April 25, 1824
“Houston must have known.” The president turned his head away from the window, presenting his profile to the other two men. The expression on his face was not condemnatory so much as simply pensive. “Must have known for several years, in fact. Am I right, Winfield?”
The tall, handsome general in one of the chairs in Monroe’s office shifted his position. Only slightly, of course. The very fancy uniform he favored didn’t lend itself well to extravagant movement while he was seated.
“Oh, certainly,” General Scott replied. “Driscol’s been building another Line of Torres Vedras in those mountains. The original took Wellington over a year to build—and he had the population of Lisbon to draw on. Even with all the negroes who have migrated to Arkansas the past few years, Driscol doesn’t begin to have that large a labor force. And the Cherokees and Creeks are useless for that sort of work, of course. For the most part, at least.”
The secretary of state, the third man in the room, cleared his throat. “Perhaps . . .” John Quincy Adams pursed his lips. “The work stretched out over that long a period of time . . .”
President Monroe shook his head. “I thank you, John, but let’s not be foolish. Sam Houston?”
He chuckled. “I remind you that my son-in-law is the same man who, at the age of sixteen, crossed sixty miles of Tennessee wilderness after running away from home. Then he lived among the Cherokee for several years, even being adopted into one of their clans. He could find his way through any woods or mountains in Creation.”
The president’s tone of voice grew somber. “Even drunk, as he so often is these days.”
Monroe finally turned away from the window. “No, let’s not be foolish. He spends as much time in the Confederacy as he does here at home, since the treaty was signed. There is no chance that Sam Houston failed to see what his friend Patrick Driscol was doing. Nor, given his military experience, that he didn’t understand what he was seeing.”
As he resumed his seat at his desk, Monroe nodded toward Scott. “It didn’t take Winfield here more than a few days to figure it out, when he visited the area. And—meaning no offense—Winfield’s not half the woodsman Houston is.”
The general’s notorious vanity seemed to be on vacation that day. His own chuckle was a hearty thing. “Not a tenth, say better! I’ve traveled with Houston a time or two. But it didn’t matter on this occasion. Patrick provided me with a Cherokee escort, who served as my guides. He made no attempt to keep me from seeing what he had wrought in those mountains. Quite the contrary, I assure you. He wants us to know.”
A bit warily, Scott studied the president. John Quincy Adams didn’t wonder as to the reason. James Monroe was normally the most affable and courteous of men, but they were treading on very delicate ground here. That most treacherous and shifting ground of all, where political and personal affairs intersected.
Sam Houston’s marriage to James Monroe’s younger daughter Maria Hester in 1819, following one of the young nation’s most famous whirlwind courtships, had added a great deal of flavor and spice to an administration that was otherwise principally noted for such unromantic traits as efficiency and political skill. The girl had only been seventeen at the time. The famous Hero of the Capitol—still young, too, being only twenty-six himself, and as handsome and well spoken as ever—receiving the hand in marriage of the very attractive daughter of the country’s chief executive. What could better satisfy the smug assurance of a new republic that it basked in the favor of the Almighty?
It hadn’t been all show, either. Very little of it, in fact. Allowing for his constant absences as the administration’s special commissioner for Indian affairs, Houston had proved to be something of a model husband. He treated Maria Hester exceedingly well; she, in turn, doted on the man. And, thankfully, Houston’s notorious womanizing had vanished entirely after his marriage. There’d been not a trace of scandal, thereafter.
His steadily worsening affection for whiskey, which had become a growing concern for the president, was something that Houston kept away from his wife. However much whiskey he guzzled in the nation’s taverns—that, too, had become something of a legend—he did not do the same at home. He drank little, as a rule, in his wife’s presence; was invariably a cheerful rather than a nasty drunk, on the few occasions when he did; and quit altogether after his son was born.
Even Houston’s stubborn insistence on naming the child Andrew Jackson Houston hadn’t caused much in the way of family tension. Monroe had made no formal objection of any kind, whatever he might have said in private. In any event, the president was far too shrewd a politician not to use the occasion to defuse the tensions with Jackson that had begun to build. As political tensions always did around Jackson, the man being what he was.
