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Chapter 8

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.
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Chapter 10
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: An engraving of a pelican vulning against a background of ivy. It is a depiction of the brown pelican, the state bird of Louisiana.]

 p155  Chapter IX

"Louisiana is the only place on the continent, the possessor of which is the natural enemy of the U. S."

The interesting and highly creditable display of American diplomacy by which President Jefferson forced Napoleon Bonaparte to accept this conviction of his as an ultimatum, and sell him for fifteen millions of dollars, not only New Orleans, but one million square miles in the heart of the Continent, must be passed over. The treaty of sale was signed in Paris on the thirtieth of April, 1803.

Bernadotte was selected to take command of the colony by Napoleon, who thought thus to rid himself cleverly and profitably of a suspected rival. Bernadotte, however, had not only a Bonaparte training, but a certain amount of Bonaparte shrewdness himself. His exaction of men and money for his command were such that, as Napoleon said, he would not do as much for one of his own brothers. He therefore substituted General Victor, with a prefect, Laussat, and changed the form of Bernadotte's exile by appointing him minister plenipotentiary to the United States. Bernadotte  p156 accepted this, but before he could complete his preparations for sailing war was declared between France and England, and he returned to Paris, declaring that he would perform no civil function so long as it lasted; and it was some time before the First Consul would be reconciled to him. General Victor, preparing also to sail for New Orleans, did not take his departure for the same reason. Laussat therefore sailed without him, but as General Victor alone was authorized to receive the colony from the Spanish government, the colonial prefect, upon arrival, found himself without authority and without functions.

The news of its reannexation to France was welcomed by the city with the wildest excitement and rejoicings. Laussat was received with an enthusiastic ovation, and his proclamation in the name of the French Republic, to quote the words of the address returned by the citizens, "filled their souls with the delirium of extreme felicity. . . . But," continued the address, in answer to Laussat's republican denunciation of the Spanish government, "we should be unworthy of what is to us a subject of so much pride . . . if we did not acknowledge that we have no cause of complaint against the Spanish government. We have never groaned under the yoke of an oppressive despotism. It is true that time was when our unfortunate kinsmen reddened with their blood the soil which they wished to preserve for France. . . . But the calamities which were inflicted upon us were due to the atrocious soul of a foreigner and to an extreme breach of faith. . . . Long ago we proved to the Spaniards that we did not consider them as the accomplices of these atrocities. We have become bound together by family connections and by the bonds of  p157 friendship. Let them have the untrammelled enjoyment of all the property they may own on the soil that has become the land of freedom, and let us share with them, like brothers, the blessings of our new position."

Five weeks after Laussat's arrival, the Marquis de Casa Calvo landed in the city, sent by the captain-general of Cuba, to act with Governor Salcedo in turning over the colony to France. During his administration the marquis had borne the reputation of a man of haughty disposition and violent temper, but with manners so courtly and elegant as to gain the heritage of many of those anecdotes which form the stock illustrations of human manners from time immemorial; exempli gratia, that well-remembered one, which George Washington shares with him, representing him as returning the bow of a negro with a "Shall I be outdone in politeness by a negro?"

It was not such a man who would permit the outgoing monarchy to be put to shame by the incoming republic. Attended by a staff and pompous guard, he gathered around him the most brilliant representatives of Spanish blood in society, with all of their connections and affiliations, and, by a lavish expenditure of money, he turned his official mission into a triumphant apotheosis of his government in Louisiana. It could not but discompose the French prefect, who, however, with his wife, maintained with equal brilliancy the credit of his government. Entertainment followed entertainment: balls, concerts, dinners, and the theatre in full blast. It was a dazzling rivalry and a campaign of sociabilities such as no city could better enjoy, and one which, in the gay memory of the irrevocable, has never been obliterated.

