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The Southern States of America
Chapter II - The Territory of Orleans, 1803 - 1812


Territorial Government Organized.

The acquirement by the United States of that vast domain west of the Mississippi, over which the name Louisiana was at one time writ quite large, is perhaps as important an event as any chronicled in American history.

In the light of recent developments, this acquirement takes on an added and peculiar significance. "We are familiar with the fact that the soil of this acquired and purchased province germinated seeds whose fruitage was to be the greatest sectional conflict of modern times. "We know that the purchase of Louisiana stretched the Federal constitution so that it was never again to return to exactly that which the founders of the republic intended it to be.

We recognize that when Louisiana was bought from France, the United States began a march towards national expansion, whose advance not even the world's greatest ocean has checked. And now, when the issue of Imperialism looms so large upon our political horizon — Imperialism which means the government by a free people of another and distant people less free than themselves by virtue of the difference between governed and governing — we have but to refer to that period of Louisiana history that records its transition from foreign province to American state to see the beginnings of that same imperialistic tendency which, in our day, is finding fuller expression, and the same governmental problems as those recently bequeathed us for solution as a result of the war with Spain.

The territorial entity that preceded what is now the state of Louisiana came into existence as the Territory of Orleans by act of Congress, approved March 26, 1804. By this act the region purchased under the treaty with France was divided into the District of Louisiana (shortly afterwards to be changed to the Territory of Louisiana), and the Territory of Orleans, soon to resume the original title upon its attainment to statehood. The dividing line was the 33d parallel of latitude, the only definite boundary then established if we except the southern or coast line, for the western boundary was not to be fixed until seven years after Louisiana became a state, and the eastern boundary was to be in doubt until Spain was compelled to give up her "West Florida possessions, which then extended to the Mississippi River.

If the purchase of Louisiana as a land transaction called for no formidable opposition on the part of those who shaped American legislation, the same cannot be said of the proposed incorporation of her people into the American Union. This incorporation was distinctly pledged in the treaty of cession, which declared that the Louisianians should be admitted "to all the rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States." To what extent this pledge was kept may be summed up in the words of Henry Adams in commenting upon the act providing for the first government of Orleans Territory. "Louisiana," says he, "received a government in which the people, who had been solemnly promised all the rights of American citizens, were set apart, not as citizens but as subjects lower in the political scale than the meanest tribes of Indians whose right to self-government was never questioned."

The reason for the withholding of the rights and privileges of self-government can only be ascribed to that distrust which English-speaking races seem to regard the ability of Latin peoples to assimilate and appreciate Anglo-Saxon ideas of civil liberty and government. It finds expression to-day in all discussions regarding our national policy in Cuba and the Philippines. It found expression in Congress when the proposed government of Orleans Territory came up for debate. Said Dr. Eustis, member of Congress from Boston: "I am one of those who believe that the principles of civil liberty cannot be suddenly grafted upon a people accustomed to a regimen of a directly opposite line. I consider them [the Louisianians] as standing in nearly the same relation to us as if they were a conquered country."

Form of Government.

Let us note the significant features of the first Louisiana territorial government that met the approval of Congress and the President. The executive power was vested in a governor appointed by the President, whose term was to be three years. The legislative power was vested in the governor and thirteen of the most "fit and discreet persons" of the territory, who were to constitute a legislative council, and who were to be appointed by the President annually. The judicial power was vested in a Superior Court of three judges and a District Court of one judge, all of whom were appointed by the President. Any one of the three Superior Court judges constituted a court or quorum.

In addition, there was a secretary of the territory appointed by the President for a term of four years, whose chief function seems to have been to note the acts and proceedings of the governor and of the legislative council, and report same direct to the President of the United States — a sort of genteel spy, as it were.

Although the importation of slaves was permitted to the rest of the Union where, under the constitution, the slave trade was to continue until 1808, the people of Orleans Territory were prohibited either from making such importation or from bringing into the territory any slave that had been imported into other portions of the United States after the year 1798.

The indignation of the inhabitants of Louisiana when the provisions of this act became known can hardly be conceived. They had been promised all the rights and immunities of American citizens, whose dearest right is that of choosing their own lawmakers and government officials, and this right, in particular, had been withheld from them. They had been led to believe that a republican form of government would be provided for them at once, making them a co-member of the Federal Union, and the form forced upon them without their consent was, in their opinion, as despotic a form as monarch-ism ever conceived. They claimed that the appointed officers sent to rule them were wholly out of touch and sympathy with the people whom they were sent to govern, not even being conversant with the language in general use in the territory. They bitterly protested against the division of their magnificent domain, whose entire area they would keep intact even as the people of the great state of Texas have succeeded to this day in preserving their empire-like domain from disruption. They could see no justice in the restriction imposed upon them in regard to the importation of slaves, so necessary to the development of their land holdings.

