Wednesday, October 21, 2009

History: "Hellish Banditti"

I will freely admit that I'm a fan of Andrew Jackson as President and as a man. I know all the arguments against him: the slavery, leaving the Governorship of Florida, the Trail of Tears, "Jacksonian Democracy" (what ever the hell that really is), his "good ol' boy" attitude et al and I don't discount a single one.

Whenever I get into this debate, though (more often than you might think) I bring up the better points that are so easily forgotten: his tenacious love for his wife, his wit and savvy despite what would be called today a "hick" upbringing, his standing up to the British in his mother's home and his fighting as a Patriot while still a boy and the fact that he beat the holy living crap out of a would-be assassin with his cane while Secret Service guys stood around with their mouths dangling open. I'm sorry but if one of our modern Presidents did that I'd paint his mug on the side of my house.

Where I'm ambivalent about old Andy, though, has to do with a decision he made while prepping for the Battle of New Orleans - the big all or nothing brawl against the British that ended the War of 1812 and made Jackson a national hero - in the winter of 1814.

Jackson had a real problem with the Spanish prior to his encounters with the British in the War of 1812. The Spanish held sway over Florida and were largely responsible for stirring up the Native Creeks against the fledgling U.S., leading to the Creek Wars. Major General Jackson's argument to Congress during the wars was that if something would be done about the pirate operation of Jean Laffite in Barataria, Louisiana (which by 1812 was a State) the Spanish wouldn't be so stinking pissed at the U.S. and we wouldn't have all these problems would we?!

Congress responded with a "well, yeah, there is Laffite and all that plundering of Spanish merchantmen in the Gulf but we're in the middle of a war with Britain and... Why don't you write to you're pal, the Governor of Louisiana? Let us know how that works out for you."

Long story short, that is exactly what Jackson did. Governor Claiborne, under pressure from not only Jackson - who was convinced that the Spanish would soon throw all their forces in with the British against the U.S. - but local Laffite antagonists like wealthy merchants, tax collectors and the Commodore of the Navy Station, finally buckled and ordered a raid on Barataria. Laffite's stronghold was burned to the ground, his ships were taken as prizes and his men were jailed in irons. Things looked pretty bleak for the brothers Laffite (Jean and Pierre, by the way, were conveniently nowhere near Barataria when Commodore Patterson came knocking - they left the night before, putting
Dominique Youx in charge).

The brothers were like cats, though and as usual they landed on their feet. They had previously been approached by the British to take up arms against the U.S. and help with the invasion of New Orleans. They warned Claiborne and Jackson that the British were on their way and offered themselves, their men and their ships to the U.S. even before Patterson showed up and tore down their operation.

Jackson, though, would have none of it and he issued what may very well have been the stupidest proclamation of his long career. He held up Laffite and his men to the people of Louisiana as "pirates and robbers" with whom the British had "dared to insult you by calling on you to associate as brethren with them and this hellish banditti." The British were so stupid, he was saying, that they thought the good people of Louisiana would rise up - led by Jean Laffite himself, one imagines - and fight against the U.S. alongside their welcomed British overlords.

One of the first rules of war, laid down by Julius Caesar as I recall who was no slouch himself, is to know the land and its people. Another is to make sure you have tapped all possible resources available to you.

Andrew Jackson sent out a scathing proclamation to a population that viewed the very target of his ire as their own Robin Hood. Laffite and his men made it possible for the people of southeastern Louisiana to avoid high tariffs and taxes, to - in some cases - be able to afford necessities and to be able to have continued access to the European (particularly French) goods that they craved. Smuggling in and of itself was so ingrained in the culture of New Orleans that the citizens probably weren't even sure who Jackson was talking about at first.

Andrew Jackson was also denouncing an offer of powder, arms and sailors when what he lacked most was... wait for it... powder, arms and sailors. Men showed up from Mississippi and Kentucky half naked and without guns, Patterson was wringing his hands for the lack of sailors he had and, though cannon were plentiful, ball, black powder and flints were in extremely short supply. Laffite offered everything Jackson did not have, and more than once too. At this point, Caesar would have smacked Jackson upside the head.

Eventually, cooler heads prevailed and Andrew Jackson did meet with Jean Laffite. The details of their discussion are lost to history but a compromise was worked out whereby Jean and his men would receive Presidential pardons in return for supplies and service at the Battle of New Orleans. Good thing too. Jean Laffite's two twenty-four pounder cannon at Battery Number Three devastated the British like no other war machine available on January 8th and 15th 1815. The guns were crewed entirely by Baratarians and Captained by our old friends Dominique Youx and Renato Beluche.

The truth of the matter is that Jackson opened his mouth and inserted his foot on principle before taking stock of the situation. It wasn't like him and perhaps that's why it stands out as such a ridiculous decision. Despite that, the U.S. won the day, confirming her independence from Britain once and for all.

And the Laffites, you ask? Well, that's another story for another day. Suffice it to say that I wouldn't be surprised to know that the brothers had a good laugh at being marked "hellish banditti". If anything, they knew themselves pretty darn well.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Andrew Jackson kicked ass! Plus, he was about the last fiscally responsible President we've had (and rightly belongs on the $20 bill). Is that supposed to be Jean Laffite in the hat with the spyglass? Oh well, at least he doesn't look like "Jean Lafoot the barefoot pirate"... And hail to the heros of the battle New Orleans!

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy! Yes, that is "supposed to be" my cousin Laffite. Aside from the historical fact that he only wore a mustache when he couldn't shave, I'd say that's probably the only inacuracy with regard to his handsome appearance.