Short URL for this page:
The period from 1820 to 1860 was that of New Orleans' greatest development. This was due exclusively to commerce. New Orleans was not a manufacturing city. Only a small portion of the products received there was consumed. It was a point of transshipment, which took what it got from the South and West, and exported it, often without even repacking. Hence, the exports were within a small margin of the receipts. The difference was represented by such breadstuffs and other provisions as were required for local use. The development of its business naturally followed two lines, represented respectively by the river traffic and the ocean-borne traffic. The former was the most picturesque; the latter the more durable. But they were closely related, and the volume of the latter depended, in this prosperous epoch, upon the growth of the former.
During the French and the Spanish regimes, commerce on the river was carried on in canoes, pirogues and "bateaux." Later there appeared on the river "keel" boats, barges and flatboats. These craft floated down the river with the current and were either abandoned or broken up for their timbers at New Orleans; or if a return cargo made the venture profitable, the "keel" boats were taken upstream by the slow processes of "cordeleing" or "bushwhacking." In 1810 the arrivals by river were 679 flatboats and 392 "keel" boats. These brought to New Orleans a miscellaneous character of cargo — sugar, molasses, rice, cotton, flour, bacon, pork, beans, cheese, lumber, lard, butter, onions, potatoes, hemp, cordage, linen, tobacco, hogs, etc. Three-fifths of these products originated above the "falls of the Ohio" — that is, the vicinity of the present City of Louisville; the remainder, below that point.
Early in the century the success of steam navigation on the Hudson River induced some enterprising persons to build a steamboat at Pittsburgh to trade with Natchez and New Orleans. This boat was named "New Orleans." She was designed by Robert Fulton. Her construction was supervised by Nicholas J. Roosevelt, grand-uncle of the late President Roosevelt. Fulton and Robert R. Livingston furnished the capital for the venture. This craft arrived at New Orleans on January 12, 1812, and shortly thereafter began the ascent of the river, as it was found that she could go upstream at the rate of •three miles an hour. She made thirteen trips to Natchez in the little more than one year of her existence, and averaged a gross revenue of $2,400 per trip. Her example was followed by other steam craft, and soon the steamboat was a familiar sight on the river, sixty boats being built before the year 1820.
Fulton and Livingston discontinued the trade in consequence of a decision of the courts denying their claim to a monopoly of river navigation for a period of twenty-five years. The second steamboat built for western waters was the "Comet," of twenty-five tons. Her career was brief, but she ran from New Orleans to Natchez, a distance of •285 miles, in five days and ten hours. The third boat was much larger. She was the "Vesuvius," of 340 tons. She was the first boat to attempt the p201 ascent of the river above Natchez. She left New Orleans for Louisville June 1, 1814, but grounded on a sandbar •700 miles upstream and was compelled to remain there inactive until a rising river floated her off. She then returned to New Orleans, and was commandeered by Jackson for use in the defense of the city against Pakenham's attack. Later she resumed the trade between New Orleans and Louisville, and continued therein until sold in 1819 at auction to settle a claim against her. The fourth steamboat, the "Enterprise," after being used as a transport by Jackson, entered commerce and shortened the time to Natchez by a full day. She made the trip to Pittsburgh in twenty-five days, reducing the time between New Orleans and that city by something like two months.
Before 1818 steamboats were built crudely after the lines of deep-water craft. They were designed to carry freight, not passengers, though rude accommodations for half a dozen persons could be provided. After that year it was found that boats of light draft were better adapted to the river trade. Hence the evolution of the large boats of the middle and latter half of the nineteenth century. By 1830 the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers were lined with steamboats, and the larger tributaries of both streams were quite well served. In 1834 the number of steamboats was 230, in 1844, 450.
Between 1840 and 1850 was the golden age of steamboat navigation. Boats of heavy tonnage with ample accommodation for many passengers were common. "Floating palaces," they were called. As a matter of fact, there was nothing palatial about them. They furnished, however, perhaps the most comfortable means of travel ever devised. The progress of steamboating is shown by the fact that whereas the "Comet" made the run from New Orleans to Natchez in 1814 in five days and ten hours, the "Sultana," thirty years later, traversed the distance in nineteen hours and forty-five minutes. In 1870, the most celebrated of all the river fleet, the "Lee" and the "Natchez," reduced this time to sixteen hours and thirty-six minutes.
