Authors: Eric Flint
Sam saw that Johnson was eyeing him a bit warily. “You seen the general lately?”
Sam shook his head. “Haven’t seen him in nigh-on seven months, Dick.” Since there was no point in letting Johnson fret on that score, when there were so many others he did need to fret about, Sam added hurriedly, “But I can assure you that the sentiments he expressed concerning you were just as warm as ever.”
That was true, after all. Even if some of those “warm sentiments” had run along the lines of
I can’t believe he’d treat a nigger like she was an actual wife!
It wasn’t that Andy Jackson didn’t share each and every one of the common prejudices of his day. He most certainly did—and then some, often enough. It was just that in his own rough-hewn way, the general could often look past those things to see what really mattered to him.
Poor white men mattered to Andy Jackson. Not too many other people did, but
did, for sure and certain. So, if one of their undoubted political champions chose to behave badly in some aspects of his personal life, Jackson would look the other way. And if the proper folk complained, they could take their complaints to Sam Hill and see what satisfaction they’d get in those very warm quarters.
“Just as warm as ever,” Sam repeated forcibly. “My word on it.”
Johnson’s grunt combined relief with satisfaction. “Well, they ought to be,” the senator stated, as if to reassure himself. “Henry Clay makes a fortune suing people on behalf of land speculators and the Second Bank of the United States, and I go broke from waiving the fees for defending them.”
That was also true…as far as it went. Johnson was indeed famous as one of the few well-connected lawyers in Kentucky that a poor man or his widow could go to for legal assistance without being charged. Unfortunately, it was only part of the truth.
There were a lot of reasons Richard Mentor Johnson was always on the verge of being broke. His personal generosity ranked on that list, yes—and pretty high up on it. But not as high as his casual attitude toward bookkeeping, his inability to say “no” to just about every speculative scheme that came his way, and his predilection toward seeing only a blur instead of a line between his personal finances and those of the public. Not to mention his indulgence toward his brothers, who were separated by only a knife’s edge from being outright thieves.
Sam liked Richard M. Johnson a very great deal. He’d never met a man who didn’t, no matter what their attitudes on such subjects as race, whom he didn’t think was a swine. But there was just no getting around the fact that, as often as not, both he and the general—not to mention the president of the United States—would like to take Johnson by the scruff of the neck and give him a real down-home shaking. Or thrash him outright, for that matter.
Some of his aggravation must have shown, for Julia hastily spoke up.
“Please come in, Sam. Something to drink? I’ve fresh-brewed some tea.”
Sam was about to agree when Johnson broke in. “Tea for Sam Houston? Don’t be silly, Julia. Sam’ll have some whiskey. I’ll join him myself.”
The senator passed through the door into the house. Sam felt his resolve crumbling. A slug of whiskey
sound good—and it would relax him for what was coming.
As Sam made to follow Johnson, Julia placed a hand on his arm.
“How much trouble is he in, Sam?” she asked quietly.
Houston shrugged uncomfortably. “Well…Nobody’s talking about arresting him or anything like that, Julia. But…”
“But nobody’s going to advance him any more money, neither.”
“No. Not a chance.” That wasn’t quite true, but close enough for the moment.
She nodded and released his arm. “Thank you. I’ll join you in a while.”
The restraint their mother’s admonition had placed on the girls finally broke.
“Can we come in, too?” Adaline demanded.
“We want to talk with Sam!” her twin added.
“Hush, girls! Sam and your father need some private time.” Julia shooed them away. “You can talk to him all you want over dinner.”
It took three slugs before Sam was finally ready. Johnson seemed to sense it, because he didn’t prod Sam at all until the third slug had settled in his belly. Then, sighing, he set his own half-full tumbler on the small table next to the divan and planted his hands on his knees.
“So tell me, Sam. It’s bad news, I’m sure.”
“The president refuses to authorize any more funds to cover the losses from the Yellowstone expedition, on the recommendation of the secretary of the treasury.”
“William H. Crawford,” Johnson stated, making the simple name sound like a curse.
“I don’t like him, either,” Sam said. “But it doesn’t matter. Even if the secretary and the president proposed it, there’d be an uproar in Congress. Financially speaking, the Yellowstone expedition was a disaster.” Sam raised his hand to forestall Johnson’s protest. “Dick, I know most of your constituents still think the expedition was a good idea, to keep the peace on the frontier. But most of the country considers the whole thing a boondoggle.”
And probably a crooked one, to boot. Half-crooked, for sure.
But he left that unsaid.
Johnson didn’t pursue the matter any further, not to Sam’s surprise. The Yellowstone expedition and the debts it had saddled the senator with dated back several years now. Not quite ancient history, but ground that had now been trodden over several times. He hadn’t really had any hopes of getting any relief there.
