Art & Identity in New Orleans

HNRS 109 Spring '18

Jean Laffite – Smuggler, Hero, or Both?

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I intend to pursue the topic of smuggling in New Orleans, one of the trades that the city was founded upon (if inadvertently). Through this study, I hope to further unveil the exploits of Jean Laffite, a historical figure of great controversy that continues to befuddle historians to this day.

Jean Laffite, his brother Pierre Laffite, and their gang of Barataria pirates were notorious throughout New Orleans for smuggling not only goods and produce, but slaves as well. Initially painted as a Robin Hood-type figure, Jean Laffite seemed to fall from this pedestal as his gang continued to partake in the international slave trade well after the 1808 Article 1 Section 9 of the United States Constitution was passed and enforced.  He was no longer the harrowing figure he had been, which led to a larger target being placed on him. Yet due to Laffite’s powerful influence and intensely compelling lawyers, he and his men evaded prison for years.

Eventually, Andrew Jackson caught Laffite but gave him the opportunity to redeem himself and his men during the War of 1812. Out of which, they arose victorious and pardoned heroes.

Thus, do Jean Laffite’s days as a war hero in 1812 counteract the egregious acts he committed prior to his battle prowess? Was Jean Laffite truly a folk hero and a true patriot of the United States of America? Or was he merely a romanticized scoundrel that went to the highest bidder – whether it be for money or for his life and freedom?

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