Books and Culture

Nicole Gelinas
Decadence Destiny
How New Orleans got that way
20 July 2012

The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, by Lawrence N. Powell (Harvard University Press, 448 pp., $29.95)

New Orleans’s American tourists often feel that they’ve arrived in a foreign country, and they’re not entirely wrong. The city’s history dates back to its status of uneasy observer of the nation’s founding. As the 13 colonies were forging a nation, the elite Spanish subjects in New Orleans looked on not with elation, but with unease, Tulane professor Lawrence N. Powell writes in The Accidental City, his chronicle of the Big Easy’s pre-1812 history. Plantation owners and wealthy merchants worried about what kind of message their slaves would absorb from the inconvenient republican rhetoric up north. New Orleans has always been just a bit different, and those differences endure to this day.

The Crescent City’s location is its original sin—but the sinners, like many of their lot, had their reasons. In the early eighteenth century, the French crown, Louisiana’s first royal sponsor, needed money to pay off its massive debts, and it hoped tobacco might wean the populace off British-controlled imports. “New Orleans was founded as a company town,” writes Powell. Impresarios of the royally chartered Company of the West, which would administer the new colony, found an easy mark at Versailles, as French colonial policy under Louis XIV “was largely one of aimlessness and drift.”

France needed water access from the American continent to Europe, and the Mississippi River provided that route. “The site was dreadful,” Powell observes, but the “situation” was “superb.” The river itself was so difficult that explorers had a tough time even finding it, and, once they did, not losing either it or themselves. As for the dry ground alongside the water: Europe has paintings older than this land, which was much more suitable for flooding than for building. Crown and company preferred to defend a much smaller settlement near present-day Biloxi, Mississippi or Mobile, Alabama, rather than a dense city. As one French official put it, “The land is flooded, unhealthy, impracticable.” Another said, in Powell’s paraphrase, that “it must be abandoned, pure and simple.”

But Canadian-born Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, who governed early-day New Orleans, thought otherwise, in part because he figured—correctly—that he could better control and profit from land that he built up from scratch. Bienville got his way through other people’s bad luck. The Company of the West struggled for years and then collapsed in the early 1720s, and “while the company was distracted” by its looming failure, Bienville worked “assiduously to get New Orleans populated by every means at his disposal.” Present-day New Orleanians live with Bienville’s choices.

They live also with his visions, architectural and economic. The planners whom Bienville hired laid out a grid built on a sliver of relatively high ground. The cathedral formed the center, Latin-style. Bienville was so intent on making sure that other people’s ideas didn’t ruin his “Enlightenment mania for balance, order, and clarity” that he “even outlawed lawyers.” To create a plantation-based economy and to ensure loyalty, Bienville then parceled out land. Rich people lived closest to the river, with the poor in the “back of town,” though good land was so scarce that everyone lived in close proximity, anyway.

To grow and export crops, Bienville needed people, but not many were interested. Since Enlightenment ideals prohibited neither forced migration nor forced labor, Bienville embraced both. He had a ready supply of forced migrants from France, which had a policy in the early 1700s to deport undesirables. “One fourth of the original male colonists of New Orleans were convicts, smugglers, and deserters,” whom France forcibly deported, Powell reveals. Bienville supplemented them with wholesale imports of West African slaves, dispensed to his loyalists. The slaves, in turn, built not only New Orleans’s agro-economy but also its vital protections against flood.

Bienville created a culture that was to endure long after Spain took over the colony in 1766 as a war prize. One feature was that, “like modern-day Italy,” as Powell puts it, New Orleans had “tons of [laws] that few people cared to obey.” It wasn’t that unwilling laborers and European exiles were somehow morally defective. Economics and geopolitics, and plain old human nature, had more to do with it.

Consider the problem presented by Louisiana’s very reason for existence: mercantilism. The point of the colony, under both French and Spanish rule, was to supply the respective crowns with raw or lightly produced materials and buy finished goods from the mother country in return. Whatever the merits of the theory, the practice didn’t work. Weak crops, bad weather, intercolonial wars, and personal desires forced colonial administrators to turn a blind eye, at best, to “smuggling”—that is, freer trade. Both France and Spain had difficulty producing sufficient quality goods for export, Powell notes, but “even those items that the mother country was able to supply, Louisianans didn’t want.” Whites, blacks, and Indians alike preferred English-finished fabrics to Continental. French-raised colonists wanted French wine, not Spanish. New Orleans, then, traded heavily with the British colonies and later, the United States; it also traded with the West Indies and Spanish-held Cuba.

New Orleans became “steeped in the culture of illegality,” Powell writes. The Big Easy attracted more than its fair share of shady characters and transients. “There is little doubt that New Orleans saw a good deal of violence, little of which was ever recorded, let alone prosecuted,” Powell says. Shortly after his country’s takeover of New Orleans, one powerful Spaniard lamented that his new charges in the colony “drank too much, wasted money on gambling, [and] were boorish.”

