History of the World According to the Movies: Part 37 – The Birth of the American Nation

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Who would’ve thought Ramses II and Moses from The Ten Commandments would be together again to fight the Battle of New Orleans together in the 1958 film The Buccaneer? Of course, if there are any movies based in this era, this movie and it’s 1938 premake with Frederich March, are probably the best you’re ever going to get in terms of historical accuracy. Still, Yul Brynner’s character is a French pirate named Jean Lafitte whose services were vital to Charlton Heston’s Andrew Jackson (which is well cast despite the hilariously botched make up job) winning the Battle of New Orleans. Had Lafitte had not intervened, the British might’ve won and American history would’ve taken a very different direction.

While there aren’t many movies made covering the US between the end of the American Revolution and the War of 1812 (and the ones we do have tend to be rather inaccurate), these years tend to be trying years for the new United States (yet, why Hollywood doesn’t do many movies on these years I have no idea since there’s much creative potential). In the 1780s, the US was under the system of government known as the Articles of Confederation, which was a loose set of rules for the nation that wasn’t very effective, which was shown by Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts. So the summer 1787, a bunch of delegates gathered in Philadelphia to draft a new constitution with a stronger federal government which the United States pretty much runs on today. In 1789, George Washington would be elected America’s first president (in a modern sense) who would set precedents in the American presidency which are still followed today as well as Alexander Hamilton’s financial system. Still, this is an era when the US comes into its own as a nation with things like the XYZ Affair, the Whiskey Rebellion, clashing with the Barbary pirates, the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Marbury vs. Madison, and finally, the War of 1812. Yet, many of these subjects don’t have their own movies to them for some reason. Yet, ones that do have a lot of inaccuracies in them which is a shame because this is a very important time in American history and knowledge of it shouldn’t be confined to an American classroom.

Articles of Confederation Years:

Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Martha was in her 20s when she and her family arrived in Paris. (She was 12 years old in 1785. Ironically, in Jefferson in Paris she’s played by Gwyneth Paltrow while in 1776, her mother is played by Blythe Danner {Danner and Paltrow are mother and daughter in real life}. )

Thomas Jefferson was willing to break his vow of never remarrying by hitching up with Maria Cosway. (Make no mistake, Jefferson did have an affair {or a romance} with Maria Cosway and did invite her to Virginia, but there’s no record that he ever proposed to her. Also, Maria Cosway had a husband who Jefferson also invited to Virginia as well.)

Sally Hemings was in her twenties when she began her sexual relationship with Thomas Jefferson. (She was 14 while Jefferson was 44 {yes, these are the right ages and a bit creepy} but since she’s played by 23 year old Thandie Newton in Jefferson in Paris, we’ll allow that. No one wants to see Jefferson sleep with a teenager, even though he actually did.)

Thomas Jefferson witnessed the first Mongolfier balloon ascent. (The Mongolfiers launched their first balloon in 1783. Jefferson was in Paris between 1785 and 1789.)

Sally Hemings was pregnant while in Paris. (She had her first child after she and the Jeffersons returned to America.)

Federalist Era:

Alexander Hamilton was a wizened old fox. (At times he could be loyal, brilliant, and arrogant. Also, he died at 49. Not to mention, he saw George Washington as a father figure.)

Alexander Hamilton drew up his financial plan for the US during his affair with Maria Reynolds. (He banged Reynolds after he drew up his plan.)

Alexander Hamilton toyed around with Maria Reynolds only because his wife was out of town. (He barely missed an opportunity for sex from anyone.)

Jack o’ lanterns adorned American homes in the 1790s. (Carving pumpkins weren’t commonplace in the US until the wave of Irish immigrants in the 1840s.)

The New York Police Department existed in the 1790s. (It was founded in 1844 and first issued the dark blue uniforms in 1853.)

New York City was the capital of New York in 1799. (New York’s capital was moved to Albany in 1797.)

The Presidential residence in Washington D. C. was called the “White House” in 1806. (The earliest reference of the President’s house called “The White House” was in 1811. At this time, it was mostly known as “The Executive Mansion.”)

Monticello was in tip top shape at this time. (The Monticello you see today looked nowhere near like it did during Jefferson’s lifetime. Jefferson never finished its construction and it was a mess by the time he died in 1826. Actually the Monticello you see today was more of the work of historical renovators which was completed in 1954.)

There were no slaves in Washington at this time. (Blacks slaves served as footmen in the White House at this time.)

Lewis and Clark Expedition:

William Clark and Sacajawea had a romantic relationship during the Lewis and Clark Expedition. (No such relationship ever took place. For one, Sacajawea was already married {and heavily pregnant with her son Jean Baptiste for part of the trip} and Clark was engaged. Second, her husband was also an important member for he was the only one who understood his wife and was happy to give his assistance. And it was him Lewis and Clark actually hired as an interpreter who agreed to go only if his pregnant wife tagged along with him and it was a good thing she did. Third, do you think Clark would be that stupid?)

Sacajawea was promised to Toussaint Charbonneau and had no baby during the Lewis and Clark Expedition. (She was married to Charbonneau and would have a son named Jean Baptiste during the trip. Furthermore, her accompaniment was a stipulation by Charbonneau himself who agreed to go along with Lewis and Clark as long as he brought her with him.)

Sacajawea met Thomas Jefferson. (They never met each other because Sacajawea was never in Washington or Monticello.)

Lewis and Clark didn’t get along with each other during the expedition. (They got along splendidly and had no problems sharing overall command. Also, Lewis never threatened to have William Clark court-martialed. They faced many problems during the expedition but fighting over romance wasn’t one of them.)

William Clark got into a knife-fight with Charbonneau. (This never happened, nor would anyone in the expedition come at each other with knives.)