Opposition to the Territorial Government.

Their indignation found expression in a series of mass-meetings, one of which, assembling June 1, 1804, appointed a committee to memorialize the Federal government to repeal the provisions of the Act of March 16 regarding the dividing of Louisiana and the prohibiting of slave importations, and to admit the undivided territory as a state to the Federal Union.

At a subsequent mass-meeting three Creole citizens of strong character and superior intelligence, Derbigny, Sauvé and Destrehan, were selected to bear the protest and memorial to Washington. This delegation made a pleasing impression upon Congress and the President, who were thenceforth to entertain a higher opinion of the people so ably represented by these delegates. Only partial success, however, attended the efforts of these gentlemen, the concession made by Congress being embodied in an act, approved March 2, 1805, "further providing for the territorial government of Orleans."

By this act the inhabitants were to enjoy all the rights, privileges and advantages secured to the people of the neighboring Mississippi territory, whose government had in turn been patterned after the territory "northwest of the Ohio." The Louisi-anians were given a voice in the selection of their lawmakers, which was a decided step towards self-government, and provision was made for a bi-cameral legislative system somewhat unique in its nature, as follows: The state was divided up into twenty-five election districts and the people were to choose a representative from each to constitute the House of Representatives, or lower legislative branch. From a list of ten submitted by this lower house the President of the United States, with the approval of the Senate, selected five to constitute a legislative council, or upper branch of the legislature. The legislators served two years, the legislative councillors five.

Governor Claiborne's Administration.

Meanwhile President Jefferson had appointed William Charles Cole Claiborne to be the first governor of Orleans territory. The choice was in many respects a very wise one. Claiborne was a Virginian by birth, had already won deserved political prominence, and was a great favorite of the President's. He had migrated to the territory "south of the Ohio" about the time it was ready to become the state of Tennessee, and when barely twenty-one had served as member of its first constitutional convention. He had been elected in succession judge of the Superior Court of Law and Equity and member of Congress. In the latter capacity he rendered Jefferson signal service when effort was made in Congress to override the will of the people in the presidential election of 1800, by making Aaron Burr president instead of Jefferson. Jefferson appointed him governor of Mississippi territory, where he displayed unusual ability in administering affairs. When Louisiana was purchased, he and Gen. James Wilkinson were the commissioners representing the United States in the formal ceremony of transfer. He acted as governor of the acquired province until the territory of Orleans was formed, when he was duly appointed and commissioned the first and only governor of that territory.

Claiborne found a task before him formidable enough to daunt an ordinary man, and one calling for the utmost tact and administrative ability. Two antagonistic factions soon developed in the community governed by him. One consisted for the most part of the native or Creole element, the other of newcomers or so-called American element, for the adventurous and enterprising had begun to migrate from the older states to the region of the lower Mississippi, even while Louisiana was a Spanish dependency.

The Creoles were full of resentment against the proposed new government. They were naturally conservative, were disposed to cling to tradition, and were disinclined to change. They had been bitterly disappointed in their hope of once more returning to the dominion of their beloved France. To them, the coming of the Americans with their new ways and customs was as the coming of the barbarians to ancient Rome.

Actuated by this spirit of irritation and resentment, a number of the leading citizens of the territory, whose cooperation would have been invaluable in the organization and establishment of the new government, declined all tenders of honor or appointment at the hand of the governor or President. Thus of the thirteen selected by the President as members of the first legislative council — Boré, Belle-chasse, Cantrelle, Clark, DeBuys, Dow, Jones, Kenner, Morgan, Poydras, Roman, "Watkins and Wikoff — four declined: Boré, Bellechasse, Jones and Clark. Of the three judges of the Superior Court — Duponceau, Kirby and Prevost — the first-named refused to serve, the second died, and only Prevost, stepson of Aaron Burr, was left to hold court. Thus the very condition which the Louisianians most feared — a one-man Supreme Court — was brought about, and in view of the fact that many legal questions bearing upon property rights and land ownership would probably arise before complete adjustment of the new to the old would be effected, it was a matter of some concern to the Louisianians that their fate before the law should depend upon the whim, decision or insufficient knowledge of a single judge.

The governor was tactful, however, and some of the prominent "Americans" sided with the Creoles, serving in part to make breaches in the line of demarkation that had been strictly drawn according to language and race. Thus the committee that prepared and drafted the memorial to Congress, praying for relief from the injustice of the first territorial act, consisted of Livingston, Jones, Pitot and Petit — two Americans and two French-speaking citizens.

