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Rivers of War: Snippet Sixty Six

       Last updated: Monday, May 2, 2005 05:54 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 66:

    The discussion which followed was one of the most peculiar in Monroe’s life. Most peculiar, perhaps, because it did not seem so then. He would ascribe that, later, to the fury of the times and the temper of the moment.


    To begin with, there was the youthful naïveté of the captain, to whom it never seemed to occur that divulging the plans of General Jackson might stir up a tempest. Jackson had no authority to strip the Creeks of half their land. True, the administration had appointed him to negotiate with the Creeks along with the Indian commissioner Benjamin Hawkins—but he’d been instructed to follow the guidelines developed by General Pinckney. And those guidelines certainly had not contemplated any such sweeping land transfer.

    But Monroe kept silent, on that issue. Unlike most of the nation’s elite, the secretary of state had traveled extensively through the area, and understood the realities on the frontier. The settlers pouring across the mountains would take that Indian land, come what may, by force or by fraud—or simply by crowding the Indians aside and destroying their hunting grounds. No government in North America, be it colonial or native, had ever been able to stop them. It was an issue that had driven presidents half mad, just as it had done to colonial governors before them.

    The problem was insoluble, and for the simplest and crudest of reasons: there were just too many settlers, and not enough soldiers to keep them in check. Nor could the size of the soldiery be increased to change the equation.

    Monroe wasn’t surprised to learn that Houston understood that much, given his patronage. Unlike many of the nation’s political elite, Monroe was not prone to assuming that Andrew Jackson was either stupid or unsophisticated.

    “. . . have to build an army as big as the tsar’s. That’s what the general says, anyway.”

    “He’s right,” Monroe grunted. “The idea is grotesque. Opposition to a standing army—certainly a large one—has been one of the tenets of our Republican Party since the beginning.”

    “Even the Federalists wouldn’t support it, the general says.”

    Monroe nodded. “He’s right again, if for no other reason than simply the enormous cost involved. There’s nothing in the world so hideously expensive, even leaving aside the inevitable waste and corruption that comes with it, as maintaining a large army, even in peacetime.”

    Monroe gazed out the window, pondering the intractable problem yet again. Given the impossibility of creating an army large enough to control the settlers, that left . . .

    Houston filled in the thought. “Look, Mr. Monroe, what it means in the real world is that it’ll always be the champions of the westerners and southerners, people like General Jackson, who’ll ultimately win. I come from the frontier myself, and I know.”

    “Yes,” Monroe sighed. “The government in Washington can proclaim what it will, disavow what it will, denounce what it will, disclaim what it will. Andrew Jackson and men like him will still wield the whip. In the end—like every continental government in North America has done for two centuries—the national authorities will acquiesce to their wishes. Tacitly, if not openly.”

    He made a face. “It’s perhaps dishonorable; it’s certainly unpleasant. But it remains a fact. It will become a fact here, once again.”

    Monroe studied the captain, while the earnest young officer continued expounding his problem and his first attempts, shaky and uncertain though they seemed, to uncover a solution. As he did, one thing became clear to the man who was now the secretary of state and would, in two years, most likely be the next president of the country. If there was any graceful way to sidestep the problem, it would have to come from frontiersmen themselves. Men like Houston.

    There was always this, too, Monroe reminded himself. With a bit of an effort, because he was by no means completely free of the common prejudices and attitudes of the eastern gentry. From a distance, Monroe realized, the people of the western waters seemed nothing but crude and violent frontiersmen. Yet it was also true that, day to day and year to year, they interacted with the native population of the territories in a multitude of ways that were unknown to the East. And if many of those interactions were brutal, many others were not.

    Houston was not the first white settler boy to have been adopted by Indians, after all. And Monroe had only to walk down to the chamber of the House to see, gathered around Commodore Barney, still other fruits of that interaction.

    That was a beginning, at least. Possibly even a foundation.

    “That Lieutenant Ross of yours,” Monroe interrupted. “He’s a coming man among the Cherokee?”

    “Yes, sir.” Houston smiled crookedly. “Even though he’s not really much of a warrior. When I introduced him as having ‘distinguished’ himself at the Horseshoe, I was perhaps bending the truth. He was there, yes, and certainly he didn’t conduct himself badly. But John would be the first one to tell you he’s no great shakes in the soldiering business.”

    Monroe chuckled. “And how is that a problem? It’s enough that he was there, to establish his bona fides. For the rest, political sagacity is what’s needed here, Captain. Warriors—white or red, either way—won’t come up with an acceptable solution.