 p158  But there was one element of the community that could not even in sympathy participate in the general gratification. With the sacrilegious, bloody, French Revolution fresh in their minds, the Ursuline nuns could only feel terror at passing under the government of the republic. It had closed the religious houses in France, why should it not do the same in French colonies? The mother superior therefore petitioned his Catholic Majesty to permit her and her community to retire with his power, and establish themselves elsewhere in his dominions. Their request was granted, and they decided to return to Havana. In vain Laussat exerted himself to the utmost to calm their apprehensions and persuade them to trust the new government. One of the elder women, breaking through conventual restraint and habitual timidity, poured forth upon him a fierce denunciation of the power he represented. In vain the deputations of citizens added their supplications, beseeching her not to abandon the city and the city's children. Only nine out of the twenty-five could be induced to remain under the Tricolor. The annals of the convent tell how, on Whit Sunday, 1803, when the evening gun from Fort St. Charles had fired its signal, the sixteen nuns, shrouded in their veils and mantles, walked in procession out of their chapel, followed by the little band of sisters who had decided to remain. The convent garden was thronged with their old scholars who pressed around them for a farewell embrace. At the gate were grouped their slaves, who threw themselves on their knees before them. The nuns paused on the threshold, weeping, irresolute; then, throwing themselves into the arms of those whom they  p159 were to leave forever, they tore themselves away and passed into the street. Slaves bearing lanterns walked before them. The vicar-general, Governor Salcedo, the Marquis de Casa Calvo, and a long cortege of citizens, followed them to their vessels and saw them embark.

Everything was in readiness for the ceremony of the transfer, and the arrival of General Victor was hourly expected, and every one, according to a local chronicle, had his tricoloured cockade ready to be stuck in his hat as soon as the Spanish flag was lowered and the French raised, when a vessel from Bordeaux brought the account of the sale of the province by Napoleon to the United States. Such a report had drifted into the city, but Laussat, perfectly ignorant of the negotiations on the subject, and wholly given over to his plans and projects for a glorious French republican administration of Louisiana, treated it as calumnious, until he read his appointment by Napoleon as commissioner to receive the colony from Spain and hand it over to the United States authorities.

The first ceremony, an elaborate but uninteresting formality, took place on Wednesday, November 30, 1803. On the same day the Spanish municipal government was abolished, and a French one substituted. In the city a mayor was appointed, M. Étienne de Boré, and a municipal council of ten, composed of the most distinguished among the colonists and all prominent in their devotion to France. Among them was Villeré, the son of the companion of Lafrénière. The Spanish commander of the militia was replaced by a Creole.

Seventeen days later the American commissioners, with their escort of troops, arrived and camped two miles outside the city walls. Three days afterwards,  p160 on December 20th, was consummated what the Louisianans must most devoutly have hoped would be their last change of government. It was the third in the memory of a living generation. The ceremony could not be otherwise than funereal to the natives.

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Old Spanish gateway in Cabildo.

At sunrise the gay folds of the Tricolor spread in the breeze, from the top of the flagstaff. It was noted as a good omen that, instead of the rain and clouds that had attended both Spanish ceremonies, the day dawned clear and bright. A faultless sky shone overhead. At nine o'clock the militia mustered and marched into the Place d'Armes, and the crowd began to mass in the streets. A cannon shot signalled that the American troops had left their camps and were marching towards the city. A salute of twenty guns from Fort St. Charles announced that they were passing through the Tchoupitoulas gate, and being admitted into the streets of the city. At noon the column made its appearance in  p161 the Place d'Armes. General Wilkinson and Governor Claiborne, the American commissioners, on horseback at the head, were followed by a detachment of dragoons in red uniform, four pieces of artillery, cannoneers, two companies of infantry, and one of carabineers. The troops formed in the square opposite the French and local soldiery. The commissioners, dismounting, proceeded to the Hôtel de Ville, as the Cabildo was now called, where they were received by the officers of the municipality, the French commissioner and his suite, and a large and notable assembly of citizens. Laussat, leading the way to the great hall, took his place on an elevated chair of honour, Governor Claiborne and General Wilkinson seating themselves on his right and left. The legal formalities of three weeks before were repeated. Laussat delivered the keys of the city to Claiborne, changed places with him, and publicly absolved from the oath of allegiance to France, all colonists who wished to pass under the new domination. The commissioners then arose and walked out upon the balcony. What met their eyes was not the small, pretty, fenced garden of to‑day, shut in by the sordid ugliness of railroad buildings in front, and hedged on each side by serried walls of brick. Then the waters of the Mississippi rolled in untrammelled view of the cross of the Cathedral, rippling its currents around the long line of decorated ships lying at the broad, tree-shaded levee. The open space, then a parade ground for an army, double its present size, to the right and to the left, holding off the advance of streets and houses by noble avenues of trees. In the centre arose the great flagstaff, bearing that flimsiest of fabrics and strongest of symbols that has ever held the hearts of mortals to a coign  p162 of earth. About the staff were grouped the military, a vivid spot of steel and colour, and around them, and as far as eye could see, human faces, eagerly looking up in the bright December sun, a motley of colour, and expression, white, black, yellow, red, Frenchman, Spaniard, African, mulatto, Indian, and, most visible of all by his height and boisterous triumph on the occasion, the tall, lanky Westerner, in coon-skin cap and leathern hunting shirt.

