Yesterday (January 8, 2011) was the 196th Anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, fought in 1815. The Battle of New Orleans is extremely important in the history of the United States of America because it is the only battle of the War of 1812 which the Americans won. It is extremely unimportant in world history except insofar as it launched the political career of Andrew Jackson and crystalized the legend of the (already nearly legendary) Pirate Captain Jean Lafitte, whose career spanned from France to Barataria Bay and Grand Isle, Louisiana, to Galveston, Texas, to Tzilam Bravo, Yucatan, Mexico, where there is a monument to him (as well as the marvelous [German Refugee owned] Bungalow Hotel Capitan Lafitte south of Cancun—one of my favorite resorts in the entire world).
But the War of 1812 was an unmitigated catastrophe for the United States, and might well have ended the country’s history all together. Washington, D.C., was not only captured and burned but briefly occupied by the British Troops. How the Fall of the Capital City and Capitol buildings to the former rulers of the land, did not spell the end of the not even 38 year old nascent Federal republic can be answered in one word: Napoleon.
The British army and navy were so tied up during the years 1812-1814 trying to dethrone the Corsican Emperor of the French who also wanted to be Emperor of Europe that they really just couldn’t be bothered to invest the time and energy it was going to take to discipline the rowdy colonials in America.
In any case, just before the British occupied the White House, First Lady Dolly Madison had the foresight (did she know the British were going to burn the entire city?) to cut a famous picture of George Washington out of its frame and take it off somewhere safe. Dolly Madison might otherwise be forgotten to history, so this was her great moment, but so far as the War of 1812 goes, it was just a disaster, and didn’t reflect too well on the stability of the young nation known as the USA.
The British won all the significant conflicts “on the land and on the sea” and it was just pure preoccupation with Napoleon that led them to make peace in November of 1814—which leads us to the funniest part of the great American Victory in New Orleans—it was won two months after the war was over…. But you see, since the war had been so terrible for the Americans, they were terribly happy about Colonel Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British, led by General Edward Michael Pakenham (Brother in Law of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who is most celebrated in history for a battle he won in a muddy field in Belgium, known by the appropriately grody name of “Waterloo”—which coincidentally was the end or “Waterloo” for Napoleon Bonaparte himself—so had the war of 1812 gone on any longer—America MIGHT have been lost…)
Anyhow—my Nachitoches, Louisiana-born and New Orleans educated grandmother Helen always made sure we celebrated Battle of New Orleans day—it was kind of the last day of the Christmas holidays—2 days after the Feast of the Epiphany, 5 days after her husband’s (my grandfather’s, the head of the household’s) birthday, and a week after New Year’s.
Since Elena and her mother and Charlie and I had celebrated Christmas at Tujague’s Restaurant (Founded 1856), and I did very little after December 25 to celebrate any of the twelve days of Christmas, not even 12th night or epiphany, and only went to see fireworks by the artillery in front of Jackson Square on New Year’s Eve, I decided to celebrate the Battle of New Orleans Day there, albeit sadly alone and without Elena and Charlie—and it was great again…. their spicy Briskette between dishes is one of the most distinctive things they’ve got… but everything there is wonderful. According to one of the many family legends about him, my grandmother’s father “Judge Benny” in New Orleans (once of the Louisiana Supreme Court and a mentor of a young lawyer named Huey Pierce Long, but who died the year I was born) told stories about Tujague’s at the turn of the LAST century—when they didn’t charge for food but had oysters piled up and only charged for liquor…. And so the late Autumn—Winter Solstice Holidays ended and yesterday *January 9, 2011* was indeed a dull dreary day in New Orleans—rainy and as wintery as it gets around here. Worst of all, Charlie got on an aeroplane and flew back to drab, dreadful Baltimore, from whence he returned to dull but not quite so drab and dreadful Annapolis to begin his second term as a Freshman at St. John’s College—but he loves that little red-brick colonial college and town—and the classical education in language and philosophy he is getting there, so he’s happy.
I suppose the holidays of the end of the year really begin with Halloween, then All Saints then All Souls, then Guy Fawkes November 5 & Veterans’ Day/Remembrance Day/November 11, then Thanksgiving, then St. Andrews’ Day and Christ the King, then Advent with its Wreathes and multi-windowed, day-by-day Advent Calendars followed by December 25, St. Stephens’ Day, St. Johns’ Day, Holy Innocents, and the remainder of the Twelve Days of Christmas—-and for us as a family it all ended with this strange celebration of Battle of New Orleans Day—the battle that the Americans won that decided nothing because the war was over (*but I always used to wonder, what if the British HAD captured New Orleans? well, the food here probably wouldn’t have been nearly so good for one thing).
