Book Review Opinion Story

Theodosia and the Pirates: The Battle Against Britain Review

Book: Theodosia and the Pirates: The Battle Against Britain
Platform: Paperback, Kindle
Publisher: Inverted-A Press
Author: Aya Katz
Genre: History & Theory
Price: $15.99

Editor’s Note: This review was completed with a review copy from the publishers.

Editor’s Note: Aya Katz is currently a contributor for LibertyBuzz and an associate of  Joe Eldred.

If you are as much a fan of historical fiction as I am, please welcome into the ranks of notable authors the remarkably talented Aya Katz. While I had previously read a few of her non-fiction political essays, I just finished reading my first novel of hers, Theodosia and the Pirates: The Battle Against Britain (Inverted A Press, 2013, 534 pages).

While I had read some non-fiction works concerning Aaron Burr, I was none too familiar with his daughter, the title character of the novel. One can only hope that a major Hollywood studio will one day transform the novel into a blockbuster motion picture so the people the world over may become better acquainted with her.

Katz’s novel is an account of a fictionalized relationship between Theodosia Burr Alston and Jean Laffite, a hero of the Battle of New Orleans. It was only after reading the entire novel that I turned to the very helpful FAQ’s at the end of the book and was quite surprised to discover that there is no evidence that Theodosia and Laffite ever actually met.

The novel is based on the premise of what might have happened if Theodosia did not perish when she was lost at sea in January 1813 but had instead been rescued by Laffite.

The novel is one part adventure tale, one part historical romance, and one part political treatise, but the disparate elements are seamlessly woven together in a manner that does not seem at all forced. The novel is fundamentally the imagined story of the inner life of Theodosia. Katz displays an uncanny ability to allow the reader to see into the heart, soul and mind of her protagonist.

Through the course of the novel, we get a real sense of a passionate woman coping with the constraints of the social mores of her time. Much of the story is told in conversations between Theodosia and Laffite. This is not a book I would particularly recommend for those interested in the details of military history or plenty of action.

For a book with “pirates” in the title, there is relatively little swordplay, and what there is of it only near the beginning of the tale. And the Battle of New Orleans, which one might expect to be the climax of the book, is told in less than two pages, and only then in retrospect by Lafitte to Theodosia, so that we experience her view of events.

But that is not to suggest that only mere words pass between the two of them. Katz has a keen ability to vividly describe what goes on between man and woman behind closed doors, or sometimes even in plain view of everyone on the deck of a ship. While Katz has also authored a number of children’s books, this is decidedly not one of them.

Prudish adult readers may even find themselves needing to skip over a few passages, but fans of Fifty Shades of Grey and romance novels will not be disappointed. Some gentlemen readers may even find the need to interrupt their reading for the occasional cold shower.

Illustration by artist Lanie Frick painted for Theodosia and the Pirates.

But what I found most captivating about the book is the way the author was able to use the story to clearly convey some rather complex political ideas in a fun way that does not come across as at all clumsy or heavy-handed. One such idea is the place of class in American society. As a female of the aristocratic class, when she is wrenched from high society, Theodosia finds that her training has left her ill-prepared for the practicalities of survival.

Jean Laffite, on the other hand, is planted firmly in the middle class: “Not the upper classes that were idle, not the lower classes who were also idle, but the one class in society who made everything function. It was the most American thing he could be.”

One member of the aristocratic class, while not strictly speaking a character in the novel, casts a large shadow over the entire proceedings – that of Thomas Jefferson. As one might expect in a novel told from the perspective of Aaron Burr’s daughter, while Burr’s flaws are acknowledged in places, he is portrayed in a far better light than Jefferson and other contemporaries among the founders.

In fact, part of the comedy and tension between Theodosia and Laffite lies in her trying to dissuade him from the rosy view he has of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

As described in the book, initially Jefferson, Madison, and Burr were united against President John Adams and Alexander Hamilton and their support of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. This began to change with the election of 1800.

Even though Burr, as Jefferson’s running mate in an election that resulted in the two of them finishing in a tie, gracefully stepped aside and allowed Jefferson to assume the presidency, Jefferson, according to Theodosia, was threatened by her father’s popularity and became a vindictive man.

Hamilton spread rumors that Burr was guilty of incest with Theodosia, leading to the infamous 1804 duel between the two of them in Weehawken, New Jersey. Jefferson, after years of enmity with Hamilton, to get back at Burr, suddenly began singing Hamilton’s praises. Then, when Jefferson learned that Burr was mounting an expedition against Mexico, he had him charged with treason and had his known associates arrested on suspicion.

According to the novel, Jefferson personally interrogated at least one of the prisoners for weeks, without the benefit of counsel, and in violation of the sixth amendment of the constitution.

In fact, one theme that is repeated throughout the book is that, while both Jefferson and James Madison were men of high ideals, once in positions of power they almost immediately began violating those principles. One such example from the novel is the Louisiana Purchase.

As Theodosia puts it, according to the constitution “the president has limited powers. Buying and selling territories is not one of those powers.”

Another area of disagreement between Theodosia and Laffite was in regards to the relative virtue of Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807. A general embargo against Great Britain and France in response to violations of American neutrality, it has been widely viewed by most historians and free market economists since as a complete disaster.

Laffite, however, saw much merit in the plan. As a smuggler, the embargo clearly benefited him personally, but beyond that, he saw it as a stroke of genius by Jefferson because “Instead of levying taxes to pay for a force marine to protect your shipments, you got the same services at cut rate prices from businessmen.” Or as economist Richard Ebeling recently put it, “The smuggler is a radical and judicious reformer. The smuggler is essential to the well-being of the whole nation. All external commerce depends on him.”

