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Beverly Chew: the Man Behind the Curtain in Early New Orleans

November 19, 2015 in American History, general history, History, Legal History, Louisiana History, Nautical History, Texas History

Beverly Chew at the height of his power in New Orleans

Beverly Chew at the height of his power in New Orleans

Life was good for the New Orleans business firm of Chew & Relf in the early 1800s: young partners Beverly Chew and Richard Relf controlled a virtual monopoly of the banking, shipping, trading, insurance, and smuggling business in the port city until around 1809, when the Laffite brothers came to town, quickly and systematically cutting into the profits of Chew & Relf’s Gulf Coast network empire.

Jean and Pierre Laffite successfully snatched away the market share of the smuggling business from Chew, Relf and their cohorts Daniel Clark, mainly because since they were getting their goods and slaves from privateers’ captured Spanish prizes, they paid nothing for their wares and consequently could sell them much cheaper because there was no middleman to pay.

The Laffites made an enemy for life of Chew in particular, and he would strike back like a snake when a prime opportunity presented itself eight years later. He wielded much more power in New Orleans than most people realized, and could carry a grudge for years. Along with his partner and other backers, he controlled business in the city for more than 30 years in the early 1800s. Through study of his business connections, deals, and political machinations it is evident that Chew, not Edward Livingston as commonly supposed, was the true power monger behind the curtain of New Orleans, with the help of Relf. Moreover, Chew stayed at the top of the exclusive business elite in New Orleans through the 1830s.

Historian John G. Clark said “The elite which emerged in New Orleans between 1803 and the War of 1812 possessed power and responsibilities unprecedented in the almost 100-year existence of the city.’ (The Business Elite of New Orleans Before 1815)

Born in Virginia in 1773, Chew moved to New Orleans in 1797 from Philadelphia, where he had been an apprentice for prominent merchant Daniel William Coxe and associates, and also had learned financial finagling from Natchez plantation owner William Dunbar, who had traded cotton through Coxe.

According to historian Arthur H. DeRosier Jr., Dunbar used Chew and Relf in the early 1800s to ship bales of cotton through New Orleans, for pre-negotiated prices to Liverpool, seldom taking specie alone for the transactions. Every shipment of cotton included a list of goods Dunbar wanted, which Dunbar would resell for more in the American markets. He floated the real money (gold and silver specie) like so many chess pieces among his agents to make purchases as needed, or to stall payment until goods were delivered from England. Knowing exactly where all the specie, cotton, and goods were took a very careful system of bookkeeping, which Dunbar did well. His protégé, Chew, implemented this system himself upon Dunbar’s death in 1810. (William Dunbar: Scientific Pioneer of the Old Southwest)

Chew and Relf both came to Louisiana about the same time shortly before the turn of the 19th century, in league with the well-known Irish land speculator and businessman Daniel Clark, believed to be one of the wealthiest men in America, and the notorious double-dealing General James Wilkinson, who often was complicit with Spanish authorities.

Chew counted among his personal and confidential close friends the adventurer Philip Nolan, clandestine agent of Wilkinson re Spanish land grant schemes in Louisiana territory. In 1797, before moving to New Orleans, Chew wrote Nolan that he could draw from the Spanish king’s coffers at New Orleans any sum he would have named on account of the General, and it was reported and pretty generally credited then that Nolan had indeed received as much as $5,000. In 1798, Chew wrote to Nolan that he was departing on a voyage to Bilbao, Spain, saying “respecting the connection we have so long contemplated, you will find my wishes for it undiminished, and will be able to make it much more advantageous on my part than when I last saw you.” Details about Chew’s dealings with the Spanish authorities have not been found.

In mid 1804, as President Thomas Jefferson sought input about who to recommend for positions in New Orleans, an unknown letter writer advised that “Beverly Chew of Virginia, connected with M.D. Clark, is a man of very respectable standing and most deservedly so_He loves his Country and is a zealot in its support__He has served Gov. Claiborne essentially.” One wonders if the writer happened to know that Jefferson was a distant cousin of Chew’s. Chew also was a kinsman of Mississippi territorial governor William C. C. Claiborne. Letters of the late 1700s and early 1800s between Jefferson, Coxe, and Dunbar make it look like Jefferson was at least partially responsible for placing Chew in New Orleans to assist Claiborne and learn about Spanish and French plans for the port city.

Claiborne named Chew a justice of the Court of Common Pleas at New Orleans in 1805, and a short time later, appointed him as first postmaster of New Orleans, a temporary position of a few months. This came after an incident in 1803 when the New Orleans City Council had barred Chew and Relf from importing West Indian slaves into the US, largely because when his own slaves were arrested for theft of some whiskey and tobacco from someone named Bond, Chew had admitted in court to accompanying the slaves that night. In 1805, Chew simply skirted the law by having slaves smuggled up the Bayou LaFourche to be sold  there, out of the court’s jurisdiction. The Laffites would later use the same bayou to transport both slaves and goods for smuggling into New Orleans, and may have studied the methods Chew had earlier employed.

“The firm of Chew & Relf …engaged in enterprises that circumvented the law. After the importation of African slaves was outlawed by federal law in 1808, they often acted as middlemen for other firms, some as distant as Charleston, S.C., that wished to import slaves….They used their business contacts with Spanish officials in West Florida to facilitate the landing of slave ships and the distribution of their cargoes at Mobile,” according to Junius P. Rodriguez, in The Louisiana Purchase: A Historical and Geographical Encyclopedia.

Chew counted among his close business associates John Forbes of West Florida, an internationally known trader of long-standing with the British. Forbes was a loyalist who had been with the well-entrenched West Florida frontier firm of Panton, Leslie & Co., earlier. He sold mostly trade goods which came from Britain, including guns, lead and gunpowder. He had a post at Mobile, from which goods could be sold to avoid the New Orleans duties. He was associated with Chew as both a personal friend and merchant through at least 1816.

Despite their often illegal smuggling and other questionable business activities, Chew and Relf never were charged with any crimes as they had their hands in almost every major New Orleans business: they were originators, original shareholders, and members of the board of directors of the New Orleans Insurance Co., insuring vessels, cargoes and specie. Plus they were exclusive agents of the London-based Phoenix Fire Insurance Co. Banking interests formed a major part of their portfolios: Chew was on the board of directors of the Bank of the United States New Orleans branch as well as major stockholder of the Bank of Louisiana. Additionally, in 1805, Chew was on the board of directors of the US Bank of Philadelphia branch at New Orleans along with his good friend Thomas Callender.

Phoenix Fire Insurance which Chew & Relf sold

Chew and Relf had started their New Orleans Anglo-American empire quite early, in 1801, when they joined with land speculator and business dynamo Clark. They dealt in goods for Reed and Forde of Philadelphia, freighted and leased vessels to St. Domingue, Bordeaux and London; received English goods on consignment, and bought and sold staples and groceries on their own account. In one deal, William Dunbar forwarded 3,000 pounds sterling in notes on London endorsed by Chew and Relf to a Charleston, S.C. slave trader as half down, with the balance paid to Chew and Relf. They had a store on St. Louis Street, between Royal and Chartres streets, which served as a “one-stop” shop for a myriad of needs.

According to historian Ernest Obadele-starks in Freebooters and Smugglers: The Foreign Slave Trade in the United States, “Chew and Relf were part of a solidly entrenched business circle that dominated the town (New Orleans) politically, set its social tempo, and controlled economic development by legal, extralegal or illicit means.”

Chew’s British business connections remained solid through all of the War of 1812, but oddly no one in New Orleans ever questioned his loyalties. When almost every other trader was financially hard hit by embargoes and British blockades of US seaports, Chew & Relf did not suffer major losses, not even when their financial backer, Daniel Clark, unexpectedly died in 1813.

In 1810, Chew had increased his political power in the city by marrying Maria Theodore Duer, a relative of the immensely powerful Livingston family of New York, and a cousin to Edward Livingston of New Orleans.

President James Madison appointed Chew as vice consul for Russia at New Orleans in July, 1812, to handle commercial reciprocity between US and Russia since Russia was said to take a favorable view of the American effort to defend neutral shipping rights. Madison either overlooked or was unaware of Chew’s ties to British concerns.

Sensing that the war between the US and England might prove problematic to his business interests, Chew tried to hedge his bets by pushing westward with land speculation in Louisiana. Rapides Parish records files of Oct. 24, 1812, show that Beverly Chew claimed a tract of four hundred acres of land on the left bank of Bayou Rapides, sold to him by a man named Fulton, with the land having been inhabited and cultivated as required by law of the time. No records are available regarding what use Chew made of this property, nor if he later sold it to someone else.

In the summer of 1813, and while his backer Clark was ill, Chew decided to make a trip back east to visit relatives and business concerns in the Philadelphia and Virginia areas. On July 24, 1813, Chew, his wife, and their daughter arrived at Philadelphia from New Orleans on board the brig Astra, making the voyage following a stop in Havana in only eight days. They passed the British blockading squadron around the Cape Henlopen side, without incident as the ship was in ballast.

While Chew was gone from New Orleans, Relf took care of Clark, who died suddenly after appearing to be getting better. A second will which Clark had made disappeared immediately after his death, leaving his original 1811 will, which named Chew and Relf as his co-executors. Clark’s mother, Mary, was named sole inheritor in the original will, but she never received a penny of the estate. Chew and Relf claimed after paying debts and expenses due to wartime, there was no money left, but their business did not suffer any such losses, and no formal accounting of the estate expenses was ever made. The second, missing, will had named different executors and had given a major bequest to Daniel’s sole heir, a daughter named Myra. The controversy over the Clark estate and what happened to all the money would be the focus of an extended and famous Supreme Court battle waged by the Clark daughter, Myra Clark Gaines, in later years.

During the British invasion of Louisiana in 1814-1815 and subsequent Battle of New Orleans, Chew served as a volunteer rifleman under General Andrew Jackson in Beale’s Rifles.

In late 1816, Chew was appointed customs collector for the Mississippi River port at New Orleans following the resignation of P.L. B. Duplessis. He set to his new role with a special fervor against smuggling interests other than the ones which boosted his own bottom line.

Chew must have felt elated in August 1817 that finally he could do something to strike back at the Laffite brothers, considering they had interfered with his business concens for years in the New Orleans and Gulf Coast area. Now that they had set up a privateering enterprise just outside US territory at Galveston, Chew saw a way to convince Secretary of Treasury William H. Crawford to get rid of the Laffite threat to commercial shipping heading to and from New Orleans.

The customs collector felt confidant he could sway Washington politicos to his wishes because for several years, he had been the top leader among the handful of business elite that controlled New Orleans and all the trade that plied the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. His new role as customs collector was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what he manipulated directly or indirectly through banking, insurance, shipping, and trade interests.

In his lengthy letter to Crawford of August 1817, Chew pointed out, “I deem it my duty to state that the most shameful violations of the slave act, as well as our revenue laws, continue to be practiced, with impunity, by a motley mixture of freebooters and smugglers, at Galveston, under the Mexican flag; and being, in reality, little else than the re-establishment of the Barrataria (sic) band, removed somewhat more out of the reach of justice.…Among the most conspicuous characters…at Galveston, were many of the notorious offenders against our laws, who had so lately been indulged with a remission of the punishment, who so far from gratefully availing themselves of the lenity of the government to return to, or commence an orderly and honest life, seem to have regarded its indulgence almost as an encouragement to the renewal of their offences. You will readily perceive I allude to the Baratarians, among whom the Lafittes may be classed foremost, and most actively engaged in the Galveston trade, and owners of several cruisers under the Mexican flag. Many of our citizens are equally guilty, and are universally known to be owners of the same kind of vessels.”

(The Baratarians had been given presidential pardons for their aid and service to General Andrew Jackson in the concluding battles of the War of 1812, culminating with the Jan. 8, 1815, Battle of New Orleans, a decisive victory against the British forces, due in no small part to the skill of the Baratarian gunners and the flints and powder provided by the Laffites.)

Chew proceeded to go on at length about the supposed crimes and revenue avoidance perpetrated by the Galveston parties, which is ironic, as it is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. No one in Washington knew it, but Chew himself had long been a very successful coordinator of smuggling slaves and goods in the New Orleans area, West Florida territory, and southern seaboard. He had started early: between 1804 and 1807, he and his longtime business partner Relf had sold around 430 slaves, many of which were obtained via illegal channels. Almost all had been smuggled.

As a customs agent, Chew benefitted from the fees collected at customs, while at the same time he also participated in his own smuggling operations. He frequently overlooked slave importations any time he could profit personally. Although he ordered that all ships arriving from the Laffites’ base at Galveston be searched, it was not because they were importing goods into New Orleans, but because he suspected that they were not authorized by the Mexican government as privateers. Without a valid letter of marque or commission, the ship and cargoes could be seized by the customs agents, and Chew, of course, would profit.

Secretary of Treasury William Crawford outlined specific instructions for the conduct of US revenue officers which Chew zealously overstepped whenever it suited him. Crawford wrote “While I recommend, in the strongest terms, to the respective officers, activity, vigilance, and firmness, I feel no less solicitude that their department may be marked in prudence, moderation and good temper. Upon these last qualities, not less than the former, must depend the success, usefulness, and consequently, the continuance of the establishment, in which they are included. They will always remember to keep in mind, that their countrymen are freemen and, as such, are impatient of every thing that bears the mark of the domineering spirit. They will, therefore, refrain, with the most guarded circumspection, from whatever has the semblance of haughtiness, rudeness, or insult…They will endeavor to overcome difficulties, if any are experienced, by a cool and temperate perserverance in their duty__by address and moderation rather than by vehemence or violence.” Crawford’s express intent that smugglers be treated in a gentlemanly manner was blithely ignored by Chew.

Chew’s series of letters to Crawford about the Laffite problem at Galveston went on to discussion at Washington, with Congress reviewing documents in January 1818 consisting mostly of Chew’s complaints about Jean Laffite’s occupation of Galveston Island and how he was using it as a base to launch attacks against shipping in the Gulf of Mexico, plus the “pirates” were engaged in smuggling slaves into the United States. John Quincy Adams followed Chew’s invective avidly, agreeing that after Louis Aury left, Galveston became, “indisputedly” piratical in nature. Adams further went on to publish diatribes in the press under his pen name Phocion in which he called Galveston an “association of adventurers, renegades and desperadoes from the four corners of the earth, whose sole aim was the indiscriminate plunder of commercial shipping.” Adams asserted the right of the US to “constitute itself the protector of its own seas and protest the renewal of the scenes of horror such as when ‘Lafitte’ held Barataria.”

Monroe came out with a presidential proclamation about Galveston and Aury’s new base at Amelia Island, but he repeatedly suspended orders to seize Galveston, which must have made Chew apoplectic with anger.

When US authorities finally did move against Galveston in early 1820, it was not with warships, but diplomacy through Commodore Daniel T. Patterson of New Orleans, with encouragement to end the privateering establishment there. Beset by turmoils within and without Galveston from others, the Laffites left voluntarily, with a safe conduct pass from Patterson. They didn’t leave because the US wanted them to go: they went because privateering was becoming much less profitable and the captains who served them were turning more unmanageable.

Chew’s friends back in New Orleans, however, took the news as a sign of their custom agent’s political clout to get things done. Even two years later, in 1822, his friends were still crowing about how Chew had almost single-handedly vanquished Galveston, as evidenced in this editorial in the Louisiana Advertiser:

“The banditti who infested Galvestown (sic), and the coast of Western Louisiana have been driven away by the vigilance of our officers and, we do not believe, there is at this moment a piratical rendezvous from the Cape of Florida to the Isthmus of Darien…They have been totally expelled from the American shore by the vigilance of our collector, his subordinate officers, and our small naval force. As resulting from the prostration of the ancient system of smuggling and the breaking up of the haunts of the villains who were engaged in it, the principles of an honourable and legitimate commerce begin to flourish. We have thus traced the progress of this improvement in our character, and amelioration of our commercial morality; and for their instrumentality in producing such results we openly affirm that Beverly Chew, and the officers under the control of his department, are eminently entitled to the lasting gratitude of the citizens of New Orleans, and of every honest inhabitant of the Gulf of Mexico.”

Chew did not stop engaging in  illegal activities just because he had become a well-respected port collector. According to Obadele-starks, “In June 1824 Chew authorized the ship Ceres to enter New Orleans with slaves despite the fact its crew presented no manifest. In 1825, he informed the New Orleans major of his intent to allow a free African family from Port au Prince into Louisiana although they lacked the legal documents to enter the country.” Additionally, Chew turned a blind eye to some other slave cargoes in that time, especially when the owners were friends and fellow church members of his.

Chew had served as collector for over 12 years when new President Andrew Jackson refused to re-appoint him, naming another New Orleanian in his place in 1829. Jackson’s chief of surgery during the campaign against the British, New Orleans physician Dr. David C. Kerr, recalled that “So virulent was Chew in his opposition to Jackson, that he even refused permission to hoist a flag on the church of which he was vestryman or to have bells rung on the 8th of January” in honor of Jackson’s great victory. The antipathy between the men could possibly be explained by the fact that in 1828 while still customs collector, Chew had been unanimously elected president of the United States Bank of New Orleans. Jackson was extremely opposed to the US Bank.

Even though Chew was employed as a bank president after his dismissal, his cronies lamented Jackson’s cruelty in casting him aside in his old age. According to the May 18, 1829 issue of the Courrier de la Louisiane, a group of Chew’s friends gathered together at the Exchange Coffeehouse to express their “regrets at the removal of that gentleman as collector” with Thomas Urquhart acting as chairman and John Hagan, secretary. They lauded Chew to the highest degree, saying he was a skillful, able and efficient officer as collector at the port of New Orleans; that he always had at heart the interest of the government, and the punctual observance of the laws; and that he had endeared himself to the public by his constant and strict attention to these interests; and by his gentlemanly deportment.

The friends said “we sympathize with him that after so many years devoted to the public service, he retires into private life without fortune, and with a large family, dependent upon everyone, that at his late period of life, must find new channels, through which to earn them a support,” and agreed to gather subscriptions from the public sufficient to offer Chew a suitable present upon which shall be inscribed “what their hearts may dictate as our feeling and their judgment.”

Chew stayed in the banking industry, resigning from the Second Bank of the U.S. to become cashier of Canal and Banking Co. of Louisiana in 1831. A year later, in 1832, he assumed the presidency of that financial institution.

He still kept his old ways about meddling in land speculation while he had some money and power, as in 1836, he was a member of the Texas filibusters group called the Native American Association, involved in the Texas revolution to seize lands from Spain.

From 1834 until the end of his life, in 1851, Chew would be plagued with lawsuits and trials over the Daniel Clark will and the unsettled rights of Daniel’s daughter, Myra Clark Gaines, to her inheritance. The tangle of legal testimony and lawyers would reach all the way to the Supreme Court and become one of the longest running cases in history (it ended in 1891), but neither Chew nor Relf would ever present a word of testimony in court, letting their attorneys handle it all.

The collective attorney fees and court expenses ate through whatever financial gains Chew had had, so that by his death, he had hardly anything in his estate to leave his heirs. Probate records show that Chew died with no funds to afford his children a “liberal education,” and advised them to sell ten lots of land in Lafayette, Jefferson Parish. The land speculator who had once held the purse-strings of New Orleans and ruled the city’s business for over 30 years died virtually broke.

In a coda to this story, Chew’s remains are not still at rest in the Girod Street Cemetery in New Orleans where he was entombed. Due to severe vandalism, in 1957 that cemetery was deconsecrated and all the remains were relocated in an anonymous mass tomb at Hope Mausoleum in New Orleans. The site of Chew’s first tomb is now beneath the Superdome parking garage.

Eyewitness Report of Jean Laffite at Chalmette Battlefield

December 21, 2014 in American History, general history, History, Louisiana History

Map of the Battle of New Orleans, 1815Much has been made this past year over just exactly where Jean Laffite was during the battles against the British in December, 1814, and Jan. 1815, particularly regarding Jackson’s line at Chalmette. Here is what an eyewitness stated in 1852, in an article in the National Intelligencer newspaper, reprinted in DeBow’s Review, Vol. XII, New Series, Vol. V_1852:

“We referred in our last to the statement of parties in New-Orleans, that Lafitte (sic) was not present at the battle of New-Orleans, as has been commonly supposed. That he was there is sustained by a writer in the National Intelligencer, dated Alabama, etc., as we find in the following extract. We trust that, as Gen. Butler has been referred to, he will settle this mooted point.”

In the column of the “National Intelligencer,” of the 20th instant, I noticed an article, in which it is said: It has been currently believed, on the authority of novelists, etc., that the celebrated Lafitte (sic) was a pirate, and fought in the American ranks at New-Orleans. Whoever knows personally anything of Lafitte, as stated, could have asserted any such thing. [sic] The writer of this had the honor of serving under General Jackson at the siege of New Orleans as an officer; saw Lafitte every day and knew him personally. He was not in the first battle, fought with the British forces on the night of the 23d of December, 1814; but was at the breast-works called Jackson’s lines immediately thereafter, where he remained until the retreat of the enemy and the breaking up of the American camp. He was placed with his men by Gen. Jackson__who had full confidence in his skill, ability, and fidelity to the American cause__in command of a battery of two 24 or 32 pounder cannon, not far from the river, and between the 7th United States Infantry, Major Pierre and Plauche’s battalion of city volunteers; and I affirm that a more skilful (sic) artillerist, a braver or more determined officer, soldier, or one who rendered more effective service during the siege, was not in Jackson’s army. And pirate or blacksmith, the services he rendered the American cause should not be denied, blotted out, or buried in oblivion, now that he is no more, and perhaps has left none behind to defend him. What I have stated is on my own personal knowledge, and acted under my own eye: and is well known to Gen. Wm. O. Butler, of Kentucky, at that time a captain in the 44th Infantry,”

(The eyewitness account refers to Laffite only by surname, but it is deduced to mean Jean Laffite as Jean’s older brother, Pierre Laffite, did take part in the battle of Dec. 23, 1814, which the writer said “Lafitte” was not at. Jean Laffite had been sent by Gen. Jackson on Dec. 22 to Major Reynolds in the Temple area to examine defenses there.)