So, despite Houston’s faults—and which man had no faults? Adams asked himself; certainly not he—the president liked his son-in-law. So did John Quincy Adams, for that matter, and he was not a man given to many personal likings.
Adams glanced at the general sitting in the chair next to him. So, for that matter, did Winfield Scott. At least, once he’d realized that Houston’s resignation from the army and subsequent preoccupation with Indian affairs meant that he was no longer a rival in the military.
Yes, everybody liked Sam Houston. You could not have found a man in the United States who would tell you otherwise. Until they finally discovered that, beneath the good-looking and boyishly cheerful exterior, there lurked the brain and the heart of a Machiavellian monster.
A few months after his marriage, all of Houston’s scheming and deal-making had come to fruition later that year with the Treaty of Oothcaloga.
The Confederacy of the Arkansas had been born that day. At first, the great migration of the Cherokees and the Creeks that followed had been hailed across the nation as a stroke of political genius on the part of the Monroe administration. By none more loudly than Andrew Jackson, of course, who had by then solidified his position as the champion of the western settlers. But even Calhoun had grudgingly indicated his approval.
For that one brief moment in time, the so-called Era of Good Feelings had seemed established for eternity. But, in hindsight, it had only been the crest of a wave. On January 13, 1820—almost five years to the day after he and his Iron Battalion had broken the British at the Battle of the Mississippi—Patrick Driscol and those same black artillerymen routed the Louisiana militia in what had since come to be called the Battle of Algiers. The four years that followed had been a steadily darkening political nightmare.
Houston was blamed for that, too, nowadays, by many people. His diplomacy had defused the crisis, long enough to allow Driscol and his followers to leave New Orleans and migrate to the new Confederacy. So, a full-scale war had been averted.
But John Calhoun had never forgiven the Monroe administration for the settlement Houston engineered, and Monroe’s approval of it. Servile insurrections should be crushed and their survivors mercilessly scourged, he argued, not allowed to flee unscathed—and never mind that the “servile insurrection” had actually been the work of freedmen defending their legal rights against local overlords.
To John Calhoun and his followers, a nigger was a nigger. Rightless by nature, legalistic twaddles be damned. The black race was fit only to hew wood and draw water for those who were their superiors.
A few months after the Algiers Incident, Calhoun resigned his post as secretary of war in order to run for senator from South Carolina. He won the election, very handily, and had been a thorn in the side of the administration since. It had been Calhoun who led the charge in Congress to pass the Freedmen Exclusion Act, which would have required all freedmen to leave the United States within a year of manumission. Monroe had vetoed the bill on the obvious ground that it was a gross violation of states’ rights, whereupon Calhoun had given his open support to freedmen exclusion legislation passed by various states and municipalities, and his tacit blessing to more savage and informal methods of exclusion.
A duel had almost resulted, then, when Sam Houston publicly labeled him—Adams could not but smile, whenever he thought of the brash youngster’s handy way with words—“a tsarist, a terror-monger, and a toad. Nay, say better—a toadstool. A toad can at least hop about. Calhoun is a fungus on the nation’s flank.”
“What are you so cheerful about, John?” demanded Monroe.
Delicate ground, indeed. Adams stifled the smile.
“Ah, nothing, Mr. President. Just a stray thought that happened to cross my mind.”
The look Monroe gave him was exceedingly skeptical. “Stray thought” and “John Quincy Adams” were not phrases that could often be found together. Anywhere within shouting distance, in fact. Disliked as he might be in many quarters, no one thought Adams’ brain was given to loose functioning—and he was generally considered the best-read man in America.
But Monroe let it drop. Instead, he turned his gaze to Scott.
“What’s your military assessment, General?”
Scott shrugged. “The fortifications that Driscol’s built in the Ozarks and the Ouachitas pose no threat to the United States, Mr. President. They’re purely defensive works, and too far—much too far—from the Mississippi to pose any threat to our commerce.”
Monroe nodded. “Yes, I understand that.” Perhaps a bit acerbically: “I have some military experience myself, you may recall. What I meant was—let’s be frank, shall we?—what threat do they pose to our army in the event the United States goes to war with the Confederacy? Or, to put it more bluntly still, if we invade Arkansas?”
