Sean Wilentz, now successor to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., as editor of Henry Holt and Company’s series on The American Presidents, authored the series’ 2005 biography Andrew Jackson, a 166-page review of the life of America’s seventh and still controversial president.
With Jackson’s 242nd birthday tomorrow, it seems appropriate to offer an excerpt or two from this brief, balanced but very sympathetic, and worthwhile biography. Let’s begin with a two-part view of the event which made Jackson’s national reputation and punctuated the conclusion of the War of 1812, the Battle of New Orleans:
The Battle of New Orleans — Prelude
“The Indian threat routed, Jackson turned his full fury against the British, who, the Americans calculated, were planning an invasion somewhere along the Gulf coast. After repulsing a British attack on Mobile, Jackson made war against the Spanish in West Florida who, in conjunction with the British [he told Rachel], were ‘arming the hostile Indians to butcher our women & children.’ The only snag was that the United States was not formally at war with Spain. Caring little for technicalities, Jackson threatened to invade Florida; the alarmed Spanish governor invited the British to land at Pensacola, in violation of Spanish neutrality. Now fully justified in his own mind, Jackson invaded, seized Pensacola, rendered it militarily useless, then gave it back to the Spanish. A week later, Jackson learned that the British had launched an invasion force from Jamaica, numbering about ten thousand troops and sixty ships, aimed at New Orleans – and that he had been placed in charge of the city’s defenses. He fortified the existing American defenses at Mobile, and then scrambled two thousand soldiers in nine days, arriving with about seven hundred troops in a jumpy city that was unprepared for battle.
“The war had entered a critical phase. A British diversionary force had burned Washington in early August and sent Madison and his cabinet scurrying into the Virginia night. But American militiamen somehow succeeded in halting the British advance at Baltimore. In Anglophilic, Federalist New England, where the war had always been deeply unpopular, there was open talk of secession and pursuing a separate peace; antiwar dissenters planned a convention to meet at Hartford, Connecticut, in mid-December. Across the Atlantic, in the Flemish town of Ghent, an American delegation, including John Quincy Adams, lately the American minister to St. Petersburg, and Henry Clay, had undertaken peace talks with the British, but was running into diplomatic roadblocks. News traveled slowly, and it was impossible to know whether an honorable settlement, continued military stalemate, or national dissolution was in the offing.
“New Orleans was an entryway to the immense territories obtained in the Louisiana Purchase, the bulwark of what Thomas Jefferson had envisaged as an American empire of liberty. If the British could seize the city, they would control the entire lower Mississippi Valley – and, if they linked up with royal forces sent from Canada, they would then effectively control all of what was then the American West. As the British government had never recognized the spanish retrocession of these western lands to the French in 1800. The invaders could claim that the entire Louisiana Purchase had been illegitimate and that, by right of conquest, the land belonged to Britain. But regardless of such scheming, possession of New Orleans was crucial to the outcome of the current fighting. Should the Americans lose the city – and if no settlement was forthcoming at Ghent – they would almost certainly lose the war. And although New Orkleans, surrounded by lakes and bayous, enjoyed formidable natural protections against invasion, the American situation there was highly uncertain.
“Louisiana had been admitted to the Union in 1812, but New Orleans, with its long-resident Creole French and Spanish population, could not be counted on for undivided loyalty and support. South of the city, control of the bayous around Barataria Bay belonged to a band of well-armed privateers and smugglers, commanded by Haitian-born Jean Lafitte, whose only loyalties were to themselves. As in any southern state, there were fears of slave unrest. In January 1811, then territorial governor W.C.C. Claiborne had ruthlessly suppressed a rebellion of upwards of five hundred slaves, who burned several sugarcane plantations north of New Orleans and briefly menaced the city itself. Now, with a British armada at Louisiana’s doorstep, there was reason to fear that the invaders would mobilize the bondsmen.”