Happy belated Jackson Day!
Congress never formalized it as a federal holiday, but once upon a time, Texans and the rest of the nation celebrated January 8 as Jackson Day. It was something of a winter-time Fourth of July, with plenty of flag waving and patriotic speechifying but no fireworks.
January 8 became Jackson Day because that’s the month and day in 1815 that Andrew Jackson defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans. That’s a military engagement that many older Baby Boomers remember only because of Johnny Horton’s 1959 hit song, “The Battle of New Orleans.”
Though the battle happened some 240 miles from what was then the eastern border of the Spanish province of Texas, future Texans would have good reason to celebrate the American victory. For one thing, a win at New Orleans likely would have given Great Britain control of the Mississippi and a shot at settling the Southwest.
Also, if the British had captured and hanged Jackson, he would not have been around to serve as an inspiration for the younger Sam Houston. Nor would Old Hickory have been able in the spring of 1836 to order U.S. troops to the Louisiana-Texas border as Santa Anna and his army chased independence-minded Texans in that direction following the Alamo.
The American victory at New Orleans against a numerically superior foe galvanized the young nation. Recognition of January 8 as a day to celebrate must have begun early on and gathered momentum after Jackson’s presidency.
“All good Democrats remembered that yesterday was Andrew Jackson’s Day,” the New York Times told its readers on Jan. 9, 1896 — 81 years after the battle.
Jackson’s lopsided victory over the British had come a little more than two months before his March 15 birthday. For years, in addition to observing Jackson Day on January 8, Tennessee was the only state that took March 15 off in honor of Jackson’s birth.
Alas, somewhere along the way, a day originally intended to honor one of this nation’s most impressive military triumphs and important presidents morphed into a holiday for Democrats only.
“Thousands of Texans made ready to join the democrats of the nation in observance of Jackson day with dinners this evening,” the Austin American-Statesman reported in a page-one story on Jan. 8, 1936. “The traditional functions honoring the memory of the great democrat, Andrew Jackson, was planned in Texas largely by party organizations, and, in line with the rest of the nation, most of the proceeds will go into the party treasury.”
Eight hundred people were expected for a roof-top party at Austin’s Stephen F. Austin Hotel. Other Jackson Day parties were on tap that night in Dallas, Fort Worth, Lubbock, Wichita Falls, Waco, Corpus Christi and surely other Texas cities. The Amarillo party had to be cancelled because of a snow storm.
The speaker for the Austin Jackson Day event was Gov. Paul V. McNutt of Indiana. Texas Gov. James V. Allred would have been the logical choice to address Texas Democrats, but he already had accepted an invitation to speak at a Jackson Day gathering in Nashville.
After the local festivities, celebrants repaired to their radios to listen to President Franklin Roosevelt deliver a Jackson Day oration that included his formal announcement that he would be seeking another four years in the White House.
Back then, just about everyone in the Lone Star State who could drop a ballot in a box was a Democrat.
Why most people today have never heard of Jackson Day is easy enough to guess. Since the day was considered a special day by Democrats, as the strength of the Republican Party grew, interest in whooping it up on Jackson Day waned. Even www.google.com is devoid of any straight-forward history of Jackson Day.
The tension between political elephants and donkeys was evident even in the 1936 Jackson Day newspaper coverage. When Judge J.R. Sutherland, the Nueces County Democratic chairman, invited U.S. Dist. Judge T. M. Kennerly of Houston to speak at the Corpus Christi Jackson Day event, to Judge Sutherland’s great surprise, the federal jurist declined.
Turned out Kennerly was a Republican and didn’t feel like participating in a Democratic blow out.
“I didn’t know there were any Republicans left in Texas,” the Corpus Christi Democrat told the press.