Why should we who visit New Orleans from time to time – to listen to jazz in Preservation Hall, to watch people carry on during Mardi Gras, to eat Cajun food, drink coffee in Café Du Monde in the French Quarter, to enjoy the beauty of Audubon Park, or to ride the ancient trolley cars on St. Charles Avenue – why should we care that British Petroleum’s devastating oil spill is spoiling the delicate coastline of Louisiana and the estuary of the Mississippi River? Why does Louisiana matter at all?
The Spanish called it Baja Luisiana (Lower Louisiana), but the Americans changed it to the “Orleans Territory” in a vain effort to erase the memory of three quarters of a century of European rule. That effort failed when the French inhabitants insisted on the name Louisiana. So it was called when the state entered the Union in 1812. Naming rights aside, Louisiana was a very strange and unknown region two hundred years ago when, through clever diplomacy and lucky chance, the whole of the empire of what the French called La Louisiane was purchased from Napoleon in 1803.
Travelers coming to New Orleans usually came by sea since there were no roads to speak of connecting America’s newest and greatest possession to the rest of the country. First impressions may well have been of overwhelming desolation at the point of entry at the mouth of the Mississippi over one hundred miles southeast of the Crescent City. As one voyager reported, “we entered the river in the afternoon. As long as daylight would permit us a view nothing appeared but a dull uniform marsh covered with reeds, no cheering prospect to refresh the eye. All around is one dead level.” Another observed “a low and swampy shore, in many parts drowned by the river, uninhabited and uninhabitable, where only wild and misshapen vegetation subsists.”
We now know how precious the barren landscape of the deep delta truly was. For these were the cane fields, marshes, cypress swamps, inlets, bayous, and wetlands that protected what we now call “the Big Easy” from the destructive forces of nature. It was fire – probably caused by human negligence – that nearly destroyed the entire city in 1788 – not hurricanes or some other natural calamity. At the time, the Spanish who governed Louisiana rebuilt the town using the architecture characteristic of Spanish and Caribbean forms that we now recognize and treasure. They reconstructed everything using iron and brick rather than wood wherever possible according to fire and building codes that made New Orleans the very first city to have any such regulations.
The physical features that surrounded New Orleans, then the most important city on the Mississippi River, even protected it from a British invasion at the very end of the War of 1812. England sent an armada to invest the city and thereby seize control of all of Louisiana, but the crack troops who tried it – Wellington’s veterans from the Peninsular Campaign in Europe – were unable to negotiate the cypress swamps, marshes, and bayous surrounding New Orleans. They were defeated by a ragtag assemblage of local militia, black slaves, free people of color, pirates, and a motley assortment of fighters from as far away as Kentucky who finally defeated a British army many times its size on January 8, 1815 in the Battle of New Orleans, one of the most decisive and consequential military engagements ever fought on the North American continent.
We think of New Orleans as a Southern city and of Louisiana as one of the states of the Deep South. After all, it was part of the Confederate States of America, and New Orleans was the very first major city of the Confederacy that fell to the Union when Fleet Officer David Farragut led a naval force up the Mississippi River in the spring of 1862 to capture New Orleans. The city remained in Union hands for the duration of the Civil War. And, as a slaveholding state with a very large African American slave population, Louisiana had been an integral part all of the oppressions that we associate with black enslavement and with the so-called emancipation that followed. During the earliest years, black slaves were governed by something called the Code Noir which was one of the worst slave codes in the American South. And then the regime of Jim Crowism which followed the Civil War and Reconstruction – the enforced separation of the races which did not begin to end for nearly another hundred years – was given the official imprimatur of legality by the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, a case that emanated from Louisiana.
So Louisiana is very much a part of the story of American racism. That we know. But it is also true that New Orleans had the largest population of “Free People of Color” of any antebellum southern city. Even in the days of slavery, free Africans and former slaves living in New Orleans had many of the same rights and privileges as whites – they could and did own property, establish businesses, have a normal family life, and live freely – something which was unheard of in the rest of the American South. In that respect, the Louisiana experience would anticipate America today as the country works through stubborn issues of racial inequality and the continuing struggle for racial equalization.
Even with respect to the unique Louisiana legal system, America has had much to learn. In the field of family law, for example, the property rights of married women in early Louisiana were way ahead of the law in the American common law states while the community property systems well-known in the former colonies of France and Spain would be highly influential in many of those states in years to come. In addition, in an increasingly globalized world where law is often borrowed or duplicated outright, Louisiana enjoys distinguished membership in a family of nations that have “mixed legal systems.” Despite the protestations of tea partyers from below and some federal jurists from above, America must necessarily learn to copy from the legal experience of other equally developed legal regimes just as Louisiana has been doing from the very beginning.
Why, then, does Louisiana matter? It matters because, despite its uniqueness, its difference, its special history, and its Creole/Caribbean culture, Louisiana is a microcosm of America. The Louisiana experience mirrors the American experience. Nowhere else in the country was there a population as mixed and diverse as that of New Orleans right up until our own time. Even New York, with its large influx of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, did not equal New Orleans in the complexity of its population which consisted, in 1800, of French speakers from Santo Domingo (refugees from the Haitian Revolution), natives of France, native-born Louisianians, as well as Germans, Spanish, Americans, Irish, African slaves, Free People of Color, and others. Consequently, Louisiana became a hybrid culture long before America would become a hybrid product of the many different peoples that would settle this country particularly in the period before restrictive federal immigration laws were enacted early in the 20th century.
So as we watch with helpless horror as oil fouls the Gulf of Mexico – a direct result of corporate malfeasance and regulatory failure – with irreparable harm already inflicted upon endangered wildlife and fragile ecosystems, we should all care very deeply about what happens to Louisiana. Because Louisiana is us. Louisiana’s history is our history, its future our future, and we are all in this together.