Sunday, August 10, 2008
Defending honor, whether it exists or notI wasn't going to post much about the latest story of love affairs among the prominent and powerful. Then I realized there was a definite Jacksonian connection here. So I can't resist.
That would be the famous case of Peggy Eaton, wife of Old Hickory's first Secretary of War, John Eaton. Peggy was a young widow who was known to be outspoken and not always in awe of expected social customs of Washington society ladies. This gave rise to rumors that she was a woman of loose morals. Jackson himself thought the rumors were scurrilous and encouraged Eaton to marry her, between Jackson's election in 1828 and his Inauguration. This was also a bit unconventional. The expectation at the time was that a widow would wait a full 12 months from the death of her husband to remarry, and that time period hadn't quite passed.
So there was a big brouhaha during Jackson first couple of years in office over Peggy Eaton. The other Cabinet wives didn't want to associate with her and there were various tensions in the Cabinet over it. This was all compounded by Secretary of State Martin Van Buren's use of the flap to discredit Vice President John Calhoun in Jackson's eyes, Calhoun being aligned with the anti-Peggy group.
This whole thing really ticked off Old Hickory. For one thing, his political enemies had tried to smear him and his wife Rachel, who died after the 1828 election but before his Inauguration, during his Presidential campaign. The "hook" was some obscure technical question about the validity of Andrew's and Rachel's marriage in Mississippi Territory. It was a frivolous accusation, since they had done another ceremony soon afterward the first to make sure there was no question about the legal status of the marriage.
Jackson did not subscribe to the present-day Democratic consultants' favored theory of responding to such sleaze-slinging by having the candidate "stay above the fray" and let the other side slime you until you lose.
So he didn't leave any doubt that he thought the people using that tale were dirty scoundrels, rotten polecats and generally the lowest form of slimy snakes that crawled on the face of the earth. And he wasn't pretending, either. He really did think that. And when Rachel died, his was convinced her mortification at being the object of such attacks was one of the causes. At the reception after her funeral, he told his assembled guests:
I can forgive all who have wronged me, but will have fervently to pray that I may have grace to enable me to forget or forgive any enemy who has ever maligned that blessed one who is now safe from all suffering sorrow, whom they tried to put to shame for my sake!The tablet that he prepared for her grave at their Tennessee home, the Heritage, where he is now buried beside her, read in part, "A being so gentle and so virtuous, slander might wound but could not dishonour".
Jackson's biographer Robert Remini quotes what one of Jackson's last living former slaves used to tell people when he led tours of the Hermitage and came to their bedroom: "This is de picture of Miss Rachel. Every morning de general would kneel before it and tell his God that he thank him to spare his life one more night to look on de face of his love."
So for a variety of reasons, Jackson defended Peggy Eaton - who was a fighter herself who demanded that he defend her - and put a great deal of effort into documenting the falsehood of accusations against her. William Faulkner caught the broader cultural significance of this in Requiem for a Nun (1951). The narrator is describing the naming of the Mississippi capital city, whose namesake was Andrew Jackson. (Not Stonewall Jackson, you silly Yankees!) This Hinds to whom he refers here was one of the commissioners who had laid out the plans to turn a trading post called Le Fleur's Bluff into a capital city; Faulkner points out that the earlier name is now "called and spelled 'Leflore'." And he writes:
And [they] named the city after the other old hero, hero Hinds' brother-in-arms on beaten British and Seminole fields and presently to be President - the old duellist, the brawling lean fierce mangy durable old lion who set the well-being of the Nation above the White House, and the health of his new political party above either, and above them all set, not his wife's honor, but the principle that honor must be defended whether it was or not since, defended, it was, whether or not; ...Going back to the sleaze-slinging against him and Rachel in the 1828 Presidential campaign, it's worth quoting a letter he wrote to Sam Houston expressing his attitude toward such attacks. It's not a sad plea about the need for more "bipartisanship", which the priest of High Broderism today seem to think is the most important virtue in politics. The Clay reference is to Jackson's Kentucky rival Henry Clay, who Jackson blamed for that particular piece of sleaze being used (emphasis in original):
I am determined to unmask [those who have] entered into the combination to slander and revile me; and I trust, in due time to effect it, and lay the perfidy, meaness, and wickedness, of Clay, naked before the american people. I have lately got an intimation of some of his secrete movements, which, if I can reach with possitive and responsible proof, I will wield to his political, and perhaps, his actual destruction [Jackson was a duellist], he is certainly the bases[t], meanest, scoundrel, that ever disgraced the image of his god - nothing too mean or low for him to condescend to, secretely to carry his cowardly and base purpose of slander into effect; even the aged and virtuous female, is not free from his secrete combination of base slander - but anough, you know me, I will curb my feelings until it becomes proper to act, when retributive Justice will vissit him and his pander heads.We also shouldn't forget that today's Republican Party operates on the assumption of the segregation system, which included a thoroughly debased politics. "Southern honor" for the segregationists has long since become nothing but a slogan defending white racism. Gene Lyons described the Arkansas variant in Fools for Scandal (1994):
Given literacy levels among the lowest in the United States, what this adds up to is a populist brand of political warfare that often descends to the level of professional wrestling. In a small, largely rural state with only one real city, it also makes for fantastic - and highly entertaining - gossip. Almost everybody, it seems, has a neighbor whose second cousin knows an old boy who worked on the governor's dentist's car, and he says ...These are the standards on which today's Republican Party operates. They don't care whether John McCain obeys or has observed the official standards of the Southern Baptist Convention on marital fidelity. They.Don't. Care.
