The first governing body of the city of New Orleans was the Superior
Council, which was created by the King of France, Louis XIV. This
Superior Council continued, more or less, the governing body of the city during all the earlier French days and up to 1767, when Spain took
possession of Louisiana and substituted for it a Spanish organization,
but it changed and modified from time to time. It was composed
originally of only two persons, the Governor and the commissary
ordonnateur. This council was subsequently increased to three, the
Governor's clerk being added to it; later to six, when it included the
Governor, commissioner, clerk, chief engineer, military commander and
attorney general. It was still further enlarged in 1732, when the
council, besides those already enumerated officials, included the two
lieutenants de roi (lieutenant governors) and four of the more prominent citizens. Finally, in 1742, in view of the fact that the litigation
before the Superior Council had become so great — for the council was
not only the governing body of the city, but the supreme court as well,
hearing all the higher cases, where the amount in dispute exceeded $22 — the Governor and the commissary ordonnateur were in the King's letters
patent directed to appoint four assessors to serve in the Superior
Council. They ranked after the Councilors proper and their votes were
received only when the record was referred to them to report on, or when they were called upon to complete a quorum, or in a case where the
council was equally divided upon any question coming before it.
The Superior Council, however, was not always in control of the government, and was subject to those frequent changes and revolutions which occur in countries where pure autocracy prevails. The real governing power was the Council of State of France, or rather the King himself who interfered frequently and arbitrarily in the most trivial matters in the government of New Orleans. All the laws for New Orleans were framed by this Council of State, or rather the King; and they were often wholly unsuited to the country to which they were applied. Thus, in 1723, among the laws passed by the Council of State for Louisiana and New Orleans, was one punishing with death any person who killed a cow or horse belonging to another, and punishing the owner of a cow with a fine of 300 livres if he killed it without a permit from the government.
In that same year, 1723, the power of the Superior Council was suppressed and remained suppressed for some years. The Council of State had sent over an inspector to examine into the condition of affairs in New Orleans. This inspector, de la Chaise, presented a vigorous report in which he showed the gross mismanagement existing in the colony. The result of his report was the removal of the councilors, who were ordered to report in Paris, and the government was given into the hands of the Governor, Perier and the Inspector General de la Chaise. These continued in charge until the India Company surrendered its charter in 1732. It was a better government than New Orleans had had before, though somewhat severe and rigid, and a number of important and indeed necessary improvements were made by it for the little city. The most important of these was the construction of a broad and high levee in front of the town and its continuation above and below for a distance of eighteen miles.
When the city was founded by Bienville, it was believed to be safe from any overflow from the river; but this was soon afterwards discovered to be a mistake, and the frequent floods left the streets in a muddy and almost swampy condition for a large part of the time. Levees were therefore absolutely necessary, and Perier's levee has been kept up ever since.
Governor Perier also founded for the protection of the city from another danger. The Natchez massacre had caused a great excitement among the colonists and there seemed a possibility that the hostile Indians might descend upon New Orleans. To protect the city from them or other marauders, it was provided with a stockade and with eight small forts. The manner in which public works were done at that time is well illustrated in the construction of the levee and forts. Governor Perier assessed the inhabitants for the work, not in money, but fixing how many negro slaves each should contribute to the force at work. Their labor was contributed by their owners without charge, but the government fed them. At that time there was no tax of any kind and there seemed a complete ignorance on the subject of taxation.
Governor Perier was a man of most progressive ideas for his time and his regime saw the passage of the first sanitary ordinance for New Orleans. He arrived at the conclusion that the sickness which prevailed in the city during the summer was due to the dense forests that grew between it and Lake Pontchartrain, and which, as he thought, prevented the winds from blowing freely from the lake. In order to allow the "proper ventilation of the city" he began the gigantic task of removing these forests and put a large force of negro slaves at work felling the trees; but he did not complete the undertaking; it was too great for the time and his resources and the other work he had undertaken.
He also undertook to construct a canal from New Orleans to Bayou St. John, so as to connect with Lake Pontchartrain, and pursued the same plan of obtaining the necessary labor as with his other improvements assessing the owners of slaves for as many negroes as he thought each of them could afford to contribute. This improvement also was left uncompleted and not taken up again until 1790.
