Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Oath of Loyalty and National Identity

At one point, Jean Laffite required an oath of loyalty of all his privateers operating out of Galveston. Why was that necessary? Did he think an oath would make them more loyal? Or did it have more to do with the shifting laws concerning privateering?

After the War of 1812 the American admiralty courts began regarding any privateering vessel manned by multinational crews to be a pirate ship. Multinational crews on ships are a very common thing. Because ships travel from one destination to another, none of the people on a ship will typically remain in the territorial waters of their own country all of the time. This is true of passenger vessels, ships that transport goods, and to some extent even of fishing vessels. That's just the nature of the work. Because of this, crews can be recruited in many different locations and can return to their home port periodically to be with their families. The fact that people belonging to different nations work together on the same ship is not a good indication that it is engaged in piracy.

However, to understand the issue of  multinational versus single nation crews, we need to better acquaint ourselves with the difference between piracy and privateering as generally understood at the time:

   Broadly defined, piracy was the unlawful taking of one vessel by another one. It was simple highway robbery on the seas. In time of war, however, the merchant trade of each combatant became the legitimate prey not only of its' opponents warships, but also of private armed vessels, or privateers. In order to finance its war efforts while damaging the economy of its enemies, a government issued letters of marque and reprisal to qualified vessels. The owners -- and often they were whole syndicates of investors -- armed, equipped, and crewed their ships at their own expense, and posted a hefty cash bond as guarantee that they would observe the rules of warfare and respect civilian life. The vessels were supposed to be commissioned in the home port of the commission-granting country. Their crews were supposed to be made up of a majority of men native to that country. They were to bring their prizes into the port of the commissioning country or a friendly country, where a court of admiralty would examine papers and other evidence to decide whether the prize was eligible for capture and lawfully taken. If the court awarded possession of the prize to its captors, the prize ship and its cargo were sold and the proceeds shared between the crew, the investors and the government whose flag the privateer flew. (Davis, The Pirates Laffite, pp. 28-29)
This is how Jean Laffite spelled Carthagena in his letter to Madison
What would it mean that a crew consisted of a "majority of men native" to a particular country?  This question is trickier than one would suppose, especially with new countries, such as Cartagena and the United States, the majority of whose adult citizens at the time were all born as the subjects of a European country (Britain or Spain) long before the new country came into being. Let us remember that in 1812, the United States was only 36 years old, and anyone below that age could not possibly have been born an American citizen. The Republic of Cartagena, whose independence was won in 1811, was only a year old at the time. Jean Laffite had a letter of marque from Cartagena, and he was not a native of that country, nor had he ever lived there when he accepted that commission.

The flag of Cartagena

The fact of the matter is that multinational crews typically worked on most private vessels, and that countries at war with each other do not always even recognize each others'  rights to grant citizenship. Britain was kidnapping and "impressing" American sailors all the time before war was declared, on the theory that "once a British subject, always a British subject."

How did you become a citizen of a country that only just now had come into being? One way was to have been born there. Another was naturalization. Some countries, like Switzerland, make it next to impossible for someone not born there to become a citizen. Others, like the United States, make people jump through a series of hoops, involving a combination of legal residence, affidavits by sponsoring citizens, a test on civics that has to be passed and ultimately an oath of loyalty. Other countries, such as Columbia during the period when Jean Laffite later came to live there (the 1820s), make it much easier to become a citizen. You merely have to show up and evince your willingness to serve.

How much should you have to give up in order to become a citizen? Can you still have other loyalties? Or should you have to tear from your heart all love and tenderness for your country of origin? Should you have to give up your language, your religion, your customs and your traditions? Theodore Roosevelt seemed to think so.

"In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man's becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American...There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag, which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization, just as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are hostile...We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language...and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people." Theodore Roosevelt, 1919.
When America was first founded, everyone was a new American, and people from other countries besides England, such as DuPont de Nemours, were welcomed with open arms. In the national archives, there is a letter from DuPont de Nemours in French to President Madison thanking him  for a Navy commission granted his grandson. President Madison was happy to help DuPont, and he did not lecture him about how maybe he should learn English first. Ironically, that letter is right next to the letter by Jean Laffite asking to be reimbursed for his stolen ships. Laffite's letter was in English, but it did contain a lot of misspellings. Laffite was trying to fit in, and DuPont was not.  Clearly something else was at play here when Laffite was rebuffed, but DuPont was rewarded than Theodore Roosevelt's linguistic jingoism. Nobody thought at the time that you had to speak English exclusively in order to be a good American.

Letter from Dupont to Madison

But as things progressed, fear of being overwhelmed by a majority of non-British immigrants began to upset many powerful people, and prejudice against others who spoke different languages at home or who belonged to a different religion became acceptable. It was not unusual for Catholics to be held in suspicion, because of their loyalty to the Pope, which was thought to conflict with their citizenship, or for Jews to have their religion cited as a reason why they could not serve in diplomatic positions abroad. The French speaking population of Louisiana was forced to stop speaking French by punishment for same in the public schools and many native American tribes suffered the same.

As this issue of nationality versus citizenship began to hold a more prominent place in the American imagination, Jean Laffite was faced with a quandary in his rulership over Galveston. How could he show that the crews of his vessels were not pirates, despite the fact that the sailors came from different races or nations and spoke different languages and believed in different creeds? The answer was a simple legalistic one: make them all swear loyalty to Jean Laffite's country and its flag.

Was Jean Laffite a tyrant when he did this? Not at all. He was an extremely tolerant man. He had no desire to change the people who worked for him into carbon copies of himself. He thought it was fine for them to speak different languages and worship different gods, as long as they served him well. But the legalistic expedient of the loyalty oath was a way to present a united front to the American legal system, which wanted to make sure everybody belonged to the same nation when they served together.

Which attitude was more truly American in spirit, Laffite's openness or the progressively more stifling stance of the American legal system?

No comments:

Post a Comment