During the heyday of steamboating racing was frequent and dangerous between rival vessels. There was a number of terrible disasters due to this practice. Protests against it followed in each case, but the horrors were soon forgotten, and the deprecated habit was resumed.1
The introduction of the steamboat brought about radical changes in trade routes, but gave a great though temporary impetus to business in New Orleans. In 1814 the number of steamboats arriving at New Orleans was only three, as against 508 flatboats and 325 barges. These three steamboats, the "New Orleans," "Vesuvius" and "Enterprise," made a total of twenty-one trips in that year. But in 1816, thanks chiefly to the rapid increase in the number of steamboats, the total value of the river traffic rose to $8,062,540; and within four years it doubled — that is, in 1820 it was $16,771,711. From 1815 to 1840 the chief interest of the river business was the brisk competition between the steamboat and the flatboat. Flatboats continued to be used to a large extent up to the beginning of the Civil war, and some reach New Orleans — chiefly with coal — at the present time; but the victory of the steamboat was foreordained and inevitable. In the twenty years ending in 1840, during which this process of elimination was at work, the receipts at New p202 Orleans from the interior increased four-fold, and the ocean traffic showed a corresponding expansion.
At the beginning of the American regime New Orleans' ocean-borne commerce was largely with the American colonies and consisted in the shipment to the Atlantic seaboard of the products of the vast Mississippi and Ohio basins. The merchants of Baltimore and Philadelphia were among the first to establish agencies in New Orleans. This they did while the city was yet under the control of the Spanish. Boston ranked next in importance as a customer; New York, Charleston and Newport standing lower down on the list of ports doing business with the little Southern metropolis. This coastwise trade was far larger than the foreign business. Over three-quarters of the vessels engaged in it were American bottoms. Cotton was at that time only an insignificant feature of the exports, which were mainly farm produce. It was not till 1830 that the foreign commerce exceeded the coastwise business. In that year the value of the former was $9,868,328, of the latter $8,357,788. Since then the coastwise traffic has never been important in the business history of the city.
In 1840 New Orleans had begun to recover from the depression of the preceding three years. It was now the fourth city in the United States in point of population. It was exceeded in size only by New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Boston was only a little smaller; but no other American city was half so large. This growth was due to its geographical position. It was largely a matter of passive accretion; the resident population did little to induce settlers to seek their city. In that year there seemed every reason to expect that New Orleans would soon be the greatest, as it probably was proportionately already the wealthiest, city in America. In 1842 the receipts from the interior were valued at more than $42,000,000; in 1843, at over $53,000,000; in 1844, at $60,000,000; in 1846, upwards of $77,000,000, and by the end of the decade they had risen to nearly $97,000,000. About the year 1842 sugar, which for years had been the backbone of the city's exports, began to take a second place as compared with cotton. The imports which in 1842, as a consequence of the general financial depression of the recently preceding years, sank to $8,000,000, but three years later had risen to nearly $10,000,000. The receipts of corn, which in 1840 were 268,000 sacks and 168,000 barrels, rose steadily year after year, till about 1850 they amounted to over 1,000,000 sacks and 42,000 barrels.º Tobacco showed increases proportioned to the national production, in spite of the fact that in the South, during this period, the amount of the weed grown was reduced.
But while actually the prosperity of New Orleans in this period grew by leaps and bounds, there were, beneath the brilliant surface, forces operating which were very imperfectly understood at the time, but which menaced seriously the continued importance of the city. Relatively it was losing ground. The vast increase of production which was taking place in the upper and central part of the Mississippi Valley — which ought, according to the reasoning of the New Orleans merchants, logically to seek New Orleans — was pouring into other cities. This was due to a variety of causes. First, New Orleans was concentrating more and more upon the handling of a single article. Cotton, she unfortunately was coming to believe, "was king." For the sake of cotton she was neglecting the sugar of Louisiana, the tobacco of Kentucky, the flour p203 of Ohio — in fact, all the products of the growing states of the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri valleys. Secondly, her position was menaced by the diversion of the trade routes resulting from the construction of the Erie, Ohio, and other canals. These canals, built about 1831 and 1832, brought, for example, the waters of the upper Ohio into relation with Lake Erie, in one direction, and with the Hudson River in another. Thus, New York obtained a direct, if somewhat long, route to the Ohio Valley. It was •600 miles in length, it is true, but that fact was offset by the dangers and difficulties of navigation in the Mississippi, the extent and seriousness of which we of the present time can hardly imagine. In 1835 Ohio shipped to New York 86,000 barrels of flour, 98,000 bushels of wheat and 2,500,000 staves, all of which had previously gone down the river to New Orleans, there to be transshipped to New York. Pennsylvania also became interested in the construction of canals. Maryland dug the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal westward with the intention of ultimately tapping the great western valley. The effect was seen in the cost of transportation of commodities; as, for instance, of flour. The duration and danger of the trip by New Orleans and the high cost of insurance resulted in an expense to the shipper considerably larger than if he patronized the new interior waterways.