So anyhow, the Battle of New Orleans was a key event in U.S. history along only one axis or dimension: this was the battle that more than anything else launched Andrew Jackson of Tennessee towards the Presidency (he was the first President from “the West”, in his case Tennessee). Jackson’s rise and the associated socio-cultural and political processes doomed (1) the Bank of the United States, whose demise was a good thing, and (2) the Five Civilized Tribes of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole Indians, which was a very bad thing, but very important in the history of the U.S. and the Southern States in particular. Because of his role in the Battle of New Orleans and as Seventh President, Andrew Jackson presides over the main square of New Orleans in front of St. Louis Cathedral, with an inscription on the pedestal “The Union must and shall be preserved” which he not only never said but never would have said (it was inscribed there by the occupying Yankee General—“Butler the Beast,” after New Orleans’ somewhat cowardly if rationally self-preservative surrender during 1862—the first full year of the War Between the States). Jackson was a dedicated “states rights” democrat—a true Jacksonian in fact—and that is why, among other things, he dismantled the Bank of the United States in an effort to decentralize credit.
But the removal of the Southern Civilized Tribes was a different and very sad story. Much shame and no glory to Jackson on that account. But oddly enough it was just as symbolic and representative of the transformative economic debates and struggles of the 19th Century as the Bank itself. The truth about the Cherokee of Georgia, in particular, was that they were almost completely acculturated. They had been agriculturalists for a thousand years before the arrival of the white man and lived in essentially stone-age/palaeo-technological urban centers like Etowah not one iota less sophisticated than most of the templed sites of Mexico—excluding only the Maya and Zapotec who exceeded the others by their public literacy, albeit elaborately naturalistic hieroglyphs which were ornate, baroque, and cumbersome, even compared to Egyptian hieroglyphs, never mind cuneiform or alphabetic writing…. But the Cherokee under Anglo-influence even developed their own alphabet in the 19th century for legal and literary purposes.
So just how acculturated were the Cherokee? More than 60% of the lowland Cherokee population in Georgia had converted to Christianity by 1810, their chiefs lived in large neo-classical “Plantation” homes—and the Cherokee people held, per capita, as many African slaves as white people did and employed them in exactly the same way—slavery having been a long-standing tradition among all the Five Southern Civilized Tribes. The Cherokee had instituted Anglo-style courts and jury-trials and newspapers and schools and churches. There was only one regard in which the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole refused to acculturate to the Anglo-American ways—and it turned out this was fatal. Despite heavy intermarriage and adoption of Western customs of dress and commerce (in movable property and goods), the Cherokee refused to adopt private property.
This feature of North American aboriginal land tenure—primitive communism—and this feature alone of the Anglo-Cherokee lifestyle meant that the two cultures could not exist in Georgia, nor the Choctaw in Mississippi nor the Creek in Alabama. This was a classic example of the Marxist confrontation between two dialectically opposed “modes of production”, and “primitive communism” and private property regimes simply are incompatible, apparently—they cannot peacefully coexist within the same society. In terms of cultural evolution, it may be interesting to note that the Maya, the most advanced and literate of all Native American cultures, had a strong tradition of private property—and litigated legal disputes over land that continued from pre-Hispanic times through and beyond the Spanish colonial period.
And so it was (and still is) that the private property holding and accustomed Yucatec Maya and Aztec of Mexico survived in much greater numbers than their illiterate and “communistic” North American cousins—despite so many other symbolic and structural similarities between the political, economic, and cultural manifestations between North and Middle America.
Nowhere in North America did population grow as large as in Mexico, but Alabama and Mississippi had even higher density and more elaborate and deep historical roots for the civilized tribes than Georgia—though even Hernando de Soto was overwhelmed with the riches of the Natives of Georgia when he arrived in the 1540s—but Moundville in Alabama is considered one of the most elaborate of pre-Hispanic urban centers in North America. And the dozens of elaborate mounded Mississippian sites from Natchez and Vicksburg to Winterville and the Yazoo Basin and Teoc in Carroll County, ancestral Plantation (and Indian mound site) home of the family of Senator John McCain, at which later place I have had the privilege of participating in Harvard-Lower Mississippi Survey archaeological research all attest to a widespread sophisticated culture which was worthy of more place in world history than Ancient Native Mississippian society has retained, in large part thanks to Andrew Jackson.
Still, as the last Christmas season vanishes and the New Year begins in earnest, and I renew my own war to preserve the private property “mode of production” from the creeping modern communism of today’s centralized banks, I look back on the history of the Battle of New Orleans and impetus it gave to the Seventh President’s career with a mixture of awe and sad wonder: the Cherokee had every right to remain in Georgia and it was a crime to deprive them of THEIR property rights. The Choctaw homelands of Mississippi and the Creeks of Alabama the same. Why could the white settlers NOT have worked out a compromise between private property ownership on Anglo lands and communal ownership within the Indian Nations—as they were called, and as they rightfully were? Or would the compromise have been one of extensions of credit by which the Cherokee would have been further assimilated into Anglo society, but not removed by force, and would this credit economy, if centralized by a Bank of the United States (such as the Federal Reserve ultimately became?) not have ultimately led to a general imposition of communal land tenure such as that towards which the United States appears to be tending at the present time….communal except owned not by Indian tribes controlled by friendly chiefs, but by far off bank bureaucrats who work together with the government…..