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Window & balcony in the Cabildo.

At the appearance of the commissioners, the Tricolor began to flutter gently down, and the great new flag, the Stars and Stripes, to mount the staff. When they came together midway they paused a moment. A cannon  p163 shot fired, and every gun in the city, from fort, battery and ship, answered in salute; the bands played, the Americans shouted. The rest of the crowd looked on, silent. When the reverberation had died away, the Stars and Stripes were waving from the top of the staff. After an inaugural address by the American governor to the "Louisianans, my fellow citizens," there was a review of the troops and the American companies defiled out of one side of the square, the French out of the other.

When, twenty-one days before, the French flag was flung to the breeze, for its last brief reign in Louisiana, a band of fifty old soldiers formed themselves into a guard of honour, which was to act as a kind of death watch to their national colours. They stood now at the foot of the staff and received in their arms the Tricolor as it descended, and while the Americans were rending the air with their shouts, they marched silently away, their sergeant bearing it at their head. All uncovered before it; the American troops, as they passed, presented arms to it. It was carried to the government house, and left in the hands of Laussat.

Governor Claiborne was appointed to preside over the territory of Orleans until Congress should legislate the proper government for it. While awaiting this, and subsequent action of Congress, admitting them into their full rights of citizens of the United States, the Louisianans and Governor Claiborne both passed through experiences, than which none can be conceived more trying to human, and, we may add, national nature.

The American reconstruction went harder with the Creoles than the Spanish had done. A thousand common traits congenialized the French and Spanish  p164 character. Intercourse with the Americans, barbarians they were called, revealed only antagonisms. The Louisianans not only felt the humiliation of being sold by their mother country, but of being bought by the Americans; and every American who walked the streets of New Orleans, did it with the air of a personal purchaser of the province, an arrogance unbearable to the Creoles, who resented it with  p165 an arrogance still more galling to the Americans. They refused to take office under the new government, and held obstinately to the autonomy guaranteed them in the act of cession. Making English the official language of the government naturally made French the only language in use outside of it. There was no attempt on the part of the natives to master the foreign idiom, which, through popular affectation, was ignored, or was used, when it could not possibly be avoided, strictly for business purposes. The governor, who did not understand or speak either Spanish or French, surrounded himself, naturally, with men with whom he could communicate, the new-comers; and the discontent increased as the native population saw the inevitable rising importance to these last. The delay in admitting the territory into the Union, the debates in Congress over the qualifications of the Louisianans for self-government, were a personal irritation and provocation to every Creole. A Creole and an American could not meet without a dispute and an affray. The animosity involved all; the governor himself and the United States general actively participated in it. At night, insurrectionary placards posted on the corners of the streets attracted crowds around them, reading them aloud, copying, preventing their being torn away. Every day produced its crop of duels; the governor's private secretary and brother-in‑law, attempting to refute a slander, was killed in one. The old militia was disorganized, and there was too much jealousy and distrust, too distinct a line drawn between the two populations, to hope for any new, common, efficient force.

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Residence of first mayor of New Orleans.

The panicky sensationalism crept into the very walls  p166 of the convent, and the nine faithful sisters who were willing to confide themselves to the godless French republic found their courage fail them before the American. France, at least, had once been a child of the church, but the United States had been founded, so to speak, on its religious orphanage; and it was openly asserted that the property of the Ursulines was to be confiscated and they themselves expelled by the Protestant government. All that their most sympathetic friends ventured to hope for them was that, forbidden to receive novices, they might remain undisturbed in their convent until death naturally extinguished the community, and thus the property would revert to the nation. Despite the assurances of Governor Claiborne, the mother superior wrote to President Jefferson himself, and was only tranquilized by the handsome letter of reassurance, written with his own hand, which is one of the treasures of the Convent archives.