Toussaint Charbonneau was a jealous husband as well as a complete villain of a man. (He was actually a very nice guy eager to help Lewis and Clark with his assistance. Also, he was a very important member of the group who was one of the reasons why Sacajawea was so helpful to the group {since the Corps of Discovery only had two guys who spoke French.})

Sacajawea accompanied William Clark back to Washington D. C. (Her and Clark’s relationship was no more than professional {though he did help support her kids} and she didn’t accompany him back to Washington. Still, Hollywood, why do you make up these romances that never existed?)

There were no black guys in the Lewis and Clark Expedition. (William Clark brought his slave and manservant York with him who the Indians treated with respect and wonder {since they never saw a black man before}. Still, he could’ve been played by Sidney Poitier in The Far Horizons.)

William Clark and Meriwether Lewis had the hots for the same girl named Julia Hancock. (Lewis had no interest in Clark’s fiancée. Besides, she was only 14 at the beginning of the expedition which was rather creepy since Clark was 33.)

Lewis and Clark had adversarial relations with most of the Indian tribes they encountered during their expedition and killed a dozen Indians in one attack. (They were on friendly terms with many of the Indian tribes they encountered {save the Blackfeet}, much due to the services of Sacajawea and her baby son Jean Baptiste. And the only Indians that were killed during the trip were a couple of teenage Blackfeet during the return.)

Lewis and Clark lost several men during their expedition due to Indian attacks. (They only lost one guy during the whole trip to a ruptured appendix {which really couldn’t be treated}. No one in Lewis and Clark’s team was ever killed in an Indian attack during the whole expedition which is a truly remarkable feat.)

Lewis and Clark saw the Grand Tetons during their famous expedition. (They never saw these mountains in Wyoming.)

War of 1812:

The Mississippi Valley escaped British Conquest during the War of 1812 largely because of Jean Lafitte’s longings for an American belle. (Actually the Battle of New Orleans was fought two weeks after the War of 1812 but the Treaty of Ghent had no bearings on the New Orleans crisis there {since the British had considered the Louisiana purchase invalid anyway}. Had the British won, treaty or no treaty, North America would’ve looked very different than it does today, and Chicago and St. Louis may as well have been part of Canada. Still, Lafitte’s motives were more about getting his brother Pierre out of British custody from a New Orleans jail than anything. This explains why he was willing to help Andrew Jackson when the latter captured his men in exchange for services and munitions. Jackson had little choice but to give Lafitte’s men a full pardon due to steady pressure from the leading citizens and Lafitte’s personal appeal.)

Andrew Jackson gave Lafitte and his brother orders to clear out in an hour after one of his men sunk an American ship. (Lafitte and his men actually ended up receiving a full pardon by President Madison for his services as well as Jackson’s warm public thanks. Still, the love stories in the movies about Lafitte are 100% made up.)

The Americans were outnumbered by the British during the Battle of New Orleans. (Both sides were about even.)

Tennessee sharpshooters caused the majority of British casualties in the Battle of New Orleans. (Most of the British casualties were due to American cannons.)

Louisiana Governor William Claiborne was sympathetic for the Baratarians’ plight. (He was only willing to accept Jean Lafitte services in exchange for Pierre Lafitte’s release because he was desperate for allies. He was actually against Lafitte’s cooperation.)

Governor Claiborne’s house slave Cato fought on the Americans’ side during the Battle of New Orleans. (Slaves were forbidden to fight on the American side during the War of 1812 for fear they’d turn their guns against their masters. However, resident free blacks in New Orleans did fight on the American side, in compliance with Andrew Jckson’s orders.)

Jean Lafitte was willing to join Andrew Jackson’s forces over democratic idealism. (It was actually because Jackson had took 80 of his men hostage {including his other brother, Dominique You} and that Jackson needed Lafitte’s munition supply. Nevertheless, the Baratarians’ services were vital to American success during the Battle of New Orleans.)

Dominique You and Jean Lafitte weren’t related to each other. (They were brothers, but movies don’t point this out.)

Jean Lafitte had a romance with Governor Claiborne’s daughter Annette and was willing to find a better line of work to win her over. (Claiborne did leave descendants but I’m sure Annette Claiborne didn’t exist. Also, even if she did, her dad wouldn’t want her to date a French pirate like Jean Lafitte. Also, Lafitte never gave up his profession and died in 1826.)

The American militia in New Orleans was quickly raised and the defensive line of the Rodriguez Canal was built only when the British threatened the city. (The defenses at the Rodriguez Canal were constructed only in the course of a week while Andrew Jackson used martial law to raise several militia units and had almost 4,000 reinforcements. Also, unlike what 1958 film The Buccaneer says, the Americans weren’t standing behind a flimsy wall but high and solid fortifications.)

Andrew Jackson used delaying tactics to slow down the British advance at the Battle of New Orleans. (Jackson was an aggressive man who later attacked a man who tried to assassinate him while he was president. He would’ve done no such thing and led his troops in an immediate attack, taking the exhausted British by surprise and staged an artillery duel several days later.)

Andrew Jackson never swore. (It’s said when he died, his pet parrot had to be removed from his funeral. Still, Charlton Heston’s portrayal of Andrew Jackson is almost dead on.)

The rich citizens in New Orleans refused to pay taxes because no one wanted to pay them in a war that was being lost. (The French and the Spanish residents of New Orleans refused to pay taxes because they had little interest in following the American government’s laws.)

Andrew Jackson had a heart condition. (Well, The Buccaneer points this out. However, while Jackson wasn’t the healthiest specimen, he had been in a duel in which he dealt with a bullet in the chest. It would remain with him for the rest of his life.)

Andrew Jackson knew which direction the British were coming during the Battle of New Orleans. (He didn’t so he spread his forces over a wide area to cover all possible approaches.)

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