In fact, throughout the novel, the character of Laffite repeatedly makes cogent arguments that effectively undermine the national security apparatus of all modern nation-states. When Theodosia laments to him, “but Jean, the Navy is part of the government, and the government does not operate at a profit,” he responds

“Well, it should. Taxes should be levied on the enemy, not citizens.”

When, after the Battle of New Orleans, Laffite receives a pardon from President Madison, but no reimbursement for losses suffered either protecting New Orleans or at the hands of government revenuers. Laffite enlists the help of Theodosia’s father in requesting that Madison issue Letters of Marque and Reprisal to Laffite. In the novel Burr exhorts his old friend “Jemmy”:

“What way works better? To support a navy – at the taxpayer’s expense – that pillages the private ships belonging to men who have offered to fight the enemy? A navy that not only deprived my client of the use of his ships, but also deprived the nation of the defense that those ships afforded us?”

Careful modern-day observers of the scene may recognize echoes of this in calls by Congressman Ron Paul to issue Letters of Marque and Reprisal for the death or capture of Osama Bin Laden in retaliation for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Further echoes may also be heard in the news that the US Army cannot account for trillions of dollars. The free market always operates more efficiently than government bureaucrats.

Another undercurrent in the book is the institution of slavery. Both Aaron Burr and Theodosia were abolitionists, but her husband Joseph Alston was a South Carolina slave-owning planter. Referring to northern abolitionists, Alston explains: “They pretend that they are all saints who want to liberate the slaves, but actually they are worried about their surplus laborers… They’ll all be dead in six weeks time. We have no choice but to use slaves.”

Theodosia house slave, Hattie, figures prominently in the first half of the novel. It is she who explains to Theodosia that contrary to the popular belief of whites, slaves are not, in fact, immune to “mal aria.” She explains that the reason no one ever sees any adult slaves fall ill is because those who would be prone to do so had already died in infancy.

Later, Joseph continues to pontificate on the virtues of slave society: “I think it’s fair. I never sell anyone just because they are old or sick or cannot work. I provide for them in their old age … I think it’s a lot more fair than what the free white laborers have in the big city, where they are discarded the moment they cannot work.”

In fact, it is Hattie who perhaps delivers the most profound message of the novel on freedom as being more a state of mind than a state of being. When Theodosia asks her whether she desires to be free, Hattie exclaims: “I am free. I always been free. You’re the one who’s a slave.”

Of course, no one who is forced to pay taxes can ever be truly free, and in the novel, the bourgeois Jean Laffite is another paragon of freedom. There is an ongoing debate throughout between him and Theodosia on whether or not he is a pirate. She says he is one because he does not pay taxes. He asks in response “Since when have American patriots begun judging people on whether or not they pay taxes? Wasn’t the whole point of your revolution not to pay taxes to your government?”

Likewise, later in the discussion where Aaron Burr asks President Madison for Letters of Marque for Laffite, Madison argues, “But we need a navy. Without taxes how can we pay for one?” Burr responds, “Don’t you realize Jemmy, that is what the British always said to us? What was the stamp tax for, if not to pay for a navy that could defend us from the enemy.”

Laffite contrasts his own style of governance, in which he does not tax the people at all, with the way governments work in the rest of the “civilized” world. Laffite shares his profits with his people, rather than tax them: “Everybody is working very hard to make things and sell things and to finance things, and the government is just a parasite that takes the food from their mouths.”

Speaking of pests, another recurring theme of the novel is central banking. At one point Theodosia reads an article in the newspaper about how Britain is funding their wars by printing money not backed by specie. This prompts a discussion of American central banking.

Theodosia explains to Laffite that Hamilton wanted a national bank just like England’s. All good people opposed this, of course, but, according to her, Jefferson only pretended to fight it, all the while working out the infamous compromise whereby Hamilton got his precious bank in return for placing the nation’s new capital in the South.

Theodosia explains to Laffite that Hamilton wanted a national bank just like England’s. All good people opposed this, of course, but, according to her, Jefferson only pretended to fight it, all the while working out the infamous compromise whereby Hamilton got his precious bank in return for placing the nation’s new capital in the South.

Later, in explaining to Theodosia why the press and the governor of Louisiana are so keen on persecuting him, Laffite gives an explanation that is sure to warm the cockles of any Austrian economist’s heart:

“They are only upset because we deal in specie and eschew the bank notes without cover that are being used to pass for money these days. They are trying to inflate their currency, and we are not letting them because we do not spend everything we earn. … They should thank us, for when gold and silver are scarce, they rise in value.”

Of course, no good deed ever goes unpunished. I do not think it is too much of a stretch to argue that the modern-day US government went after the governments of Iraq, Libya and Syria largely for the same reason the government of Louisiana went after the Baratarians.

Later, in their meeting about Laffite, President Madison indicates to Burr that he is thinking about reviving Hamilton’s national bank. Burr is stunned, “Jemmy, if you go this way, we will be no better than all the other empires on this earth: Our soldiers will fight against the people. The people will be bled of their livelihood to pay these taxes that you speak of. The people whose liberty you were sworn to defend!”

But please keep in mind that, while the novel is undoubtedly a tour-de-force of Rothbardian political theory, it does not seem like it, because the lessons are delicately embedded within the narrative.

The story remains primarily that of the internal struggles of a woman of the Early Republic. Throughout the book, Theodosia is very clear that she never wants to see her father again, because she thinks her life will be a disappointment to him. He raised her to be like Mary Wollstonecraft, the English author of The Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

You will have to buy the book to discover whether they are ever reunited in fiction, but suffice it to say that Wollstonecraft was neither as independent from men as she let on nor was Theodosia quite as dependent on Laffite as she feared. But I am afraid that I have grown dependent on Ms. Katz for the next installment in this fantastic series.

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