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From the files of the Grand Inquisitor
(For background on the Grand Inquisitor, see here.)
Grand Inquisitor. Your name, for the record?
Andrew Jackson. Andrew Jackson
GI. I see you are wearing a military uniform.
AJ. I was a general of the Tennessee militia and of the United States army. I defended my state and country against its enemies. Against people like you.
GI. You misunderstand me, sir.
AJ. The devil I do!
GI. Or perhaps you don’t misunderstand. But today you are defending yourself.
AJ. I don’t have to defend myself to you or anyone.
GI. Nor did you have to come today. But you did come.
AJ. I don’t like aspersions cast upon my good name.
GI. I see.
AJ. I was attacked my whole life by people like you—smug sons of bitches who looked down on anyone not born into money or their old families.
GI. Was that what caused you to kill Charles Dickinson?
AJ. Dickinson was a liar and a poltroon.
GI. Yet the ranks of such persons are many. Why Dickinson?
AJ. He insulted my wife.
GI. You were sensitive about her honor.
AJ. As any man would be about his wife.
GI. But there was a topic that caused you particular distress.
AJ. My enemies called her an adulterer and a bigamist.
GI. Why was that?
AJ. Because they were scoundrels and had no sense of decency.
GI. And because they knew there had been some question as to the legality of your marriage to her.
AJ. The only question was whether the villain to whom she found herself chained had done what he had said he was going to do, and released her from his vile grasp.
GI. You two began cohabiting before the divorce was completed.
AJ. We did not cohabit. We were married.
GI. The law took a different view.
AJ. The law be damned! In the eyes of God we were married.
GI. Nonetheless you two repeated your vows.
AJ. To satisfy those busybodies who had nothing better to do than intrude on the lives of a man and the woman he loved. I didn’t like the idea, for it suggested we’d done something wrong. We had not!
GI. But you did repeat your vows.
AJ. Only to silence the gossips.
GI. They didn’t stay silenced.
AJ. They did after Charles Dickinson went to his grave.
GI. Perhaps you’re aware you’re the only person to become president of the United States who killed a man in cold blood.
AJ. The country would have been better off if others had been equally jealous of their honor. My constituents didn’t mind. They seemed to agree that scoundrels deserve what they get. They twice awarded me the highest gift at their disposal. They would have bestowed it a third time if not for my respect for the precedent established by General Washington.
GI. You were called the “People's President.”
AJ. With good reason. I was the first to become chief magistrate by the pleasure of the people rather than the politicians. I was a man of the people, born poor and raised in the hard school of experience. The people considered me one of their own.
GI. And you drew a great many people into government with you.
AJ (scowling). If you refer to our practice of rotation in office, I’ll not dispute it.
GI. One of your own supporters called it the spoils system.
AJ. Call it what you will, it was nothing more than a recognition of the fact that in a democracy, government belongs to the people, not to incumbent officeholders. Many postmasters and customs collectors had lived on the public purse for decades. Some presumed to hand their offices to their sons as a bequest. We took a different approach. We turned out the most egregious of the monopolists of office.
GI. And replaced them with your own supporters.
AJ. Naturally. The people voted for me and my principles, and so they deserved to have those principles effected by people loyal to me.
GI. One of those principles was removal of the Indians from their ancestral lands.
AJ. Removal of some Indians.
GI. The Cherokees, for example.
AJ. The Cherokees were but one tribe. And the Cherokees were not of a single mind on the subject. Some understood the impossibility of fifteen thousand Cherokees holding off a million surrounding whites. The practical ones looked at the course of history over the previous two centuries and saw that the tribes that had stood in the path of America’s expansion had been destroyed. Missionaries and other sob-sisters might wring their hands at this, but it was the way of the world. Life is a struggle. The Cherokees knew this. They had wrested their lands from previous occupants. And now what they had done was being done to them.
GI. Yet the Cherokee adopted the ways of whites. They learned to read and write. They sought refuge in the courts.
AJ. But they did not submit to the laws of their state, Georgia. They insisted on living as a separate nation within the state. We gave them a choice: You can stay where you are, unmolested, if you accept the laws of the state, like all other residents of the state. But if you refuse to abide by the laws of the place where you live—if you insist on tribal government—then you must leave. We will give you land in the federal territories, and we will assist in your removal. That was more than the Cherokees had done to those they defeated and displaced.
GI. Justice Marshall did not accept your reasoning.
AJ. John Marshall and I disagreed on several issues. He was a relic of earlier times, the last of the discredited Federalists. The country had moved on.
GI. And you denied his authority.
