Monday, December 1, 2014

The Andrew Jackson Contempt Fine Refund Debates

It was Senator Lewis Field Linn from Missouri who in 1842 introduced the bill to get Andrew Jackson a refund from Congress of his contempt fine of a thousand dollars paid in 1815 under the orders of Judge Dominick Hall.

Lewis Field Linn
from the wikipedia

At the time, Jean Laffite was residing in Missouri and may well have been one of Linn's constituents. The debates about Jackson's refund raged for two years, and Linn did not live to see the thing to its conclusion, as he died on October 3, 1843.

What must Jean Laffite have thought, reading in the papers about those debates? Did Andrew Jackson deserve to have his thousand dollars refunded for trampling on the civil liberties of citizens in New Orleans? In contrast, did he, Jean Laffite,  who saved to city of New Orleans from the British by donating flints and powder and artillery and men and fighting for its defense at the risk of his life not deserve to have his $500,000 loss at the hands of Patterson and Ross during their raid on Barataria refunded? Which refund would have advanced the cause of liberty? Which was meant only to weaken civil liberties in times of war?

Next year, 2015, marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans. Many celebrations are being planned, and those of us who are interested, but live far away, can only regret that we can't afford to go. But did you know that Andrew Jackson himself faced a similar situation in 1839? He wrote to his nephew, Andrew Jackson Donelson that it would be impossible for him to attend the annual Battle of New Orleans celebration in Louisiana, due to insufficient funds. He then hinted that the thousand dollars he paid to the court back in 1815 as a contempt fine ought really to be refunded to him, as he had sacrificed so much for his country! You didn't see Jean Laffite making such complaints. He could not go to New Orleans for the celebration, not because he didn't have enough money for the trip, but because if he were recognized, he might still be hanged for a pirate!

Whenever we are feeling sorry for ourselves and think we have been dealt with unfairly, it is good to remember Jean Laffite, who was dealt with the most unfairly of all.

Alexander Bellow, from Louisiana, offered a modification to Senator Linn's proposed bill to the effect that nothing in the refund should be construed as questioning the fidelity of the citizens of New Orleans, but a reply quickly came that of course the fidelity of citizens of New Orleans was in question. That was the reason for the imposition of martial law against them in the first place!

If that was the case, then Andrew Jackson came not as a liberator but as a conqueror to that city! Meanwhile, in December,  close to Christmas, Senator Linn tried to support the refund bill by declaring: "This bill must pass. The American people have willed it.  All go for it -- Jew and Gentile, Democrat and Whig...." But the bill did not pass.

The bill was introduced in the House by Charles Jared Ingersoll in March of 1842 as "A Bill for the Relief of General Andrew Jackson." Jackson did not like it. It made him seem like a pauper and in need of charity. He wanted it said that the fine he had been forced to pay was unjust, because he had done nothing wrong.

John Quincy Adams spoke up against the bill, saying it had already been passed, but Jackson supporters did not want it unless it spoke ill of the judge who ordered the fine.

President Tyler had this to say about the bill in his Annual Message: "I have no doubt that the American people wished this fine to be paid back. It might be so. At least a portion of them wished it -- a portion commonly called the Democratic Party."

After this, all partisan hell broke loose and John Quincy Adams declared that all the Democrats were paying court to Andrew Jackson, as he would choose the next presidential candidate for that party.

But as this proved to be actually true, the Democrats redoubled their efforts to pass the bill!  Charles Conrad of Louisiana lost his seat as a result of not backing the bill, and it was clear that Andrew Jackson was a kingmaker for the party. John C. Calhoun resigned from the senate rather than get embroiled in the refund debates. He wanted to run for president, so he could not afford to make waves.

When the refund eventually passed  and President Tyler signed it into law on February 16, 1844, it carried six percent interest per annum, so that Jackson for his thousand dollar investment in 1815 got $2,732.90.

Not a bad deal, considering what interest rates are like today! Meanwhile, Jean Laffite had to write off the $500,000 that Patterson and Ross stole from him as a bad debt. But he could afford to, because unlike Jackson, he was not a pauper.

Warshauer, Matthew. 2006. Andrew Jackson and the Politics of Martial Law. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.


  1. Interesting. I did not know that Jackson had financial difficulties which prevented him from attending the Battle of New Orleans festivities in the late 1830s.

    1. Hi, Pam, I did not know this, either, until I read it in Matthew Warshauer's book. But according to Warshauer (p.78) "Jackson was flat broke. His adopted son Andrew Jackson, Jr. was a poor businessman and a notorious spendthrift. The result was excessive debt for Jackson." He had to pull strings just to avoid bankruptcy.