"General Jackson is Dead": Dissecting a Popular Anecdote of Nineteenth-Century Party Leadership

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Book Chapter

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The Worlds of James Buchanan and Thaddeus Stevens: Place, Personality, and Politics in the Civil War Era


President James Buchanan delivered an icy stare to Senator Stephen A. Douglas as they sat across from each other inside the White House on Thursday morning, December 3, 1857. The "Little Giant" had just refused a direct request from "Old Buck" about the growing Lecompton controversy. The new Congress was assembling, and everybody had been talking for weeks about the fate of slavery in Kansas Territory. The main question was whether national Democrats in Washington were going to accept the "Lecompton swindle," allowing proslavery forces in Kansas to essentially stack the deck for an upcoming constitutional referendum that they had manipulated shamelessly and then scheduled with dubious authority. Under pressure from southern Democrats, the president was prepared to acquiesce, but the Illinois senator, author of the original Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, had just revealed to him that he would not. This was not the illustration of popular sovereignty that he had imagined for the territory. It was a tense moment. "Mr. Douglas," Buchanan finally observed, "I do wish you to remember that no democrat ever yet differed from an administration of his own choice without being crushed," adding ominously, "beware of the fate of Tallmadge and Rives." Defiant as ever, Douglas stood up in the face of that implicit threat and replied coolly, "Mr. President, I wish you to remember that General Jackson is dead, sir."
That striking scene has been recounted many times over the years by nineteenth-century historians and biographers. Yet it is better understood as an example of self-serving political fiction than any kind of transcript for real political drama. This was a memorable story, for sure, but one that was told with a strategic purpose after the fact --first by a mysterious leak in the spring of 1858 and then again, with ever-more-elaborate detail from Douglas himself, in two combative speeches during the 1860 presidential campaign. The beleaguered candidate's unexpected degree of open betrayal then compelled the incumbent president to deny the whole story in public. It was all wildly unprecedented. For this reason, the "General Jackson is dead" insult reveals even more about the pivotal 1860 election contest than it does about the earlier Lecompton crisis.
Such a complicated, evolving anecdote also illustrates a great deal about the challenges of writing antebellum political narrative. Scholars have used this story for years without fully fact-checking its sources. There are many possible explanations for this oversight, but mainly it is because historians, like the participants themselves, are often prone to oversimplify for the sake of making a dramatic point. Naturally, dissecting such an episode does kill much of the drama within it, but what remains is significant nonetheless. The alleged Douglas retort provides both a case study in narrative methodology and also a pathway toward a more nuanced view about on the most consequential feuds in American political history.


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