AJ. I did not deny his authority over the federal courts. He was the chief justice. But he had no authority over the executive. I took an oath to defend the Constitution as I understood it, not as John Marshall understood it. I didn’t presume to dictate to him, and I refused to let him dictate to me. My view was hardly idiosyncratic. Henry Clay and John Calhoun—may they rot in hell—held a similar view, regarding the prerogatives of Congress against the courts.
GI. Did you actually say the words attributed to you: “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it”?
AJ. I don’t remember putting it precisely that way. But I didn’t deny having said it, for it accurately reflected my view. John Marshall and I were not on speaking terms, so I can only speculate, but I have to think he knew his decision would fall stillborn. I was on record against it. A majority of Congress—the majority that voted for the Removal Act—was against it. Where would enforcement have come from? There weren’t enough troops in the army. The Georgia militia? They were the very ones who wanted the Indians removed.
GI. Do you regret the way things turned out?
AJ. You’re referring, I suppose, to the difficult march the Cherokees finally made to the Indian Territory.
GI. What they called the Trail of Tears.
AJ. I regret the loss of life among their women and children. But the blame lay with their chiefs, John Ross in particular. The realistic Cherokees had already gone west, and the Indians who went with them were spared the worst of the journey. But John Ross and the holdout chiefs made hostages of their own people. They knew they would have to move eventually, but political bickering amongst them delayed the departure until the worst season, when, unprepared, their people suffered the consequences of a winter march. If you seek a villain in this piece, look not to me; look to John Ross.
GI. You are blaming the Cherokees for their own destruction?
AJ. In the first place, they weren’t destroyed. Once reconciled to the inevitable, they made good homes for themselves in the Indian Territory. They thrived as few other tribes did. In doing so they proved the truth of what I had said about their being able to hold on to their customs only once they’d gotten out of the way of the whites. I knew what they were up against in Georgia. Those Georgia people were my people, descended from Ulstermen, used to fighting for everything they hoped for in life. You’ve heard the saying about us Scotch-Irish, that we keep the Sabbath and anything else we lay hands on. Had the Cherokees remained in Georgia, they would have been annihilated. They got out of the way just in time. And yes, the delay that cost those lives on the trail?— that was the fault of their arrogant leaders, who put their own advantage over the care of their women and children. Who was John Ross, anyway? Of his eight great-grandparents, only one was Indian. He led them to the disaster that was blamed on me. The man they should have listened to—Major Ridge—was murdered by Ross’s men. The Chickasaw and the Choctaw were more wisely led; their chiefs faced facts sooner, and their migration was much easier.
GI. On your deathbed you were asked what you would do differently could you live again.
AJ (smiling grimly). Yes, I would hang John Calhoun and shoot Henry Clay.
GI. Killing Charles Dickinson wasn’t enough.
AJ. John Calhoun was a traitor. While he was vice president, in my administration, he plotted the destruction of the Union.
GI. Over a tariff.
AJ. The tariff was a pretext. Calhoun discovered he couldn’t be president of the United States, so he wanted to create a country he could be president of.
GI. By leading South Carolina out of the Union.
AJ. And any states that might have been foolish enough to follow.
GI. You prevented that.
AJ. Yes, by making clear that disunion was treason, and that I would personally hang anyone involved in such criminal behavior. Calhoun wasn’t so brave after that.
GI. Was it your threat, or Henry Clay’s compromise on the tariff?
AJ. I concede that Congress had to come along, and Clay was the leader of Congress. But he was out for his own good, not that of the country.
GI. For this you wanted to shoot him?
AJ. For opposing the will of the people. Henry Clay was the one who engineered my defeat in 1824, when I was the obvious favorite of the people. He threw the House of Representatives to Quincy Adams, and in return received the office of secretary of state. A clearer case of corruption never existed.
GI. Yet you won in 1828, not Adams or Clay.
AJ. The people saw through their perfidy.
GI. Still Clay opposed you.
AJ. Opposed me! He insulted me at every chance, calling me a “military chieftain” and saying I would corrupt the government. I should have demanded satisfaction at that point, and resorted to dueling pistols.
GI. You had a different kind of revenge.
AJ. Yes, I defeated him in 1832, when he made the mistake of siding with Nicholas Biddle and the moneyed interests against me and the people. He and Biddle didn’t think I’d dare veto the renewal of the charter of the Bank of the United States. But I did, and I won.
GI. And what was the price of victory? The financial panic of 1837.
AJ. Are you suggesting that was my fault? You of all people should know that greed never sleeps. The speculators who bid up the price of land forced the government to restrain their enthusiasm. The panic was an unfortunate byproduct.
GI. Many people suffered.
AJ. Life can be hard. Life is a struggle.