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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
New Orleans:
The Place and the People

Grace King

published by The Macmillan Company
New York, 1926

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 7
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

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Spanish houses on Rue du Maine.

 p89  Chapter VI

The deus ex machina of Louisiana had always been the prime minister of France. The Duc de Choiseul now filled that office.

Louis XV neither reigned nor governed; it was La Pompadour who reigned and governed for him. We read of the monarch, sitting like some Dantesque hero of the Inferno, in the secret regions of his gorgeous palaces, with the never-ceasing curse upon him of endeavouring to satisfy the appetite of the monster of his own desires. Not Hogarth himself has better traced for us the road to ruin, the royal road to ruin, than Louis le bien aimé. And working thus unceasingly to dehumanize himself, he attracted around him as counsellors, friends, and companions, only those who made the process smooth and easy for him.

It was not as in the easy-going time of the witty, clever, amiable, dissipated Regent, when pleasure and business, scandal and politics, hustled one another in broad daylight, in the talking, laughing, streets of Paris. With Louis XV it was all dark, mysterious, underground; one fears to advance a finger in any direction,  p90 for fear of touching the foul. When an intrepid volunteer, like Michelet, venturing into the secret sewers of court records, returns to tell of it, we shrink from him — he bears evidence of putrid exhumations, and we are nauseated.

The prime minister was not so much the Duc de Choiseul, as his sister, Madame de Grammont, the man of business, as she was called, of La Pompadour. She was also called "la doublure," the lining of her brother. Her ambition, it seems, was that purely feminine one, of repairing the impoverished fortunes of her family, and in this ambition woman can be inflexible, inexorable, and unscrupulous. The best of the patrimony of the De Choiseuls, was, it is said, their capacity for treason, and of the duc Michelet writes: "He did not go to war, il fit la chasse aux femmes." The same authority, from the intimacy of his knowledge of the period, describes the De Choiseul he knew: "A little bull-dog face he had, ugly, audacious, impertinent, with a mocking tongue, a deadly weapon feared by the bravest . . . vivacious, brilliant, keen, penetrating, believing nothing, fearing nothing, an easy moralist, an uncertain ally, a hater of priests, light minded, inconstant. First, he worried La Pompadour, then he charmed her, then gave himself to her." "You will be damned, Choiseul," once said the king to him with a smile. "And you, sire?" "I, oh, I am different; I am the anointed of God."

It was a ghastly prologue to our own little Louisiana tragedy as we read it now, that played by the king, the favourite, and the prime minister, with his shadowy controller-general Silhouette. Morally, for France there was but one proportionate drama to follow, the  p91 Revolution. Politically, there was but one thing for France to lose, "simply the world," as Michelet says. From truckling to Austria, Choiseul turned to truckling to Spain, and he created and put into shape his famous Pacte de Famille in 1761, which federated the blood of the Bourbon, and united into a combined trust the thrones of France, Spain, Turin, Naples, and Sicily. Thence the international war upon the Jesuits, and thence the transfer of Louisiana to Spain by a secret clause in the Treaty of Paris. The clause remained a secret until October, 1764, when M. d'Abadie received official notice of it, with the copies of the acts of donation and acceptance, and instructions to hand the colony over to the envoy of the king of Spain, who was to arrive.

Upon publication of the fact in the city, the inhabitants were transfixed with consternation. This was an old world and a middle-age eventuality, the giving away of a country, with its people, to a foreign master, as a planter might hand over his land and slaves to a purchaser — that had never occurred to the Louisianans. They had no need of recourse to tradition to animate their feelings. Men were still alive among them who had taken possession of the country in its wild state of nature, who had founded it, established it, and held it firm to France, with but little help against both Englishman and Spaniard. Nay more, they had dominated the Gulf of Mexico itself, and had France but held out a finger to them, even surreptitiously, they were prepared to prove at any dinner-table or coffee-house in the city, that Iberville and Bienville, Chateaugay, De Serigny, and themselves, could have  p92 solidified Central America, and the islands of the Caribbean Sea, into an indestructible French power. Rude fighters themselves, and accustomed to rude stakes, they could have understood the cession to England — that would have been according to the fortunes of war. England had whipped in the contest for supremacy, and Frenchmen of Louisiana, as well as Frenchmen of Canada, must stand to the terms of defeat. But to be tossed without the asking, from Louis XV to Carlos III, to be made over, in secret bargain, to the Spaniards, — to the not so much hated as despised Spaniard, who had never ventured a blow or fired a shot for them,  p93 whom they had overmatched with half their wits and half their strength, in every contest! That was a fate that no Louisianan was craven enough to be resigned to!

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Courtyard of the "Old Baths".