The organization of the territorial government was hastened by the President's supplying Governor Claiborne with commissions in blank to be filled in with the names of those whose consent to act could be secured. Dorciere, Flood, Mather and Pollock were appointed in place of the four legislative councillors who had declined. A quorum was thus secured and the legislative mill began to grind.

One of the first acts of the council was to divide the territory up into twelve "counties" and provide for an inferior court for each. This was an innovation upon the old designation of parishes, which designation was shortly to be resumed. The names of these counties were Concordia, Point Coupee, Iberville, Lafourche, Acadia, German Coast, Orleans, Attakapas, Opelousas, Rapides, Natchitoches and Ouchita [Counties italicized still exist as parishes, though with smaller limits. There is an Acadia Parish in Louisiana, but it is in a different part of the state from where Acadia county was located.] The first six lay along the west bank of the Mississippi River from a point opposite Natchez down to the vicinity of New Orleans. Orleans county lay principally on the east bank. The remaining five extended through the central part from the Gulf to the northern boundary line, having their western limits undefined and each being of such size as to permit its subsequent subdivision into a number of parishes.

When the second congressional act was passed and the territory was reorganized, Claiborne was continued as governor, Graham was made secretary, and Prevost, Sprigg and Mathews, judges of the Superior Court. From among the ten nominated as members of the council, the President appointed Bellechasse, Destrehan, Macarty, Sauvé and Jones. The legislature, under this reorganized form of government, was, as stated, the first bi-cameral legislature of Louisiana. It was in session five months. Two of its most important acts were that establishing the famous Black Code, providing for the stringent police regulation of slaves, and that providing for the employment of two learned in the law to compile a civil and criminal code for the territory.

To the very end of his administration, not only as territorial governor but as first governor of the state, when the territory was granted statehood, we find Claiborne assuming the role of schoolmaster, admonishing and instructing the legislature and people as to the American polity of government and the principles of American liberty. His messages frequently refer to the "fathers of our country" and "illustrious founders of the Republic" in his adjurations to the people "to conserve and perpetuate the principles of civil liberty and the institutions of self-government.''

Social and Economic Conditions.

In the year following the purchase, population increased rapidly and development went on with feverish activity. The geographical position of New Orleans, its location near the mouth of America's greatest river, induced many to believe that it was to become the greatest city of the western world. The hardy and adventurous flocked in from all quarters. Leading commercial houses of Philadelphia and Baltimore established branches or supplied business training to many who were themselves to launch successful enterprises in the Crescent City. The bosom of the mighty Mississippi bore many a flat boat, broad horn and keel boat ladened with western produce, each with a sample of its cargo hung to an improvised masthead — an ear of corn, a jug of whiskey, a bag of flour, a ham or side of bacon. These tying up at the levee front, with the many sailing vessels coming from sea, indicated a commerce of gigantic volume. The rough and the uncouth, the intelligent and the educated mingled in the marts of trade and mixed themselves in the pot of politics that was ever sputtering and boiling over. Apart and aloof from all of these was a society of exquisite elegance and refinement that had patterned itself after court and aristocratic circles of the old world, inheriting traditions that made noblesse oblige and punctilious honor the governing principles of existence.

Steps to Statehood.

So marched the territory on to receive its crown of statehood. In 1803, when a census was compiled by the United States Consulate at New Orleans for the Department of State at Washington, the number of inhabitants in the whole of the territory ceded was placed at approximately 49,000. In five years the population of Orleans territory alone had increased to 76,000. The second Congressional Act providing for the government of Orleans territory specified that when the number of inhabitants should reach 60,000, the people would be authorized to form for themselves a constitution and state government, and to be admitted to the Union.

The enabling act was adopted by Congress Feb. 20, 1811. It defined the limits of the state that was to be, as they exist to-day, with the exception of that part of the present state of Louisiana lying north of Lake Pontchartrain, although the western or Sabine River boundary line had not yet been con-ceded by Spain. Indeed Spain had established a formidable post at Nacogdoches, Texas, and had crossed the Sabine almost to the very gates of Natchitoches, with the expectation of some day making the Red and Mermentau rivers the eastern boundary of her Texas domain. More than once the alarm over a possible Spanish invasion was sounded, militia and United States troops dispatched to the Louisiana frontier. The imminency of a clash only disappeared when the treaty ceding Florida was signed (1819).

First Constitution.