Even the negroes, free and slave, had their prejudices and superstitions to foster dislike against the "Mericain Coquin," as they called the American negro. In short, the Americans were contemned, despised, and ridiculed, and their advent in the city was the current reason even for any deviation, or degeneration, as it was considered, from the usual course of nature. It is related that at a public ball, which had been interrupted by an earthquake shock, an old beau was heard muttering to himself: "Ce n'était pas du temps des Espagnols et des Français, que le plaisir des dames était ainsi troublé."

The Spanish officers and officials professing themselves too much attached to the people did not withdraw  p167 from the city. Casa Calvo, with his Spanish guard, distinguished address and winning manners, still lingered, a social lion, meeting with an effusive admiration, and gaining a popularity at the expense of the rough Americans, which made him particularly obnoxious to them. He and his companions now had the opportunity, which they seized with gusto, of returning a cherished compliment, and, by their intrigues and their intimations of Spanish invasion, kept Claiborne in as constant a state of anxiety as ever Spanish governor had been kept by Americans. And just at the moment when internal commotion and Spanish suspicion were at their height, who should arrive in the city but that man of the iron mask in American politics, Aaron Burr, in an elegant barge fitted out by the United States military commandant of the district, with sails, colours, ten oars, and an escort of soldiers; Aaron Burr, glittering in all the reptilian fame of his duel with Hamilton and supposed traitorous designs against his government!

The first American governor of Louisiana, it must be confessed, had not a holiday task before him, and he felt it. But, while his spirits yielded to panics every now and then, when he thought of the Spaniards outside and Spaniards and French inside his ship, and while he multiplied military precautions with the enterprise of a Carondelet, his letters, official and private, grave, eloquent, conscientious, and diffuse, breathe a determination to succeed and the personal sense of patriotic responsibility and Christian obligation that belong to an alumnus of the school of Washington.

A French traveller, M. Robin, who was in the city at the time of its transmission to the United States, has  p168 kindly left a description of it. Journeying leisurely by that pretty route through the Lakes, and up the Bayou St. John, he notes on the banks of the Bayou villas in the Italian style, with pillars supporting the galleries, surrounded with gardens and approached through magnificent avenues of wild orange trees.

It was the rainy season when he arrived, and the streets were as impassable as they are now, a century later. In many quarters they were overflowed, and, he says, held abysses, in question carriages went to pieces. The sidewalks, or banquettes, as they are still called, were great planks, usually gunwales from the broken flatboats, fastened flat in the mud. Only an expert could walk upon them without damage to boots and clothing. The ditches intended for draining were often subjects of consternation, as they overflowed into lakes, and foot passengers had to make long detours to get around them. Names, of course, were not inscribed anywhere on the streets, so they went by an alias, usually given by the largest house on it. The houses were generally handsome, built of brick and some of them several stories high; those along the river front were the most desirable. As the city was filling every day with emigrants from France and fugitives from St. Domingo, lodgings were very dear. The population consisted of French, Spaniards, Anglo-Americans, Bohemians, negroes, mulattoes. The money-makers of the place were the wholesale merchants; the retailers, cabareteers, and pedlers were for the most part Catalans. The tailors, dressmakers, and bakers were French; carpentering was almost a monopoly of the coloured. "Winter is the gay season, balls are frequent. Indeed, in a place so bare of the means of  p169 education, and where the privileges of religion are so curtailed, there is an abundance of amusement. . . . But in no country of the world is there practised such religious toleration." Our traveller found the elegance of France displayed in the entertainments, and the import of luxuries out of keeping with so small and so new a place: Malaga, Bordeaux, Madeira, olive oil (a most important article of consumption), brandied fruits, liqueurs, vinegars, sausages, anchovies, almonds, raisins, prunes, cheese, vermicelli.

"Women, dressed in calico and muslins, and never wearing those that are faded and used, often changing colours and patterns, have the art of appearing only in fresh dresses. But it must be remembered that the Louisiana women are French women. In general they are tall and dignified, and the whiteness of their skin is set off by their dress. Silks are worn only for balls and grand occasions. Headgear is not much used, the women having the good habit of going bareheaded in summer, and wearing in the winter only madras kerchiefs.