The inroads on the commerce of New Orleans were not perceptible at the epoch which we are considering. The city had momentarily all the business it could handle. In fact, though from 1825 to 1850 the canals showed a steady increase in business, the proportionate gain in the river business was so great as to seem to justify the easy contempt with which the competition was viewed. At Cincinnati, for instance, this competition was not felt till 1850.2
More serious ultimately was the effect of the building of the railroads. At the time this also was ignored in New Orleans. The early railroads were almost wholly local and of very short mileage. During the first fifteen or twenty years of their existence there was no idea of their competition with the water routes. They were expected to supply transportation only to markets where no other avenues were open. For many years there was no line connecting the seaboard with the teeming West. Breaks and gaps interrupted all the existing systems. A few far-seeing persons in New Orleans were alive to the danger of the slowly altering trade routes. To them may be attributed the agitation which about this time arose in the city in favor of improving the river. There were memorials to Congress asking that the "rapids" and "falls" be corrected — that canals be cut around such obstructions — that the shallow places be dredged. But such devices were temporary. The railroads spelt the ultimate division into halves of the commercial domain claimed by New Orleans, and the apportionment of the more desirable section to her rival cities above the mouth of the Ohio. The destruction of the river traffic, which was not accomplished till a generation later, was another of its consequences. In 1845, when Henry Clay presided at the great convention which met that year at Memphis to demand government assistance in the improvement of the Mississippi and its tributaries, two-thirds of the river tonnage was owned or controlled in New Orleans, and regular lines ran as far up as Pittsburgh on the Ohio, and St. Paul on the Mississippi. By 1880 practically all of this lucrative business had p204 disappeared; the vessels which had made it famous had vanished, burned or sunk by striking on the snags which were the chief peril of navigation in the Mississippi.
Another cause of the relative decline in the commercial importance of New Orleans was the increase in the size of ocean-going vessels. At the beginning of the century the size of ships visiting New Orleans was 150 tons; in 1840 it was 236 tons; in 1857, 376 tons, and in 1860, 521 tons. Larger ships could not easily enter the Mississippi on account of the bars at the mouth of the river. As early as 1829 attention had been called to this fact. In 1837 Northeast Pass, which was the usual channel, became impassable through shoaling. Then Southwest Pass came into use, and being •from fifteen to sixteen feet deep, was satisfactory to 1850. But as ships grew to have a draft of •sixteen feet or over and a displacement of 1,000 tons or more, the utility of this entrance also began to diminish. In 1852 in one week forty vessels went aground at the mouth of Southwest Pass. Often vessels were unable to get over the bar and were compelled to discharge their cargoes into lighters and reload after entering the river proper. These difficulties naturally tended to raise the freight rates, and resulted detrimentally to the commerce of New Orleans. Still another impediment to commerce which was not cleared away till the beginning of the twentieth century was the high port charges. Recognition of all of these , and the relative retrogression of the city, and all that they implied for the future, was, however, not general, or if recognized, the remedies were not proposed until too late to do any material good.3
A somewhat similar situation existed in regard to politics. The period from 1840 to 1860 was an epoch of steady but unadmitted degeneration. Forces were at work here also which were inimical to the future welfare of the city, training the people in the habit of disregarding the law, and in depending upon force to carry out their will, whether licit or illicit. In the early decades of the century this was not so. Although there were cases where the public confidence was abused, it must be said that, on the whole, the influence of the Creole leaders, which was very great, was used to promote high ideals of political behavior. For the most part they were men of a very keen sense of personal honor and public responsibility, and jealous of their reputations for political rectitude. They kept both state and city politics on a very high plane. When Mouton, for instance, was nominated for governor, in 1842, he at once resigned his seat in the United States Senate through a feeling of delicacy about retaining that post of power and influence in a campaign in which his adversary had no such advantage. Moreover, when the demand arose a little later for a new state constitution, Mouton at once signed the bill calling the convention, although perfectly well aware that by doing so he shortened his own tenure of office. Such cases were frequent. On the other hand, some instances of the other sort can be cited. In 1830, when Samuel J. Peters was serving his second term in the City Council, and was made chairman of the finance committee, he began an investigation of the way in which the city finances had been handled by his predecessors. There had been considerable complaint on this subject, as the revenues were known to be equal in amount to the expenditures, yet the city was compelled to issue warrants p205 to meet its ordinary expenses, and these warrants were sold on the streets at ruinous discounts. Each finance committee up to this time had contented itself with a merely nominal audit of the books of the city treasury; but Peters, in spite of endless obstacles thrown in his way, made a complete study of the records, and discovered defalcations to an enormous amount. The investigation could be carried back only seven years; beyond that time the books were not to be found. One official absconded; another committed suicide; others who apprehended the results of Peters' further inquiries threatened him with challenges to duels, and two attempts were made to assassinate him.4 But in spite of such instances, which merely prove that human nature in those times was as fallible as in our day, the general average of political conduct was down to the '40s very high.