The first constitutional convention assembled in the city of New Orleans in November, 1811, and completed its labors in January, 1818. Of this constitution it may be said that it was very far from being a purely democratic instrument. It embodied to a certain extent that distrust of the people's fitness to govern themselves that had always caused friction. It prescribed property qualifications for candidates for office which greatly limited political aspirations. To be eligible, a member of the legislature had to own real estate to the amount of five hundred dollars. In the case of the governor it was five thousand dollars. The people were permitted to go through the form of voting for governor, but the legislature had power to defeat the popular choice, the methods of procedure being as follows:

Any number of candidates could be voted for at the general election. On the second day of the general assembly the members of the two houses met in the house of representatives and ballotted for choice of the two candidates who had received the largest number of popular votes. The one of the two receiving the largest number of legislative ballots was declared governor. Thus a candidate acceptable to only a minority of the people could, by the action of the legislature, be made governor contrary to the wishes of the majority. Indeed this was very nearly done in the election of the third governor of the state, when rivalries between the Creole and American elements were at white heat. The former had a majority in the legislature; the latter had a majority of the popular vote. Only the high sense of honor of the Creole candidate, Derbigny, who positively declined to accept the office at the hands of his legislature friends when a majority of the people had voted for his rival, prevented in this instance the overturning of the popular will.

The constitution was adopted Jan. 28, 1812. Congress gave its approval April 8 of the same year by passing the "act for admission of Louisiana."

Annexation of Part of West Florida.

Just six days afterwards another act was passed enlarging the boundaries of the state so as to include the Baton Rouge district of the old province of West Florida lying north of Lake Pontchartrain, which portion of Louisiana is to this day known as the Florida Parishes.

In this connection it may be interesting to note briefly the manner in which this district came into the possession of the United States before being annexed to Louisiana. "When Claiborne and Wilkinson took formal possession of Louisiana, Spain retained the Baton Rouge district as a part of West Florida, never considered by her as included in the Spanish cession of Louisiana to France just previous to the Franco-American purchase treaty. For seven years after Louisiana became American territory the flag of Spain floated over this region.

Many English-speaking people had taken up their abode in this district. Some of them were English army officers, who had been granted land when West Florida was an English possession; others had migrated from Tennessee and the Carolinas and were imbued with the spirit of resentment against foreign domination.

In the course of time these English-speaking residents became more and more dissatisfied with Spanish rule, and in 1810 rose in revolt, drove the Spanish garrisons from the district, organized an independent state government and applied for admission to the Union. Their claim to independence and statehood was denied on the score that West Florida was considered a part of the original Louisiana purchase and therefore already belonged to the United States, notwithstanding Spain's claim to the contrary. After its annexation that portion west of the Pearl River was joined to Louisiana a few days after the admission of the new state to the Union, and the treaty of the Florida Purchase settled amicably the claims of Spain.

Claiborne's Work. That Claiborne governed the territory of Orleans quite acceptably, everything considered, is evident from the fact that when the newly constituted state was called upon for the first time to choose its own executive, the choice fell upon him notwithstanding the opposing candidacy of one of the ablest of the native Creole political leaders. Claiborne's was the pilot hand that tactfully and skilfully guided territorial Louisiana over the shoals of intrigue, uncertainty, doubt and unrest. With the open sea of progress before her the Louisiana ship of state, from this point of the narrative, sails on, and it remains with other hands to record the incidents of that further voyage.

Bibliography.— Adams, Henry: History of the United States of America during Jefferson's Administration (Vol. II., Chaps. V. and VI., Vol. III., Chap. XIII.); Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Louisiana (Vol. II., Chap. IV.,"Organization of the Louisiana Government," contributed by H. L. Favrot); Chambers, Henry E.: West Florida and Its Relation to the Historical Cartography of the United States (Johns Hopkins University Studies in History and Political Science); Chambers, Henry E.: William Charles Cole Claiborne; "How He Solved America's First Problem of Expansion" (Address delivered before the Mississippi State Historical Society at Natchez, April 20, 1898); Chambers, Henry E.: Louisiana: A Sketch in Outline of Its Past and Present. (Chaps. XV.-XVI.); Debouchel, Victor: Histoire de la Louisiane depuis les Premiéres Découvertes jus qu'en 1840 (Esquisse Quinzieme); Fortier, Alcée: History of Louisiana; Ficklen and King: School History of Louisiana (Chaps. XX.-XXIV.); Gayarré, Chas. E. A.: History of Louisiana (Vol. IV., "The American Domination"); Hosmer, James K.: The History of the Louisiana Purchase (Chap. X., "The United States in Possession"); King, Grace: New Orleans: The Place and the People (Chap. IX.); Martin, Judge Francois-Xavier: History of Louisiana from the Earliest Period; Poore, Ben Perley: Federal and State Constitutions (Vol. I.); Phelps, Albert: Louisiana: A Record of Expansion (American Commonwealth Series); Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society (Vol. III.); Thompson, Maurice: The Story of Louisiana (Chap. VII., Story of the States Series).

Henry E. Chambers,
Author of A School History of the United States; A Higher History of the United States; Louisiana: A Sketch in Outline of Its Past and Present, etc.


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