"The men show themselves more enslaved to fashion than the women, going about in the heavy clothing of Europe, heads sunk in high collars, arms and hands lost in long sleeves, chins buried in triple cravats, legs encased in high boots, with great flaps. Play, or gaming, is the recreation of the men. In the evening, when the business of the day is over, fortunes are lost over and over again by it. All indulge in it. The ship captain, even the most esteemed one, games away the profits of his last voyage, sometimes pledging the cargo committed to his care. The pedler games away all that he has crossed the seas to earn.  p170 The trapper or voyageur games away the fruit of his long marches and perilous adventures. The planter coming to the city to purchase supplies for the year from the sale of his crop, games away his entire account, and returns to his plantation without provisions or clothing.

"The women are different; with all their beauty they are without coquetry, and are devoted to their  p171 children and their husbands, who, par parenthèse, easily tire of the monotony of their society, and seek amusement elsewhere."

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Interior of the Old Absinthe House.

The recreation of the Creole ladies was dancing, and throughout the season they met regularly at the public balls, which in reality were not public, as only the one circle of the best society was admitted, and the guests were all friends and intimate. The refreshments consisted of orange flower syrup and water and eau sucrée. Carriages were never used, presumably on account of the danger from the streets; ladies walked to the balls, preceded by slaves bearing lanterns, and followed by maids carrying their satin slippers. When the weather was too bad for the ball to take place, its postponement was announced by a crier through the streets, to the sound of a drum. It was always understood that the postponement was until the next fine evening.

Looking back upon it, across nearly a century's progress and sophistication, the beau-monde then appears a social Arcady. The refugees from France, St. Domingo, and the other French West Indian Islands, landed in the city generally without a cent, but with all the beauties, charms, education, and customs, of generations of culture. The men became overseers, managers of plantations, clerks, teachers, musicians, actors, anything to make the first bare necessities of life. The women did sewing, embroidery, dress-making, millinery, living or lodging, not in the new brick houses, but in the little two-room cottages opposite or alongside. But, as a biographer of the time explains, thankful for the escapes they had had from unmentionable horrors, all were contented, satisfied, happy, and more charming men and women than ever. The evening come, the St. Domingo  p172 belle laid aside her day's task of sewing, donned her simple gown of muslin, and accompanied by a chaperon and slave, went to the ball, where, in the dance she met and made the most delightful society. Ah! the refugees from St. Domingo! Families are still pointed out in the city as refugees from St. Domingo, and there are still old negroes, here and there, who can related how they were clinging to the breast when their mothers escaped with masters and mistresses from St. Domingo.

It is still a current opinion in the city, that it was the refugees from the West Indies that brought the love of luxury into the colony, the Creoles before that time, many believing and maintaining, being simple in their tastes and plain in their living. It would seem, from the constant mention made of it in family legends, that the tropical ease and languor of the West Indian women were indeed as much a novelty then in the feminine world as the always emphasized distinction, the literary tastes and accomplishments of the West Indian men were in the masculine world.

What tales of their escapes the St. Domingo ladies had to tell, and how entrancingly they told and acted them, hovering always so exquisitely over the vanishing point between romance and reality as to confound the two inseparably for generations of auditors. Always, as point de départ, the wondrous marble-terraced plantation home, with its palm-groves over­looking the sea. Then the alarm, the flight, the cries of the blood-infuriated blacks in pursuit, the deathly still hiding-place in the jungle; and always, in every tale, the white sails of an English vessel out in the Gulf, watching for signals for rescue, the approaching relief boat, the rush to embark, the discovery, the volley of  p173 musketry, and a grandmother spattering with her brains the child in her arms, — or a child shot away from a mother's breast, or a faithful slave expiring with her arms clasped about her mistress's knees, or — every combination of heart-breaking horrors. There were  p174 always in each family, God be thanked, faithful slaves. And then, the adventures on the crowded schooner, beating, through gale and calm, across the Gulf, famishing for water, decimated by fevers, pursued by pirates! It was something of an education in itself to hear all that over and over again in one's youth, . . . to know the narrator, to play with the blood-sprinkled babes, to be petted and scolded by the faithful Dédé, Sophie, or Féliciane.

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The city was incorporated in 1806, and the voters had the privilege of exercising their first right of suffrage in the election of aldermen; but the privilege, as an Americanism, was received with apathy, and a complete indifference was manifested as to the result of the election.

