Friday, March 7, 2014

Why not Honor Jean Laffite? Because Acknowledging a Debt is Hard

On Historia Obscura, the latest article is about how we should honor Jean Laffite for his contributions to the American victory in the series of engagements known as the Battle of New Orleans. You would think that after nearly two hundred years, that proposition would be relatively uncontroversial. All of Laffite's enemies have since died, his contemporary rivals and detractors are not  here to continue to besmirch his name, and we have access to the facts.

And yet down in New Orleans there is some fellow by the name of Tim Pickles who wants to say that Jean Laffite helped the British and not the Americans. Why? What's in it for him? Maybe he is a historian who hopes to get credit for a revision of history. Maybe repeating the same old story won't win him any points.

But there are others who step up to support him, in a seemingly unmotivated, disinterested way. One comment was that the only real question  is where Jean Laffite was at every point in each battle, turning the issue of Laffite's loyalty into a historical game of  "Where's Waldo?"

Really? Where was Andrew Jackson at every point in each battle? If we find no record of his whereabouts at any particular junction, are we going to assume that he had sold out to the British?

An Artist's Conception of Jean Laffite by Lanie Frick

People seem to doubt the loyalty of Jean Laffite to the United States precisely because the United States government was not kind to him. Where he offered support and undying loyalty, courage in battle and materials supplied with no hope of ever being repaid, they sent ships against him, robbed him of his goods, and after the war eventually chased him away, forcing him to relocate to Galveston and afterwards telling him he must leave there, too. Sometimes when people are being mean to you, they project their own feelings onto you, assuming that you can't possibly like them, because they don't deserve it.

But Jean Laffite did like the United States of America. He loved it very much, so much so that he was willing to give his life, his wealth and his sacred honor in its support. Was he a courageous fighter, a bold tactician and a commander of men? Yes. And he used all that to help with the Battle of New Orleans. He was right there in the thick of things, getting his hands dirty building mud fortifications, making sure everyone had enough flints for their muskets and advising about the lay of the land, which was not known to Andrew Jackson. He went down the line and helped lift the morale of the men. He sent key personnel to important locations to be where they needed to be to meet and defeat the enemy.

But Jean Laffite was also a financier, a businessman and privateer. One of his major contributions to the Battle of New Orleans was supplying gunpowder and flints free of charge at a time when the regular armed forces of the United States did not have any.

The idea that Laffite's contribution should be judged solely on his achievements as a foot soldier -- how many men he shot with a musket or a cannon or killed with his bare hands -- is ludicrous. We don't judge Andrew Jackson that way!

Why would people think this? Perhaps because we have been conditioned to forget that patriotism and support of one's country can take many forms. George Washington was a great American, but so was Haym Solomon. Washington led armies and spent money. Haym Solomon provided an entire fortune to make sure that Washington could do this. There could not have been one without the other. But the contributions of the General are well known. The debt of the nation to the broker/banker is forgotten.

Jean Laffite was a renaissance man. He was like George Washington and Haym Solomon all rolled into one. He was a leader of men, a bold fighter and also the source of the funding for arming his own subordinates as well as Jackson's men. In this way, he is both a hero and a benefactor.

But people are seldom willing to openly acknowledge debts they can never repay.  Sometimes, when they are owed too much, benefactors are reviled by precisely those people who ought to be grateful. While Jackson acknowledged Jean Laffite's material contribution to the Battle of New Orleans, James Madison never did, except by a proclamation offering to pardon all who participated in the battle. Pardon! What was there to pardon? That they didn't pay customs taxes? What about all the money they contributed to the government during the war?

The United States of America was founded on the idea that taxes should not be taken by force, but that people should use their own money and their own muskets and their own gunpowder and flints to form a well regulated militia. That was the distinguishing factor between the British and the Americans. That was why Jean Laffite was on the American side in the first place. It was why  though "proscribed" by his adopted country, he continued to love her and to want her to prosper.

 Madison, in his pardon proclamation,  named no names and offered no commendations, and the ships and goods plundered by the United States Army and Navy in the Patterson-Ross raid were never returned. The gunpowder and flint donated after the raid were never paid for. In the end, the atmosphere in New Orleans became so poisonous toward the Laffites that they decided they had better leave and start life elsewhere.

Why did this happen? Because when people rob you, they will not be content just to take your goods. They will also want to be able to justify what they did by saying you deserved it. This kind of behavior is going on to this very day.

Let's remember the debt we all owe to Jean Laffite. It can never be repaid, but the least we can do is give credit where credit is due. He was a hero, and he was wronged. Let's not forget what he did for the nation, despite the way he was treated!


  1. I have to admit I really am not a major fan of Andrew Jackson, especially considering he took such relish in fighting Indians. He might have had his strong points as president, but his decision to remove the Cherokees has always made me detest him on some level. Interesting we never learned about Jean Laffite when studying the War of 1812.

    1. I have very mixed feelings about Andrew Jackson, too. He was a deeply flawed man. It is not only what he did to the Cherokees, though that was awful. But he had a whole pattern of tyrannical behavior.

      After the Battle of New Orleans he treated the French Creoles in New Orleans very badly, too. He imposed martial law, jailed people for publishing the news of the peace treaty and went so far as to imprison a Federal judge who granted a writ of habeas corpus.

      I think that power went to his head. This is a danger with any government official who is granted more power than an ordinary citizen.

    2. Too bad teachers do not teach their kids about Jean Laffite's contributions rather than Andrew Jackson. I have an idea for you, Aya. Have you considered doing a presentation at a local high school about Jean Laffite to tie in with a US history course? High school kids are old enough to read Theodosia and the Pirates, in my opinion, and maybe that is another way to get the word out about your book.

    3. Julia, that's a great idea! I would love to speak before high school history classes about Jean Laffite. I am not sure whether they are teaching about him now, but I do think it's strange they did not back when you were in school.

      I might wait until the sequel is out, though, as I believe it is more family friendly.

    4. Or, try a community college? You know you might find an instructor who would be more willing to work with you on the content of the books. I guess I grew up in a different place, but no one was protective of what we were reading by high school level. My sister's eighth grade class watched Schindler's List, and yes they needed permission slips, but for most families it was not a problem.

    5. Yes, I would love to speak before college classes about this. I would just need to make some contacts among local history professors to get a proper invite. But it should be possible. I'm putting it on my list of things to do!