Why Not Bigger Than London

The great Creole city’s geographical position has always dazzled every eye except the cold, coy scrutiny of capital. “The position of New Orleans,” said President Jefferson in 1804, “certainly destines it to be the greatest city the world has ever seen.” He excepted neither Rouge nor Babylon. Put man’s most positive predictions are based upon contingencies; one unforeseen victory over nature bowls them down; the seeming certainties of tomorrow are changed to the opposite certainties of today; deserts become gardens, gardens cities, and older cities the haunts of bats and foxes.

When the early Kentuckian and Ohioan accepted nature’s highway to market, and proposed the conquest of New Orleans in order to lay that highway open, they honestly believed there was no other possible outlet to the commercial world. When steam navigation came, they hailed it with joy and without question. To them it seemed an ultimate result. To the real-estate hoarding Creole, to the American merchant who was crowding and chafing him, to every superficial eye at least, it seemed a pledge of unlimited commercial empire bestowed by the laws of gravitation. Few saw in it the stepping stone from the old system of commerce by natural highways to a new system by direct and artificial lines.

It is hard to understand, looking back from the present, how so extravagant a mistake could have been made by wise minds. From the first – or perhaps, we should say, from the peace of 1815 – the development of the West declined to wait on New Orleans, or even on steam. In 1825, the new principle of commercial transportation – that despises alike the aid and the interference of nature – opened, at Buffalo, the western end of the Erie Canal, the gate-way of a new freight route to northern Atlantic tide-waters, many hundreds of leagues more direct than the long journey down the Mississippi to New Orleans and around the dangerous capes of Florida. In the same year another canal was begun, and in 1832 it connected the Ohio with Lake Erie; so that, in 1835, the State of Ohio alone sent through Buffalo to Atlantic ports 86,000 barrels of flour, 98,000 bushels of wheat, and 2,500,000 staves.

Another outlet was found, better than all transitsmanufactures. Steam, driving all manner of machinery, built towns and cities. Cincinnati had, in 1820, 32,000 inhabitants; in 1830, 52,000. Pittsburg became, “in the extent of its manufactures, the only rival of Cincinnati in the West.” St. Louis, still in embryo, rose from 10,000 to 14,000. Buffalo, a town of 2,100, quadrupled its numbers.

Meanwhile, far down in New Orleans the Creole, grimly, and the American, more boastfully, rejoiced in a blaze of prosperity that blinded both. How should they, in a rain of wealth, take note that, to keep pace with the wonderful development in the great valley above, their increase should have been three times as great as it was, and that the sun of illimitable empire, which had promised to shine brightest upon them, was shedding brighter promises and kinder rays eastward, and even northward, across nature’s highways and barriers. Even steam navigation began, on the great lakes, to demonstrate that the golden tolls of the Mississippi were not all to be collected at one or even two gates.

How might this have been stopped? By no means. Time moment East and West saw that straighter coursees toward commercial Europe could be taken than wild nature offered, the direct became the natural route, and the circuitous the unnatural. East-and-west trade lines, meant, sooner or later, the commercial subordination of New Orleans, until such time as the growth of countries behind her in the Southwest should bring her also upon an east-and-west line. Meantime the new system could be delayed by improving the old, many of whose drawbacks were removable. That which could not be stopped could vet be postponed.

But there was one drawback that riveted all the rest. Through slave-holding, and the easy fortune-getting it afforded, an intellectual indolence spread everywhere, and the merchant of Faubourg Ste. Marie, American – often New Englander – as he was, sank under the seductions of a livelihood so simple, so purely executive, and so rich in perquisites, as the marketing of raw crops. From this mental inertia sprang an invincible provincialism; the Creole, whose society he was always courting, intensified it. Better civilizations were too far away to disturb it. A “peculiar institution” doubled that remoteness, and an enervating, luxurious climate folded it again upon itself. It colored his financial convictions and all his conduct of public affairs. He confronted obstacles with serene apathy; boasted of his city’s natural advantages, forgetting that it was man, not nature, that he had to contend with surrendered ground which he might have held for generations; and smilingly ignored the fact that, with all her increase of wealth and population, his town was slipping back along the comparative scale of American cities. “Was she not the greatest in exports after New York?”


The same influence that made the Creole always and only a sugar, tobacco, or cotton factor, waived away the classes which might have brought in manufactures with them. Its shadow fell as a blight upon intelligent, trained labor. Immigrants from the British Isles and from Europe poured in; but those adepts in the mechanical and productive arts that so rapidly augment the fortunes of a commonwealth staid away; there was nothing in surrounding nature or society to evolve the operative from the hod-carrier and drayman, and the prospecting manufacturer and his capital turned aside to newer towns where labor was uncontemned, and skill and technical knowledge sprang forward at the call of enlightened enterprise.

Men never guessed the whole money value of time until the great inventions for the facilitation of commerce began to appear. “Adopt us,” these seemed to say as they came forward in procession, “or you cannot become or even remain great.” But, even so, only those cities lying somewhere on right lines between the great centres of supply and demand could seize and hold them. It was the fate, not the fault, of New Orleans not to be one such. St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Pittsburg, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, were more fortunate; while Cleveland, Buffalo, Chicago, were born of these new conditions. The locomotive engine smote the commercial domain of New Orleans in half, and divided the best part of her trade beyond the mouth of the Ohio among her rivals. In that decade of development – 1830-40 – when the plantation idea was enriching her with one hand and robbing her of double with the other, the West was filling with town life, and railroads and canals were starting eagerly eastward and westward, hearing immense burdens of freight and travel, and changing the scale of mikes to that of minutes. Boston and New York had pre-empted the future with their daring outlays, and clasped hands tighter with the States along the Ohio by lines of direct transit. Pennsylvania joined Philadelphia with the same river, and spent more money in railroads and canals than any other State in the Union. Baltimore reached out her Chesapeake & Ohio canal and railway. Ohio and Indiana spent millions. But the census of 1840 proclaimed New Orleans the fourth city of the Union, and her merchants openly professed the belief that they were to become the metropolis of America without exertion.