 

 

The British Visit to Laffite: A Study of Events 200 Years Later

August 25, 2014 in American History, general history, History, Louisiana History, Nautical History

Jean Laffite, the privateer "bos" of Barataria

Jean Laffite, the privateer “bos” of Barataria

When Commander Nicholas Lockyer sailed in HMS Sophie from Pensacola towards Jean Laffite’s Grande Terre encampment on Sept. 1, 1814, he already knew that the Baratarian privateer base might soon be blown to bits, and that the Sophie would not be the instrument of that destruction, despite his written orders to that effect from his superiors. There was only a modest chance that Laffite would agree to their terms and assist the British by letting them use his light draft schooners that could navigate shallower water in the shoals. Success depended largely on how susceptible the man would be to betray his friends and clientele.

Lockyer was willing to do everything necessary to entice someone he regarded as a pirate, even though he must have felt a modicum of hesitation about approaching the buccaneers’ smuggling stronghold due to the way five Laffite-connected ships had soundly defeated British sailors of boats from HMS Herald near Cat Island and the mouth of Bayou Lafourche in June of 1813.

The Sophie by herself would be no match for the Baratarian ships. Although she carried 18 guns, her gun carriage timbers were rotten, and so shaky the carronades could not fire accurately no matter how skilled the gunners. Thus it was with more than a little trepidation on Lockyer’s part that the Sophie entered Barataria Pass that Saturday morning, Sept. 3, 1814, firing a warning shot at a privateer ship a little too close for comfort.

Jean Laffite saw a British brig in Barataria Pass, and couldn’t immediately discern the captain’s intentions as first the ship fired at one of his privateers, then the British vessel acted friendlier and non-attacking, anchoring at the opposite shore, then setting down a pinnance bearing both British colors and a white flag of truce, with some men onboard.

Laffite set off in his boat at once to find out who this was, and what was the meaning of this visit. As he neared the pinnance, the men’s uniforms made it clear at least two high-ranking British officers were on the boat heading to him, and so curious was he at this development that he accidentally let himself get too close to the ship, away from the safety of the shore. The British hailed him and asked to be taken to see Laffite to give him some official communications on paper. Since he was too close to the Sophie to risk being identified, Laffite told them they could find the person they wanted on shore. As soon as they were within the confines of his power, Laffite identified himself and led them to his home while close to 200 very agitated privateer crewmen milled around, voicing intentions to imprison the British and send them to New Orleans as spies. Captain Dominique You was all for seizing the British ship as retaliation for the skirmish between the Baratarians and British at Cat Island the year before, a mini-battle which the Baratarians had won, but not before the British nearly sank two of their fast schooners. Handling a visit from obvious British officers around such a group of mostly Napoleonic sympathizers was going to require finesse, but first Laffite needed to learn the precise purpose of the visit, and what the papers said.

Accompanying Capt. Lockyer was Capt. John M’Williams of the Royal Colonial Marines, most recently stationed at Pensacola. M’Williams was a special envoy from Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Nicolls, commanding officer of the Royal  Colonial Marines at Pensacola,. His duty was to present official British letters to Laffite requesting that he join the British, stop harassing Spanish shipping, release any Spanish property he currently had back to its owners, and allow the British the use of his light draft ships. In return at the conclusion of the war, Laffite would receive a captaincy, land in America controlled by the British, have his rights and property protected as a British citizen, and be recompensed for the use of his ships. According to Laffite’s later recollection of the visit, the bribe also included $30,000, payable at New Orleans or Pensacola, but this was not stated in any of the British letters

An interpreter was also with the officers, but his services were not needed as Jean was fluent in English. Lockyer seized the advantage of a common language to earnestly entice Laffite to join the British against the Americans. Apparently Lockyer added the bribe money only as a spoken extra inducement to get Laffite starry-eyed about impending wealth. If Lockyer did verbally commit to a monetary bribe, there could have been little truth to it, since no one else who had helped the British in the Gulf had been paid even a tiny fraction of that amount, plus Nicolls was on a strict budget for his part of the Gulf war campaign, and could not exceed even $1,000 at the time. The only way such a bribe could have been possible is if it was to be paid after the successful conclusion of the campaign, when goods, plantations, etc., had been seized by the British, especially at New Orleans. In that event, $30,000 would have been small reward for assisting accomplishment of  such a lucrative and important military goal. Regardless, the monetary bribe was worthless as it had never been commited to paper, and it was somewhat insulting for Lockyer to think Laffite was so naïve as to trust the word of even a British officer.

Lockyer pressed Laffite to join the British,  especially to lay at the disposal of his Britannic Majesty the armed vessels he had at Barataria, to aid in the immediate intended attack of the fort (Fort Bowyer) at Mobile. According to Laffite’s later account of Lockyer’s manipulative spiel, he insisted much on the great advantage that would result to Laffite and his crews, and urged him “not let slip this opportunity of acquiring fortune and consideration.” Laffite cautiously demurred, saying he would require a few days to reflect upon these proposals, to which Lockyer bluntly stated “no reflection could be necessary, respecting proposals that obviously precluded hesitation, as he (Laffite) was a Frenchman, and of course now a friend to Great Britain, proscribed by the American government, exposed to infamy, and had a brother (Pierre) at that very time loaded with irons in the jail of New Orleans.” (Obviously, British spies had informed Nicolls and/or Percy about Pierre’s incarceration to use as a leverage tool with Jean.)

Lockyer also added that everything was already prepared for carrying on the war against the American government in that quarter with unusual vigor; that they (the British) were nearly sure of success, expecting to find little or no opposition from the French and Spanish population of Louisiana.

At the end of his recruitment speech to Laffite, Lockyer made a colossal error by telling what the British intended to do to absolutely guarantee success: their chief plan and crushing blow would be to foment an insurrection of the slaves, to whom they would offer freedom. In other words, the British would stir up a slave revolt resulting in brutal murders of innocent civilians at the plantations and New Orleans, given that three-fourths of the population of the New Orleans area at the time was composed of slaves.

One can only imagine the disgust and horror that Laffite must have felt when he  heard Lockyer say the British were going to incite (and probably arm) a slave rebellion. They were wanting him to sell out his friends and other smuggling customers and allow them to be hacked to death like the French planters on Haiti years earlier, or those families that suffered on the German Coast near New Orleans in 1811. No wonder Laffite got up and said he had to leave for a bit, leaving the British group alone snd perplexed. Laffite said in his account he left the officers because he was afraid of his privateers rising up against him, but most likely as soon as he left the house, he told his Baratarian crewmen to imprison the officers and threaten them overnight, but not to physically harm them. Laffite thought more information may have been gained by their intimidated response to the threats,  that perhaps they would reveal who their spies were in the New Orleans area. He left the British alone all that night in their uncomfortable and guarded cell, even though they continually demanded to be released from custody.

