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One hundred years from now the story of New Orleans will be an old one, but the legends are just now being composed, the iconography painted, the mental impressions ingrained. These will be passed down through generations, shaping our view of the calamity that struck the city in the late summer of 2005. In time, heroes and villains, victims and victimizers will be clearly fashioned in the collective American consciousness, along with the lessons learned (or not) that will have far-reaching consequences for the nation long after the debris is cleared. Certainly much of the 21st-century history of New Orleans and the battered Gulf Coast will be traced back to the day a ferocious hurricane named Katrina blew ashore to orchestrate a drastic and unpredictable turn in the region’s fortunes. Much as we do in this issue for another catastrophic natural disaster that spawned escalating calamities engulfing a great American city, the story of New Orleans will be nostalgically replayed at significant anniversary intervals. Readers of Eric Niderost’s article marking the 100th anniversary of the great 1906 earthquake and fire that devastated San Francisco will no doubt see some uncanny parallels to the recent tragedy that overtook New Orleans. Today the future remains uncertain for the Crescent City as its very viability is openly debated. Perhaps, by looking back at the San Francisco of April 1906, we should be encouraged to believe that through vision, determination and hard work, New Orleans, too, will overcome its history and thrive once more as one of America’s most vibrant and unique cities.

It was another battle for New Orleans—this time against foreign invaders of a young United States rather than Mother Nature—that propelled Andrew Jackson into the national spotlight in 1815. Building upon his military-hero status, Jackson went on to become a powerful political force and served two terms in the White House. Writer Christopher Marquis contends, however, that long before New Orleans, Jackson’s considerable—and colorful—experience as a lawyer, judge and legislator in the often rough and raucous frontier toughened him for the close infighting and intrigues of 19th-century national politics.

While Jackson left a large imprint on American history, a figure largely seen at the time as an antidote to Jackson is most notable for having had little impact in spite of reaching the pinnacle of power. William Henry Harrison was an unlikely leader and woefully unprepared for the office into which he was thrust primarily because of the stature he had gained on the battlefield at a place in the Indiana wilderness called Tippecanoe. The similarities to Jackson, however, seem to end with his military prowess. Harrison’s brief tenure as president was more than enough to reveal the inadequacy of the man for the office and the folly of the men who got him there. In his article on the uneventful presidency of Harrison, Hoosier Marty Jones points out that the unpredictable turn it took—in and of itself—did result in a significant contribution to the orderly American process of governing.

The land of freedom, justice, democracy and opportunity, America is a beacon to the world. But our noble history is weighted down by much that betrays that image—none more so than the endurance of the institution of human slavery for nearly a century after America’s founding. Its deep economic and political foundations may explain much of the slave system’s sustainability even in a nation founded on the premise that all men are created equal. But at the human, psychological level, grand self-delusion and rationalization among otherwise civilized and intelligent people was necessary for the perpetuation of this inhumane practice. Mary Stark’s fascinating look inside the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the relationships between master, slaves and servants reveals the tensions and blind faith that epitomized this most peculiar institution—even as its certain demise loomed for all to see.


Originally published in the April 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here