Instead, he moved to the subject that was much more pressing. “And the Choctaw Academy I want to set up?”
Julia Chinn came into the room at that moment, giving Sam a little breathing space. After she’d taken a seat on the divan next to the senator, Sam tried to present it as positively as possible. “Do you know Gerrit Smith?”
“That young New York fellow? Rich as Croesus, they say. Something of a philanthropist, I also heard.”
“That’s the one.”
Johnson’s eyes widened. “He’s offered to back me?”
There was no way around it. “Not exactly, Dick. He’s willing to pay the debts you’ve accumulated for it and take the Academy off your hands.”
May as well give it all to him, at one swallow.
“And he won’t set it up here, and he won’t call it the Choctaw Academy. He wants to establish it in New Antrim. And he wants to turn it into a school—maybe later a college, attached to it—that’s open to children from all races. Whites, any tribe of Indians—and negroes. He thinks that’s an experiment that’ll work. If it’s done in the Arkansas part of the Confederacy.”
Johnson was just gaping at him. Sam took a deep breath and finished. “He’s even got a schoolmaster lined up. Fellow name of Beriah Green. Also a New Yorker.”
Also an abolitionist,
he could have added, but didn’t. Whatever Johnson’s relationship to Julia Chinn, the man was also a major slave-owner, with all the attitudes toward abolition that that entailed. If that seemed contradictory…
Well, it was. But it was a contradictory matter that Sam knew backwards and forwards. He’d owned slaves himself for years, despite having had reservations about slavery even as a teenager. By now, at the age of thirty, those misgivings had turned into a genuine detestation for the institution.
Sam had owned only a few slaves at any one time, true—sometimes not more than one. And he didn’t depend on their labor for his sustenance the way Johnson did. Mostly, he maintained his status as a slave-owner simply out of ambition. Sam still had hopes for a political career after Monroe left office and Sam lost—as he almost certainly would—his position as special commissioner on Indian affairs. That career would have to be in the South somewhere, probably his native state of Tennessee. Sam was already notorious enough among many influential circles in that area. Owning slaves served to keep that notoriety within limits. A southern gentleman was expected to own slaves, and so he did.
Sam didn’t have the same pecuniary attachment to slaveholding that a great landowner like the Kentucky senator did. Still and all, he understood the contradiction. Better than he wished he did, even leaving aside the caustic comments that his friend Patrick Driscol made whenever he visited the Confederacy.
Johnson finally found his voice. A blasphemous one, too. “I’ll be damned if I will!”
“You’ll be damned if you don’t,” Julia hissed. She leaned over and laced her fingers together. “Exactly how much of our debts will this New York fellow assume, Sam?” she asked.
Good news, finally. “Every penny, Julia. Dick, you hear that?
he’ll assume the financial burden of any further lawsuits arising from the—ah—”
How to put it?
Julia did it for him. “None-too-detailed nature of the books.” She gave her more-or-less-husband a sharp glance. “Such as they are.”
Johnson flushed. “Hey, look…”
“Dick, the school would have lost you money anyway,” Sam said forcibly. “
lose you money, even before you had a chance to open the doors. So be done with it. At least this way, you walk out free and clear. You have enough other debts to worry about.”
Johnson just stared at him. Julia took advantage of the silence to speak again.
“One condition, Sam. This New York rich man has to agree to it, or we won’t.”
She looked through the open window. Outside, the sound of girls playing in the yard carried easily. “Imogene and Adaline get to attend the school. All expenses paid. If we decide to send them.”
Sam couldn’t help but laugh. “Well,
won’t be a problem. Mr. Smith asked me to pass on to you that he’d especially like your children to attend. And he offered to pay for it himself. That’s because—ah—”
To Sam’s relief, that stirred up Johnson’s combative instincts. “Because they’re famous,” he growled. Again, he blasphemed. “God damn all rich men.”
The senator’s curse could have been leveled on himself and his New York benefactor, of course, as much as on the southern gentry who vilified him.
We are sinners all,
Sam thought to himself. It was a rueful thought, as it so often was for him these days.
The senator looked to Julia, now. “Are you sure about that, dearest? I don’t like the idea of our kids being that far away.”
Her face got tight. “You know any other school will take them, outside of New England—where they’d be just as far away? And even if there was one…”
She took a deep breath. When she spoke again, her voice started rising.
“What happens if you
Dick Johnson? It don’t matter what you think. By law, those two daughters you spoil so badly are your slaves.”
“I freed you!” he protested.
“Not till after the girls were born,” came her immediate rejoinder. “Richard Mentor Johnson, how in the world can a lawyer like you be that deaf, dumb, and blind?”