Governor Perier received special recognition from the government for the services which he rendered in the way of public improvements in New Orleans, and was given, in addition to his regular salary as governor, a large grant of land, and as an additional salary eight negroes each year of his term of office.
The government of the city, at the time, was as far from municipal as it is possible to conceive. The people of New Orleans had no hand or part in the government of their city, and were in no wise consulted as to it.
The police power was in the hands of the governor, and was enforced by him through the military. There were no provisions whatever for the extinguishment of fires; but when a fire occurred the population was impressed into service to put out the flames as best they could. There were no engines or other implements that could be used, and when a fire became very threatening it was fought by tearing down exposed buildings with pikes and halberds borrowed from the arsenal.
Education was entirely in the hands of the regular authorities, the Ursulines providing for the education of the girls on the condition that the governor general should furnish them with quarters and support, and caring also for the hospital, while the Jesuits looked after the boys.
The lawmaking power was vested in the Council of State or King of France. The basis of the laws was what was known as "the custom of Paris," which became the common law of Louisiana as it was of the other French colonies. This common law had been supplemented by statutes passed by the Superior Council, supposed to control local matters. Such, for instance, is the Black Code of 1724, which bears the signature of Bienville and de la Chaise, and was the first system of law adopted for Louisiana and New Orleans. This Black Code gives an excellent idea of the political and legislative conditions of the colony at the time.
It makes the Catholic religion the only one to be practiced in New Orleans and decrees the expulsion of all Jews from Louisiana.
It requires masters to impart religious instruction to their negroes, and provides that negroes placed under the direction or supervision of any person who is not a Catholic shall be confiscated.
It contains a very rigid Sunday law, for it declares that Sundays and holidays (saints' days) are to be strictly enforced, and any negroes found working on these days were subject to confiscation.
It will be seen from these ordinances that the religious sentiment in the colony was very strong, and that great care was taken to make Christians and Catholics of the slaves.
It is unnecessary here to go into the other provisions of this law, which merely covers the regulation of slavery. The code was less severe than those proclaimed in the Southern States later, as indeed the last article (No. 56) may be considered a very liberal one for the time, providing that "all manumitted or freed slaves shall enjoy the same rights, privileges and immunities as those enjoyed by free-born persons.
Their merit in having their freedom shall produce in their favor not only in regard to their persons, but also as to their property, the same effects which other subjects deserve from the happy circumstance of being born free." This liberal spirit prevailed during most of the French regime and long after New Orleans passed under the power of the United States, and free negroes were employed on both the police force and the fire department; nor were they debarred from municipal service until in the days just previous to the Civil War, when the abolition movement reached fever heat. But the police regulations as to negroes published elsewhere in this article were, as will be seen, very severe and harsh.
The Superior Council when in office represented the judicial department of the Governor. In civil cases three members constituted a quorum; in criminal cases, five. In the event of the proper absence of members (who excused themselves because of personal interest in the suit before them) or their absence from some other reason, a quorum was obtained by summoning to the council as many notable citizens of New Orleans as were needed. Originally the sessions were monthly, and it was afterward provided that two or more members might be delegated to meet bi-weekly, when cases were numerous and pressing. The council was a court of last resort. Its jurisdiction at the beginning extended to original cases; but later on it was elevated into a jurisdiction purely appellate and such tribunals as were found necessary were established. In 1723-24, it exercised the powers of police; in 1728 the King assigned to the council the supervision of land titles; and in 1748 the power of the council over land deeds was so extended as to allow it to make titles good upon inventories prepared in good faith and recorded, although unofficial and informal, when the defects in the title were due to the absence or incompleteness of the public officials.
The legislation was arbitrary and despotic. As shown elsewhere, the government changed the currency no less than three times, and swindled the people each time; and to prevent any opposition to its changes it passed severe laws against those who refused to accept whatever currency it might issue or who dealt in other currency — these offenses, when repeated, being punished by public whipping upon the bare back. The Council of State also arbitrarily fixed the price at which the people should sell tobacco, rice and such products as they raised; assumed absolute control over all commerce, and either operated all industries itself or sold the monopoly of dealing in goods. For instance, in 1700 the monopoly of printing books and papers in Louisiana was sold to one Braud, and it was made a penal offense for any one else to publish a book, pamphlet or paper of any kind.
