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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

Antagonism to Jackson was the real cement of the coalition


Indeed,

in some ways the coalition which called itself the Whig party was weakened rather than strengthened by the substitution of a small for a great man at the head of the Democracy. Antagonism to Jackson was the real cement of the coalition, and some of its members did not feel called upon to transfer their antagonism unabated to Van Buren.

The most eminent of these was Calhoun, who now broke away from the Whigs and appeared prepared to give a measure of independent support to the Administration. He did not, however, throw himself heartily into the Democratic Party or seek to regain the succession to its leadership which had once seemed likely to be his. From the moment of his quarrel with Jackson the man changes out of recognition: it is one of the most curious transformations in history, like an actor stripping off his stage costume and appearing as his very self. Political compromises, stratagems, ambitions drop from him, and he stands out as he appears in that fine portrait whose great hollow eyes look down from the walls of the Capitol at Washington, the enthusiast, almost the fanatic, of a fixed idea and purpose. He is no longer national, nor pretends to be. His one thought is the defence of the type of civilization which he finds in his own State against the growing power of the North, which he perceives with a tragic clearness and the probable direction of which he foresees much more truly than did any Northerner of that period. He maintains

continually, and without blurring its lines by a word of reservation or compromise, the dogma of State Sovereignty in its most extreme and almost parricidal form. His great pro-Slavery speeches belong to the same period. They are wonderful performances, full of restrained eloquence, and rich in lucid argument and brilliant illustration. Sincerity shines in every sentence. They serve to show how strong a case an able advocate can make out for the old pre-Christian basis of European society; and they will have a peculiar interest if ever, as seems not improbable, the industrial part of Northern Europe reverts to that basis.

Van Buren, on the whole, was not an unsuccessful President. He had many difficulties to contend with. He had to face a serious financial panic, which some consider to have been the result of Jackson's action in regard to the Bank, some of the machinations of the Bank itself. He surmounted it successfully, though not without a certain loss of popularity. We English have some reason to speak well of him in that he resisted the temptation to embroil his country with ours when a rebellion in Canada offered an opportunity which a less prudent man might very well have taken. For the rest, he carried on the government of the country on Jacksonian lines with sufficient fidelity not to forfeit the confidence of the old man who watched and advised him, sympathetically but not without anxiety, from his "Hermitage" in Tennessee.

One singular episode may conveniently be mentioned here, though the incident in which it originated rather belongs to the Jacksonian epoch. This is not the place to discuss the true nature of that curious institution called Freemasonry. Whatever its origin, whether remote and derived from Solomon's Temple as its devotees assert, or, as seems more intrinsically probable, comparatively modern and representing one of the hundreds of semi-mystical fads which flourished in the age of Cagliostro, it had acquired considerable importance in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. At some unknown date it was carried across the Atlantic, and sprouted vigorously in America; but it does not seem to have been taken particularly seriously, until the States were startled by an occurrence which seemed more like part in what is known in that country as "a dime novel" than a piece of history.


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