Cities act like individuals in a crisis. Stupor followed the shock in New Orleans, and excitement followed the stupor, mounting quickly into temper, fury. The streets hummed and throbbed with it. The cabarets exploded with indignant denunciatory eloquence. The king could not mean it! The king did not know what he was doing! He was ignorant of the true facts of the case! He had no idea of Louisiana or the Louisianans! He must be informed, expostulated with, petitioned. The citizens, the colonists, must speak; they must express their sentiments, the will of the people must be evoked! The will of the people! The word was out, and the idea! The word and the idea that were to be made flesh a decade hence in the revolted American colonies.

A convention was called to meet in New Orleans, and each parish in the stateº was requested to send delegates. Every parish responded with its best and most notable; the city did likewise. A large and impressive assembly met. It was opened by Lafrénière, the attorney-general, than whom no man could with better credentials represent the colony in spirit and in letter. His father was one of four Canadian brothers, pioneers under Iberville and Bienville, who had distinguished themselves in every field of danger and enterprise offered by the rough times and rough country. Crumbling parchments of marriage contracts and land sales show them to have acquired wealth and honours and to have formed alliances with the families of what, in feudal times, would have been called Louisiana's nobility. The  p94 attorney-general was a man of winning address and fiery eloquence, in character and acquirements one of the best growths of Louisiana from Canadian seed. He opened the convention with a strong, stirring speech, proposing the resolution that the colonists, en masse, supplicate the king of France not to sever them from their country. It passed unanimously. A delegation of three citizens, Jean Milhet at the head, was appointed to carry it to France and lay it at the foot of the throne. They left by the first vessel.

Arrived in Paris, the delegation sought out Bienville, the old father Bienville, for he was still living in Paris, an octogenarian now, with long white hair. One has only imagination to supply the details of the interview, the questions, the explanations, reading of the petition, names; what the Louisianans had to say of Louisiana, Bienville of France, Paris. Louisiana was so much more the country of the white-haired patriarch, than of the king or the duke, or of any man or woman in France. Surely he would be received, listened to. He consented to accompany Milhet to the Duc de Choiseul. Their primitive idea was to throw themselves on their knees before the king and present the petition, which reads to‑day more like the passionate appeal of a lover to his mistress. And they would add their voices in supplication not to be cast off; they themselves would implore from their sovereign the proud satisfaction for the Louisianans, of being able to die as they had lived, Frenchmen, not Spaniards. It would indeed have been a scene and an interview worth recording. For the picturesqueness of history it is a pity that it did not take place. De Choiseul listened with perfect politeness, promised the interview with the  p95 king, promised his influence; promised everything, like a modern politician, and — never kept his word. It was not that he paid his royal master the compliment of supposing that this white-haired pioneer, the son and brother of the best pioneers France could make out of her flesh and blood — that these new specimens, these Frenchmen from the new world, could stir a memory of Louisiana, or arouse a patriotic thrill in that enfeebled, exhausted, diseased heart. But the Pacte de Famille was De Choiseul's own master-stroke of policy, the cession his own paraph on the margin of it. The delegation came again and again, always meeting politeness and promises. The others returned to the colony, leaving Milhet in Paris. He, after a year of effort, deceived, thwarted, betrayed in every verbal way by the brilliant prime minister — he also returned home with the incredible report that he had not been able to see the king, had not presented the petition.

In the meantime, in New Orleans, d'Abadie had died and Aubry was put in command for the short interval before cession to Spain. But no Spanish envoy presented himself. With their delegation and petition at work at court, the optimistic citizens reacted from the excitement of dejection and despair, to buoyancy of spirits. When, at the landing-place in front of the Place d'Armes, a boat load of gaunt, haggard Acadians arrived, and told their story, how their country had been ceded away, their churches, their allegiance, how they had tried to live under foreign masters, but at last, under exactions and suspicions, and despair of all kinds, they had been forcibly ejected from their fields and homes, the citizens, overflowing with hospitality, generosity, and sympathy, drew no warning from it,  p96 but rather encouragement of their own sense of security and self-sufficiency. So ill-prepared were they, that like a thunder clap in a cloudless heaven, came an official letter in July, 1766, announcing that the Spanish envoy, Don Antonio de Ulloa, was on his way to take possession of the colony. There was another cataclysm of excitement; but as the envoy did not make his appearance, and Milhet did not return, the minds and hearts of all again rebounded to hope and courage.

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In the French Quarter.

In February​a Ulloa arrived at the Balise in a frigate of twenty cannon, with two companies of Spanish infantry, three Spanish Capuchins, and the personnel of his administration, a commissary of war, Loyola; an intendant, Navarro; and a comptroller, Gayarré. He reached the city in March. An ominous storm  p97 of wind and rain was raging. Aubry did what he could in the way of a reception. The militia and regular troops were drawn up on the levee, the cannon fired a salute, and there was, stimulated by Aubry, a faint attempt at acclamation. But the citizens stood in groups to one side, silent, sullen, and cold as the rain pouring over them.