In these early days an almost Acadian simplicity distinguished management of a political campaign, state or city. In general there was only a very small floating vote which could be swayed from one side to the other. People were Democrats or Whigs, and there was no possibility of inducing a man to change. Adherence to party was a matter of family and tradition as much as possible. Hence in the city and the state the simplicity of the processes of nomination and election to which allusion has been made once or twice already. Candidates for the mayoralty did not, prior to 1830, announce any principles. The interrogation of Freret and Prieur by the Native Americans in 1842, which amounted to something of the kind, was looked on and resented as an innovation. Even after that date for some years candidates were put up by their friends; a primary of the party elected delegates and the nominations were made at a party convention in due course — the convention having no committees on resolutions, nor much of one on credentials, since it was looked on as an offensive insinuation to examine the right of a delegate to sit when he presented himself, and such insults could be wiped out, according to the code of the day, only in blood. After nomination there was little electioneering, as we understand the word. To canvass for votes was looked on as betokening a lack of modesty. Consequently, there was, down to Crossman's time, little excitement in the city elections.
A change, however, began about the time that Texas revolted against the tyranny of Mexico, and succeeded, after a gallant struggle, in making herself independent. As early as 1835 the steady stream of American immigration into Texas began to raise grave problems in Louisiana. After the establishment of the independence of Texas, the augmentation of the flow of Americans into the new state made these problems acute. Presidents Jackson and Van Buren were reluctant to annex the territory, although pressed to do so by the new settlers. The little republic became a theater of intrigue on the part of the representatives of the European powers, who offered their help and protection in return for concessions and privileges. Thus, the United States remained exposed to the danger of political disturbance on her western border down to the time when Tyler opened negotiations for the annexation of Texas. Annexation was the inevitable consequence of the steady expansion of the United States westward. It was not a thing that could properly be made a party issue. The Whigs, who did not adopt it as a part of their platform, p206 endorsed it tacitly by nominating for the presidency two men who had made their reputations as military leaders in the conflict which resulted from that annexation. The situation was therefore sufficiently complex to admit of considerable variation of opinion within the ranks of party.
Louisiana was normally a Whig state at this epoch. That party was strongly entrenched in New Orleans. Party loyalty led some of the leading Whigs to oppose the program of annexation. They were supported by those who thought that annexation would react unfavorably upon the Louisiana sugar industry, as a result of Texan competition in the world's marts. The question of banks and banking was almost mixed up in the situation; the commercial interests of New Orleans exercised a preponderant influence upon the political opinion of the state, and they supported the Whig policy as to a national bank.5 There was also a Whig influence due to the general feeling that the government should co‑operate liberally in matters of internal improvement, especially in regard to the waterways. Self-interest therefore helped to breed antagonism to the national administration. The Democrats, on the other hand, had the support of the large number of Louisianians whose friends and relatives dwelt on the other side of the Texas border. Texas maintained agents in New Orleans, who carried on a vigorous propaganda, as well as a valuable trade in arms and ammunition. Moreover, there was the natural gratification which the prospect of the extension of American territory and influence produced on the minds of those in the local population who had no other interest in the matter.