Early the next morning, Laffite let the officers out of their cell, apologizing profusely for their treatment of the past night, about which he claimed he could do nothing due to the temperament of some of his men. He gave Lockyer a letter of apology in which he asked for a fortnight (15 days) to arrive at a decision about their offer, claiming the delay was necessary to send away “three persons who have alone occasioned all the disturbance” and to “put my affairs in order.”

When the British returned to the Sophie, Lockyer weighed anchor and left Barataria Pass as soon as possible around noon Sept. 4, according to the master’s logbook of the ship. They wanted nothing more to do with Laffite or the Baratarians.

Lockyer was at a loss as to how to save face re his failure to immediately enlist the Baratarians and their ships into British service. He knew Percy had ordered him “in case of refusal, to destroy to the utmost every vessel there as well as to carry destruction over the whole place,” but the Sophie by herself couldn’t do that, plus Laffite had said he couldn’t give a firm decision until a fortnight later. A fortnight later would be too late, Lockyer knew plans were already firm for an attack on Fort Bowyer before then.

The Sophie didn’t arrive back at Pensacola until Sept. 11, taking seven days, five more than necessary, to sail between Barataria Pass and Pensacola. This is odd, as Percy had requested Lockyer to return to him at Pensacola at utmost speed following the visit to Barataria. Something  hidden happened in those five extra days of travel. Lockyer may have stopped somewhere along the Louisiana coast and M’Williams may have disembarked on a spy mission, as M’Williams appears not to have been with Lockyer once he returned to Pensacola. M’Williams could have gone to New Orleans, or the rest of the bayou country to reconnoiter.There is no documentation for what happened to him. The Sophie ship logs only record what transpired onboard or with the ship and its crew.

The only British account of the visit to Grande Terre was a letter written by Lockyer to Percy upon his arrival back at Pensacola on Sept. 11. Unwilling to fully admit his failure to gain the schooners quickly, Lockyer said nothing about even meeting Laffite, perfunctorily glossing over that bit entirely. Instead,  in a unusually brief, terse note about the visit, he said he and the other British were immediately jailed, the British letters and order he brought to show Laffite were torn before his face plus he was insulted and had his life threatened. He wrote that the following day the Baratarians had a sudden change of mind and released them to return to the Sophie. He reported there were nine schooner privateers with six to sixteen guns each in Barataria Bay.

Lockyer’s letter was enclosed with a later report written Sept. 17 by Percy to his superior, Sir Alexander Cochrane, British commander in chief of the North America station, in which Percy says only of the letter that it acquainted him with the “ill success of his (Lockyer’s) mission (to Laffite).” Oddly, the whole Laffite issue and the matter of acquiring the light draft schooners of Barataria was dropped by Percy and became a non-issue, even though he could not have known that the Americans would destroy Barataria within a few days. Or did he know? Was there a double agent in New Orleans? What was Laffite’s reaction to the British offer?

Before Lockyer and the others had been freed from their Baratarian jail, Laffite wrote a letter Sept. 4 to his friend and Louisiana legislator Jean Blanque of New Orleans, requesting advice about what to do with the British, and enclosed all of the British papers in the packet. (All of the British papers and orders were intact, they had not been torn up like Lockyer claimed to Percy.)   A courier delivered the packet by late Sept. 6 to Blanque at his home on Royal Street.

Coincidentally, that same day, Sept. 6, Dominique You, who had threatened the British officers, arrived in New Orleans. Jean’s brother, Pierre Laffite, mysteriously broke out of the Cabildo jail along with three blacks that night. Pierre had been incarcerated since July 1814 on a grand jury indictment. Dominique had been away on a cruise when this occurred, and had only returned to Barataria on Sept. 1. No one knows how Pierre broke out of jail, but both Dominique and jailer J.H. Holland were Masons, so perhaps there was some fortuitous collusion, with Holland just happening to leave the keys temporarily unguarded. At any rate, both Pierre and Dominique were back at Grande Terre within a couple of days. It seems likely Dominique saw to it that neither the British nor Claiborne could use Pierre as a bargaining chip to gain Jean’s help.

Blanque presented the letters packet  the next day (Sept. 7) to Gov. Claiborne, who quickly called for an emergency meeting of his informal board of officers, consisting of Commodore Daniel T. Patterson, Col. George Ross, Customs Collector Pierre Dubourg and Jacques Villere, commander of the Louisiana militia. There was some discussion about whether or not the letters were genuine. Apparently no one thought to just hold the paper to the light to see the royal watermarks  found on all British naval writing paper of the time. Claiborne worried that the letters perhaps were authentic, plus he decided from Jean’s letter to Blanque that the privateer would take no part with the British. However, he abstained from voting on what to do about the letters. Only Villere, a friend of the Laffites, and a voting member of the group, thought the British documents were genuine. Still, Claiborne vacillated about what if Villere was right.

Patterson was absolutely livid when Claiborne said it might be a good idea to postpone his planned expedition against Barataria in light of the new situation. In August, in response to myriad complaints about Baratarian smuggling against Spanish ships, Patterson had received a direct order to break up the Grande Terre base from Secretary of the Navy William Jones, who had provided him with a schooner, the USS Carolina, to accomplish the mission.  A British blockade at the Balize had postponed the raid, but word had been received that British ships had moved off eastward, towards Mobile, and  Patterson’s little Navy was ready to pounce. Besides, Patterson told the group his orders to attack Barataria left him no alternative but to do so, and Ross agreed.  Claiborne couldn’t argue with an order from the Secretary of the Navy, even though circumstances had dramatically changed.

Ross cinched the vote by saying Laffite’s letter to Lockyer of Sept. 4 showed “Laffite’s acceptation” so for all they knew, the Baratarians were co-operating with the British.  (If this were the case, it made no sense to let Blanque or the state officials see the letters,  but then Patterson and Ross clearly had their minds made up before they even saw the contents of the packet or entered the governor’s chambers.) The meeting ended with Patterson and Ross announcing they would set off for Grande Terre as soon as possible. On Sept. 8, Claiborne sent copies of the packet of letters to Major General Andrew Jackson.

Meanwhile, Pierre Laffite was apprised  at Grande Terre of what had transpired with the British, whereupon he wrote a letter of entreaty to Claiborne, praising the way his brother Jean had handled the situation by sending the letters to the US authorities, and saying in somewhat dramatic fashion for emphasis that he was the “stray sheep wanting to return to the fold,” offering to be of service. Claiborne didn’t get the letter until Sept. 12, and by then it was too late to stop the raid expedition.

Due to the logistics of getting the men of the 44th US infantry together, along with enough sailors, the expedition wasn’t ready to weigh anchor and go until around 1 a.m.on Sept. 11.  They left in the middle of the night to ostensibly avoid spies for the Laffites, but by Sept. 13 or 14, the Laffites knew from spies that they were coming. They managed to get a portion of their goods moved to other warehouses away from the island, but a large lot remained, such as a great deal of German linen, glassware, cocoa and spices, silver plate, and some bullion specie.

The Patterson-Ross expedition took the long way to Grande Terre, down the Mississippi River to the Balize, spending nearly five days on the trip. Once at the mouth of the Mississippi, considering they had all of the American forces with them, including all of the gunboats, they could have gone to the aid of the 130 men at Fort Bowyer, but instead, they headed west, toward Grande Terre and the riches to be found there.