Rapid transit only amused them, while raw crops and milled breadstuffs still sought the cheapest rates of freight. They looked at the tabulated figures; they were still shipping their share of the Valley’s vastly increased field products. It was not true, they said, with sudden resentment, that they “sold the skin for a groat and bought the tail for a shilling.” But they did not look far enough. Improved transportation, denser settlement, labor-saving machinery, had immensely increased the West’s producing power. New Orleans should have received and exported an even greater proportion – not merely quantity – of those products of the field. Partly not heeding, and partly unable to help it, she abandoned this magnificent surplus to the growing cities of the West and East. Still more did she fail to notice that the manufactures of the Mississippi and Ohio States had risen from fifty to one hundred and sixty-four millions. She began to observe these facts only as another decade was closing with 1850, when her small import trade had shrunken to less than a third that of Boston and a tenth that of New York..

Her people then began to call out in alarm. Now admitting, now denying, they marked, with a loser’s impatience, the progress of other cities at what seemed to be their expense. Boston had surpassed them in numbers; Brooklyn was four-fifths their size; St. Louis, seven-eighths; Cincinnati was but a twenty-fifth behind; Louisville, Chicago, Buffalo, Pittsburg, were coming on with populations of from forty to fifty thousand. Where were the days when New Orleans was the commercial empress of her great valley and heir-apparent to the sovereignty of the world’s trade? New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Liverpool – could they ever be overtaken? American merchant and Creole property-holder cried to each other to throw off their lethargy and place New Orleans where Nature had destined her to sit.

The air was full of diagnoses: There had been too exclusive an attention to the moving of crops; there had been too much false pride against mercantile pursuits; sanitation had been neglected; there had not been even the pretense of a quarantine since 1825; public improvements had been few and trivial; a social exclusiveness made the town unhomelike and repellent to the higher order of immigrant; the port charges were suicidal. One pen even brought out the underlying fact of slave labor, and contrasted its voiceless acceptation of antiquated methods of work with the reflecting, outspeaking, acting liberty of the Northern workman which filled the Northern communities with practical thinkers. The absurd municipality system of city government, which split the city into four towns, was rightly blamed for munch nonprogression.

Financiers and Capitalists

Much, too, was the more unjust blame laid at the door of financiers and capitalists. Railways? But who could swing a railway from New Orleans, in any direction, that it would not be better to stretch from some point near the centre of Western supply to some other centre in the manufacturing and consuming East? Slave labor had handed over the rich prize of European and New England immigration to the unmonopolized West, and the purely fortune-hunting canal-boat and locomotive pushed aside the slave and his owner and followed the free immigrant. And, in truth, it was years later, when the outstretched iron arms of Northern enterprise began to grasp the products of the Southwest itself, that New Orleans capitalists, with more misgiving than enthusiasm, thrust out their first railway worthy of the name through the great plantation State of Mississippi.

Some lamented a lack of banking capital. But bankers knew that New York’s was comparatively smaller. Some cried against summer absenteeism; but absenteeism was equally bad in the cities that had thriven most. Some pointed to the large proportion of foreigners; but the first census that gave this proportion showed it but forty-four and a half per cent of the whites in New Orleans, against forty-two in Cincinnati, forty-eight in New York, and fifty-two in St. Louis. The truth lay deeper hid. In those cities American thought prevailed, and the incoming foreigner accepted it. In New Orleans American thought was foreign, unwelcome, disparaged by the unaspiring, satirical Creole, and often apologized for by the American, who found himself a minority in a combination of social forces oftener in sympathy with European ideas than with the moral energies and the enthusiastic and venturesome enterprise of the Now World. Moreover, twenty-eight thousand slaves and free blacks hampered the spirit of progress by sheer dead weight.

Was it true that the import trade needed only to be cultivated? Who should support it beside the planter? And the planter, all powerful as he was, was numerically a small minority, and his favorite investments were land and Negroes. The wants of his slaves were only the most primitive, and their stupid and slovenly eye-service made the introduction of labor-saving machinery a farce. Who or what should make an import trade? Not the Southern valley. Not the West, either; for her imports, she must have straight lines and prompt deliveries.

Could manufactures be developed? Not easily, at least. The same fatal shadow fell upon them. The unintelligent, uneconomical black slave was unavailable for its service; and to graft upon the slave-burdened South the high-spirited operatives of other countries was impossible.

What did all this sure up? Stripped of disguises, it stood a triumph of machinery over slavery that could not be retrieved, save possibly through a social revolution so great and apparently so ruinous that the mention of it kindled a white heat of public exasperation.

All this was emphasized by the Creole. He retained much power still, as well by his natural force as by his ownership of real estate and his easy coalition with foreigners of like ideas. He cared little to understand. It was his pride not to be understood. He divided and paralyzed public sentiment when he could no longer rule it, and often met the most imperative calls for innovation with the most unbending conservatism. For every movement was change, and every change carried him nearer and nearer toward the current of American ideas and to absorption into their flood, which bore too much the semblance of annihilation. Hold back as He might, the transformation was appallingly swift. And now a new influence had set in, which above all others was destined to promote, ever more and more, the unity of all the diverse elements of New Orleans society, and their equipment for the task of placing their town in a leading rank among the greatest cities of the world.

Creole, History,

Cable, George Washington and Pennell, Joseph. The Creoles of Louisiana. Charles Scribner's Sons. 1884.

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