The policies and ambitions of Bourbon Democrats dominated Louisiana's political and social life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Although the terms “Bourbon Democrat” and “Bourbonism” appear frequently in historical works, they are perhaps the most imprecisely used terms in southern politics. Emerging in the United States after the Civil War, the term came to define the most reactionary wing of the Democratic Party and the era in which they reigned. The Bourbon Era in Louisiana ran roughly from the enactment of the State Constitution of 1879 until the drafting of the later State Constitution of 1898. For two decades, the policies and ambitions of Bourbon Democrats dominated Louisiana’s political and social life.
At its most basic level, the personal adjective “Bourbon” suggests that the politics of its bearer are reactionary. The term referred to the Bourbon Kings who ruled France between the fall of Napoleon and the emergence of the Second Republic in 1848, and in particular, the reign of King Charles X. Believing that they might reverse the dramatic social and political changes that took place during the French Revolution and Age of Napoleon, these monarchs revived old laws intended to reassert royal authority and elite privilege at the expense of democratic principle. These changes came often on the backs of France’s poor and middle classes. The question of whether France might be ruled by a monarchy or republic was not yet settled by the end of the American Civil War, and thus, the term “Bourbon” enjoyed contemporary currency across the Atlantic where the advocates of Federal Reconstruction policy used it to paint their opponents as obstructionists who failed to grasp that Southern defeat in the Civil War had irrevocably changed the American political and social landscape.
At first, Republicans in Louisiana applied the term “Bourbon” to all opponents of Reconstruction policy, but as the factional nature of oppositional conservative politics took shape, the term only correctly applied to the most reactionary element in the Democratic Party. Like the Bourbon Kings, the Bourbon Democrats sought not only the overthrow of Reconstruction, but also stood in opposition to the compromising stances made by other Conservative-Democratic elements in Louisiana such as the Reform Party and Liberal Republicanism. Louisiana’s Bourbons strongly opposed both political and social equality for non-whites and pined for a return to the sort of social control that might guarantee the maintenance of a subservient labor force that the agrarian elite had known under slavery. While “Bourbon Democrat” was originally conceived of as an epithet, many of those who were the target of the insult embraced the term. Baton Rouge Mayor Leon Jastremski once said, “We must admit, that we are…Bourbons.”
Bourbons under Reconstruction
With Louisiana under Republican rule during Reconstruction, the Bourbons recognized their own political weakness and forged an uneasy alliance with fellow conservatives who sought Louisiana’s return to Democratic rule. This coalition ultimately proved successful through the stern policies of the White League. Yet with the return of so-called “home rule” in 1877 and the end of the Republican era, this coalition of would-be Redeemers collapsed. Animosity between Democratic factions emerged fully in 1879 when a Bourbon-dominated state constitutional convention shortened the gubernatorial term of Francis Tillou Nicholls, a moderate and Confederate war hero, and replaced him with Louis Wiltz, a Ring politician from New Orleans. For the next twenty years, Louisiana’s politics would be dominated by a three and sometimes four-way struggle for power in which the Bourbons maintained an uneasy hold on the reins of government.
The Bourbon-Ring Alliance
From the standpoint of political control, Bourbonism in Louisiana operated primarily as an alliance between the planters of the state’s cotton growing country and the political faction known as The Ring in New Orleans, a group dominated by the city’s ethnic ward bosses. While an alliance between the countryside’s lords of labor and the urban laboring masses might seem unlikely, several factors drew these sides together. Perhaps none was more important or more clear-cut than the Louisiana Lottery, but both sides supported other aims, if for entirely different reasons.
The maintenance of the constitutional charter that allowed the Louisiana Lottery to operate in the Pelican State, a measure instituted under Republican Governor Henry Clay Warmoth, was arguably the single most important political objective of the Bourbons. Not to be confused with modern state-run lotteries, the Louisiana Lottery was an international operation in which the state received a mere $40,000 annual payment in return for its official sanction allowing the Lottery Company to make millions each year. The state of Louisiana was one of the lottery’s smaller beneficiaries. Much more substantial sums went to key people and various popular charitable organizations that purchased the Lottery Company enormous political leverage. Lottery money often kept those who might otherwise be opposed to the Bourbon program from taking action against injustices. It also made Bourbonism stronger in Louisiana than it was in other Southern states.
