”

Adams frowned. “Excuse me, sir.” Stiffly: “I can assure you—”

“It doesn’t matter what
you
assure me, Mr. Secretary. The people of the republic decide who’ll be the president, not you or me. What if you win an outright majority in the electoral college? How could you possibly, then, hand the office to me as if it belonged to you? When, in fact, it belongs to no man in the country, not even the one who currently occupies the office. It is the sole and exclusive property of the nation itself. Its electorate, at any rate.”

Adams stared at him. He’d…

Simply not considered the possibility.

“That’s quite unlikely,” he protested, knowing full well that wasn’t Jackson’s point.

Jackson just stared at him. Adams cleared his throat.

“Well. I suppose I couldn’t. Given that eventuality.”

“No, of course you couldn’t. Nor could I accept.”

Now, Jackson was smiling very broadly. “I’m not needling you, Mr. Secretary. And I agree it’s unlikely that any of us will win an outright majority, given the political divisions in the party. I simply wanted to make sure that we understood each other.”

Adams finally took a sip of his own drink. It was very good whiskey. The liquor was not to Adams’s particular liking, true. But…

Very good whiskey, indeed.

“Agreed,” he said abruptly. “But I will do so if the election is thrown into the House. That I
can
assure you, Senator Jackson.”

“Call me Andy, if you would. All my friends do.”

Trying not to be stiff—well, stiffer than necessary—Adams shook his head. “We’re not actually friends, Senator Jackson. And being honest, I rather doubt we ever will be.”

Jackson’s cordial smile didn’t fade in the least. “Probably not, though much stranger things have happened. But I’d still prefer it if you’d call me Andy. Consider it a matter of personal preference, if it pleases you.”

Adams thought about it. Reciprocation would be necessary, of course.

It really was very good whiskey. He took another sip.

“Very well. Andy. And please call me John.”

“Right!” Jackson set his whiskey glass down. Then, actually slapped his hands together. “Oh, Lor—ah, whatever. Am I going to enjoy gutting that bastard Clay!”

“I have to tell you, Sen—ah, Andy—that I actually doubt we can now stop the Speaker from being elected to the presidency.”

Now Jackson was
rubbing
his hands together.

“Oh, sure. My estimate is we’ve got almost no chance if it gets thrown into the House. Not after that speech I gave yesterday. Coffee and Eaton tell me I’ll do well if I can hang on to the Tennessee delegation. Pennsylvania, they think remains certain. I probably had a chance to win over some of Crawford’s and Calhoun’s support, but not now. On the other hand—here’s an interesting thing—I might still be able to take Kentucky from the bastard.”

That
was
interesting. Assuming the assessment of Jackson’s advisers was accurate. But Adams knew they were a very shrewd lot, Westerners or not.

“Yeah, it seems Kentucky’s not all that pleased with Henry Clay, be it his home state or not. Kentucky’s a border state, still more Western than Southern. Like Tennessee, really. Nobody’s at all happy at the idea of black men killing a lot of white men, sure, no matter who the white men were or what they were up to. But they haven’t forgotten that it was Henry Clay—not Patrick Driscol, not Sam Houston, and sure as Sam Hill not some negro in Arkansas—who spent his two-year retirement from the House getting rich by serving as the Bank’s main lawyer, suing people going bankrupt, and stripping every last thing from them.”

Jackson picked up his glass and took a big swallow from it. “No, that was done by good old ‘man-of-the-people’ Henry Clay. Who now proposes to start a war using poor white men to kill poor black men so he can spend four years swindling the nation on behalf of the rich and mighty.”

Adams couldn’t help but wince. That was exactly the sort of plebeianistic, class-against-class rhetoric that made Jackson and his followers so disliked in his own New England.

Well. Not disliked by New England
laborers,
to be sure. Actually, Jackson was quite popular among such folk.

Seeing the wince, Jackson grinned. “Relax, John. I promise you I won’t be calling for storming the Bastille. Which we don’t have in America, anyway, being a republic.” He pointed a stiff finger at him. “But I’m not whitewashing anything, either. That’s exactly what the bastard is planning on.”