In the political contest which arose over this question in connection with the presidential candidacy of Polk, John Slidell, a New Orleans lawyer, attained to national importance. To Slidell, perhaps more than to any one other individual, New Orleans owes the doubtful blessing of organized politics. A feeling of unrest not in the city only but throughout the state had for some time prevailed with the existing order of things; it helped Slidell in building up a "machine" which came speedily to dominate first state and then city politics. The state constitution of 1812, which continued in force down to 1845, was decidedly aristocratic in tendency. The parish judges, for example, were clothed with extraordinary powers, which were not always exercised with an eye single to the public interest. The governor possessed an immense patronage. He appointed even the judges of the Supreme Court, not to mention police jurors, the attorney general and the district attorneys. If so disposed, he could influence the administration of justice in its most remote ramifications. That this power was not systematically abused is one of the clearest evidences of the generally high standard of official conduct which the public opinion of the day long imposed. The governor also was vested with a veto power which applied to every ordinance passed by the legislature except a motion to adjourn. His disapproval could only be set aside by a two-thirds vote, which it was very difficult to obtain. This was too much power to be placed in the hands of any one man. There was a strong feeling that it ought to be diminished. The Whigs, who were in power, saw no reason for a change. Consequently, the discontented element flocked into the Democratic party and found an efficient leader in Slidell.
p207 His ability as a leader and especially as a political organizer was demonstrated first in the presidential election of 1844. It was then that he engineered the "Plaquemine Frauds," so‑called, by which the electoral vote of the state was secured for Polk. The Whig presidential candidate, Henry Clay, was supported in Louisiana by Ex‑Governors White, Roman and Johnson, Judah P. Benjamin and other influential citizens. They rallied to Clay on the basis of a promise which he made to restore the duty on sugar. Polk, on the other hand, had voted for the reduction of that duty. With Slidell lined up the Democratic leaders, like Ex‑Governors Mouton, Pierre Soulé, Charles Gayarré and John R. Grymes.6 The Whigs contemplated as an election maneuver the disenfranchisement of large numbers of the naturalized voters, whose right to the ballot would now be deemed incontestable, but which the chaotic state of the laws at that time made at least debatable. Such schemes were the regular feature of election times in the state. The Whigs were in possession of the electoral machinery of New Orleans. There was no registration of voters; each individual had the right to deposit his vote in any precinct in the county in which he had his residence. The "County of Orleans" was equal in population and representative power to four of the other parishes — that is, it possessed four representatives in the State Senate.7 Its frontiers extended from the "County of Acadia" to the Gulf, and embraced whole of what is today called the Parish of Plaquemine. In the city the Whigs were certain of a majority, but if enough precincts in other parts of the "county" could be rolled up for the Democratic cause, that city majority might be overcome; since the vote was totaled, not by popular majorities, but by precincts. This Slidell saw. He was governed accordingly. His scheme was not, properly speaking, a fraud. It was merely an exhibition of what we would now term "machine politics" in operation.
The Whigs did not think of sending men down from the city to the lower reaches of the Mississippi to vote. But Democrats could be transported thither. Slidell and his lieutenants chartered steamboats, loaded their partisans thereon and delivered the cargoes at the polling places where their ballots were needed. Enough precincts were thus gained in Plaquemine to offset the Whigs' precincts in New Orleans; and the election was carried. A storm of vituperation which extended from one end of the United States to the other greeted this performance. But by delivering the electoral vote of the state to Polk and Dallas, Slidell acquired an ascendancy in the Democratic party in the nation almost as great as that which was his award in Louisiana.
On the other hand, the Whigs had not hesitated to commit what we would today characterize as frauds, when that suited their purpose. For example in the state election of 1842, under the leadership of Benjamin, the city had been carried for their candidate mainly by the "cab" votes, which Benjamin was credited with inventing. He himself was a candidate merely for the lower house of the State Legislature, but his office in Exchange Alley was the principal meeting place of the Whig committee and on election day was its headquarters. Under the property clause of the state constitution, it was asserted that the ownership of a p208 carriage or cab, proved by the payment of a license tax, was sufficient to qualify a voter. The Democratic newspapers charged that licenses were issued on cabs that had no existence outside of Benjamin's imagination, and that hundreds of "repeaters" had voted through this trick. The inspectors at the polls had no time to investigate the existence of the cabs, but accepted the license receipt as evidence of ownership within the meaning of the law.8 The responsibility of Benjamin in the matter has, however, never been positively established; and the difference between this case and that of Slidell was that the latter's example was followed with pernicious effects which did not attend the "cab vote" trick, nor any of the other petty vote-stealing schemes put into effect in New Orleans prior to Slidell's time.
Slidell had shown that a well-organized minority might under the leadership of a bold and resourceful chieftain snatch power from a majority which lacked a leader, or whose leader was inferior in resource or daring. There is probably in all democracy an irresistable tendency towards organization in politics. Slidell may simply have had perspicacity enough to perceive this tendency, and capitalize it for party benefit. If so, he did it at the psychological moment. The rise of the slavery question made the dominance of the Democratic party in Louisiana certain. The state, as we have said, had always been distinguished for its party loyalties, even though in the election of 1844 the anomaly was seen of many Democrats voting for Clay under the impression that this course was more advantageous than any other for the sugar planters of the state.