It is true that Patterson and Ross didn’t know Fort Bowyer was being attacked at the very moment their US expedition approaching the delta mouth of the Mississippi, but they did know from the British letters that such an attack was imminent. Luckily the men at Fort Bowyer managed to beat back a land and sea attack by the British, and were saved when the lead ship, Percy’s HMS Hermes, managed to get stuck on a sandbar. Percy was forced to set fire to his own ship and retreat. Nicolls had even worse fortune in the fray, getting ill and having to watch his Royal Colonial Marines from the supposed safety of one of the ships, only to lose the sight in one eye permanently after a stray splinter hit him.

Both Jean and Pierre Laffite managed to escape the Patterson-Ross raid that arrived the morning of Sept. 16, taking refuge at  a plantation along the German Coast above New Orleans. They would remain there until sometime in mid December, when a deal would be struck with Jackson and Claiborne to provide men and supplies to assist the American forces. Captured in the raid were Dominique You and about 80 other Baratarians, who would spend nearly three months in the Cabildo jail before getting amnesty to serve under Jackson. Per Laffite’s order, Dominique made sure that none of the Baratarians at Grande Terre fired a single shot at the Americans. The raid netted five of the fast privateer schooners the British had so desired, with Patterson ordering another one, the Cometa, burned as it wasn’t ready to sail yet. Those five ships would spend several months at dock in New Orleans, and were not used to fight against the British, so effectively they had been negated. It seems odd how this played into the British scheme for Barataria. It took the men of the 44th a week to thoroughly comb through the wreckage for all the prize goods.

If Jean Laffite had decided, like Lockyer and Percy wished, to hand over the privateer schooners to the British, the first Battle of Fort Bowyer might have been won by the British, who would have proceeded from there to Baton Rouge, and down to New Orleans by the river and land, according to their campaign strategy. If Patterson and Ross had not destroyed Barataria and confiscated those privateer ships, the Baratarians could have assisted the American gunboats to rout the British warships from even approaching Lake Borgne; they also could have woven around  and worried the heavy British ships from disembarking troops to attack Fort Bowyer.

The British visit to Laffite set in motion a chain of events, a domino effect, that resulted in the American victory at the Battle of New Orleans. The “what ifs’ of history are myriad: the results are what the true patriots create.

Today, almost exactly 200 years later, the area of Grande Terre where the British sat down with Laffite at his home is under the oily sludge-stained waters of an encroaching Barataria Bay. Soon, the island will be swept over into oblivion as hurricanes and time take their toll, but the memory of what happened there will live on.

FOR FURTHER READING:

Davis, William C.  The Pirates Laffite, the Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf. Harcourt, 2005.

Latour, Arsene Lacarriere. Historical Memoir of the War in West Florida and Louisiana in 1814-15. Expanded edition, The Historic New Orleans Collection and University Press of Florida, 1999.

 

The Short-Lived Military Camp on Grande Terre

December 3, 2013 in American History, general history, History, Louisiana History

 

This is a map drawn by Lafon in 1813 of Grande Terre, showing a proposed military battery which was never built.

This is a map drawn by Lafon in 1813 of Grande Terre, showing a proposed military battery which was never built.

Even people who are well versed in Louisiana history probably never have heard of Camp Celestine. The pretty name  makes it sound like a Girl Scout gathering place, but in reality it was a failed military post on the marshy dunes of  Grande Terre island during May through June of 1813.
British ships had started blockading the Balize at the mouth of the Mississippi River in May 1813 during the War of 1812, and the HMS Herald had been steadfastly harassing shipping to and from New Orleans as the main feature of the blockade. American authorities were worried that the British might get ideas about using the bayou approach to New Orleans plus they    wanted to end the smuggling that had been going on from privateers in that area, so they decided to set up a small military garrison on Grande Terre. For some reason, the Laffites and Baratarian privateers were concentrated then more heavily 12 leagues away, on Cat Island near the mouth of Bayou LaFourche, so the American military encountered no obstacles. Militia earlier had been mustered into federal service as the Second Battalion of Louisiana Volunteers, under the command of Major H.D. Peire, and it was members of this force that stood ready to defend the island from the British and smugglers.
On May 6, 1813, Spanish authorities said pirates in an armed boat captured a Spanish schooner below English Turn on the Mississippi River, carried her out through the unguarded Southwest Pass, and brought the prize to Grande Terre, unaware that the Laffites and Baratarians were elsewhere. The captain also didn’t know an American force was present, until it was too late. The prize and cargo were seized, but the pirates escaped in their ship, according to a May 18, 1813, letter about the incident written by  Diego Morphy, New Orleans,  to Juan Ruiz de Apodaca, captain general of Cuba.
Apparently, other privateers got enough warning to stay away from Grande Terre while the Americans were there, because no other ships were seized. Major Peire decided to take the offense, and make an expedition to Cat Island, using barges filled with all the American forces and supplies. Interestingly, at almost the exact same time, Capt. Clement Millward of the nearby HMS Herald had the same plan, and sent out his launches with about 100 men to attack the Cat Island privateers. The five privateer schooners manned by Baratarians near Cat Island fought back soundly, defeating the British and severely wounding the leader of the British contingent, Lt. Edward Handfield, who had his left shoulder shattered by a musket ball.  A squall rose up, and the British boats were separated from their ship; the American forces were near enough to be caught in the storm as well, and the barges upset, losing all the supplies and two of the volunteer militia men. The American men seem to have scattered during the storm, as shortly afterward back on Grande Terre, a court martial convened for a trial of 10 to 15 mutineers and of Major Henry of the Volunteers. Authorities must have looked kindly on these men, for none of them were sentenced to death. Their supplies and guns totally lost, the Americans quickly left Grande Terre to the sand crabs and returned to New Orleans, defeated. Camp Celestine as a military post was now just a minor footnote in history, and the Laffites and Baratarians soon took advantage of this departure and shifted all their operations from Cat Island to Grande Terre, given its closer proximity to New Orleans. The HMS Herald was absent from the Gulf Coast for a couple of months due to damage from a hurricane that hit her home base of Nassau, and when she returned to the Balize, she gave a wide berth to the French privateers.

The Six Crew Members Who Deserted “La Bergere” in 1785

July 28, 2013 in American History, general history, Louisiana History

There are always stories behind the story.  There are always stories hidden within the story.  This is one of them.  Let’s begin by thinking about how the headlines today often portray cruise ship horrors where passengers are stranded with non–working toilets, no hot water, no electricity, incompetent and non-responsive foreign crews and other such inconveniences for just a few days.  The passengers disembark with YouTube videos of their “trip from hell” eager to post their indignant protest over their recent voyage.  Their ordeal makes the nightly news around the country and eager lawyers even emerge to get those ship passengers their due for their ruined voyage. Ruined trips aren’t a modern problem.  Ship horror stories are nothing new, not even on the obscure pages of history, just ask any Cajun or Acadian historian.

More than 700,000 Cajun people are living today in Louisiana.  Even more of us live outside Louisiana.  Virtually every Cajun in the United States shared one common bond — their Acadian ancestors most likely arrived on one or more of these seven ships (Le Bon Papa, La Bergere, Le Beaumont, St. Remi, L’Amitie, L Ville d Archangel, and La Caroline).  They were among the survivors of Le Grand Derangement brought upon them by the British who stole their lands, burned their homes, destroyed and separated families, and sent the remainder into exile and imprisonment.  Out of eighteen thousand Acadians, more than half our ancestors perished during this cruel and tragic chapter in history that began in 1755.  Thirty years of exile later, nearly sixteen hundred of these Acadians jumped at the chance to relocate in the New World once again.  However, their journey back to the promised land began with another hardship, that of the voyage.