Adams cocked his head a little, considering the matter. “Yes…and no. I agree that his rhetoric all implies that Clay, if elected president, will launch a war against Arkansas. But the truth is, Andy, I don’t think he will. Don’t forget that the core of his support—certainly his financial support—comes at least as much from Northern…ah…”

He couldn’t help but laugh, softly. “What I believe you would call the moneyed interests.”

Jackson laughed with him. “Oh, tarnation, no. That’s
way
too namby-pamby. Bloodsucking leeches comes closer. But to keep peace in the room, I’ll settle for ‘Northern upper crust.’ How’s that?”

Adams nodded. “That’s why he’s got a fair amount of backing even in New England. None of those people—certainly not the ones close to the Bank—are going to be interested in a war with Arkansas. If anything, they’ll be inclined to oppose it.”

Jackson finished the rest of his whiskey in a quick gulp. After setting down the glass, he shook his head. “You’re right, John, as far it goes. But that doesn’t go far enough. This is
still
a republic, despite all the efforts of Nicholas Biddle and the rest of that pack of Bank scoundrels to undermine it. Money counts, sure, but it’s not the trump card. Not yet, anyway—and not ever, if I get into the White House.”

Adams tightened his lips. He himself wasn’t fond of Nicholas Biddle, the head of the Second Bank, but he agreed with President Madison—and Henry Clay—that a national bank of some sort was important for the nation’s economic well-being. However, that was a battle with Jackson that could be postponed for the moment. The Bank’s charter ran until 1836, after all. Even if Jackson got elected to the presidency, he couldn’t do much about it.

“The point being,” Jackson continued, “that if Clay’s to win the presidency now, he doesn’t have any choice but to throw in his lot with Crawford and Calhoun. Not with you throwing your support to me, in the House.”

That…was true. Adams realized that he’d been so preoccupied with the personal aspect of his decision to withdraw from the race that he hadn’t considered what tactical results would follow in the political arena. If the election was thrown into the House, with his supporters giving their votes to Jackson…

He drew in a breath so sharply it was almost a hiss. “Oh, good heavens.”

Jackson nodded. “ ‘Good heavens,’ is right, John—except I wouldn’t put the word ‘heaven’ in there at all. There’s only one way Clay could win. He’d have to get Calhoun’s full support and almost all of Crawford’s.”

“I don’t think he can get all,” Adams mused. “Van Buren and his people are supporting Crawford because of his extreme states’ rights views. They’re New Yorkers, not Southerners. They’ll have no liking for a war with Arkansas.”

“No, they won’t. But the problem is that Van Buren—they don’t call him the Little Magician for nothing—is sometimes too smart for his own good. Might be better to say, he’s so good at political tactics that he tends to lose sight of their purpose. He’s likely to figure that Clay’s war talk is just hot air. Campaign blather, that’ll vanish like the dew after the inaugural address.”

The senator rose, went over to the cabinet, and unstoppered the whiskey bottle. “Would you care for another?” he asked as he began refilling his own glass.

Adams looked down at his whiskey. There wasn’t much left.

It really was very good whiskey. On the other hand, he reminded himself, he was prone to intemperance if he didn’t maintain good self-control.

What decided him was an oddity. He was starting to
enjoy
this conversation.

“Yes, please.”

The glasses refilled and Jackson back in his chair, the senator resumed. “What it all comes down to is that Clay is going to have to throw his lot in with Calhoun and Crawford. Lock, stock, and barrel. And you can be damn sure that Calhoun is going to insist on a war. In fact—watch and see if I’m not right—he’ll insist on the post of secretary of war for himself, so he can make sure it gets done.”

Adams sipped his whiskey thoughtfully. “Yes, I can see that. Clay will offer the position of secretary of state to Crawford, of course. That would position Crawford to succeed him in the White House, four or eight years from now.”

“In Crawford’s medical condition,” Jackson said mildly, “he couldn’t handle the work. No one knows that better than you.”

Adams sniffed. “No, he couldn’t. Frankly, I don’t think he could even on his best days. But it doesn’t matter, Andy. All the better from Clay’s point of view, since the Speaker—”

Oh, blast it.
He’d thrown in his lot with frontier roughnecks, after all, so why not at least enjoy the benefits?

“Since the rotten bastard fancies himself a great diplomat, he’ll just figure on managing the State Department personally.”

Jackson grinned. “Still sore over the Russell letter, huh?”

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