In appearance the Spanish envoy was middle-aged, grave, haughty, severe, and petrified in Spanish etiquette and ceremony. He was no inconsiderable personage, but a man of repute, both in the military and scientific worlds, and was just then returned from an expedition in which he had formed one of a commission to determine the configuration of the earth at the equator. He seems to have approached Louisiana in the same cool, calm, critical spirit of scientific investigation, and he was about as much prepared to hear that the equator had risen up and protested against the results of his commission, as to find that other purely theoretical factor, the will of the people of Louisiana, in opposition to his presence and functions. He expected the country to change its flag and allegiance, the soldiers their service, the people their nationality, as a thing of the most commonplace of course. The superior council of the colony requested him to show him powers and authorities. He refused curtly, and sent for Aubry to confer with him. When he learned that the French soldiers refused to enter the Spanish service, he agreed that the formality of taking possession should be deferred until more Spanish troops were sent to him, quartering his own force in separate barracks, apart and distinct from Aubry's. But, as if that formality had been duly and legally observed,  p98 he proceeded to the clerical work of his office, taking the census, issuing new rules and regulations, and rendering decrees of trade and commerce. The existence of the civil authorities was ignored, and Aubry was made the official mouthpiece of the envoy and organ of communication with the people. The various military posts were visited, new ones established, the French flag being informally replaced by the Spanish. In New Orleans, however, the French colours floated as ever, and the externals, at least, of French domination were not infringed.

The inhabitants of the country parishes chafed and fumed. The citizens of New Orleans seethed and boiled. If no opportunity offered, they must inevitably have created one, for the expression of their feelings. But the opportunity was offered by Ulloa. Apart from patriotic sentiments, what the people of Louisiana most feared from Spain, was the imposition of those narrow-minded trade regulations, framed for the Spanish colonies, which would ruin their commerce and port as they had ruined all the commerce and every port in the Spanish possessions. Ulloa issued a decree which in this respect realized their worst fears. The merchants in a body presented a petition to the superior council, praying for a suspension of the decree until they could be heard upon it. The signatures attached to the petition represented the most influential names in the colony. To‑day they still distinguish the élite of Creole families. The memorial was forwarded to Ulloa, who, in an official report, expressed his opinion of it as follows: "A kind of manifesto, of people who pretend to nothing less than to make terms with their own sovereign, and whose  p99 expressions, far from being supplicating and respectful, take on the imperious and insolent tone of a menace." Paying no heed to it, he proceeded in September to the Balise, to await the coming of his affianced bride, the Marquise d'Abrado, one of the richest heiresses of Peru, and, according to the report, beautiful even beyond the usual fortune of heiresses. She kept him waiting seven months, and for that time the Balise became the centre of government, Aubry making periodical visits to it. During one of these he signed a secret act putting Ulloa in possession of the colony, and authorizing him to substitute the Spanish flag for the French whenever he wished.

Relieved from the hated presence of the Spaniard, the citizens had a breathing spell, and strange to say, began to hope again that the mother country had reconsidered her act or would do so. Ulloa returned with his bride, married to him by private ceremony at the Balise. There had been some social expectations entertained from the advent of the Marquise in the city. She, however, immured herself in her hotel, associated only with her own attendants, repulsed all advances from society, shunned the Creole ladies publicly, ignored them privately, and would not even worship in a common church with them, attending mass only in her private chapel. In short, she proved herself, in her treatment of the ladies of the place, only too apt an imitator of her husband's hauteur and arrogance with the men, and so added the last straw to the burden of the intolerable.

Milhet arrived at last! He gave an account of his humiliating failure. Popular disappointment and chagrin flamed into a fury of passion, which swept discretion and judgment before it. There was to be heard  p100 in the streets nothing but loud voicings of the hatred of Spain and the loathing of the yoke about to be put upon them. Calm was completely destroyed from one end of the colony to the other; the wildest excitement prevailed, meetings were held everywhere, in which heated addresses inflamed still more the violence of feeling. As in every other revolution, a woman furnishes the nucleus of action. In the upper outskirts of the city about where Common and Carondelet streets cross to‑day, was the elegant villa and spacious gardens of Madame Pradel, a widow, beautiful, rich, and intellectual. She was attached, it was whispered, in a secret love to Foucaut, the royal commissary, one of the most ardent of the revolutionists. The establishment had all the privacy of isolation and seclusion, and was a most charming gathering spot for the leaders of the people, Lafrénière, the two Noyans, De Villeré, Masan, Marquis, Foucaut, and others. After a luxurious supper, they would leave their hostess and retire to the garden, and there, in the fragrant obscurity of the magnolia groves, discuss the situation, and prepare, point by point, the policy to be adopted. Their first move was to invite the country again to send delegates to another grand meeting to be held in the capital.