I'm not saying we should imitate authoritarian outlooks. Authoritarians are known for being able to hold wildly conflicting ideas at the same time. But everyone needs to be realistic about how the authoritarian Republican Party of today operates. With sex stories and everything else.
I voted for John Edwards in the California primary because I mailed my ballot before he withdrew from the race. I voted for him because he had a clearer position on withdrawing from Iraq than either Clinton or Obama; he had a more comprehensive health care plan than either of those two; and he was raising the issue of poverty in a way that had effectively been banished from national politics in the Age of Reagan. My only regret about that vote is that he dropped out of the race before it could have an effect on the outcome.
A couple of other thoughts. Is it really so bad that he didn't volunteer the information that he had a brief love affair? Whatever happened to, "A gentleman doesn't kill and tell"? There is something still to be said for that principle.
And any sane view of morality, Christian or otherwise, has to have some sense of perspective. Was John Edwards' admitted love affair as much of a moral offense - is it even in the same universe of moral offenses - as what Jane Mayer recounts in her book The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (2008):
Bush also knew about, and approved of, White House meetings in which his top cabinet members were briefed by the CIA on its plans to use specific "enhanced" interrogation techniques [torture] on various high-value detainees. The meetings were chaired by [Condi-Condi] Rice, who was then the National Security Adviser, in the Situation Room. The participants were the members of the Principals Committee, the five Bush cabinet members who handled national security matters: Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Powell, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, CIA Director Tenet, and Attorney General Ashcroft. Knowing how the Agency had been blamed for ostensible "rogue" actions in the past, Tenet was eager to spread the political risk of undertaking "enhanced interrogations." However, some members of the group became irritated with Tenet's insistence upon airing the grim details. "The CIA already had legal clearance to do these things," a knowledgeable source said, "and so it was pointless for them to keep sharing the details. No one was going to question their decisions - they were the CIA - they knew more than anyone else about each case. It's not as if any of the principals were debating the policy - that was already set. They wanted to go to the limit that the law required. But Tenet would say, 'We're going to do this, this, and this.'" Ashcroft in particular took offense at discussing such distasteful matters inside the White House. "History will not judge us kindly," he reportedly warned. There is no indication, however, that any Bush cabinet members objected to the policy. Cheney was described as "totally pushing it," and Rice, during the early period when Zubayda was captured, was described by a knowledgeable source as "a total hard-ass." The source suggested, "She was probably reflecting what the President wanted." (my emphasis)This is the worst band of scoundrels ever to run the American government. I'm sure that John Edwards would have ended the torture policy. So please don't anyone try to tell me that Dick Cheney is a more moral person that John Edwards because Cheney doesn't cheat on his wife, preferring instead to get his sexual kicks designing the details of torture sessions.
Get back to me when the US is no longer in the business of torturing people and launching preventive wars. When we don't have a Cabinet full of gangsters who sit around talking about what kind of twisted sexual perversions to apply to prisoners selected to be tortured, and worrying about how they can avoid being arrested for what they're doing. Then we'll talk about what role that failure to adhere to Southern Baptist standards of sexual conduct should play in American politics.
Tags: andrew jackson, john edwards, old hickory, torture
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No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse."
-- Cecil Day-Lewis from Where Are The War Poets?
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