Friday, July 4, 2008
WHEN DID the great American venture really get rolling? Was it in July 1776 in Philadelphia, as we tell ourselves this day to the accompaniment of fireworks and other patriotic noise? Or was it in fact nearly 40 years later, during a chill January in a swampy place in the Deep South? Daniel Walker Howe would argue that it was the latter. Mr. Howe is a historian, the author of a book, "What Hath God Wrought," describing the country's dramatic, nearly incredible, expansion, which culminated in 1848 when it completed its leap from sea to sea by taking California from Mexico.
He puts the beginning around Jan. 1, 1815, when Gen. Andrew Jackson was faced with the need to save the very important city of New Orleans from the British army. He won the battle, and that somewhat anticlimactic victory (the War of 1812 had already been officially ended by a treaty signed in Europe, but they hadn't gotten the word in New Orleans), produced an inspiring bit of folklore in which American backwoods sharpshooters routed British professional soldiers, who, in the words of a popular 1950s recording, "ran so fast that the hounds couldn't catch 'em."
In fact, as Mr. Howe points out, the militias' marksmanship didn't win the day; some of them actually broke and ran (not an uncommon occurrence with militias), and the conditions weren't very good for sharpshooting, anyway. Andrew Jackson won with a somewhat motley, outnumbered army that Mr. Howe describes in detail: "There were Tennessee militia . . ., Louisiana militia, mostly French-speaking, and mounted Mississippi dragoons. There was an Irish American regiment called the Louisiana Blues and two battalions of black men, one made up of African Americans and the other of Haitian immigrants. . . . . Up from their hideout at Barataria came the notorious pirate band of Jean and Pierre Lafitte. . . . Jackson's orders to this heterogeneous army had to be translated not only into French but also into Spanish." Jackson also benefited from luck, British blunders and some good made-in-America artillery, which was probably decisive.
The aftermath in 1815 was not all that inspirational. Jackson never gave the black soldiers the fair rewards he had promised them. The various factions, faiths and ethnic groupings that had jostled and contended since the beginning of the Republic did not achieve mutual peace and understanding forevermore, as the nation's subsequent history testifies. But this much can be said: that this was a wildly disparate army with a surprisingly common outlook. It was made up of people who thought themselves worth something even if others didn't agree, or at least never had in Europe or the colonies. Some dreamed simply of being freemen. Just about all wanted, more than anything, land of their own and the opportunity to till it themselves, free of ancient ties and obligations, and to make of themselves what they could. It was the 1776 dream of liberty and independence made personal, and although for some it was to be deferred for generations, it has remained the country's greatest motivational force. When word of the victory in New Orleans reached Washington, D.C., four weeks later, citizens lit up the town with all the fire they could safely muster. Tonight we will continue the tradition.