(This column was first published in the April 26, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
Thomas Jefferson speaking: "I believe we are at the turning point of a vast transition in human society. We're moving from highly centralized and tightly controlled monarchy to a broadly diffuse form of democracy, shifting power from a wealthy elite to a broad base of the common man. We did this, here in this country, with revolution followed by a Constitution that institutionalizes the rights of the common man. The French Revolution shook the world because at the crucial moment it symbolized and articulated all the glorious possibilities of human freedom in this new form. And in its outcome it illustrated with equal force the profound dangers of loss of control and chaos that are inherent in men governing themselves as opposed to naming a king whose function, after all, has been to control them when they couldn't control themselves.'"
The year is 1800. Washington completed his two terms and died last year. John Adams is finishing his one term but he has lost the election to the Anti-Federalists or Democrats behind Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. But the country is in a turmoil far worse than the crisis we suffered through in 2000.
After a start that seemed to confirm the American Revolution, France is passing through the terrible excesses of its own: the mass guillotining of opponents of every stripe, governments toppled weekly and now a dictator in power. Fearful American Federalists see in this election government wrested out of the control of the elite into the hands of "common men" -- the "communists" of their times -- who they are certain will replicate the French experience. The army officer class sides with the Federalists and some conspirators are ready to take New England out of the United States.
Meanwhile in the West, the Spanish own vast tracts of land and control the Mississippi River. They turn on and off trade on that river at will. And the French and English stand by ready to take advantage of the struggling new country.
And now the vote by the presidential electors is tied between Burr and Jefferson. The country seems ready to tear itself apart.
These are the times of David Nevin's historical novel, EAGLE'S CRY (Tom Doherty Associates, 2000). The author proves in this book that you don't have to have armies marching to have exciting times. Even though you know the outcome -- we're still here -- you find yourself caught up in this story hoping the good guys -- Jefferson, his Secretary of State to be James Madison and Madison's wife Dolley, who will serve as widower Jefferson's hostess in the newly constructed White House -- will pull through in the end.
There are many kinds of historical novels. At one extreme are those in which history provides only a setting. EAGLE'S CRY lies at the opposite extreme. Here is Nevin describing what he has written:
"EAGLE'S CRY is a novel. Yet it is in general accurate both as to the history of the events it chronicles and as to the character, personalities, and conflicts of the historical figures. To sum up in a phrase, this is the imagined inside of a known outside story.
"So I believe that with a few exceptions...the novel is a close account of what happened and why, and of the individuals involved. I base the words I put in their mouths on the records they and their contemporaries left and my own estimate of how reasonable men and women might reasonably respond. One immediate variance from rigid fact, however, is that I frequently put people together for direct dialogue when in fact they communicated by letter; what I have them say, however, is fully consistent with their positions and attitudes.
"History strives for what is documentable and provable. My books strive for the story that underlies reality, what I see as an imagined reality. To clarify that reality, and to give the reader information not readily delivered through a historical character, I have used a few fictional characters to interact with real characters and thus illuminate their views....
Danny's contact with Mrs. Pichon is fictional but clearly represents Pichon's position. Though John Quincy Adams and Pichon were friends and their conversation represents historical truth, it is not documented. General Wilkinson is an odd figure, thought then and known now to have been a traitor -- the Spanish listed him as Agent #13. His connection to Burr is well documented.
"Meriwether Lewis's...application to Jefferson for command of a transcontinental expedition when he was nineteen is factual. Mr. Lemaire (the White House chef) is a real figure, and Dolley's relationship with him is accurately portrayed; an initial clash is assumed but not documented.
"The strange tale of Andrew Jackson's marriage and the scandal that followed is fully accurate. The violent response to scandal he presented, and his wife's crushed nature, are accurately portrayed. The quarrel with Governor Sevier is presented almost word for word as those who were there recorded it. I believe my account of Jackson to be highly accurate, both as to events and as to his personality and nature; the only place I have purposely exceeded the record was in bringing him to Washington when the disaster of the Spanish closing of the Mississippi inflamed the West. The story is accurate as to the West's violent reaction, but I have no knowledge that Jackson left Tennessee at this time.
