05 September 2010

A Death-Bed Testimonial

One of the things about doing something for a long time—in this case, running down historical sources that have been badly annotated—is that after a while you start developing a sort of eighth sense for these things. There’s a moment when you open a box of documents and you suddenly get a sense that this is a hot source, or alternatively you see a quotation (for example) that just plain looks fishy, that has a bad odor about it, so to speak. (I have no sense of smell myself, so I’m going by literary descriptions of what smell is like here, but I think I’m using the concept correctly.) You see it, and something about it triggers the BS detector. It may take a bit before you can identify the specifics of it, why it’s cool, or it’s iffy, or whatever, but you get the sense of it before the logic takes over.

I got that feeling today (well, yesterday, technically) when looking at an (alleged) Andrew Jackson quotation. I’ve seen it before, but it never struck me as out of the ordinary until now. Here it is, as related by Frederic William Farrar in the introduction to a collection of his lectures on the Bible:
”That Book, sir,” said the American President, Andrew Jackson, pointing to the family Bible during his last illness, “is the rock on which our Republic rests.”
Well, that seems reasonable (and I hear this in Johnny Standley’s “It’s in the Book” voice). It is kind of a cliché however, the dying man’s tribute to the book of books and all that. Patrick Henry supposedly lamented while dying that he’d never had time to read the Bible properly—this despite his seeming familiarity with its language and content. One of my favorites in this genre came from a visiting scholar at the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity in halcyon bygone days—one of the great nineteenth century biblical expositors lay on his death bed. This man had spent his life explicating the dark passages of the Hebrew text, he knew the cognate Semitic languages the way a mail carrier knows the diurnal route he’s traveled for decades, and he now lay facing the Great Unknown. A minister sat by the side of the nearly unconscious scholar, reading to him the sonorous words of the KJV Psalm 23. Something about the language caught the dying man’s attention, and his eyes opened. “That, sir,” he is supposed to have said, “is an egregious mistranslation,” and so passed on into the void.

Did it happen? I doubt it very much, but, you know, what a way to shuffle off this mortal coil. I should be so lucky. I’ll probably exit mumbling incoherently the name of every drummer for the band that became the Beatles (anybody else remember Tommy Moore?) or trying to recall the date of the third quarto of Romeo and Juliet. But what about this rock upon which our Republic rests line?

Well, there’s nothing beyond that that really leaps out at you. The language and sentiment seem to be in accord with what little I know about Ol’ Hick’ry, one of my least favorite American presidents. But I don’t find it in the biographies immediately available to me, or in standard collections of quotations, or any other source that might give me a lead to where it came from.

And maybe that’s what bugs me about it—the company it keeps. It always seems to turn up with rather disreputable associates—the Washington “impossible to govern” bit, Jefferson’s “cornerstone” and Penn’s “ruled by tyrants” snippets—bastard pieces of flotsam floating in on the tides of history, parentless, abandoned, unknown. And when an alleged source does turn up for it, it inevitably turns out to be bogus. Yeah, Jackson said or wrote the rest of it, but not that saying. It intrudes where it obviously isn’t wanted like an uninvited party guest, and ends up tossed onto the pavement by the bouncer of hard documentation.

It turns up in haunts frequented by the usual suspects—A Lawyer’s Examination of the Bible, The Highest Critics vs. the Higher Critics, Testimonies of American Statesmen and Jurists to the Truths of Christianity, and Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States—to name but a few. This last may well be the oldest source available for the incident; there are several accounts that turn up in the year 1864, and this is the only one of them to give a source. The author, B. F. Morris, gives a sketch of the last scenes in Jackson’s life written (he says) by John S. C. Abbott, a clergyman. The sketch concludes as follows:
During his last illness, to a friend he pointed to the family Bible on the stand, and said,—

“That book, sir, is the rock on which our republic rests. It is the bulwark of our free institutions.”
Yes, I see, the testimony of an unnamed friend, the bane of this sort of literature. There’s no chain of custody, no evidence of transmission. How did the story get from the “friend” to the Reverend Abbott? Even if we had the “friend’s” account directly it would still be second-hand testimony. Did he get it straight from the “friend”? In that case we’re looking at third-hand testimony—but Abbott doesn’t say that. And this is the best scenario. Or did Abbott get it from somebody who got it from the friend (fourth-hand testimony)? However you look at it, this is not good.

But Andrew Jackson did have some nice things to say about the Bible during his final days, and these rest on solid second-hand evidence taken from a contemporary diary, which is as good as it gets for anything short of a recording or written record by the subject. This comes from the 29 May 1845 entry in the diary of William Tyack, a family friend and visitor during Jackson’s final days, as quoted by James Parton in his Life of Andrew Jackson (volume 3, p. 673):
The Bible is true. The principles and statutes of that holy book have been the rule of my life, and I have tried to conform to its spirit as near as possible. Upon that sacred volume I rest my hope for eternal salvation, through the merits and blood of our blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
The next day Tyack observed (p. 674):
His Bible is always near him; if he is in his chair it is on the table by his side; when propped up in bed, that sacred volume is laid by him, and he often reads it . He has no power, and is lifted in and out of his sitting posture in bed to the same posture in his chair.
So, yeah, it sounds like he could have said it, that stuff about the Bible being a rock and a bulwark and all that. Trouble is, he could have said a lot of other neat things too, and absent evidence, we really have no basis for saying that he did say them. This little factoid may be legit, but it needs some proper ID before it can be admitted to the club of history. In the meantime it’s going to have to wait outside, with the pretenders and the wannabes. It’s the way things work in the academic racket.


Anonymous said...

He could have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling over the floors of silent seas ...

Good piece. Thanks for the careful analysis, and the rundown on how it works! rfh

Anonymous said...

Nice piece. Jackson is one of my favorite Presidents. Didn't know he loved the Bible so much.

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