The first state campaign which was vital in its effect upon party history in Louisiana was that over the issue of the revision of the constitution, in 1845. Revision was advocated by the Democrats, opposed by the Whigs. Religious prejudices which were involved in the controversy gave the contest a special bitterness. Twice the House of Representatives passed the bill; twice Governor Roman vetoed it, and it was finally carried through only because the financial difficulties of 1837, the effects of which were still felt, made imperative some constitutional provision regarding the state banks, and the regulation of the part which the state had in their affairs. It was felt that there should be in the state constitutional guarantees which could be relied on as the basis of future financial development. True, these aims were not carried out expertly, many years were to elapse before the present admirable banking laws were worked out to completion. The convention met in 1845 at Jackson, Louisiana, and immediately adjoined to more commodious quarters in New Orleans, where its work was finally performed.
The effect of this constitution was largely to break the power of the Whigs in both the state and the city. The Mexican war followed. Then came the election of General Taylor, who was a citizen of Louisiana, and who carried the state on a wave of popular enthusiasm and local pride. But otherwise the democrats retained control of state affairs. Their ascendancy remained unbroken to the Civil war. The northern part of the state was rapidly filling up with settlers from the English-speaking states along the Atlantic littoral. They brought with them the ideas of Jefferson and Jackson. Emigrants from Europe settling in New Orleans — as they did in large numbers down to the Civil p209 war — were drawn to the Democratic party because to them it seemed identified with popular principles, and represented the reaction against that monarchy which they were desirous to escape. The Louisiana state constitution of 1852 was shaped under Democratic ideals, and still further strengthened that party in state and city; whereas, after the defeat of Scott in 1852 the prestige of the Whigs was lost and their influence practically ended.
This long-continued dominance of one party produced its customary results. "Cliques" and "rings," as they were called, formed to control patronage and exploit finances. The abuses which flowed in abundance from this frankly established spoils system awakened bitter resentment among the better class of citizens. The situation was not peculiar to Louisiana, but was a phenomenon observable in many parts of the United States at about this time, wherever one party had exclusively control of any one locality. The result was the rise of the Know-Nothing party. This party had its origins in principles of progress and patriotism, but contained within its organization elements which in the end proved unpalatable to right-thinking Americans and led to its overthrow. It held, for example, that the corruption of American politics, national as well as municipal, was due principally to the presence in the electorate of the foreign-born. To some extent the inference was justified in New Orleans. The emigrants, especially the Irish laborers imported into New Orleans from about 1848 onwards to the Civil war, had been used systematically by corrupt election managers to adulterate the vote. Five thousand immigrants landed at New Orleans in 1853; more came in a succeeding year, and a very large fraction remained congregated in certain parts of the city, near the river front, around the Soraparu Market, in Rousseau Street, and what is still popularly known as the "Irish Channel," and there they fell easily under the control of the ward club presidents who were the leaders and organizers of "machine" politics from this time down the closing part of the century. But the Know-Nothing party was a secret society, with oaths and a ritual; its name was given in connection with this feature of its organization; since the members were in the habit of answering all inquiries with the set formula, "We know nothing in our principles contrary to the constitution." It was opposed to the Catholic Church, on the ground that it was a foreign society, and, under foreign control, likely to be dangerous to free thought and free speech. This last feature brought great bitterness into its campaigns.
The Know-Nothing party was formed in Louisiana by a group of discontented Whigs in 1853. Being neutral with regard to slavery, it soon became popular. Moreover, its ritual seems to have exerted a special fascination over the imaginations of the state electorate. Before its leaders fully realized what they were doing, the voters had been swept into a movement which none of them really desired to see succeed.9 It was halted as soon as men had time to reflect. In the first election in which Know-Nothingism figured it elected Merrick chief justice over J. K. Elgee, the Democratic nominee. But at the first convention at which its platform had to be clearly defined, the fact of its opposition to the Catholic Church emerged, to the consternation of its promoters. p210 Half of the population of the state, like that of the city, was Catholic. The dilemma had to be avoided. The only way that they could think of was to "pretermit" this embarrassing section of the platform. But the subterfuge deceived nobody. The leaders soon fell out among themselves. Governor Wickliffe opposed the movement and was instrumental in its early end in the parts of the state outside of New Orleans.
