- Andrew Jackson and the Politics of Martial Law: Nationalism, Civil Liberties, and Partisanship
In his provocative examination of the implications of Andrew Jackson's 1814 declaration of martial law in New Orleans, Matthew Warshauer analyzes the political and military results of Jackson's actions over the following two generations. Not only did Jackson's questionable act influence his own political career but also provided a useful precedent cited by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War for his and his officers' use of martial law.
Faced with an impending British invasion and the uncertain loyalty of much of New Orleans' population, General Andrew Jackson declared martial law. After successfully repelling the British invasion on January 8, 1815, Jackson kept martial law in place until news of the peace treaty arrived in New Orleans on March 13, 1815. After all, the British were still in the Gulf of Mexico, and Jackson believed they might return to make another attempt on the Crescent City. As weeks passed, however, the civilian population chafed under the draconian regulations put in place by Old Hickory. When one state legislator dared to complain in the press, Jackson had him arrested, prompting Federal judge Dominick Hall to issue a writ of habeas corpus. Jackson responded by throwing Hall in jail as well. After martial law was lifted, Judge Hall charged Jackson with contempt of court and fined him $1000.
There the matter rested until the early 1840s when Jackson urged supporters to instigate a move in Congress to refund the $1000 plus interest. [End Page 242] Until that time, Jackson's political enemies had resisted the temptation to use his debatable actions in New Orleans to make partisan attacks on Old Hickory. Jackson's tremendous popularity following his miraculous victory over the British made him politically unassailable. In any case, Jackson had given his enemies the chance to brand him a dangerous military chieftain when he mounted an unauthorized attack on Spanish posts in Florida in 1818. Thirty years after the victory at New Orleans, however, the Whig Party finally felt it safe to denounce what many saw as a dangerous abuse of military power, a charge they undoubtedly felt would embarrass their rivals in the Democratic Party.
Even though he was financially strapped, Jackson claimed he wanted the refund to vindicate his actions in 1814-1815 and to establish a precedent protecting military officers who might be compelled to sacrifice civil liberties to save the nation. While Professor Warshauer accepts Jackson's explanation, he is not so trusting of the motives of Jackson's detractors. Warshauer concedes that politics motivated people on both sides of the debate, but he is not willing to allow that many Whigs were also sincerely alarmed by Jackson's having frequently trampled republican principles of government. Warshauer also asserts that Jackson demonstrated his abilities as a master politician by orchestrating the activities of his followers in Congress and in the press. If the indefatigable defense of one's own reputation and interests through heavy–handed manipulation and rampant character assassination is the mark of a master politician, Warshauer presents a compelling argument that Jackson was one.
Overall, this study makes an important contribution to our understanding of martial law's controversial place in the American story. Warshauer examines the precedent established by Jackson's behavior and shows how the vindication of that behavior with the eventual refunding of his fine illuminates Lincoln's domestic security decisions during the Civil War. Even during that dire national emergency, politics again intruded to shape sharply diverse opinions about the appropriateness of such decisions. As Warshauer has shown, the controversies that resulted were not new then, just as they now are not oddities of the past.
Colorado Springs, Colorado