The Antebellum period in Louisiana begins with statehood in 1812 and ends with Louisiana joining the Confederacy in 1860.
The antebellum period of American history covers the first part of the nineteenth century, leading up to the Civil War. The antebellum period in Louisiana begins on April 30, 1812, when it entered the Union as the eighteenth state, and ends on March 21, 1861, when it joined the Confederacy. During its first years of statehood, political and cultural conflict continued to revolve around tension between Louisianans of Anglo-American descent and those of French or Spanish descent, frequently called Creoles. The state also was home to a significant population of Acadian refugees known as Cajuns. The imprint of Creoles and Cajuns affected the state’s legal system (a combination of French civil law and English common law), its religion (the greatest percentage of Catholics in the South), and its culture, whether through its Mardi Gras celebration, foods such as gumbo, boudin, jambalaya, and étouffée, or unique musical traditions that would ultimately become elements of jazz and zydeco.
In 1812, the new state’s population stood at approximately 80,000, including 35,000 slaves. In June, William C. C. Claiborne, whom Thomas Jefferson had appointed as territorial governor nine years earlier, won election to lead the state as governor. While Louisianans cheered their release from congressional control, statehood did not immediately result in peace and prosperity.
The War of 1812
The War of 1812 and especially the specter of British invasion towered over Claiborne’s term. In November 1814, General Andrew Jackson arrived in New Orleans to defend the Gulf Coast against a presumed British invasion. A series of altercations culminated in the January 8, 1815, Battle of New Orleans in which a Jackson-led force of federal troops, state militiamen, Baratarian pirates, and free people of color/gens de couleur libres thrashed the British regulars. Thanks to this victory, Jackson immediately became a state as well as a national hero, with New Orleans renaming its main square after the general in 1851 and erecting an equestrian statue of him there five years later. Prior to the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson had feared that Louisiana’s population lacked loyalty to the United States. That apprehension proved unjustified.
The Constitution of 1812 set the ground rules for the state’s first political battles. It stipulated that voters had to meet a tax-paying qualification (which generally equated to land ownership) and that state officers needed to meet even higher property qualifications (to be governor one had to own at least $5,000 in property). Additionally, the voters did not directly select many officers. Legislators chose the governor from the top two popular vote recipients, and the governor, in turn, selected most other officers, including the attorney general, state treasurer, and state judges. Early political battles centered on a candidate’s ethnicity rather than his stances on the issues. In the first years of statehood, the gubernatorial office rotated between Anglo-Americans and Creoles, with Jacques Villeré and Thomas Bolling Robertson succeeding Claiborne.
In the 1820s and 1830s, Louisiana politics moved from an emphasis on personality and ethnicity to a system primarily based on partisanship. When Andrew Jackson emerged as the leader of a national Democratic Party, many Louisianans dutifully lined up behind their hero. Jackson’s Democratic Party appealed to small farmers through its emphasis on white men’s democracy and its advocacy of small government. The Democratic Party swept most of the South, but, ironically, in Louisiana, the site of Jackson’s great victory, one of the South’s most vibrant Whig parties emerged. In every presidential election from 1828 through James Buchanan’s victory in 1856, Louisiana cast its electoral vote for the winner.
The Whigs’ advocacy of federal aid for internal improvements, a high tariff, and government involvement in commerce had strong appeal in Louisiana. In terms of agriculture, unlike the rest of the South, Louisiana possessed a dual monarchy. In the northern half of the state, as in the rest of the lower South, cotton was king. The parishes along both the Red River and the Mississippi River contained some of the best cotton-growing land in the United States. In contrast, in southern Louisiana, sugar reigned. Generally, harvesting sugarcane involved more risk but offered the potential for more reward than cotton cultivation. While southern Louisiana stood out as the nation’s foremost sugar-producing region, its sugarcane planters needed a Whig-advocated tariff to remain competitive against Caribbean imports.
Louisiana elected Whig governors in 1834 (Edward Douglass White) and 1838 (Andre Bienvenu Roman). After Roman’s term, the Whigs never regained the state’s highest office. Leading up to the Civil War, Democrats Alexandre Mouton, Isaac Johnson, Joseph M. Walker, Paul O. Hebert, Robert C. Wickliffe, and Thomas Overton Moore all occupied the governor’s office. Meanwhile, in the 1850s, US Senators John Slidell and Pierre Soulé emerged as the state’s most powerful Democrats and as key rivals, with Slidell’s wing of the party generally getting the better end of the bargain.
Jacksonian Democracy in Louisiana
The divergent ideologies of the Democrats and Whigs surfaced when the state adopted new constitutions in 1845 and 1852. The constitutions reflected state and national trends often known as Jacksonian Democracy. They expanded the electorate as well as the number of elective offices. The 1845 Constitution removed property qualifications for voting and office holding and allowed voters to elect the secretary of state, attorney general, and state treasurer, as well as to choose the governor directly. In 1845, Democrats eliminated state-chartered banks and state aid to corporations, but in 1852, Whigs reinstituted these provisions.
The constitutions also demonstrated the rivalry between New Orleans and the rest of the state. New Orleans had been Louisiana’s capital from its founding, with exception of a single session in 1830 when the legislature met in Donaldsonville. The 1845 Constitution stipulated that the capital be removed from New Orleans, and the following year, the legislature relocated to Baton Rouge. Both constitutions altered the legislative apportionment methods in order to limit New Orleans’s overwhelming advantages in terms of voters and white population, ultimately basing parish representation on total population, including slaves.