“As a strictly military proposition—and you know this as well as I do—the only solution that will ever be found with regard to relations between whites and Indians will be the extermination of the Indians. If it comes to it. But everyone I know would very much like to avoid that extreme.”

    That was nothing more than the truth. Attitudes toward the indigenes were often harsh, even among easterners. But Monroe had never known a single prominent and powerful man in the political life of the nation—and he’d known all of them, beginning with George Washington—who hadn’t understood that a policy of exterminating the Indians would destroy the United States as a nation. Destroy it utterly, because it would destroy its soul.

    Monroe was a practicing politician, and an experienced one, so he knew full well that governance was often a callous business. But some things were simply too barbarous to consider. To be sure, barbarities aplenty had been committed upon the Indians, but they were neither systematic nor the product of national design. More often than not, they were the result of local clashes, local greed—or that greatest of all sources of social cruelty, simple negligence. It was all too easy for the nation’s authorities to become preoccupied with other matters, while actual policy was determined on the spot by crooked Indian agents or hot-tempered young thugs.

    “That’s well said, sir,” Houston stated forcefully, “and a fine sentiment. But I will tell you what else is true—and you know it as well as I do. Any just solution—” He waved an impatient hand. “Oh, let’s not call it that, because no solution will be ‘just.’ Any rational solution, that everyone can live with—that’ll cost money, sir. And plenty of it.”

    Monroe grimaced. Houston was speaking no more than the truth, alas. Money would indeed be the choking point—with a Republican administration even more than a Federalist one. Some Republicans had even protested the very favorable Louisiana Purchase, even though it had been negotiated by Republicans. Monroe himself had been one of the two envoys sent to meet with Napoleon, and the purchase had been approved by the recognized founder of American republicanism, Thomas Jefferson. They’d not simply objected to the money involved, either, but had objected on grounds of constitutional principle.


    Monroe was startled to hear the sound of a cannon being discharged. “Are they beginning another assault?” he asked.

    Houston was already at the window, leaning out and looking to the south. When he brought his head back, he was smiling crookedly again.

    “No. It’s just Lieutenant Driscol, taking a gamble. Admiral Cockburn must be on his way back from his evening’s plunder and arson.”

    Monroe looked at his watch. “It’s later than I thought, then. I should be returning to the chamber, I think. In the meantime, Captain, I have no ready answers to the problems you’ve raised.”

    “Don’t really think there are any, sir.”

    “No, I’m afraid there aren’t. But that’s why men like me—and soon, I think, you and your companion John Ross—are kept in business. So let us begin with small steps. First, do me the favor of corresponding regularly, in the future.”

    Houston’s eyes widened a little. The captain wasn’t so naïve as all that, then, and he understood that such an invitation, coming from the secretary of state, was tantamount to an offer of patronage. It carried a tremendous amount of influence, at the very least.

    Monroe could practically see the wheels turning. If Houston had the ear of both Andrew Jackson and James Monroe . . .

    There was no derision in the thought. Monroe himself, as a young man, had sought the same sort of patronage. Sought it, and gotten it—from Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, just to name three. He was where he was today because of it.

    Patronage alone was not enough, of course. The corridors of power were littered with the political corpses of once-young men who’d made the mistake of thinking so. Monroe had never made that mistake—and if he thought young Sam Houston might be prone to it, he wouldn’t have extended the offer in the first place. But one of the reasons for Monroe’s political success was that he was a very good judge of men.

    “And secondly, Captain . . .”

    Monroe hesitated, for a moment, then shrugged. If nothing else, it would be an interesting experience.

    “Until this current affray is over, I think it would be appropriate to have an officer assigned to serve me as an aide. The secretary of war could hardly object to that, under the circumstances.”

    He didn’t need to finish the thought. Houston smiled—not crookedly at all, this time—and nodded. “Indeed, sir. And I think you’ll discover that Lt. Ross is a very capable young man. John is perfectly fluent with written English as well.”

    “Splendid. An illiterate aide would be awkward. We’ll consider it done, then.”

    Driscol came into the room then, his expression sour. “I’m afraid we missed him, Captain. The range was just too great, even if we’d had better than a three-pounder.”

    That was as good a reminder as any, Monroe thought. Never a good idea to really infuriate the Scots-Irish. Once their bitter hostility was aroused, they were a folk to make Huns look like Christians.


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