It was a good question—and the wide-open mouth of the senator made it perfectly clear that he’d never even thought about it. By Kentucky law, as well as the law in any slave state, a child born to a slave inherited the legal status of the mother, not the father. That was in complete opposition to the standard way of figuring birth status as usually applied to white people. But the South’s gentry had made sure and certain that their frequent dalliances with slave women wouldn’t produce any legally and financially awkward children.
As foul a breed of men as ever lived,
was Patrick Driscol’s assessment of southern slave-owners. Sam felt the categorization was far too harsh, as was so often true of Patrick’s attitudes. But he didn’t deny there was more than a grain of truth to it. Slavery corrupted the master as much as it degraded the slave. If there was any true and certain law of nature, there it was.
“Long as you’re alive,” Julia continued, “we don’t got to worry none. But if you pass on, the girls are just part of your estate. And you got debts. Lots and lots of debts. You think your creditors will pass them over?”
“I’ll free them, too, then. Tomorrow!”
She shrugged. “Good. But you trust judges way more than I do. With all those creditors circling like vultures, won’t surprise me at all to find some judge will say the manumission was invalid.”
The next words were spoken very coldly. “They’ll be pretty, real pretty, give ’em another three or four years. But they inherited my color, too—enough of it, anyway—along with my looks. They’ll fetch a nice price from some slave whorehouse somewhere. Your ghost can watch it happen.”
“It’s not unheard of, Dick,” Sam said.
The senator was back to gaping. Again, obviously, never even having considered the matter. The man’s blindness could be truly astonishing at times. The same blindness that led him into one financial disaster after another. Not so much because Richard Mentor Johnson was dishonest or rapacious as because it never seemed to occur to him that friends and relatives and acquaintances of his might be.
One of the house slave women came into the room. “Dinner’s ready, Miz Julia.”
One black woman addressing another as if she were a white mistress. The world had a lot more crazy angles in it than most people wanted to admit. Much less allow.
Imogene and Adaline were on their best behavior at dinner. That might have been because of Sam’s presence, but he didn’t think so. It was more likely because their mother had drummed it into them over the years. Dinner at a great house like Blue Spring Farm was rarely a small and private family affair. And so the girls of the family would act proper, they would, or they’d suffer the consequences.
The dinner table seemed as long as a small ship, with tall and stately candlesticks serving for masts and sails. Johnson at one end; Julia, presiding over the meal, facing him at the other. With, in two long rows down the side, well over a dozen other people in addition to Sam and the children. Disabled war veterans or their widows, for the most part. But there was also one of nearby Lexington’s prominent lawyers, and one of the local plantation owners.
Sam wasn’t surprised to see them there. Not all of the South’s well-to-do disliked Johnson. Many admired him. That was true, starting with the president of the United States himself, James Monroe, who came from Virginia gentry. As always, in Sam’s experience—contrary to Patrick Driscol’s tendency to label people in sharp and definite categories—attitudes and habits blurred at the edges. Blurred so far, often enough, that no boundary was to be seen at all.
Fine for Patrick—the “Laird of Arkansas,” in truth, even if no one used the term to his face—to sit up there in the mountains and divide the world and its morals into black and white. Sam lived down here in a world of grays and browns, just about everywhere he looked. And…being honest, he was more comfortable in that world. He had plenty of gray in his own soul, as young as he might be, and he’d always thought brown to be the warmest color of all.
“Clay’s going to make a run for it,” the plantation owner predicted. “In fact, he’s already started.”
The lawyer sitting across from him laughed sarcastically. “What else is new? Henry Clay was dreaming about the presidency while he was still in his mother’s womb. More ambitious than Sam Hill, he is.”
Johnson smiled into his whiskey tumbler. So did Sam. It was the same smile, half derisive and half philosophical. The difference was simply that the senator’s tumbler was half full and Sam’s was…
Empty, now that he looked into it. How had that happened?
“Don’t make light of it, Jack,” cautioned the lawyer. “I’m thinking he’s got a very good chance at getting what he wants. With Monroe gone after next year, who else does it leave? Beyond Quincy Adams and the general, of course—and they’ve both got handicaps.”
“Andy Jackson’s the most popular man in America!” the senator stoutly proclaimed.
The lawyer, blessed with the name of Cicero Jones, gave him a look that might have graced the face of the ancient Roman statesman after whom he’d been named—just before he fell beneath the swords of the Second Triumvirate.
“Maybe so, Dick. But…”
For an instant, Jones’s glance flicked toward Sam. Then he looked down at his plate. “But not as much as he used to be,” he concluded glumly.