Scott looked out the window for a moment. “Assuming Driscol’s in command? Which, of course, he would be, if he’s still alive when—if—that time comes.” He paused for another moment. “Let me put it this way, Mr. President. Were you, or anyone, to ask me to command such an expedition, I would strongly—very strongly—urge that an alternative route of attack be chosen.”
“What alternative route, Winfield?” Adams demanded. It was not so much a question as a statement—and a caustically posed one, at that. If the president was known for his affable manners, the secretary of state was not.
Adams heaved himself out of his chair and went to another window than the one Monroe had been looking out earlier. The same window, in fact, that had been the focus of Scott’s examination. That window allowed a view to the west.
Once there, Adams stabbed a finger at the land beyond. “Attacking the Confederacy from the south means marching through Texas. That means a war with Mexico, and probably Spain. An unprovoked war with Mexico—and no one except southern slave-owners would accept the premises for such a war as a provocation suitable for a casus belli—runs the risk of embroiling the European powers. The last thing we need. Not even Jackson would support that, as much as he hates the Dons.”
He shifted his finger slightly to the north and jabbed it again. “The only other alternative is coming at the Confederacy from the north. That would be diplomatically feasible, but as a military proposition . . .”
He shifted his gaze back into the room, to land on Scott. “You’re the expert, Winfield. What’s your opinion?”
The general grimaced. “The logistics would be a nightmare. You’d have to move the troops down the Ohio to the juncture with the Mississippi. Then—”
“Passing by free states as you went, each and every one of which will be opposed to the expedition,” Monroe injected. “They have no quarrel with the Confederacy. Rather the opposite, since many of them are happy to be getting rid of their own freedmen—and without the Confederacy, they can’t.”
Scott’s grimace had never quite left his face, and now it returned with a vengeance. “Yes, I understand that, Mr. President. You’d have to bivouac on the south bank of the Ohio and resupply in Kentucky ports.”
The president wasn’t about to let up. “I remind you that Richard Johnson keeps getting reelected by the citizens of Kentucky, General. What’s he likely to say about that?”
“He’d pitch a fit,” Adams agreed. “There’s not only the matter of his personal attitudes to be considered, either. Senator from Kentucky or not, living openly with a black woman or not, don’t forget he’s also the darling of the northeast workingmen—and they’re even happier with the freedmen exclusion laws than Calhoun is. Except, not being slave-owners, they don’t care a fig about the problem of runaway slaves. Let the darkies escape to Arkansas, and good riddance—and for sure and certain, don’t expect them to support a war to get them back. Much less volunteer to fight in it.”
“I wasn’t advocating such an expedition, Mr. President, Secretary of State. Personally, I think it’d be sheer folly. But you asked my military opinion, and I’m simply trying to give it to you.”
“Of course, General.” Monroe’s courtesy was back in full force. “Neither I nor the secretary meant any of our—ah, perhaps impatient view of the matter—to be inflicted upon you.”
“Yes,” Adams grunted. “My apologies, Winfield. I didn’t mean to suggest you were a party to Calhoun’s madness. Please continue.”
Scott nodded. “It would help a great deal, Mr. President, if I had a map to work from. Is there one at hand?”
“I can have one brought, certainly.” The president began to rise, but Adams waved him down. “Please! The proprieties must be maintained. The best maps are in my office, anyway. I’ll get one for us. Just the trans-Mississippi region, Winfield?”
“Yes, that should do.”
Adams was at the door to the president’s office. “This will take a moment. There’s no point sending a servant. He’ll just waste time not finding it and then waste still more time trying to think up an excuse.”
It was said rather sarcastically. Adams said many things rather sarcastically. It was a habit his wife chided him about. As did a veritable legion of other people, including Adams himself. He tried to restrain the habit, but . . .
Alas. John Quincy Adams had many virtues. Even he would allow that to be true, as relentlessly self-critical as he was. But “suffering fools gladly” was not and never would be one of them.
Still, he thought God would forgive him that sin when the time came. As sins went, it was rather a small one, after all. Even Jesus, if you studied the New Testament from the proper angle, suffered from it to a degree.
From the Hardcover edition.