Fears of being ship wrecked were the least of the worries of "impressed" sailors.

Fears of being ship wrecked were the least of the worries of “impressed” sailors.

The hidden story here revolves around the second of the seven ships, “La Bergere.”  It’s not about the Acadians onboard who had no privacy with seventy-three families consisting of two-hundred and seventy-three people of all ages crowded and cramped on a small ship of three hundred tons, with two decks and one lone cannon. The passengers slept on the floor and in hammocks.  No running water of course, in 1785, but they did have barrels of water.  No toilets of course.  There was certainly no way to bathe.  The only fresh meals anyone had were what could be caught on the voyage.   This supplemented the daily ration of bread, hard biscuits, cheese, salted and dried cod fish, salt meats and light vinegar.   Taking into consideration that their voyage would last 95 long days and nights, the inconvenience of a stranded and limping cruise ship passenger of today — probably isn’t worth mentioning.  They would have laughed at modern day ideas of suffering.

On a side note, it is worth mentioning that the passengers of this ship’s ordeal did not end once they arrived in New Orleans.  You see, they traveled minus their luggage and trunks. Nothing got loaded on the ship.   They arrived in New Orleans on August 15, 1785.  Two months later, they were still in New Orleans awaiting their luggage that never arrived on subsequent ships.  All their few possessions, lost once again.  It is also interesting that while history did not record any disease traveling with this ship, as it did on some of the Acadian sister ships, it is known that six elderly passengers died during that trip.  Another aspect is that seven children were born during that voyage.  That should have made the cramped and uncomfortable accommodations quite a tale to tell for the other passengers, not to mention the women who bore those infants and what they must have endured arriving in this New World.

There is a bigger story here.  It isn’t found in the mystery about the ship that was owned by Mosneron Dupin or the elusive Captain Alexandre Deslande.  The hidden story within this Acadian story is instead — about the crew of twenty-five men, with the oldest being the cook at age 48 and the youngest crew member being a 13 year old cabin boy.  It lies in the question of why six of the crew members would abandon this ship just ten days before it arrived in New Orleans and what became of them?

LET’S TAKE A LOOK AT THE CREW OF “LA BERGERE”

MAJOR OFFICERS

CAPTAIN – Alexandre Deslandes (age 32) of Nantes

SECOND CAPTAIN – Rene Brechard (age 35) of Sables of “Olonne

LIEUTENANT – Jospeh Legle (age 19) of Paimboeuf

SURGEON – Ange Bouffart (age 24) of Rennes

PILOT – Pierre Darbefeuille (age 19) of Nantes

PETTY OFFICERS

BOATSWAIN – Francis Frioux (age 41) of Paimboeuf

COXSWAIN – Jean Guillaume (age 34) of Montoir

FIRST CARPENTER – Julien Thaul (age 33) of Paimboeuf

SECOND CARPENTER – Luc Clereux (age 36) of Pellerin

NON-PETTY OFFICERS

Antoine Buchete (age 48) of Nantes

SEAMEN

Louis Fantou (age 38) of Nantes

Guinolay Forest (age 24) of Batz,

Jean Vacares (age 23) of Genes

Renes Camus (age 47) of Vannes

Nicholas Lhuilier (age 23) of Oron in Lorraine

Felix Felon (age 24) of Avignon

Francois Sevin (age 19) of Dinan

Jean Chedanteau (age 20) of Montoir

Jean-Pierre Marchand (age 20) of Paimboeuf (2nd Cooper)

Yves Goudelin (age 21) of Diocese of St. Brieuc

Pierre Marce (age 20 of St. Mars-du-Desert

Nicolas Blouin (age 25) of Angers

CABIN BOYS

Jean Normand (age 15) of Bourgneuf

Francois Friou (age 13) of Paimboeuf

Francois Audat (age 14) of Clisson

The exodus of seamen began in August 4th, 1785 when Louis Fantou and Nicolas Lhuilier deserted the ship at the mouth of the Mississippi River.  The very next day — Francois Seven, Jean Chedanteau, Yves Goudelin, and Nicolas Blouin would also abandon ship.  That was half of the seamen onboard “La Bergere.”  Did they swim to shore?  Did they row ashore?  Where did they go?  Remember, in 1785, the penalties for deserting ship were not only the loss of pay, but also under penalty of probable hanging.  Were conditions that awful?  Was there a mutiny involved?  Or did these men plan all along to seek their fortunes in the New World and never intended to go back to France?  What would become of them?

Only one of them, Nicolas Blouin, would emerge in official records to go on living in New Orleans and to have descendants today.  Two others, however, unofficially would re-emerge as crew members some thirty years later under the employ of Jean and Pierre Laffite.  They were both in their fifties when they fought in the Battle of New Orleans.  The other three disappeared from all known recorded history.  One single fact emerges about the seamen, both those who stayed with the ship and those who deserted — all of the twelve seamen started that voyage as “impressed” sailors — meaning that they were forcibly placed into service onboard that ship.  It was a voyage that unlike their passengers they did not take willingly.  One can only suppose that this was the story beneath the reasons they may have deserted.

Edward Livingston: A Famous Man That Few Have Heard Of

April 9, 2013 in American History, general history, History

Many people are born into obscurity, lead undistinguished lives, and die in obscurity. They never arrive at prominence, and neither do they feel any particular need to appear in the limelight. No statues are erected in their honor, no streets are named after them.   And neither they nor their descendants feel at all slighted that there is nary a mention in the history books of their dear departed. The fact is that most people expect to be forgotten, because even in life they are not well known, except to a handful of their friends and relatives.

And then there is another class of people: those who are known, but nobody quite knows what they are known for. The people who have streets named after them, or colleges and universities, or at least buildings on campus, but they have not done anything all that remarkable, and people assume they must have simply bought their fame. They were born into rich families, and they donated a lot of money, so their name is there, but they didn’t do anything to deserve their fame. And in fact, they are not famous, even though their names have been preserved.

And then there is a third class of people: the ones who are famous and rightfully so, but hardly anyone except for historians has ever heard of them. Edward Livingston (May 28, 1764 – May 23, 1836) is one of those!

Born into a prominent family, and always involved in public affairs throughout his life, Edward Livingston made valuable contributions in matters of law, diplomacy and warfare. His level of civic involvement was greater than normal for a public figure, and he demonstrated independent thinking, tact, courage in a crisis, loyalty to friends who were in trouble and personal responsibility that went above and beyond the call of duty. Nevertheless, his rise to positions of power was cut short on a number of occasions due to events that were outside his control. In each case, whenever he suffered a difficult loss, Edward Livingston picked himself back up, took responsibility for his own actions and of those who served under him, and managed to work himself back up the ladder. But each such event cost him dearly.

He served as Mayor of New York, United States Attorney for the State of New York, United States Senator from the State of Louisiana, as Secretary of State under President Andrew Jackson and United States Minister to France. Any one of those offices, if held by another person, might have represented an honorable culmination of a successful career.  But somehow, after following Edward Livingston’s life story, one has the feeling that these were all consolation prizes, and that if he hadn’t so often landed in impossible situations by reason of events outside his control, Edward Livingston might easily have been elected president of the United States.