The reconstruction now was to come in contact with the church, and produce one of the old-time religious excitements in the city. Louisiana had passed under the spiritual jurisdiction of the bishop of Maryland, whose vicar-general, an Irish-American, ventured in the first flush of his authority to suspend the parish priest. This priest was none other than the Padre Antonio de Sedella, who, with his Inquisition, had been so summarily put out of the city by Governor Miro. The padre had returned, and by his unreinforced zeal and devotion had gained an authority over his parishioners as absolute as could have been conferred upon him by the powers of the Holy Office. The sacraments, and even the church itself, grew, in the eyes of the faithful, into a monopoly of which Père Antoine was the possessor; and they themselves became, not the Church's, but his, faithful. When, one Sunday morning, he did not appear as usual in the pulpit, fear seized the assembled congregation that he might be ill. The church was immediately deserted, all rushing in a mob  p175 to the little cabin in St. Anthony's alley, in which Père Antoine lived. He tranquilized them as to his bodily welfare, but informed them that he had been suspended. Suspended! The vicar-general suspend Père Antoine! This was a piece of American arrogance beyond even  p176 the usual extravagant display of it. Indignation sped from word to deed, and the Americans were given a dose of their own specific. Père Antoine was elected parish priest by popular vote, with all the hurrahs of a political expression; and he stood by the results of the count. The vicar-general, reduced to second rank in the diocese, appealed to law to enforce his authority. The quarrel grew apace. The lordly Casa Calvo, with his retinue of Spanish officers, became partisans of their candidate as against American authority. This moved the vicar-general to invoke the aid of the chief executive, against "the ambition of a refractory monk, supported in his apostasy by the constitution of an individual (Casa Calvo) whose interference was to be attributed less to zeal for religion, than to the indulgence of private passions and the promotion of views equally dangerous to religion and civil order," and he informed Claiborne that two emissaries had gone to Havana to secure a reinforcement of monks to sustain Père Antoine in his schismatic and rebellious conduct.

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Cathedral Alley.

The governor judiciously declined to interfere in the religious part of the squabble, but the political hint struck home. During his next fit of apprehension from a Spanish invasion, he summoned Père Antoine before him, and, in spite of his protestations of loyalty, made him take the oath of allegiance to the United States, in the presence of witnesses. To his religious executive, however, Père Antoine remained non-compliant and independent, and was a terror ever to succeeding bishops. His little cabin cell, on the corner of St. Anthony's alley and Bourbon street, with its bare floor and pallet lying on a couple of planks, and rough  p177 table, crucifix, and chair, was the rock of spiritual authority in the city. Ladies thronged it during the hours of audience. Betrothals, marriages, ill-favoured daughters and ill-moraled sons, contumacious slaves and light husbands, baptisms, funerals, and first communions, litigations about property, and dissensions about gossip; all the res disjectae of family affairs, were brought there to him by white and black, and by counsel he held and directed all as with consciousness of the infallibility attributed to him. At sight of his venerable appearance in the streets, with coarse brown cassock, rosary, sandaled feet, broad-brimmed hat, white beard, enemies cast down, — all uncovered. He died in 1829. His funeral procession included the whole city, and was a grand and momentous parade, the Free Masons attending by a special order of the Grand Lodge of the state. He was the last survivor of the old Capuchin mission in Louisiana, and he is still regarded as a saint by the secular world; but the clerical still remembers a story about an early love and a duel, and his defiance and insubordination, and the suspicion that he was not only a Free Mason, but one in high standing.​a

The old Spanish enforced respect for the church was sorely missed, not alone by the vicar-general. The lady abbess of the Ursulines, as the governor called her, was driven by the rising spirit of levity, if not of godlessness, to solicit the interference of the civil authorities to prevent the repeating of a performance at the theatre, in which her community was held up as an object of derision, the last act being marked, she said, with peculiar indecency and disrespect. Tradition says that the play was that one, still a favourite in the city, "Les Mousquetaires au Couvent." The governor  p178 called upon the mayor to check the license of the stage, but the play was repeated the following year, and called forth another complaint from the mother superior and another appeal from the governor to the mayor.

One cannot but feel that it was a heroic triumph for Governor Claiborne, under the circumstances, to have secured a Fourth of July celebration in 1806. It was most grandiosely observed. All the stores and places of business were closed, salutes were fired from the forts; there was high mass, at the Cathedral, attended by all the civil and military functionaries, in the forenoon; a parade of the militia; in the afternoon, a Te Deum; at night a new and original tragedy, "Washington, or the Liberty of the New World," performed to an enthusiastic audience, and, ending it all, a grand ball.