Across the South, the Bourbons were legendary for reducing the tax burden on property owners. As they did elsewhere, Louisiana’s Bourbons balanced the budget by dramatically reducing investment in infrastructure such as levees, roads, and railroads and social services such as education. Indeed, whatever gains Reconstruction achieved in establishing a public school system in Louisiana, twenty years of Bourbon rule had all but demolished. Yet this opposition to public school also had philosophical underpinnings: Bourbon planters feared that education for the masses might disrupt the steady supply of cheap agricultural labor, particularly in rural parishes. One grim area that earned increased revenue for the state was the notorious convict-lease system. Like the lottery, the leasing of convicts from the state penitentiary began in 1870 under Republican rule, but the Bourbons greatly expanded upon the system. Planter and businessman S. L. James was the primary lessee at the program’s inception and sole lessee when the contract was renewed by the state in 1890. The mortality rates for convicts laboring in the lease system was much worse than known under slavery, ranging between 10 and 20 percent per year. The convict-lease system was much like any other program under the Bourbons – ripe for abuse and a vehicle engineered to enrich the politically connected at the expense of the people of Louisiana.
Perhaps the most ironic goal of the Bourbon-Ring faction was that of opposing disfranchisement legislation, though the two groups opposed such “reform” for very different reasons. By the mid-1880s, opponents to Bourbon rule began pushing for tough restrictions for voter registration — namely literacy and competency tests. These proposed laws targeted the immigrant masses of New Orleans and plantation laborers alike. While ethnics in the metropolis might fear that the law would take away their political rights, Bourbon planters recognized that their rural parishes faced an electoral crisis should a literacy bill strike between half and eighty percent of their voters from the rolls. Planters certainly did not want their mostly black labor to vote freely, but if their names did not appear on the registration rolls, then their votes were not available to be stolen at election time. Proponents of “ballot reform” surely pursued a xenophobic and racist desire to disfranchise, but were also trying to address real and rampant political corruption in Louisiana’s countryside by which big planters undemocratically ran the state.
Key Bourbon Democrats in Louisiana
Chief among the Bourbon Democrats in Louisiana were State Treasurer Edward A. Burke and Governor Samuel D. McEnery. Burke, the poster child of Bourbon corruption, had been a member of the Louisiana delegation that negotiated the end of Reconstruction during the Compromise of 1877 and became state treasurer under Nicholls the following year. He was the only executive officer of the state not removed from office by the new State Constitution of 1879, a testament to his power. Indeed, Burke was arguably the most powerful political figure in the state for much of the 1880s, and as the owner of the New Orleans Democrat, he could break an opponent. His unscrupulous ways caught up with him, however, after he lost a reelection bid in 1888. Burke’s successor discovered how much he had stolen from the state, resulting in multiple indictments and Burke’s subsequent exile in Honduras. For his part, Samuel McEnery was often referred to as “McLottery” because he was seen primarily as the tool of that organization. McEnery would go on to serve on the State Supreme Court of Louisiana and in the United States Senate after losing the gubernatorial election of 1888. Other prominent figures included J. H. Cosgrove, an editor and politician from Natchitoches, and Henry J. Hearsey, the bombastic editor of the Democrat and later Daily States of New Orleans. Yet to say that all Bourbons were dishonest scoundrels would be inaccurate. Key party figures like Leon Jastremski, while reactionary, are considered honest by historians of the era. Likewise, Aristée Louis Tissot, a prominent judge in New Orleans and Democratic Party leader, allied with the Ring and Samuel McEnery out of party loyalty, yet fought for the political and social rights of working men of all races.
