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June 2, 2010

Louisiana: Why Does it Matter?

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.

George Dargo


  1. I am not a lawyer so I can't comment on its legal importance, however, I think there are a few things that should be pointed out.

    First, the part on natural barriers protecting NO is not really true. NO is a city that never should have been built because the Miss. River would overwhelm it if it weren't for artificial design and construction. It is both physically below the water level and diametrically opposed to the river's flow. The delta is important from a wildlife perspective but not from protecting the city except to the extent that the artificial construction has enabled the delta to become a protective barrier. I would read more about the actual design of the city relative to the river before making the assumption that the natural deltas are protecting NO. There was a book written on the great flood of 1927 (much more severe than the impact fr Katrina) which demonstrates how the amount of water by the time it hits NO is physically overwhelming. And if there are significant rains or such like in 1927 the city is cooked.

    Secondly, the city should have been destroyed in 1927 but due to political deal making it was saved. Instead the poorer parishes surrounding the city were flooded and were completely destroyed. Among actions taken were intentional dynamiting of certain levees that would assure that NO would be protected but not the other parishes. NO had promised to rebuild these parishes but it essentially reneged on their promises.

    Also if it is a microsm of America then does that mean that most of America is corrupt as NO and the state historically have been. Again the 1927 book provides plenty of evidence of how corrupt the city was even back then. It is one reason, in my opinion, that the recovery process from Katrina was impaired/slowed.

    Finally, I agree it has provided a unique piece of our culture but in the last 50 yrs it has been much less an influence on our country (excluding culture) then it was back in 1927 or before. Back then because cotton was an important part of our economy and freight traffic up-down the Miss River was very robust it translated into NO being a very important city in terms of commerce and finance. Once the cotton crop died off and lost its relevance NO lost its relevance except as a tourist spot.

    And more recently its commercial influence has grown again, although not always the most prominent, until the BP disaster. Most people never knew that the Gulf was producing 25% of U.S. produced oil (5-6% of total oil consumed), making the state much more important than most people realize.

    "Rising Tide"

    Chris Decker (I received this comment fr Sarah Coffey)

  2. And today I read in the paper how this disaster now reaches ALL the Gulf states...