The resentment of New Orleans stemmed from its size, which made it stand out in comparison to Louisiana and the rest of the South. The city dwarfed other Louisiana and southern cities. By 1860, New Orleans possessed a population of 168,000, while Baton Rouge stood as the second largest city with 5,000 inhabitants. Also, the city attracted immigrants at a rate unequaled in the South. In 1860, the census listed 66,359 Orleans Parish residents as having a foreign birthplace (a number greater than lived in any other southern state). Because of the presence of these primarily Irish and German immigrants, New Orleans in the 1850s had one of the most powerful Know-Nothing parties in the South. This organization, founded in opposition to immigration, ruled the city through intimidation and violence. Additionally, as the key port on the Mississippi River and the financial center of the Mississippi Valley, New Orleans attracted northern and international bankers and other businessmen, including factors—planters’ agents who marketed crops and purchased goods for their rural clients. It also served as home to De Bow’s Review, the most influential agricultural and commercial journal in the South. Unfortunately, due to a combination of poor sanitation and periodic outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera, New Orleans had the highest death rate in the nation.
Plantation System and Slavery
With much of its wealth resting on the production and marketing of staple crops, the state relied on slave labor to support the plantation system. In each census during the antebellum period, slaves made up at least 45 percent of Louisiana’s total population, and more than 60 percent of the population outside of New Orleans. Slave concentrations were highest along the Mississippi River, with slaves comprising more than 90 percent of the population in Concordia and Tensas parishes. While not home to a large slave population, New Orleans did contain the South’s largest interstate slave market, where slaves from the upper South were sold to the cotton fields of the Deep South. This slave labor allowed some plantation owners to accumulate vast sums of wealth best viewed today in elegant plantation homes such as Nottoway, Oak Alley, and Shadows on the Teche. Plantation owners also dominated the state legislature, the governor’s office, and the state’s secession convention.
Most Louisianans could only dream of such affluence, as the average white man farmed his own small plot of land with the help of his family. These farmers aimed to feed their families first, but might grow a bale or two of cotton as well. Despite the importance of cotton and sugar, Louisianans actually planted more acreage in corn than in any other crop. Corn, along with pork, served as the key foods in the typical Louisiana diet, though in south Louisiana, seafood and rice-based dishes appeared as well. Most farmers lived an isolated life owing to the state’s primitive transportation network. Louisianans relied on water transportation, with plantation homes facing rivers and steamboats traveling up and down its waterways. The Red River, however, was only occasionally navigable upriver from Alexandria, and the Atchafalaya Basin held a much lower volume of water than it does today. Starting in the 1830s, railroads began to improve transportation, but a lack of both planning and capital, especially after the nationwide Panic of 1837, made their growth sporadic. In 1835, one of the first railroad ventures connected New Orleans and the resort of Carrollton. The New Orleans and Carrollton Railroad would become the famous St. Charles Avenue Streetcar line still in existence today.
Social Life in Antebellum Louisiana
Louisianans’ social life depended upon their wealth and where they lived. Unsurprisingly, New Orleans residents had the most options. The city offered nationally renowned operas and theaters, opulent hotels, fancy balls, and excellent restaurants. At the other end of the spectrum were gambling dens and houses of prostitution. Outside New Orleans, social activities centered on political gatherings, court days, and religious services. Although the southern portion of the state had a Catholic majority, Protestants predominated in northern Louisiana and eventually in the state as a whole. By 1860, the state had 199 Methodist and 161 Baptist churches, compared with 99 Catholic churches. Nevertheless, Catholic churches possessed more wealth than all of their Protestant counterparts combined.
Religion impacted all Louisianans, whether free or slave. African Americans synthesized their traditions with Christianity to form Voudou. Additionally, slaves used the Christian religion as a way to cope with bondage, identifying with the enslaved Israelites and seeking their own Moses. Regardless of what their owners thought, slaves did not accept their status. While the antebellum period never saw a slave revolt rivaling the 1811 slave rebellion, fears among white Louisianans of rebellion never disappeared. Just about every edition of every newspaper included numerous advertisements seeking the return of escaped slaves. Although Louisiana slaves did not leave many extensive records, some narratives, most famously that of Solomon Northup, detail their efforts to endure slavery. Northup, a freeman kidnapped into slavery, describes slaves’ lives, and his account demonstrates the extensive array of tasks slaves performed in antebellum Louisiana.
Not all of Louisiana’s African Americans were enslaved. A significant number of free people of color lived in the state. French and Spanish slave society had a greater toleration of interracial liaisons than Americans and a greater likelihood of freeing the children of these relationships. Also, following the Haitian Revolution, more free blacks came to Louisiana. Most of them lived in New Orleans, but a significant colony lived in the Cane River region. The number of free people of color in Louisiana peaked at 25,500 in 1840. Because of mounting obstacles placed in the way of emancipation and an increasingly hostile attitude toward their presence, by 1860 their total had decreased to 18,647. In contrast, by 1860, Louisiana’s overall population had grown to 708,002, of whom 331,726 were slaves.
Despite its unique aspects, Louisiana’s cotton- and slave-based economy made it act in concert with the other slave states as the Civil War approached. The state’s political leaders preached that the Republican Party threatened the southern way of life. In 1860, Louisiana cast its electoral votes for John Breckinridge, and in the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s election, Governor Thomas Overton Moore called for the election of a secession convention. While the state’s voters were almost evenly divided between immediate secessionists and cooperationists (those who wanted the South to act in concert), by the time the secession convention met in January 1861, cooperation was a dead letter, as five southern states had already seceded. On January 26, 1861, the delegates voted to secede by a 113 to 17 margin, and on March 21, 1861, Louisiana joined the Confederate States of America.