Opponents of Bourbonism
Several groups stood in opposition to the Bourbons for different reasons and at different times. Their most consistent critics always came from New Orleans, where the Reformed Democracy faction formed in opposition to the Lottery Company provisions and ouster of Nicholls during the state constitutional convention of 1879. That same year, Louisiana Congressman E. John Ellis sought to nominate former White League commander Frederick Nash Ogden as governor so as to stave off the nomination of the corrupt Ring politician, Louis Wiltz. He would again nominate Ogden in 1883 in a failed attempt to prevent the election of Samuel McEnery. The Bourbons accused Francis T. Nicholls, a frequent critic, of “rampant pseudo-liberalism” because he warned that planters needed to deal fairly with labor. At their most honest, the Reformed Democrats sought to eliminate the blatant corruption of the Louisiana Lottery, but many in the process also hoped to disfranchise and segregate the people of the state. Bourbonism was also challenged in the sugar parishes where Republicanism remained strong — not because of the party’s Reconstruction-era program of social legislation, but because sugar planters had a vested stake in the National Republicans’ protectionist policies and federal levee construction. Lastly, in the early 1890s, new opposition in the form of the Farmer’s Union emerged in response to Bourbonism’s repressive attitude toward small landowners and people of the piney woods parishes. In the end, while these groups might have removed key Bourbon figures from office, because their attack was piecemeal and often at cross-purposes, it allowed many of the basic flaws of Bourbonism to endure into the twentieth century.
The Transformation of Bourbon Rule
Bourbonism was less defeated than it was transformed during the turbulent 1890s. Reform Democrats led by former governor Francis T. Nicholls successfully managed to wrest the party’s nomination for executive office away from McEnery and the Bourbons in 1888. That they did so in New Orleans and the sugar parishes with the help of some Republicans enraged the Bourbon legislators who had come up on the losing end of this extremely bitter fight. When McEnery threatened to allow all black labor to vote its conscience in the coming fall 1888 election, a move that would surely allow the election of former Republican Governor Henry Clay Warmoth, Nicholls conceded that his Reformed Democrats must make a corrupt bargain in order to keep the Democracy in power. In exchange for bulldozing the cotton parishes for Nicholls, McEnery received an appointment to the state supreme court. For his part, Nicholls, who had long been an advocate of fairness and moderation, cast aside his noblesse oblige principles for the sake of party loyalty.
Nicholls had also been a staunch foe of the lottery since its inception, and perhaps the only positive outcome of his bargain with McEnery was that it enabled the crushing of the Louisiana Lottery. Yet despite efforts in 1891 and 1892 by Nicholls and church-led reformist anti-lottery societies, the true death knell for the lottery came when the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal for the lottery to mail materials using the U.S. Postal Service. Rather than close up shop, the lottery, like E. A. Burke, fled to Honduras where it continued to operate.
The election of 1892 and subsequent efforts to fundamentally rewrite state electoral law in 1896 remained the only remaining obstacles for Louisiana to have true one-party rule in both name and in deed. Not until the Farmer’s Union movement was suppressed through cooperation between both Bourbon and Reformer Democrats could true disfranchisement take place. The potential for bi-racial cooperation in the Farmer’s Union movement scared Bourbons into realizing that they were playing with fire by keeping black labor on the books. With the lottery money now gone, they also had little hope but to go along with the Reformer Democrats program of disfranchisement. The disfranchisers overreached in 1896, however, with a law that would have taken the ballot from most of Louisiana’s poorer whites. The widespread rejection and unrest cause by such proposals led directly to modifications such as the infamous “grandfather cause” of the 1898 State Constitution, an amendment that provided political rights for poor, illiterate whites but not their black counterparts. With its ratification, a new era dawned in Louisiana politics.
Legacy of Bourbonism
Although the Bourbons often reminisced that Reconstruction was a period of tragedy, one could make a far greater case that the period that followed immediately afterward set much more lasting and dangerous precedent for the state of Louisiana. While one might point to corruption among politicians of all persuasions during Reconstruction, their misdeeds pale in comparison with those perpetrated by their successors, the Bourbons. It ingrained an atmosphere of plunder that continues to cast a long shadow on the Pelican State. So, too, did the Bourbon stance on everything from education to economic development. Moreover, those who might have mitigated the damage done by the Bourbons, the Reform Democrats, only ended up meeting the Bourbons half way in a compromise forged in corruption and undemocratic principle. While this union led to the expulsion of the Louisiana Lottery, it also brought about segregation and disfranchisement, cures for corruption that were nearly as bad as the illness itself. Yet perhaps the greatest long term legacy of the Bourbons would not be the Progressive or Jim Crow eras that followed, but the sort of suffering among the common people who empowered a personality like Huey Long to amass an equally corrupt and even more untrammeled power over the state.