But in New Orleans its life was longer. We have seen that it elected Freret to the mayoralty. Even after it ceased to exist by its distinctive party name, it continued, as the Native American, or American, party, to be a source of agitation and disorder. Inspired by Slidell's example, the democracy was employing to insure the continuance in power of its "ring," means which made many right-thinking men turn to the American party as a means of expressing disapproval of what was deemed a terrible evil. The methods now so common in the politics of American cities were new then; their persistent use inflamed public opinion, and its seemed justifiable to employ any means, even violence, to circumvent the dextrous and unscrupulous professional political leader. The state election of 1855 illustrates the degree to which this feeling went. At that election candidates were presented for governor, lieutenant governor, congressmen, members of the state legislature, justices of the peace, sheriff, constable — in fact, a full party slate, minus the municipal officers. The chief interest in New Orleans was over the contest for sheriff. Joseph Hufty was the Native American candidate; John M. Bell was nominated by the Democrats. A somewhat less intense interest was felt also in the contest for clerk of the Fourth District Court, for which the Democrats placed in nomination W. C. Auld, and the Native Americans, J. B. Walton. The election was preceded by a turbulent, truculent campaign. Election day was November 5, 1855 — a date memorable for the many outrages perpetuated at the polls. Men were beaten, stabbed, shot, murdered. The Native Americans initiated these disturbances, but their rivals were not slow in responding to the challenge, and both factions were represented in the toll of dead and wounded.
Under the law New Orleans was divided into twenty-six election precincts.10 A description of the way in which the election was conducted may be interesting as illustrating how this sort of thing was done before the Civil war. At each polling place were two boxes, in one of which were deposited the votes for justice of the peace and constable. In the others were put all other votes. There were three commissioners of election at each poll, assisted by two clerks. The votes were received up to the hour of closing the poll — about 5 P.M. — when the boxes were opened by the commissioners, who then began to count the votes. The results were tallied by the clerks. Then the votes were placed in their proper boxes, which were locked and taken to the city hall, or to the courthouse, as the case might be. The sheriff was, under the law, the returning officer. Only in cases of contest does there appear to have been any attempt to verify the returns by a recount of the votes. The returning officer was content merely to tabulate the certificates received from the commissioners. It is easy to see how corrupt men might deal with these reports. Fraud was rendered all the more easy because there were no official ballots. Each party published its own ticket, which was exposed on tables in front of the polling booth, in charge of its own p211 representatives. A voter picked up one of the tickets, entered the poll and delivered it to one of the commissioners, whom he watched deposit it in the proper box. It was known instantly what party the vote was for. The commissioner was not supposed to examine the ballot, but the way in which the citizen obtained his ticket gave all the information necessary. Thus the party watchers kept tab from hour to hour on the voting; and intimidation, violence, etc., might be employed by the unscrupulous to control the balloting; as was, in fact, frequently done in the decade preceding the Civil war.
There was no question that at this election the full Democratic ticket was elected in the state. R. C. Wickliffe thus became governor. But the Parish of Orleans, at least on the face of the returns, gave the Native American party a majority for most of the parochial offices. The counting of the ballots seems to have been completed in most of the city precincts without trouble, but in the Seventh and Ninth Precincts the compilation of the returns was interrupted by a Native American mob, which invaded the polls, took possession of the boxes and burned them in the streets.11 As a result about 900 votes were destroyed. Hufty was on the face of the returns declared elected sheriff and Auld clerk of court. Contests were immediately instituted by the unsuccessful candidates. Bell brought suit before Judge Cotton for a mandamus to compel the election commissioners of the Seventh Precinct of the First District (now the Third Ward) to make a return of the vote cast at that poll, although the ballot box had been, as we have seen, destroyed. He was represented by J. P. Benjamin; Randall Hunt appeared for the defendant. The case was a cause célèbre. The trial proceeded in a courtroom filled with the armed adherents of both factions. It was known that judge and the sheriff also were prepared for all contingencies. Counsel were cautious, however; nothing occurred to disturb the decorum of the proceedings, and the mandamus was issued to Bell, as prayed for. The validity of Bell's claim was, however, passed upon unfavorably in the First District Court. In December, therefore, the governor issued a commission to Hufty, but the whole matter was so obviously unjust that the Legislature, in the following February, availed itself of a procedure rare in the history of Louisiana, to "address" Hufty out of office.12 Hufty refused to surrender his office, whereupon Bell filed ouster proceedings in the Sixth District Court, and carried the case up to the Supreme Court, where it was at last decided in his favor.13
In the case of Auld, the District Court sustained Walton's claim to election, but when the matter was taken up to the Supreme Court, Auld was declared to be entitled to the post.14 A regrettable incident of the election riots was that Chief Justice Thomas Slidell, a relative of the more famous John, received injuries to which he succumbed a few years later. He was attacked by a ruffian at the polls, struck on the head with brass knuckles, and knocked senseless. His wounds were such that he was permanently affected in health, and was at last obliged to resign his position at the head of the highest tribunal of the State, where he had presided with distinguished ability, and died in 1860 in a sanitarium.