     Livingston’s Ancestry 

 The Livingston family had been prominent for many generations, even before they moved to the new world. Edward Livingston’s ancestor, Sir Alexander Livingstone, was appointed as one of two joint regents during the minority of James II of Scotland, and after the death of James I in 1437. Sir Alexander Livingstone was named as “Keeper of the King’s Person” while his rival, Lord Crichton was made Chancellor. However, Crichton kidnapped the young King and Alexander Livingstone was able, through various “strategems” to restore him to his mother the Queen Dowager. Later, Crichton and Alexander Livingstone became reconciled, and they are even known to have plotted the death of a young Earl of Douglas. (There is a poem about it:)

The Livingstons had a long tradition of maintaining good relations with people from many walks of life. Even before Edward Livingston’s association with Jean Laffite, it was said that it was a Livingston who represented Blackbeard.

 A Fall From Grace

 Edward Livingston’s early life was marked with great success. He graduated from Princeton, passed the New York bar and ran for public office. He stood against the Alien and Sedition Act, which was the equivalent of today’s Patriot Act under the Adams administration.  Livingston was a good friend of Aaron Burr, and was elected a U.S. Representative from the party that elected Jefferson and Burr to office in 1800 (the Democratic-Republicans). He received an appointment from President Jefferson to the post of United States Attorney for the State of New York, at the same time as he was elected as Mayor of New York City. And then a terrible thing happened. An epidemic of yellow fever descended on the the City of New York. Going beyond the call of duty, Livingston went the rounds of the city, seeing if there was anything he could do to relieve the suffering and put a stop to the spread of the disease. In the process, he fell gravely ill himself. When he awoke from his fever, he found that an underling of his had absconded with all the funds of the United States District Attorney office that was under his direction.

Unlike the politicians of today, Edward Livingston understood that anything that was done on his watch was his responsibility, even if he was sick at the time and was not able to supervise. Livingston resigned from both his offices, sold all his possessions, remitted all his fortune to the United States Treasury and pledged to spend the rest of his life earning enough money to pay off the remainder of the debt. Then he left New York and traveled to Louisiana Territory, where he hoped to make his fortune.

Livingston worked hard building a law practice in New Orleans. He married a refugee from St. Domingue. He made new friends in Louisiana Territory and kept up his contact  with old friends. When Aaron Burr went on a tour of Louisiana Territory, drumming up support for his projected expedition into Mexico, one of his hosts was Edward Livingston.

However, when General James Wilkinson charged Burr with plotting treason against the United States, and Thomas Jefferson declared Burr’s guilt in advance of trial, Livingston very narrowly escaped suspicion himself. Because he had owed some money to Aaron Burr, and when presented with a draft drawn on him by Burr to the credit  of Erich Bollman, he immediately paid the debt, Edward Livingston was seen as being financially involved in “the Burr Plot.” Erich Bollman was whisked away to the capital to be interrogated personally by the President without benefit of counsel, but Edward Livingston escaped such a fate.

Nevertheless, Jefferson, who even after Burr’s acquittal, did not relent against his former Vice President, also held a grudge against Livingston. When Livingston received a plot of land called the Batture de Sainte Marie as part of his payment on a title suit he won for a client, Jefferson intervened and confiscated the land, saying that it did not belong to Livingston. When Livingston appealed to the Supreme Court to have the matter adjudged, the case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

Livingston was still trying to pay his off his debt to the United States Treasury. Any money he would have made on the sale the Batture would have been remitted forthwith to the United States government. And yet Jefferson was determined to rob him of any such opportunity to pay down his debt to the nation. Even after Jefferson was no longer the president of the United States, he still published a pamphlet at his own expense to defend his actions against Livingston.

 

Edward Livingston, even under the most desperate situations, was known for his droll sense of humor. He replied to Jefferson’s tract in a pamphlet of his own, which you can purchase even today on Amazon.com. It is well reasoned and not a little funny.

Edward Livingston’s Contributions During the War of 1812

When the War of 1812 broke out, during James Madison’s presidency, New Orleans was a hotbed of political corruption, ethnic strife and at times complete lawlessness.As a result of the Embargo Act, which outlawed international commerce for Americans, and the somewhat less extreme No Intercourse Act that followed it, many smugglers and foreign privateers had made their base in the vicinity, among them Jean and Pierre Laffite. While their initial contribution to the local economy had been to smuggle goods whose exportation and importation had been outlawed, later on the Laffites specialized in privateering against British and Spanish vessels. Instead of commending the privateers for battling against their common enemies, the local authorities, including the Governor and the Revenue Service, deplored the fact that duty was not paid on the goods that the Laffites sold at auction, undercutting local merchants and depriving the United States Treasury of an income.

The British turned to the Laffites for help in capturing New Orleans, but the privateers relayed a copy of the British offer to the Americans, hoping to join forces with them in fighting the British. The local governor turned this information over to Commodore Patterson of the United States Navy, who went on an expedition against the Laffites. Refusng to fight the Americans, the Baratarian privateers retreated and went into hiding and asked for help from the one man who would listen to them: Edward Livingston.

Edward Livingston, unlike most other politicians in New Orleans, recognized the true value of the help offered by the Laffites. He organized a committee of citizens and made direct contact with President Madison and General Andrew Jackson, bypassing the local corruption and negotiating for a concerted effort against the British. Without Edward Livingston’s fair, far sighted intervention, the Battle of New Orleans would in all likelihood have been lost.

Edward Livingston as Jurist and Statesman

Following the war, Livingston was elected to the Louisiana state legislature. From 1821 to 1826, Edward Livingston spent much of his creative and intellectual effort on devising a code of  criminal law for the State of Louisiana. Written in both English and French, it covered the following legal subjects: crimes and punishments, evidence, procedure, and reform. While the “Livingston Code” became well known in Europe  and South America as a model criminal code, it was never passed into law in Louisiana.

Andrew Jackson never forgot Edward Livingston’s service during the War of 1812, and when he became president he appointed him Secretary of State (1831-1833). Livingston also served as minister plenipotentiary to France from 1833 to 1835.

The Legacy of Edward Livingston

Edward Livingston did pay his debt to the Federal Treasury in full. He is an example of a virtuous man and a public servant who actually put public service ahead of any other goal. In an age of corruption, he was able to cut through the labels that were placed on other people (traitor, pirate, criminal) and to see what good there was in each person. Without his help, a lot of innocent men would have been much worse off. Without his help, the country would have fallen to the British.

Is Edward Livingston remembered today? The answer is: yes and no.

The town of Livingston, Guatemala is named after him, largely a result of the popularity of the Livingston Code abroad. Livingston County, Illinois, Livingston County, Michigan, Livingston Parrish, Louisiana, Livingston County, Tennessee and Livingston County, Missouri are all named after Edward  Livingston. Edward Livingston Middle School in New Orleans and Fort Livingston are also named after him. But does anybody remember why? Because if they don’t, he might as well be just another fat cat rich donor who bought his way to fame.

Edward Livingston is one of those famous people that few have heard of who actually did some good. If you want to see an example of a virtuous man in public life, study the life and career of Edward Livingston.

 References and Related Links

http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Edward+Livingston

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