Thursday, March 15, 2012

History: Unfotunate Remembrances

Today is, to the best of history’s knowledge, the 245th anniversary of the birth of Andrew Jackson. Of course all the Brethren know that General Jackson is a Triple P favorite. This is due, for the most part, to his involvement with the Baratarian “pirates” who helped Jackson and his men prevail at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. From well-knowns like the brothers Laffite to more obscure – and yet more involved – seafarers such as Dominique Youx and Renato Beluche, Jackson used them all to good advantage on the line at Rodriguez Canal. For his trouble, he came away from New Orleans a national hero who was lionized as America’s “New Washington”.

Not everyone thought so very much of Jackson, despite the fact that few of his detractors had the stones to confront the General head on. The handful who did, like Louisiana State Supreme Court Judge Dominick Hall, did so in court. The rest spoke unkindly of Jackson in letter, memoir or foreign language – especially French. Some took an even more underhanded – and one would have to say cruel – route and attacked the General’s one true love: his wife.

Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson was born in the same year as her husband and was, like him, a child of the American frontier. Unlike Andrew, however, Rachel had very little in the way of formal education. She could certainly read and write, as well as hold her own in conversation, and she was possessed of an iron will that allowed her to bear up under the strains of illness, childlessness and long periods apart from her beloved husband. That said, she was a hard-drinking, pipe-smoking everywoman who preferred to run her plantation and sew her own clothes rather than mingle in glittering company.

In a place like New Orleans, where even a war on the doorstep could not so much as temporarily set aside a long-standing, European-based codified social structure, Rachel stuck out like a sore thumb. It only took the right sort of individual with an ax to grind to point that fact out, in the meanest way possible, to all of posterity.

Enter Vincent Nolte. Born to German parents in Italy, Nolte was a world traveler who had lived through everything from the Napoleonic Wars to the New Madrid earthquake. He was a banker, merchant and speculator who made a name for himself providing raw wool, cotton and linen to New Orleans and her surrounding areas. As a staunch opponent of the smuggling trade that emanated from the Laffites' Barataria, Nolte was nothing if not happy to see the pirates’ downfall shortly before the war came to his own back yard.

He was also happy to do what he could toward the war effort, offering bales of wool from his warehouses for the making of uniforms and only grumbling when Jackson commandeered his cotton to use as bulwark on the canal.

When the fighting was over, but New Orleans was still under marshal law per Jackson’s orders, Nolte approached the General in an effort to “settle his account”. As Nolte saw it, his had been a business transaction with the military. Now it was time for Jackson to reimburse the merchant for his losses. According to Nolte’s side of the story in his rather pompously entitled book The Memoirs of Vincent Nolte: Reminiscences in the Period of Anthony Adverse, or Fifty Years in Both Hemispheres which was published posthumously in1854, he was out a good bit of cash. He claims to have addressed Jackson with a bill in which each bale of wool cost the merchant 10 cents a pound, and each of cotton up to 12 ½ cents a pound. Jackson, seeing Nolte for what he was – a speculator who would have done business with the British had they won the day, and that without batting an eye – told Nolte in the nicest possible way to go pound sand.

After this, Nolte told anyone who would listen that Jackson was a penurious ego-maniac who would run the city and the people of New Orleans into the ground in his quest for ultimate power. This opinion did not stop Vincent Nolte from attending the balls and dinners given in the General’s honor, however, and one of them afforded the begrudged merchant a chance at ultimate revenge.

Nolte’s comments in his memoir are certainly best left to him:

After supper we were treated to a most delicious pas de deux by the conqueror and his spouse, an emigrant of the lower classes, whom he had from a Georgia planter, and who explained by her enormous corpulence that French saying, ‘She shows how far the skin can be stretched.’ To see these two figures, the general a long, haggard man, with limbs like a skeleton, and Madame la Generale, a short, fat dumpling, bobbing opposite each other like half-drunken Indians, to the wild melody of Possum up de Gum Tree, and endeavoring to make a spring into the air, was very remarkable, and far more edifying a spectacle than any European ballet could possibly have furnished.

Nolte’s unkindness comes down to the modern ear dripping with bad manners and ill-directed spleen. It’s unfortunate given the scope of both his life and his memoir that the above paragraph is one of the most often quoted from Nolte’s book. It is also an abject lesson for those who would leave something of themselves and their era behind them in writing. It probably goes without saying that, if we did not remember the War of 1812, the Battle of New Orleans and Andrew Jackson, Vincent Nolte would be quoted – at least in the United States – very little if at all.

Header: Possibly posthumous portrait of Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson, artist unknown


Undine said...

His language is a bit more polished, but otherwise Nolte would fit right in on the internet.

Whenever I see such cases of minor figures in history being mostly, or solely, remembered for such unflattering words or deeds, I always wonder--would they prefer to be completely forgotten, or would they just be grateful to be mentioned by posterity at all, no matter how disparagingly?

Pauline said...

I think so too, frankly. What Mr. Nolte probably imagined were clever observances have come down to us a little differently.

And that is a very thoughtful - and thought-provoking - question, my friend. The way I percieve Nolte, at least, I would say the latter. To use an Internet expression, he seems to me to have been a troll who would only be happy when fed. Purely my opinion, though.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I agree with Undine with the only addition being that while Nolte would fit right in on the internet, his comments would of course be under the ubiquitous name "anonymous".

Pauline said...

Oh yes, Timmy! There's very little question that such would be the case.