University of Rochester Library Bulletin: "General Jackson's Fine": Dating a Manuscript

Volume XXV · Autumn-Winter 1969-70  · Numbers 1 & 2    
"General Jackson's Fine": Dating a Manuscript

In March, 1969, Dr. Robert F. Metzdorf, '33, presented the Department of Special Collections of the University of Rochester Library with an unidentified, undated manuscript entitled "General Jackson's Fine." In question apparently was a bill in Congress to repay Andrew Jackson the $1,000 fine leveled on him by Judge Dominic Hall in 1815 as penalty for waging the battle of New Orleans after the peace treaty had ended the War of 1812. The complete text of the manuscript follows:

"Gen. Jackson's Fine—There is too much reason to apprehend that the $1000 fine imposed upon Gen. Jackson, for a contempt of the civil Authority while in Military command at New-Orleans, is to become an element in the approaching Presidential campaign. The question is before Congress and has attracted the attention of several of the State Legislatures, under circumstances and with aspects which show that the re-payment of the Fine is by no means the real motive for its agitation. There is nothing that would so much disappoint and thwart the designs of the agitators as the re-payment of this Fine to Gen. Jackson by a Whig Congress. Such a step would use up some of the richest material out of which they expect to re-build their political edifice.

"Believing, as we firmly do, that the Government ought to refund this money; that this measure of justice to Gen. Jackson has been too long withheld; and that the Country is dishonored as long as it leaves him a sufferer in this respect, we hope that Congress will have the justice and wisdom to idemnify an officer who incurred the penalty in the discharge of his duty to the Country.

"But while we would pay back to Gen. Jackson any dollars which his gallant defence of New-Orleans cost him, we cannot conceal from ourselves the painful conviction, or even suppress an avowal of the conviction, that the People and the Republic would have been infinitely more prosperous and happy now, if New-Orleans had then fallen into the hands of the enemy. To the British, the capture of New-Orleans would [have] given only a temporary triumph. To us, its successful defence, has produced consequences fearfully and permanently inglorious and disastrous. The Battle of New-Orleans entailed twelve years of Presidential misrule upon the People. But for that equally glorious and ill-omened Victory, neither Jackson nor him who followed in Jackson's footsteps, would have ever reached the Presidential chair. The ruin which stalks about our streets, and the misery that shrieks around our hearths, are the bitter fruits of the Victory achieved by Gen. Jackson at New-Orleans. The Eighth of January is memorable alike for the halo of glory it shed upon the American arms, and the sufferings, bankruptcy and dishonor it has brought upon the American People."

Members of the library staff who are familiar with the abundance of Thurlow Weed material already deposited in the Department of Special Collections immediately recognized Weed's handwriting. Dating the manuscript was a bit more complicated, but, with the wealth of internal evidence, a clear challenge.

As outside boundaries, the years 1841-1843 are readily distinguishable from a number of clues. Most revealing is Weed's reference to the Whig Congress. Of the congressional majorities from 1827 to 1854, the only Congress with a majority of Whigs was the 27th, in power from March, 1841, to March, 1843. Moreover, the "twelve years of Presidential misrule" is a clear reference to Andrew Jackson's terms (1829-1837) and to "him who followed in Jackson's footsteps" — Martin Van Buren, Jackson's hand-picked successor who held the office the following four years. The manuscript, therefore, was written after 1841. The reference to "the approaching Presidential campaign" is undoubtedly to the campaign of 1844, since Jackson died in 1845. The Congressional Debates' and the Congressional Globe's records of the Senate's daily concern with the indemnity question were particularly helpful. Not until March 10, 1842, did Senator Lewis F. Linn (D., Mo.) introduce a bill for repayment of the fine; as early as February 21, 1843, a similar bill of his passed the Senate without amendment. Since the manuscript was written while "the question {was] before Congress," it must have been composed during these eleven months.

Dr. Metzdorf was the first to remark that the manuscript appeared to be an editorial. The piece does indeed have the ring of editorial opinion to it, and, since Weed had edited the Albany Evening Journal from 1830 to 1860, the Journal seemed the first periodical to search.

In the pages of the Journal, however, were found four editorial references to General Jackson's fine. The earliest, December 9, 1842, was couched in general comments on President Harrison's message and comprised a brief statement approving the recommendation to refund the money. On December 22, eight days after Senator Linn had introduced the indemnity bill that eventually passed, Editor Weed gave lead editorial space to an argument for passage of the measure. Foremost among his reasons was the conviction that the proposal to repay the $1,000 was a "humbug proposition" concocted by "Loco Focos," opposition to which, the Democrats hoped, would furnish them with a campaign issue. The revival of Jackson's military glory in late 1842, Weed suspected, was designed to reflect upon the Democrats and to sweep them back into power. Proof of this interpretation, claimed Weed, was to be had in the fact that, throughout the Democrats' twelve-year control of both Congress and the White House, not the slightest suggestion had been made to indemnify the Old Hero. Addressing fellow Whig editors and federal lawmakers, Weed urged that the Whig Senate call the Democratic bluff and pass the bill. Again on January 13, 1843, the Journal took notice approvingly of the Senate Judiciary Committee's report on the bill and its recommendation that it be amended to avoid passing judgment on either the sentencing judge or the victor of New Orleans. Weed's last published acknowledgement of the controversy appeared January 26, reiterating the charge that, in calling for justice to Jackson, the Democrats sought political fodder rather than passage. Again Weed pleaded for swift passage of the bill as "by far the cheapest way of getting rid of the question."

During December and January, then, Weed had published several comments on Jackson's fine which closely paralleled or contained ideas found in the newly discovered manuscript. One piece of internal evidence which might fix the date of the manuscript between early December, 1842, and late February, 1843, was the remark that "the question…[had] attracted the attention of several of the State Legislatures." As early as March, 1842, Senator Nathaniel P. Tallmadge (D., N. Y.) had read into the record a resolution passed by the Ohio legislature calling for indemnification of General Jackson. In December, citizens' groups from Illinois, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania had petitioned their Senators to support the indemnity bill. In January, 1843, however, resolutions similar to the one from Ohio began to pour in from state legislatures all over the country. From senatorial remarks accompanying the presentation of these resolutions, it is evident that several days usually elapsed between their actual passage in the respective legislatures and their announcement in the Senate. Furthermore, because of the mechanics of the legislative process, we can expect that consideration of the resolutions consumed one or more days before passage.

Since the "attention" of local legislatures was most directly "attracted" during the month of January, and since the Weed manuscript specifically refers to this legislative activity, it is reasonable to conclude that Weed wrote the piece at the latest in early February, but more probably in January, 1843, and most probably as a draft for an editorial which was never used in that precise form.