Romance, Passion, and…the War of 1812?
Here’s a little quiz to start off today’s post. Is “Beauty and Booty”:
A) Ke$ha’s latest hit pop song
B) a British catchphrase during the War of 1812
We’re sorry to say that:
A) We tricked you, because
B) It’s neither.
But if you asked an American that question in 1815, they’d tell you that B was surely the answer – not that you can expect anything less from those dastardly British.
The legend of the phrase can be traced back to a fellow named George Poindexter (no, we’re not making that one up), a volunteer soldier at the Battle of New Orleans, fighting under Andrew Jackson. On the day of the Battle of New Orleans, though, Poindexter’s volunteering spirit seems to have deserted him. Instead of joining his comrades on the battlefield, he spent the day inside his quarters, nursing a bruise on his arm, which he claimed left him too injured to fight.
As you can imagine, after the American victory at New Orleans, Poindexter caught a lot of guff for sitting out the fight. Perhaps looking for a way to change the subject, he started spreading the rumor that the British had been using a rather salacious “watchword and countersign:” Beauty and Booty. That is to say, if a British solider approached a sentry, they would exchange a phrase – “Beauty and Booty ” – that confirmed they were both Brits. The implication was, of course, that these were the things nearest and dearest to British hearts, and they would have sought them eagerly while pillaging New Orleans, if they hadn’t been defeated.
It seems like a silly, groundless accusation, but it soon spread. As our guest Nicole Eustace, a professor of history at NYU, put it:
“The idea that the British were fighting for ‘beauty and booty’ helped to cement in the public mind the idea that the romantic love that Americans fought from was a virtuous kind of romantic love, whereas the English were motivated by evil, sinful, lustful varieties of passion, which was quite distinct from American virtuous love.”
Even Andrew Jackson, a national hero after his success at New Orleans (no thanks to Poindexter), took up the mantra. At victory celebrations after the treaty had been signed, he toasted his troops for having protected American beauty and booty.
It was then that the British decided that they needed to do something to convince the American public that the entire thing had been made up. Surviving British officers swore an affidavit that “Beauty and Booty” had never been their watchword, but by then it was too late.
True or not, the idea refused to die in part because it was so politically useful. The U.S. was still a young country, with a military that relied heavily on volunteers called up for specific conflicts. The nation needed to get its young men excited about fighting for the country. And what better way was there to get young men to defend the nation than to make them think about their country the way they thought about their women?
Poems, novels, and songs abounded during and right after the War of 1812 romanticizing war and patriotism, and even suggesting that romantic men made better soldiers. Here’s a popular example from the time, a poem called The Love of Country.
A soldier is a gentleman.
His honor is his life.
And he that won’t stand to his post
Will ne’er stand by his wife
Since love and honor are the same
Or are so near allied
That neither can exist alone
But flourish side by side.
Farewell ye sweethearts for a while,
Ye pretty girls adieu!
And when we’ve drove the British dogs
We’ll kiss it out with you.
Want more? Listen to Strange Bedfellows, our segment exploring the romantic love of country that arose out of the War of 1812: