Friday, December 26, 2008

Better to light a candle

I admire the ways in which civilization is maintained and spread in the face of hardship. In the rude days of the Saxon Heptarchy, Theodore of Tarsus taught the Scriptures, Greek, poetry, and astronomy to young Anglo-Saxon scholars at Canterbury. Young Edward Taylor took his leave of Harvard President Charles Chauncy and set out into a New England winter in 1671 to travel 100 miles to the frontier town of Westfield, Massachusetts, where he served the next 58 years as pastor, doctor, and counselor, while writing the only known Metaphysical poetry by an American author. On Sundays, his parishioners often worshipped while listening for a drumbeat that would warn them of Indian attack.

Today I learn that Andrew Jackson, thought to be the least educated U.S. President of his day (his predecessor, John Quincy Adams, who detested him, refused to attend a ceremony in which Harvard, Adams's alma mater, conferred an honorary degree on Jackson) studied, as boy in upstate South Carolina, with a Presbyterian minister, emerging with an ability to quote Plutarch and Pope, and having memorized verbatim the Westminster Shorter Catechism, a 4,500-word-long compendium of Reformed Protestant theology, consisting of 107 questions and answers on the Bible and church doctrine. Famous for his violent temper and his irregular courtship of a still-married woman (amazingly, it had been his mother's hope that he would become a minister), Jackson read 3 chapters of the Bible daily and, for inspiration in valor, cherished Jane Porter's 1809 The Scottish Chiefs, her rather breathless retelling of the struggles of Sir William Wallace. (It's a tribute to Jackson's love of reading that he could be so influenced by a book that was not published until he was 42 years old and had already served as a Senator, Major-General of Militia, and Tennesee Superior Court Judge.) He was raised and educated in a frontier settlement so primitive that his own father's pallbearers drank themselves into besotted confusion and lost Jackson senior's casket in the snow, as they stumbled through the wilderness to bury him. Orphaned at 14, young Jackson estranged himself from his only surviving family, relatives of his mother, by his violence and irascibility.

Sometimes even those qualities served him in good stead. Riding the circuit as a Tennessee judge, he found a small-town sheriff too frightened to arrest a man accused of mutilating one of his own children in a drunken frolic. Jackson confronted the man, who was armed, and told him to surrender or die.

His legend has come down to us as that of a man almost pathologically angry and I wondered what, besides his physical courage, made men respect and follow him, but as Jon Meacham's biography points out, Jackson, as a perpetual outsider, had managed to cultivate a certain degree of charm, and that, added to his bravery, drew men to him. Fleeing hostile Indians in the wilderness of Tennessee with his legal colleague, John Overton, Jackson was nearly swept over the edge of a waterfall to his death; at the last moment, he calmly extended an oar to Overton, standing on the riverbank, who caught it and pulled Jackson to safety. “You were within an ace, Sir, of being pulled over the brink and dashed to pieces,” Overton observed.

Jackson calmly replied, “A miss is as good as a mile. Follow me and I’ll save you yet.”

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

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