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Faces From The Past-V

July 2024
3min read

“My lamp is nearly burned out,” he admitted, “and the last glimmer has come.” For the past two years not a day had passed when he was free of pain; one lung was gone, the other diseased; he was tormented alternately by dropsy and diarrhea, racked by chills and fever. He sat quietly in the armchair, saving himself, a wasted figure in an old-fashioned, snuff-colored coat with high stiff collar. Beside him were his Bible, a hymnal, and writing materials: too poor to hire a secretary, and almost blind, he nevertheless did what he could to answer the flood of correspondence he received. The hand of death was on him, and each day the procession of visitors increased—people who came to say farewell and to look into the old warrior’s face for the last time. The king of France sent the popular artist Healy to paint his portrait before it was too late; photographers came to take daguerreotypes.

Little remained now but the iron will—that and the memories. Occasionally a remark by an old friend would set his mind to roaming back and forth across the years, and once again he would be Andy Jackson, nine years old and “public reader” in the Waxhaws of South Carolina. Clustered about him were thirty or more neighbors, listening gravely while the shrill voice proclaimed the news from Philadelphia: “In Congress, July 4, 1776. The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America. When, in the course of human events …”

Always there had been people around him. On the day that ended the “reign” of “King Andrew,” after Mr. Van Buren had delivered his inaugural address, the ex-President descended the steps of the Capitol. And as he did a roar burst from the huge crowd, a roar of affection and gratitude and admiration such as few men have been privileged to hear. Hallway down the great steps General Jackson uncovered and bowed, and the cheers died away. Two days later the people of Washington turned out again, this time to bid him good-by. They lined the streets, overflowed the railroad depot, and spread out across the tracks, wailing silently at every vantage point that offered a glimpse of him. Andrew Jackson stood on the rear platform, his white mane blowing in the breeze, and the hushed crowd that watched the train chuffing out of sight felt, one man said, “as if a bright star had gone out of the sky.”

Sometimes now, sitting alone in his bedroom, watching the dawn come, the dying man remembered how the fog had lifted from a field of cane stubble below New Orleans and how, through the patches, he had seen the scarlet-coated regulars heading across the frosty ground, crossbelts ghostly white in the morning light, thousands of bayonets weaving and bobbing as they moved relentlessly and unwittingly toward the point where he had massed his reserve. They were only five hundred yards distant when his cannon opened on them, three hundred yards away and running forward when his riflemen fired, and of five thousand men, just twenty reached his lines. When the American guns were silent, the General looked out across the cane field again and saw five hundred British getting to their feet from the heaps of dead comrades, the quick rising up all over the plain to come forward as prisoners. It looked, he recalled, like the day of resurrection, and it was his proudest hour. Forty years earlier he had learned to hate the British; before he was fourteen the War for Independence cost him his mother and two brothers, and an English officer’s sword scarred him for life. Alone in the world, he made up his mind that everyone who was not for him was against him.

Daniel Webster once said, “He does what he thinks is right, and does it with all his might,” and the old man would not argue with that. There had been some good men up against him—Clay, Calhoun, Nicholas Biddle, Webster himself—and he had beaten them all. When he left the White House he had but two regrets, he told a friend: He had not been able to shoot Henry Clay or hang John C. Calhoun. It was not enough for a man to be right; he had to be tough—you learned that fighting Indians and Englishmen. He remembered how he got the nickname: he and his Tennesseeans were on the march, hacking a road through swamps, building bridges as they went, and a lot of his boys were sick and hungry. While he walked up and down the length of the long column, encouraging them, seeing that they had rations, looking after them, one soldier had stared after him and said admiringly, “He’s tough.” "Tough as hickory,” added another, and the name had stuck.

And Old Hickory became the spokesman for the frontier—partly because the frontier badly needed one just then, but also because the frontier wanted toughness and honesty and directness in its leaders and because Andrew Jackson feared no man. Once when he and the Bentons were feuding, Tom and Jesse Benton arrived in Nashville wearing pistols: Jackson walked into town with a riding whip and went looking for them. Once again he challenged Charles Dickinson, one of the best shots in Tennessee, to a duel, and even after Dickinson put a bullet next to his heart he stood there, slowly took aim, and shot his opponent down. “I should have hit him,” he said, “if he had shot me through the brain.” Thirty-nine years later Dickinson’s bullet was still in his chest; the pistol that killed Dickinson still lay on the mantel of Jackson’s bedroom. In his will he left a sword to his nephew, asking, characteristically, “that he fail not to use it when necessary in support and protection of our glorious Union.”

Long after he died, someone asked Alfred, one of his slaves, if he thought his master would get into Heaven on Judgment Day. Alfred knew his man. “If Gen’l Jackson takes it into his head to git to Heaven,” he said, “who’s gwine to keep him out?”

Richard M. Ketchum

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