p212 The situation in New Orleans was so bad that in 1857, in his annual message to the State Legislature, Governor Wickliffe felt constrained to say: "It is a well known fact that at the two last general elections many of the streets and approaches to the polls were completely in the hands of organized ruffians, who committed acts of violence upon multitudes of our naturalized fellow citizens who dared to venture to exercise the rights of suffrage. Thus nearly one-third of the voters of New Orleans have been deterred from exercising their highest and most sacred prerogatives."15 Accordingly, in March, 1857, the Legislature passed a general election law, under which was created the office of superintendent of elections for the Parish of Orleans, with the special duty of supervising the elections in the City of New Orleans.16 It was laid upon him to "prescribe and arrange the ingress and egress from the polls; to preserve tranquility and order during elections; to prevent and suppress riots, tumults, violence, disorder and other practices tending to the intimidation of voters or disturbances in the elections; and, in general, to take care that all elections are so conducted that the privilege of free suffrage may be supported and the constitutional rights of the citizens shall not be impaired or defeated by violence, tumult, intimidation, or other improper practices." To these ends the superintendent was authorized to appoint deputies, and was, in fact, invested with a range of powers up till that time not known in Louisiana political history.
Judge John B. Cotton, who had tried the mandamus case of Bell vs. Hufty, was appointed to this responsible position. Cotton later became involved in the politics of the Reconstruction epoch, and sided with the "carpet bag" party, with the result that his memory is less honored in his own land than his services to the State and to the law deserve. In the present emergency he addressed himself to his task with courage and ability. This was not done without grave personal risk. On one occasion he was notified that a mob was on its way to attack his house and murder him, by way of protest against some of the measures which he had seen fit to adopt. His reply was, that the mob would get a warm welcome. He put his home at the corner of Seventh and Camp in a state to withstand a siege, removed his family, and sent for some trusted friends to help in the defense. The mob assaulted several citizens known to be opposed to the American party, but when they were apprised of Cotton's preparations, they wisely concluded to desist from their enterprise, and the real object of that tumultuous night's outbreak was not accomplished.
When Cotton laid down the perilous commission with which he had been entrusted, he had to all intents and purposes restored the good name of New Orleans and stopped the objectionable practices at the polls.17 But this was not done until there had occurred in New Orleans one of the most singular uprisings in all its long, tumultuous history — a disturbance amounting to insurrection, in which the constituted authorities of the city were overturned, and for two days, at least, New Orleans was in the hands of armed mobs.
1 See Coleman's "Historical Sketch Book and Guide to New Orleans" (New York, 1855), Chapter XXVIII.
2 Waring and Cable, Social Statistics of Cities, Report on New Orleans, 47‑49.
3 See Rightor's "Standard History of New Orleans," Chapter XXII.
4 Publications of the Louisiana Historical Society, Vol. VII, 1913‑1914, pp71, 72.
5 Memoirs of Louisiana, I, 52.
6 Fortier, "Louisiana," II, 187. See, with regard to Slidell, the curious pamphlet, "Southern Sketches, or Eleven Years Down South," by De Witt C. Roberts, p56.
7 Memoirs of Louisiana, II, 50.
8 Courier, July 6, 1842. See also Pierce Butler, "Life of J. P. Benjamin," 66‑68.
9 Memoirs of Louisiana, II, 55.
10 Act Relative to Elections, approved March 15, 1855, Sec. 6.
11 Auld vs. Walton, 12 La. An. Reps., 129.
12 Act 10 of 1855. See Dart, "Cotton," 14.
13 State ex rel Bell vs. Hufty, 11 Ann., 303.
14 Auld vs. Fulton, 11 Ann.
15 Martin, "History of Louisiana"; Condon's Supplement, p455.
16 Act 287 of 1857, especially Sec. 16.
17 Dart, "Cotton," 15, 16.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
J. S. Kendall's History
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 2 Nov 05