As for such functions as the government had to perform, they were, in nearly all cases, performed badly. The numerous investigations made of the local officials closed with nearly the same severe arraignment of the mismanagement, and indeed corruption, that prevailed. The government, that is, the King, found it necessary to interfere again and again to protect the people. He did this in the case of the paper money, issued without authority by Governor Vaudreuil; and again in 1760, when, as the ordinance declares, the mails had been so tampered with and so many letters opened, lost or misappropriated, that it became necessary to take some action to protect the inhabitants, in consequence of which it was provided that any officials tampering with the mail should be punished by a fine of 500 livres.
The local authorities were limited to police regulations. Those adopted in 1751 by Governor Vaudreuil and de la Rouvilliere, at that time Commissary General and Intendant, were practically the laws governing New Orleans during the entire French regime.
By these police regulations six taverns or barrooms were allowed in New Orleans. None but these licensed taverns could sell liquor, under a penalty to the seller of one month's imprisonment, a fine of ten crowns in favor of the poor, and a confiscation of all the liquors found in the house violating this regulation, the money derived therefrom to be paid into the King's treasury. The six licensed taverns, however, were subject to many restrictions in the sale of liquor. They could sell only to travelers, sick people, residents of New Orleans and seafaring men; and they must do this "with requisite moderation." To sell liquor to a soldier, a negro or an Indian was to subject the tavern-keeper, thus violating the law, to a fine of ten crowns, sentence to the pillory, confiscation of all wines and liquors found in the house, and for a repetition of the offense, to be sent to the galleys for life. It is doubtful if there was ever a more severe liquor law in America.
All saloons were required to be closed on Sunday and other holidays during divine service, under penalty of having their licenses repealed, and must be closed at 9 at night. The licenses cost 300 livres each, 200 of which amount went "to the ecclesiastical treasury," which, it is naively remarked, "needs very much such relief," while the other hundred livres went to the maintenance of the poor of New Orleans, "who are in a great state of destitution."
The soldiers, however, were not only altogether shut off from drinking, but were required to patronize different establishments from the resident population and thus present trouble between themselves and the civilians. Two military barrooms were established; they would be called "canteens" to-day. One of them was under the control and management of the major in command of the troops at New Orleans, and the other under the captain commanding the Swiss company; for, as always under the Bourbons, a considerable portion of the garrison were composed of Swiss.
The residents of New Orleans were prohibited from drinking at the canteens, as also were sailors, travelers, negroes and Indians. The last two races were altogether denied the right of drinking liquor at any saloon or cabane whatever. The police regulations punished those who sold liquor to negroes, declared to be "tramps" those who had deserted their plantations and had come to New Orleans without permission, and ordered their return to the country.
The regulations as negroes were very severe. Parties, dances and assemblages of all kinds were prohibited. They could go nowhere on the strict, whether by day or night, without a pass which they had to show to any white person who claimed the right to look at it. Perhaps the most severe provision was one similar to a custom which prevails in the Transvaal Republic today — that "any negro who shall be met in the streets carrying a cane, a rod or a stick shall be chastised by the first white man who may meet him, with the instrument found in the possession of the negro — that is, the cane, stick or rod." Any negro found on horseback who did not stop when ordered to do so by a white man "shall be shot." Any negro who shall offend his master, "in any way whatsoever," shall be punished with fifty lashes and branded with "the fleur-de-lys in the back," in order to make known the nature of the crime." These regulations were made after a negro insurrection which had greatly alarmed the whites.
The severity of these and other laws passed in the colony was more apparent than real. It would seem that Draco* was alive again, when the killing of a calf meant death, the sale of liquor to soldiers or Indians imprisonment for life in the galleys, and when a negro could be shot down by any white man who met him stealing a ride on a horse. As a matter of fact, these laws were seldom, if ever, enforced. They were mere dead letters — all sound and fury, and nothing else.
It cannot be said that New Orleans made much progress towards municipal government during the French regime. The severity of its police. ordinances was slightly mitigated from time to time, and some improvements were made in its judiciary system, but the government remained autocratic and arbitrary, and the people themselves had little part or share in it.
*Draconian describes laws or punishments that are extremely severe or cruel.
— STANDARD HISTORY OF NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT, By Norman Walker
MUNICIPAL AND MILITARY HISTORY
EDITED BY HENRY RIGHTOR
THE LEWIS PUBLISHING COMPANY CHICAGO, 1900
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