"Did Aaron Burr plot to bring about the election tie? He denied it, but Madison was convinced to his death that it was true, and this is Madison's story. My portrayal of Burr's character may offend his ardent apologists, who are numerous even today, and while offending anyone distresses me sorely, I do believe a case can be made for my portrayal. Burr's bitterness over being excluded after the tie is well documented.
"General Washington's last hours were as I portray them, and he was being importuned to return to the helm.... The DuPont family, in the process of staffing the great firm we know today, played exactly the role I describe. Senator Ross's part in persuading Napoleon is accurately stated, but the extent to which and the means by which he and Madison communicated are not documented. I find it impossible to believe that his great speech, put so neatly into Napoleon's hands, had not been arranged. A splinter party led by Timothy Pickering did for years lead a secession movement in New England which the Adamses, father and son, rejected. The personality of the Adams family and its bitterness are accurately drawn. The Sally Hemings story is accurately drawn, as is, I believe, the character of James Callender, who shortly after this book's period fell drunk into a shallow ditch in Richmond and drowned. Federalists' stunned disbelief at losing the 1800 election is accurately portrayed. The unfolding French decision to sell Louisiana is well documented.
"Language in the early nineteenth century was more formal than we use today, but I'm sure thoughts were as fluent, tempers as quick, analyses as sure-footed as they are today, and that all were rendered from person to person just as fluidly. My aim is to create for modern readers the intimacy of decisions and pressures then affecting these individuals, and so, while avoiding modernisms, I have chosen language that sounds more formal than modern usage but that probably is somewhat less formal than what actually was used then.
"Political parties can be confusing to modern ears. As the opening chapter makes clear, at the start there were no parties. As the democratic spirit rose, reaction to elitism took the form of the first Republican Party under Madison, Jefferson, and others. Almost immediately, this opposition group became known as Democrats, and I have used that term to avoid confusion with the modern Republican Party, which was formed in the 1850s with John Charles Fremont its first presidential candidate. Adams and the old guard took the Federalist label."
Nevin is the kind of history teacher we so seldom come across. I was fortunate to have had two at the University of Rochester who made the subject come alive. Sadly I have forgotten their names but one I recall gleefully describing the name given to the process of bowing as one left the presence of Napoleon -- "arsing." Here is Nevin describing our Ambassador to France, New Yorker Robert Livingston, visiting the French Court.
"Marbois 'sweeps Mr. Livingston into warm embrace, bows gracefully to the women, and rather casually tells Mr. Livingston that the first consul will receive him within the hour. The gentleman from New York leaps into what must pass as a democratic version of court dress, more elaborate than anything he'd wear at home but plain plumage beside the bright birds of the French palace.
"He supposes it will be an audience and wonders if Monsieur Bonaparte will be on a throne. Hastily he informs Marbois that he will not kneel, he is from a free nation, he'll bow, yes, that's common courtesy, but -- and Marbois chuckles and assures him all will go well. They enter a huge room in which two hundred people mill about:... sweeping red drapes at windows that reach to the twenty-foot ceiling from which crystal chandeliers hang, plaster walls shaped into the images of kings and princes and grand dames of the court. The crowd grows more dense, moving in a swirling pattern, buzz of voices rising and falling, men in ruffles and lace with rapiers at their sides, women in lavish gowns that reveal as much as they hide, whom even Mr. Livingston, naive though he doubtless is, understands are as likely to be mistresses as to be wives. Slipping through the crowd are servants in extraordinary uniforms with exquisite morsels on trays and tall glasses of champagne. Mr. Livingston suspects his stomach won't handle the morsels, but seizes the champagne gratefully. It is the best he has ever tasted, though surely not superior to the best produced in New York State. Not at all.
"A stir: Napoleon has entered the room. Marbois touches Mr. Livingston's arm: hold here -- he will come to you. Slowly the center of all attention circles the room, men quivering with eagerness for a word, women jostling to touch him, their eyes inviting. He glances here and there, smiles faintly, allows his hand to be kissed, moves on. When he's close Mr. Livingston sees that he's a small man, pale, suety, only superficially handsome, though he moves with an intensely physical, catlike grace; in his face and eyes Mr. Livingston sees a hardness that says immediately that he is a dangerous man. Cold; if thousands or scores of thousands must die to accomplish his ends, so be it. After a glance Mr. Livingston has no trouble imagining the wild rages that are said to terrify those around him. Yet this instantly produces a resistance in the gentleman from New York; in this room he stands alone as representative of the United States of America, a member in full standing of the family of nations, and nothing will intimidate him.
