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Quincy Adams stood impassive—the object of malice, of jealousy, of envy, of respect, and perhaps sometimes even of love.
He was that most unfortunate personage, an accidental President-one chosen not by a majority or even a plurality of popular or electoral votes, but only by the process reluctantly employed in case these votes yield no choice. The popular feeling of the nation, by a plurality at least, had demanded the military favorite, Jackson; and through the four years of Adams's respectable but rather colorless administration it still persisted in this demand. The grave, undemonstrative President, not rewarding his friends, if indeed he had friends, had little chance against the popular favorite; his faults hindered him; his very virtues hindered him; and though he was not, like his father, defeated squarely on a clear political issue, he was defeated still. With him we leave behind the trained statesmen-Presidents of the early period, and pass to the untrained, untamed, vigorous personality of Andrew Jackson.
R. VON HOLST, one of the most philosophic of
historians, when he passes from the period of John Quincy Adams to that of his successor, is reluctantly compelled to leave the realm of pure history for that of biography, and to entitle a chapter “The Reign of Andrew Jackson." This change of treatment could, indeed, hardly be helped. Under Adams all was impersonal, methodical, a government of laws and not of men. With an individuality quite as strong as that of Jackson-as the whole nation learned ere his life ended--it had yet been the training of his earlier career to suppress himself and be simply a perfect official. His policy aided the vast progress of the nation, but won for him no credit by the process. Men saw with wonder the westward march of an expanding people, but forgot to notice the sedate, passionless, orderly administration that held the door open and kept the peace for all. In studying the time of Adams, we think of the nation; in observing that of Jackson, we think of Jackson himself. In him we see the first popular favorite of a people now well out of leading-strings, and particularly bent on going alone. By so much as he differed from Adams, by so much the nation liked him better. His conquests had been those of war-always more dazzling than those of peace; his temperament was of fire--always more attractive than one of marble. He was helped by what he had done and by what he had not done. Even his absence of diplomatic training was almost counted for a virtue, because all this training was then necessarily European, and the demand had arisen for a purely American product.
It had been quite essential to the self-respect of the new republic, at the outset, that it should have at its head men who had as diplomatists coped with European statesmen and not been discomfited. This was the case with each of the early successors of Washington, and in view of Washington's manifest superiority this advantage had not been needed. Perhaps it was in a different way a sign of self-respect that the new republic should at last turn from this tradition and take boldly from the ranks a strong and ill-trained leader, to whom all European precedent-and, indeed, all other precedent-counted for nothing. In Jackson, moreover, there first appeared upon our national stage the since familiar figure of the self-made man. Other Presidents had sprung from a modest origin, but nobody had made an especial point of it. Nobody had urged Washington for office because he had been a surveyor's assistant; nobody had voted for Adams merely because stately old ladies designated him as "that cobbler's son." But when Jackson came into office the people had just had almost a surfeit of regular training in their Chief Magistrates. There was a certain zest in the thought of a change, and the nation had it.
It must be remembered that Jackson was in many ways far above the successive modern imitators who have posed in his image. He was narrow, ignorant, violent, unreasonable; he punished his enemies and rewarded his friends. But he was, on the other hand -and his worst opponents hardly denied it-honest, truthful, and sincere. It was not commonly charged upon him that he enriched himself at the public expense, or that he deliberately invented falsehoods. And as he was for a time more bitterly hated than any one who ever occupied his high office, we may be very sure that these things would have been charged on him, had it been possible. In this respect the contrast was enormous between Jackson and his imitators, and it explains his prolonged influence. He never was found out or exposed before the world, because there was nothing to detect or unveil; his merits and demerits were as visible as his long, narrow, firmly set features, or as the old military stock that encircled his neck. There he was, always fully revealed; everybody could see him; the people might take him or leave him—and they never left him.
Moreover, there was, after the eight years of Monroe and the four years of Adams, an immense popular demand for something piquant and even amusing, and this quality men always found in Jackson. There was nothing in the least melodramatic about him; he never posed or attitudinized-it would have required too much patience; but he was always piquant. There was formerly a good deal of discussion as to who wrote the once famous “ Jack Downing” letters, but we might almost say that they wrote themselves. Nobody was ever less of a humorist than Andrew Jackson, and it was therefore the more essential that he should be the cause of humor in others. It was simply inevitable that during his progresses through the country there should be some amusing shadow evoked, some Yankee parody of the man, such as came from two or three quarters under the name of Jack Downing. The various records of Monroe's famous tours are as tame as the speeches which these expeditions brought forth, and John Quincy Adams never made any popular demonstrations to chronicle; but wherever Jackson went there went the other Jack, the crude first-fruits of what is now known through the world as “American humor." Jack Downing was Mark Twain and Hosea Biglow and Artemus Ward in one. The impetuous President enraged many and delighted many, but it is something to know that under him a serious people first found that it knew how to laugh.
The very extreme, the perfectly needless extreme, of political foreboding that marked the advent of Jackson furnished a background of lurid solemnity for all this light comedy. Samuel Breck records in his diary that he conversed with Daniel Webster in Philadelphia, March 24, 1827, upon the prospects of the government. “Sir," said Webster, “if General Jackson is elected, the government of our country will be overthrown; the judiciary will be destroyed; Mr. Justice Johnson will be made Chief-justice in the room of Mr. Marshall, who must soon retire, and then in half an hour Mr. Justice Washington and Mr. Justice Story will resign. A majority will be left with Mr. Johnson, and every constitutional decision hitherto made will be reversed.” As a matter of fact, none of these results followed. Mr. Justice Johnson never became Chief-justice; Mr. Marshall retained that office till his death in 1835; Story and Washington also died in office; the judiciary was not overthrown or the government destroyed. But the very ecstasy of these