But Spain decided that liquor, games, and rudeness were acceptable because they brought in tax revenue. New Orleans needed this cash because its residents exhibited at least one all-American trait: they hated paying taxes. They did need expensive public infrastructure, though, to keep out the water and to rebuild when the water broke through. “Vice paid,” explains Powell. “Without the revenues it provided, government officials would have been hard-pressed to pay for maintaining the towns’ costly infrastructure.” Crown administrators likely would advise present-day Louisiana officials to build yet another casino or pleasure emporium to bring in jobs and cash.

Over time, the crowns eased trading restrictions as well. The manner in which they did so also colors today’s culture. Spain, for example, loosened trade not by unleashing free markets, but by offering concessions to the well-connected. The French-born Gilbert St. Maxent shrewdly earned the good graces of the Spanish crown to secure positions of governmental and trading power. He “obtained not only the sole proprietorship of Spain’s North American fur trade, but the extraordinary privilege of overseeing his own contract,” Powell notes. Practices in this vein invited illegal corruption and ratified a sort of legal corruption, which still governs New Orleans.

Crown administration also encouraged another kind of favoritism. Merchants demanding government patronage, or French subjects who found themselves suddenly Spanish subjects—St. Maxent was both—could often get what they needed by marrying the right people or making sure that their offspring did so. That’s hardly a foreign concept among elites anywhere. But twenty-first-century New Orleanians still make high art of it; where a person went to elementary school often carries more importance to potential employers than his college transcript or work history.

Another facet of colonial New Orleans’s enduring legacy is its peculiar version of the peculiar institution. Thanks to a plantation economy’s insatiable demand for free or cheap sources of hard labor, the people with the land and the money found themselves quickly outnumbered by slaves and by indigenous Indians. After the American Revolution, and more potently in the 1790s—after the revolution in France’s Saint-Domingue forged the independent nation of Haiti—“the internal threat most feared by the governor and the . . . elite was a slave insurrection,” writes Powell.

Colonists were afraid, too, that slaves would take an inconvenient message from Spain’s monarchist philosophy. Under the Spanish crown, all people were considered entitled to direct recourse to their sovereign—hardly a good message for a slave master who himself wanted to be the only recourse for his human “property.” It followed that New Orleans became a society based not on the ideals of freedom, but on sheer terror, with slave owners and their political servants stamping out insurrections and executing suspected rebels.

Yet slave masters were anything but consistent in their behavior; economics and human nature intruded. Crops often withered or flooded, and some cash-strapped owners of human beings allowed and even encouraged their slaves to tend their own gardens and sell meat and produce at market, with owner and owned alike sharing in the proceeds. Some slaves who had learned trades such as carpentry could hire themselves out during their free time. Slaves’ ability to meet other slaves and free people to exchange goods and services encouraged autonomy, as well as an entrepreneurial impulse.

Slave owners also tolerated “safety-valve” expressions of individuality. Slaves could dress up, play music, and participate in festivals as long as they observed certain boundaries. At least until the American and Caribbean revolutions, and especially during lean economic times, masters even tolerated the phenomenon of slaves’ “running away” temporarily to conduct family or other business, and then returning. Slaves used religion to create family ties or other connections in quiet defiance of their masters; a slave mother might ask a black woman on another plantation, or even a white woman, to serve as godmother to her baby.

Then there was that other kind of human nature. Demographics meant that New Orleans had far more young white men than white women. Slave owners impregnated their human property, and then sometimes freed both mother and children. In turn, some free mixed-race women, partly because of the dearth of free black men, forged relationships with white men, often making commitments that were marriages in everything but name. “Louisiana lawmakers and jurists didn’t succeed in criminalizing cohabitation until the heyday of Jim Crow segregation a century later,” says Powell. Over the decades, New Orleans built up a three-caste society of slaves at the bottom, free black and “mixed” people in the middle, and whites at the top. Even these lines were blurry; some free black men and women grew wealthy from their trades.

New Orleans didn’t suddenly snap into the American mold with the United States’ 1803 purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France, which had briefly regained control of it. First, America distrusted New Orleanians. “Much of Washington believed that the sort of people who called New Orleans home—royalists, Catholics, hedonists—needed a time-out, a probationary period, before they could be handed the keys to democratic institutions,” Powell writes. In the Louisiana Territory’s earliest years, northerners administered New Orleans much as the two crowns had done.

Second, as part of the 1812 transition to statehood, America let Louisiana create “the most repressive slave code in New Orleans history to that point in time.” Slaves could no longer own their own land, cattle, and tools, nor did they have at least theoretical recourse to a crown that superseded local law. “Under the aegis of republican self-rule,” Powell maintains, “New Orleans’s slaveholding elite had finally achieved an indivisible sovereignty over slaves.”

New Orleans’s past isn’t quite past. The Crescent City still tolerates a culture of lawlessness, whether it’s the sky-high murder rate or chronic local and state government corruption. And then there are the good parts. Slaves’ long-ago insistence on maintaining dignity and individuality still enriches New Orleans’s present-day music, food, and small-scale entrepreneurialism. French and Spanish—and American—architecture is on display throughout the city. New Orleanians’ sheer stubbornness helped rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That mulishness can be an asset not just in fighting wind and water, but also in resisting the encroachment of strip malls and pervasive sameness.

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