It was a timely inspiration of patriotism, for during the following autumn the Spaniards and Aaron Burr gave the United States their last flurry of a scare. The cry was that Burr was coming down the river to captured New Orleans, and make it the capital of that separation from the Union for which he, according to public clamour, had been long conspiring. The city was thrown into one of its wild excitements. Old defences were hurriedly patched up, naval and land forces mustered, an embargo was laid upon shipping, and the habeas corpus practically suspended. The crisis proved not only harmless, but beneficial. Out of the tornado of suspicion and distrust that swept over the country, the Creoles of Louisiana came unscathed. Not they, but the Americans, were accused of traitorous designs, and their promptitude in tendering their service to the country called forth a special tribute from the President  p179 in his annual message. In 1812, its probation being finally ended, the Territory of Orleans was admitted into the Union, as the State of Louisiana. Claiborne received the handsome compliment of being elected governor.

The population of the city had now advanced to twenty-four thousand; but, increased as it had been by immigration from the French possessions, it was more preponderatingly foreign to America than ever. The English language filtered so slowly into use, that the necessary concessions to the French amounted practically to the recognition of two official tongues. This was most apparent in the administration of justice. The code itself was a transcription from the Napoleon Code, but on its adoption by the legislature, the former laws were only partially repealed; it was found in practice that the Fuero viejo, Fuero juezgo, Partidas, Recapilaciones, Leyes de las Indias, Autos accordadosº and Royal schedules, remained parts of the written law of the State. To explain them, Spanish commentators and the corpus juris civilis were consulted, and (particularly by the French lawyers) Pothier, d'Aguesseau, Dumoulin, and others. Every court had to be furnished with interpreters of French, Spanish, and English. The jury was generally divided as equally as possible between those who understood English and those who understood French, and to maintain this national equality was the great feat of lawyers, as it was commonly accepted as the only sure guarantee of justice. The case was usually opened in English, during which the French part of the jury was excused, to be summoned when their language appeared in the argument, and the English-speaking ones were granted a recess. All went  p180 together in the jury room, each man contending that the argument he had listened to was the conclusive one, each disputing about it in his own vernacular, and finally compromising upon some Volapük of a verdict, which, however arrived at, does not seem to have been any more unsatisfactory to justice than the verdicts reached to‑day by a common comprehension of the argument.


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At the French Market.

One of the first steps in the American reconstruction was the establishment, the incorporation rather, by the Legislature, of an educational institution, the college of Orleans. The church of St. Augustin, at the corner of Hospital and St. Claude streets, stands where, in an open stretch of land in the rear of the city, once arose the famous college of Orleans. Famous, of course, locally; but is not the truest fame local fame? And who can remember in the city any octogenarian gentleman of aristocratic manners and classical attainments (Greek and Latin quotations to throw away in any conversation or correspondence), aye, and even of superior stature, who did not in his youth pass through the college of Orleans? No generation since, so the octogenarians say, and so we believe, compared in any respect with the college of Orleans generation. And to filial and sympathetic listeners it always seemed a social and educational calamity, never to be sufficiently deplored, that the college should have disappeared so soon, leaving behind nothing of its material existence, save a fragment of its long dormitory fashioned now into a tenement row. Young gentlemen were entered at the age of seven, as boarders; the only day scholars were those whose parents were too poor to pay board. There was a still lower grade, a file of charity boys, selected by the trustees.