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Old Plantation House.

This second assembly was in all respects the same as the first. As before, Lafrénière took the lead, or had it assigned to him. He made a speech with his characteristic power and eloquence, and was ably seconded by the delegate Milhet and his brother, and by Doucet, a young lawyer recently arrived from France. The proceedings culminated in an address to the superior council calling upon it to declare Ulloa an usurper for having exercised authority without exhibiting his powers to  p103 the superior council, registering them, or otherwise promulgating them in a public manner, and, as such, ordering him out of the colony. The paper was signed by over five hundred names. It was printed by the public printer, on the order of Foucaut, and distributed throughout the parishes. The superior council took it under consideration, and ended in rendering the decree prayed for, ordering Ulloa to produce his authorities before the civil tribunal of the colony, or to take his departure from it, within a month. To such a man, and to such a dignitary, there was no alternative; he prepared for the immediate departure of himself and household.

Aubry, whose ideas of independence lay strictly within the limits of military subordination, did what he could at first to prevent, then to mitigate, what he considered an outrageous breach of discipline. He expostulated with the citizens, enlightened them about the inviolate majesty of kings, warned them of retributive consequences. In vain. The citizens would not, or could not, understand him. To all his representations they had a legal answer, and they stood firm in their position, their feet planted on their incontestable theory of the supremacy in the colony of the civil tribunal. Aubry then did what he could to throw a semblance of dignity around the expulsion. At the head of his soldiers he escorted Ulloa and his household to the levee, saluted his embarkation, and stationed sentries to guard his ship.

That night there was a wedding feast in one of the wealthiest houses of the city. Banqueting and dancing had filled the hours and prolonged the revels, and day was about to break before the last of the guests stepped  p104 into the street; a noisy band of merry youths; — frolicking, singing, laughing, as they passed along by the silent houses. They came to the levee. In the silver light of dawn, the river lay veiled in mist, out of which, grim and ugly and forbidding, arose the frigate containing the Spaniard and his people.

"See," cried one, "the morning star! It heralds the last day of the Spaniard's rule." The band stopped and looked. The temptation was irresistible to young mad-heads. The cables of the frigate were stealthily cut. After one thrilling moment, the great bulk began to move, yield to the current, which, as if the Mississippi too were French and factional, stronger and stronger urged its way, until it bore the vessel out to midstream, and started it triumphantly down the river. Then the watching crowd threw caps in air, and broke into wild huzzas. The victory seemed brilliant, the joy of it was radiant.

Still acting in their representative character, the committee of citizens who had addressed the council published a manifesto to their constituents, giving the account of what they had done. It was scattered broadcast throughout the colony. A copy of it and of all the proceedings and addresses, with an explanatory and propitiatory letter from Aubry, was sent by special despatch to France, to the Prime Minister. Ulloa also received a copy, which he enclosed to his government with his report of the rebellion, as he called it. He named the "conspirators": Lafrénière, Foucaut, the two Noyans, the two Milhets, and Villeré, summing them up contemptuously enough as "most of them children of Canadians who had come to Louisiana, axe on shoulder, to make their living by the work of their hands;" and he  p105 mentions Madame Pradel's villa as the place of their meeting and consultation, with the gossip of Foucaut's love for her.

A momentary calm, like the still pause between the blasts of a hurricane, fell over Louisiana and the Louisianans while awaiting a response from France. Surely the king would now reconsider! They had proved their mettle, showing that they would not, could not, pass under Spanish rule. They had committed no violence, but in an orderly, legal manner expelled the intruder, keeping among them, for the better regulation of the financial accounts between the two nations, the three Spanish officials, Gayarré, Loyola, and Navarro. France, at any rate, could not but stand by her sons.

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Old Spanish iron railing.

But there was some uncertainty in their hope, and some uneasiness in their calm. There was much private discussion and prognostication, and the leaders must have had more and more frequent deliberations in the gardens of Madame Pradel. It was in that place and in that emergency of doubt and anxiety, that they considered the proposition of defying both European powers, and erecting Louisiana into a representative government of the people, after the manner of the Swiss republic. One of the De Noyans, Bienville's namesake  p106 it was, Noyan de Bienville he was called, undertook a secret mission to Pensacola, to sound the British minister there on the attitude he would assume in such an eventuality. A British governor, however, at that period, was the last one in the world from whom encouragement might be expected by revolting colonies. He not only rebuffed the republican missionary, but hastened to transmit the confidence to Spain. The republican idea once launched, however, gained such headway in the city and country, that the monarchists became alarmed and an elaborate memorial was printed, combating any change of government.

Thayer's Note:

a For an exhaustive account — and an entirely different view — of the entire episode of Ulloa's governor­ship and its consequences, see Chapters III.3‑7 of Gayarré's History of Louisiana.

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Page updated: 29 Jan 06