"Marbois's whisper identifies the smallish man beside and one step behind the dictator: Talleyrand. Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, foreign minister; the bishop of Autun though hardly religious, a chameleon able to assume the visage of whatever government is in power, a man so valuable for his brilliant ability that his absence of discernable belief in anything but himself doesn't matter, corruption set deep in a face that once was gorgeous, growing stout now, walking with a limp carried from childhood for which he demands payment from God and fate and mankind with a legendary appetite for bribes. He is the man with whom Mr. Livingston must deal.
"Mr. Livingston's French is adequate but not polished, and his hearing is poor. An interpreter stands by. Napoleon pauses before him and Marbois presents him. All the earlier impressions are doubled: This is a deadly man, unshakeable, implacable, a man of range far exceeding that of anyone in the room, anyone Mr. Livingston knows. Which is not to say that the gentleman from New York feels in the least lessened.
"He bows, as befits his station; the first consul nods and asks if he has been in Europe before. No, sir, he has not had that pleasure. Ah, Napoleon says, you have come to a very corrupt world. He turns and says something to Talleyrand that Mr. Livingston misses; later he learns that the ruler simply said to tell the American that the Old World is very corrupt and added with a sneer that his foreign minister knew something about that, didn't he? At the moment Mr. Livingston sees from Talleyrand's face that something cruel has been said -- and understands from Talleyrand's burning glance of hatred that America will pay a price for that witticism....
"There never was a government in which less could be done by negotiation than here. There are no people, no legislature, no counselors. One man is everything. He seldom asks advice, and never hears it unasked. His ministers are mere clerks, and none dares tell him his follies....
"This was the man, the most dangerous man in the world, with whom Jimmy was locked in combat."
And here is Nevin on the dreaded yellow fever, the disease that decimated Leclerc's French army while fighting the native army of Toussaint-L'Overture on Santo Domingo:
"And then the yellow fever came. Madison knew the fever from its visits to American cities. The great epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793 that took Dolley's husband with seven thousand others had started, so they said, after the arrival of ships from Santo Domingo. Probably just coincidence, since it was widely understood that the cause was poisonous night air rising from fetid swamps.
"It struck with such awful blinding speed, Montane was saying. You're healthy in the morning, dying in the evening. It's the mosquito season, droning clouds that envelop you and drink your blood till your skin is raw. The disease struck down his emaciated, exhausted, frightened young soldiers as a farmer scythes hay, laying them out faster than those who remained could bury them. Ghastly deaths. Temperature soaring, skin hot to the touch, blood seems to boil. You vomit black bile full of blood, your guts turn inside out, the lining of your stomach comes out of your throat. You're on your knees choking and gasping for air; you try to stand and you fall into your vomit and retch again and again. Then the bowels explode, streams of foul water, fountains of slime and filth geysering, men screaming for water, their systems expelling faster than drinking can replenish, men crawling about naked, out of their heads, blind, crying for mothers and wives and stopping on hands and knees to vomit into the slime someone else left. And those of us spared trying to save them, wash them, get them water, until the best you could do was try to give them a decent death, not covered with excrement. And much of the time even that was more than you could manage. And if you sent a party down to the stream for water to wash them, the enemy would come out of the night...
"The fever spared the blacks, understand, maybe because they were used to it. It spared some of the whites too, and some who contracted it recovered. But the plain fact was that the disease started in June and by August men were dying by the hundreds. By late September, the army of twenty-five thousand was down to fewer than four thousand effective; and they crouched behind barricades, fearful the hordes would overrun them."
That episode helped to preserve our west for the French had recently acquired Louisiana and Leclerc was to continue on to New Orleans to secure that port. The battle for that city was postponed a decade and transferred to the invading army of another country, that story told in Nevin's earlier book, 1812.
Eagle's Cry represents historical story-telling in the hands of a master historian.-- Gerry Rising