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EAGLE'S CRY: THE BIRTH PANGS OF A FLEDGLING NATION

Eagle's Cry: A Novel of the Louisiana Purchase - David Nevin

This is the second novel in David Nevin's series of historical novels spanning from the late 1790s to the eve of the Civil War. Like the previous novel in the series I read (i.e. "1812: A Novel"), "Eagle's Cry" represents, in the author's words, "the imagined inside of a known outside story."

 

The novel begins with a view of the last days of George Washington in December 1799. Washington (his invaluable service as commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolution notwithstanding) had become the indispensable man, who almost singlehandedly through 2 terms as President, helped to keep the young, struggling nation afloat. His death represented, not only a changing of the guard, but also a seismic shift as the "1776 generation" began to slowly pass from the scene.

 

The following year, there was the controversial Presidential Election of 1800. The vote was so close that it had to be decided in the House of Representatives. At that time, the man who garnered the most votes became President while the runner-up (irrespective of political party) automatically became Vice-President. In the case of the 1800 Election, it ended up in a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, both Democrats. The Federalist Party, who had previously been in power, was appalled at the prospect of Jefferson becoming President because he was regarded by them as a wild-eyed radical who would cater to the 'unenlightened common herd' and give short shrift to the nation's business and commercial interests. The novel gives some sense of the shenanigans that were played out among Federalists and Democrats that eventually settled the issue of who would be President.

 

Nevin also fleshes out in considerable detail some of the significant historical figures in Washington and in what was then the Far West (i.e. states and territories ranging from the Ohio Valley to the Mississippi Region abutting on Spanish New Orleans, a key trading port). James Madison, a close ally of Jefferson who served as his Secretary of State, though a rather shy man in social situations, is a very astute thinker, and as the novel bears out, proves to be a rather skillful diplomat in dealing with both Britain and Napoleon. Indeed, when the Spanish ceded the vast Louisiana Territory (inclusive of New Orleans) back to France, it is at first uncertain if U.S. westward expansion (which Jefferson and Madison regarded as key to their desire to see America become a continental power) would be checked by Napoleon.

 

It was really fascinating to learn from this novel how fragile the position of the U.S. was between 1798 and 1804 and how the competing philosophies of both political parties threatened to pull it apart. I also enjoyed the sketches Nevin provided of Washington (a city barely removed from the wilderness) and a rather plain, threadbare White House. Everything was so new and fresh. James Madison and his wife Dolley (who organized White House dinners for President Jefferson) come across as one of the nation's first power couples. Their relationship is loving, strong, and based on a deep respect each held for the other. On the surface, Thomas Jefferson is the reluctant leader who dislikes external politicking and eschews the formal trappings of office, yet shows a sure, subtle hand for exerting his presidential authority, leaving it to his subordinates to keep tabs on the Federalist opposition. Secondary characters such as James Wilkinson (a rather sleazy character who was commanding general of the Army and --- it was rumored --- a spy for Spain), Aaron Burr, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and Meriwether Lewis occupy key places in the novel.

 

With "Eagle's Cry", Nevin makes history compelling and lively. Once the reader has reached the last page, he/she will be curious to know what happens next.