 p183  It was an encouraging proof of the durability of good impressions, to hear a school-boy of 1812, Charles Gayarré,​b tell of the first director of the college, M. Jules D'Avezac, an émigré from St. Domingo, and how the boys called him Titus because he was their delight. They never forgot his courtly manners, nor the tenderness and kindness in his face whenever he spoke to them. In the expression of the day, they could not tell which predominated in him, the gentleman or the scholar, for he was a distinguished scholar; he had translated Marmion into French and sent it to Walter Scott, and received from him a letter expressing how pleased he was with the muse who had repeated his verses in another hemisphere. But it was the second director, Rochefort, another St. Domingan, who, perhaps, most profoundly impressed the collegians. His lame foot naturally gained him the sobriquet of Tyrtaeus. He made elegant translations from Horace, and when his scholars saw him walking his gallery, excitedly stamping with his lame foot, drinking cup after cup of black coffee, his long silky locks of dark hair tossed back from his pale temples, his face flushed, his eyes gleaming, they knew he was possessed of the divine afflatus, and watched him in awed curiosity. He distinguished the best scholars by allowing them apartments on the same floor with him, which released them from obedience to other authority than his. And occasionally he distinguished some of them supremely, by inviting a select few to dine with him, when, after dessert, he would read his poetry to them; and what with the good wine and the good dinner, the verses never failed to elicit the sincerest and most rapturous applause. But the great event in the curriculum of these distinguished young  p184 gentlemen was when the director invited them to the Théâtre d'Orléans, and marched at their head through the streets. On the way back he would test their judgment of the play and acting by asking their opinions, and as the collegians were at the tender age when actors and actresses were divinities whom they could not sufficiently extol and admire, it was a shock to them, as they trudged home from Elysium, to have the calm criticisms of their chief dashed like buckets of cold water over the flames of their enthusiasm.

The professor of mathematics was not to be forgotten either, a passionate naturalist, going through the streets with his new-found specimens pinned to his sleeves, hat — anywhere, so absent-minded that he never knew in which direction he was walking, and walking always with his eyes shut. He was the delight of the street gamins, who used to lie in wait for him.

"Ho! Ho! Papa Teinturier, where are you going?"

"Little devils, you know very well I am going to the college."

"But you are running away from it, Papa Teinturier, Ho! ho! You are turning your back upon it."

His other passion was horticulture, and he was to be often seen working the whole of a moonlit night through, in his garden, in the suburbs of the city, and, to prove his theory that a white man could stand the sun as well as a black, he would work in it nude through the dog days.

The professor of drawing, also from St. Domingo, a superb figure, with imposing constitution and majestic blue eyes, cherished the illusion that he would have been the finest actor in the world had his gentle birth  p185 only permitted his going on the stage, and his scholars could always switch him off from themselves into entrancing declamations from Racine and Corneille, by asking how Talma recited such and such a passage. Georges, the proctor, had a Socratic face, and wore his hair powdered, in a cue. Bruno was the mulatto steward, who, at six o'clock in the morning, winter and summer, handed out through his pantry loophole the cup of coffee and piece of dry bread that formed the entire menu of the boarders' breakfast; Vincent, the doorkeeper, was wry necked and doleful faced; Marengo, the cook, ugly and ferocious. . . .

The pleasant memories and chronicles of this auspicious institution come to an end in an untimely encounter, with a historical bit of the revolutionary wreckage of the period, Joseph Lakanal. Is he now a vivid recollection anywhere outside the family and society archives of New Orleans? The position of director of the college falling vacant, the trustees could think of no one more fitted to fill it than so illustrious a representative of learning and republicanism, then a refugee from Bourbon restoration, and living within call, on a farm on the banks of the Ohio. A ci‑devant priest and professor of belles-lettres, an ex-member of the National Convention, of the Committee of Public Education, of the Council of Five Hundred, one of the active founders of primary schools in France, a member of the Institute, and appointed by Napoleon superior of the Bonaparte Lyceum, — a man known in all positions for brilliant intellect and indomitable energy, — his qualifications for the position of director of the College of Orleans seemed indisputable to the trustees. To the good mothers of New Orleans, and to the vast majority of Creoles, however, anti-Christ alone was represented by the ex‑priest and regicide; and the foul fiend would have been considered as good a director of youth. The trustees persisted in their choice; the citizens in their opposition. The scholars were withdrawn from the college, until too few remained to warrant the opening of its doors, which were finally and definitely closed.

Lakanal, however, remained in New Orleans until the revolution of 1830 permitted him to return to France. He left behind him in the city numerous descendants, and a memory of his striking personality, which, like his brilliant intellect, although always interesting, was never estimable.

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The City Seal.

Thayer's Notes:

a This passage is quoted by Clarence Bishpam in an article on Fr. Sedella in the Louisiana Historical Quarterly, Vol. II, No. 1 (p28) and King's charge that Sedella was a freemason is looked at in the same article, p36 (q.v.).

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b This 7‑year‑old schoolboy would become the historian Charles Gayarré, to whom Grace King's book is dedicated, and who is represented on this site by his 4‑volume History of Louisiana.

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Page updated: 15 Apr 16