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Rivers of War: Snippet Seventy

       Last updated: Sunday, May 8, 2005 05:54 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 70:

    CHAPTER 29

    August 25, 1814 Washington, D.C.

    It was fortunate, thought the secretary of state, that Captain Houston was a good-humored man, and in both senses of the term: generally cheerful in his disposition, as well as possessed of a ready wit. A solemn or humorless fellow might have been chagrined, even upset, to receive the thanks and congratulations of a grateful nation in a form which was so completely . . .

    Sodden. Try as he might, Monroe could think of no better term.

    The storm had finally broken, and had proven more ferocious than any Washington storm that anyone could recall. At the height of it, a tornado had swept through parts of the city, adding nature’s havoc to the destruction wreaked by human foes.

    On the positive side, the rain had squelched all the many smoldering fires left over from the British ravages, as well as the self-imposed arson of the Navy Yard. But if that added to the capital’s safety, it did nothing for its appearance. There was nothing quite so miserable-looking as half-burned buildings whose embers looked more like jagged excrescences than man-made edifices.

    By midafternoon, the nation’s capital was drenched—as were those of its inhabitants who had chosen to brave the elements to come to the Capitol.

    Half the remaining population, Monroe estimated—and a far higher percentage of its political classes. As soon as word arrived that the British had been driven off, those latter had come racing back into the city. Rain be damned. They’d kept one wary eye out for tornadoes, of course, but the other—and warier—eye had never left off scrutinizing the new political situation.

    Soaked to the bone or not, looking like cats tossed into a pond or not, every holder or would-be holder of public office who was anywhere near Washington wanted to be seen that day, at some point or other, standing alongside Captain Houston and his valiant men.

    Houston, for a marvel, even spotted the frequent hypocrisies, and seemed simply amused by them. Most young men of Monroe’s acquaintance—he did not exempt himself, at that age—would have been too full of themselves to notice. Or, if they had, they would have reacted with youthful self-righteousness.

    “I suppose there’s always this to be said for despotism,” the young captain murmured to Monroe at one point. “The despot himself serves to draw all courtier flattery and insincere praise, thereby sparing the innocent.”

    Monroe chuckled. “Surely you’re not likening our glorious republican customs to flypaper, Captain?”

    Another newly arrived congressman came forward to vigorously shake Houston’s hand and assure him that he was the pride of the nation; a true son of the republic; etc.; etc.; etc. Your obedient servant, sir, and should you desire anything, simply call upon me—

    And off he went, without even taking the time to dry his clothes or finish wiping the mud from his boots. No doubt he was looking for military units from his district, upon which he could shower like-minded encomiums.

    Houston handled it perfectly, as he had handled all such from the moment the crowd began pouring into the Capitol. A firm handshake, a friendly smile— modest, but not too modest—and, most of all, a few well-chosen words that deflected the praise onto the soldiers and sailors who had stood with him.

    It was well done.

    Very well done. A man like this, Monroe knew—provided, of course, he had no as-yet-hidden weaknesses or vices—could go as far as he wanted in the republic, with some patience and good sense. The fact that he came from modest birth would not stand in his way, either. It might have, were he uneducated, but Houston had already disposed of that problem.

    Indeed, he disposed of it again that very moment. The Capitol was still full of soldiers and sailors, too, and now—for the fifth time, if Monroe recalled correctly—several of them sent up the cry.

    “A speech, Captain, a speech!”

    Houston was never at a loss for words, either. A moment later he was back up on the desk that he’d appropriated some time earlier for his speechifying, and launched into it.

    Monroe listened to the speech, as he had to all the others, the way a master craftsman gauges the work of a very promising apprentice. A sure and self-confident craftsman, to boot, who has no trouble accepting the fact that the apprentice, at least when it came to the specific skill of oration, was more naturally gifted than the master himself.

    Granted, there wasn’t much in the way of real substance to the speech. But substance was too much to ask from the young—indeed, would have made Monroe a bit suspicious. In the secretary of state’s experience, twenty-one-year-old men who had achieved substance in their public pronouncements usually did so by seizing upon formulas and simplistic schemas. To be sure, that was a natural condition, the philosophical equivalent of measles or mumps. Still, there was always the risk they’d never outgrow the condition.

    No danger of that here, though. Houston’s speech contained enough in the way of the standard phrases to make it clear that the young captain was a staunch Republican. Abasement of monarchy’s pretensions; staunch yeomanry the base of public virtue; the common man the pedestal upon which Liberty rests, etc.; etc.; etc. But there was no gratuitous attempt to turn the matter into a partisan one.

    It was a speech to make Federalists frown, not one to make them snarl. There were enough references to states’ rights to please any Republican in the crowd, certainly. But Houston didn’t go out of his way to sneer at such Federalist enthusiasms as internal improvements—which tended to be popular in the West, anyway—or manufacturing tariffs.

    Thankfully, he avoided the issue of a national bank altogether.

    In short, it was a speech to salute a nation’s victory, not one to deepen its rancorous political divisions. Under the circumstances, splendid.

    President Madison had come up to stand beside the secretary of state partway through the speech. “A good Republican, it seems.”

    “Oh, yes, Mr. President. I’ve spoken to him at some length in private, and I can assure you he’s solidly with our party.”

    And then some, Monroe thought wryly. It was perhaps best he warn the president. “Mind you, sir, he does have some radical notions. He’s much influenced by General Jackson and his people.”

    Madison nodded. “Well, that’s to be expected. He’s from Tennessee himself, after all. Still...”

    The president looked toward the settee where, in hours past, Commodore Barney had rested. The settee was now spilling over with congressmen and senators, since Barney himself had finally been evacuated to a place where proper medical attention could be given him.

    “I wouldn’t have thought, from their reputation, that one of Jackson’s men would have been accompanied by a party of Indians. What happened to them, by the way?”

    “The children went with the commodore. He’d more or less taken them under his wing by then. The quiet one named Sequoyah went with them also. I believe the others are somewhere upstairs with Lieutenant Driscol.”

    The speech had come to what Monroe now recognized as the inevitable Homeric portion.

    The weapon flew, its course unerring held; Unerring, but the heav’nly shield repell’d The mortal dart; resulting with a bound From off the ringing orb, it struck the ground.

    “And have you met this mysterious lieutenant, James?” Madison asked. “For all that Captain Houston has been effusive in his public praise for Driscol, I’ve not yet caught so much as a glimpse of the man.”

    How to answer that? As the night had passed, Monroe had come to take the measure of Patrick Driscol, as well. He couldn’t claim to know the man, certainly. Men like Driscol were difficult to know, especially if you were a man of Monroe’s own class. But he understood him, well enough.

    It was all very good to give speeches about staunch yeomanry and the stalwart common man. But what got lost in the fulsome phrases was the fact that such men often bore terrible scars, and the fierce and unforgiving hatreds that came with them. Hatreds which, often enough, were too deep and bitter to make fine distinctions. To a man like Driscol, a president could look much like a king; a secretary of state, much like a royal courtier. And gentlemen, not so very different from noblemen.

    True, the lieutenant had punctiliously discharged his duty to escort General Ross into the Capitol, where the British officer could begin to receive the medical care he so desperately needed. But if others—Sam Houston among them— had showered Ross with praise for his gallantry and courage, Driscol had not. He had even refused to let himself be introduced to the British general, simply stalking out of the chamber once his duty was done.


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