• Richard Murff

The First American Revolution

History – or what we’re calling it these days – has taken center stage, and it is a show stopper. Before we go repainting our murals with too wide a brush, we might do well to take a few lessons from that historical farce that was the first American Revolution. Not the one that started in 1775, the one that started seven years earlier when the citizens of New Orleans attempted to throw off the shackles of a European power and establish a Republic. Not over taxation without representation, not religious freedom, not having all your rights eroded for public safety. This revolution was something simpler: the right to have a decent glass of wine with your étouffée.


THE SPANISH SAILED ALONG Louisiana’s gulf coast in 1520 and found the Mississippi River overland in 1542. Despite being the key to controlling the interior of the continent, Spanish imperial aims were short-sighted, and settling the drain pipe of the New World wasn’t on the agenda. They were just snooping about in case Aztec gold ran out before they could outspend England in a naval arms race.

It wasn’t until 1682 that René Robert Cavelier came down the Mississippi to its mouth and claimed the whole place for Louis XIV: All the swamps and bayous, the Mississippi river up to the Great Lakes, the prairies and great plains of the mid-west and west up to the point where they’d start pissing off the Spanish again in California. Then, in 1699, the first permanent settlement in the area was made in Mobile. It wasn’t a profitable colony. There was nothing to eat but oysters so the colonists invented Mardi Gras to pass the time before they died of malaria, yellow fever, starvation, boredom, or in some Natchez religious ceremony.

By this time, he English colonies set about making themselves loyal, but independent, members of an Imperial whole. Creating freestanding institutions and electing assemblies from their own lot, the English colonies quickly became self-sufficient and soon enough, a moneymaker for Britain.

Louisiana not so much. In short, no one went there to start a new life unless they were forced. The Caribbean and the Gulf Coast were less "paradise holiday" more a "death sentence." It looked European, or at least tried to. Its governors came from old world and sailed back when their terms were up. If you were a fortune hunter or the younger son of an aristocrat, the idea was to go to the islands, make a fortune without dying and remove said fortune back to the Old World. Then you bought a title and pretended your money was much older than it actually was. Without its own institutions, the colony was a draw on the French purse and never really took off the way the Atlantic seaboard did. Most economists would argue that it still hasn’t.

John Law Invented the First American Real Estate Bubble

Enter John Law, a Scotsman. A convicted murderer in Scotland, age and the Parisian café culture had mellowed the man out enough to invent the first real estate bubble in American history. Given the success the English were having in New England, the original investors in Law’s Mississippi Company thought they were onto something big. The French had grand visions of the place even if no one was actually there.

Law soon discovered that A) the colony wasn’t profitable and B) if he paid out unbelievable returns, no one would bother to check on A). Law decided that Louisiana was a good a place as any for a pyramid scheme. To keep paying those skepticism crushing dividends, without turning a profit, you need a constant flow of new investors. When you are paying fantastic returns, that’s fairly easy. Until it’s not.

In reality, the colony was a sink hole, investment capital was pouring in regardless, and places like New Orleans were being built. More money, it seems, than people because it took thirty years after Neuvelle Orleans was laid out to actually fill up with colonists. What few life-long colonists there were came from cleaning out the jails in France. When they needed wives they cleaned out the women’s prisons of prostitutes. On paper this should have done the trick, but contemporary accounts report that most of the "wives" took one look at the place (or their prospective husbands) and disappeared into the wilderness with Natchez women. No one bothered to go after the runaways because the Natchez had a religion so bloody they made the Aztecs look like Quakers. The French crown just sent over more prostitutes.

It’s a shame that the Natchez had no written language. The record of a small, homogenous and isolated community suddenly swamped with bone-white and terrified whores speaking an entirely alien language would surely be a pot-boiler.

Back in town, the settlers were proudly French and looked with Gallic distain on the rest of the continent. There was some homemade beer and Caribbean rum for the convict set, but for what passed for the upper crust were stubbornly drinking imported French wine. This would become problematic. So deeply rooted in their French souls were the colonists that they refused to believe it when news trickled in from the motherland that they were no longer, strictly speaking, French.

France ceded the colony to Spain in 1762, in a secret treaty and was glad to be rid of the place. Spain had just entered the Seven Years War (the European theater of the French-Indian War) on the side of France and, like France, was about to lose. You know how the French are, they just weren’t going to give it up to the English. Both Spain and France thought so little of Louisiana that neither bothered to change out administration for nearly a year after the colonial swap.

When Don Antonio de Ulloa, the first Spanish governor, finally arrived he found a poorly run, corrupt city firmly in the hands of organized crime and smugglers. Much the same as it is today. In an attempt to make a profitable colony where the French had failed (in their defense, they didn’t try very hard, and they had Bernie Madoff’s godfather running the books). Don Ulloa decided to stamp out smuggling by banning trade with France. This was irksome, but it was assumed that wine, that staple of the New Orleans diet in proper circles, would be exempt. The Spanish governor turned out to be too thorough for his own good.

Eventually, the French vin ran out, the citizens were forced to drink Spanish plonk and the vibrations turned nasty. Which triggered, in 1768, a mostly bloodless revolt involving throngs of rioters crowding into the city square and demanding the head of Don Ulloa and a nice glass of Bordeaux. Their freedom – or drunken anarchy – went on for a year. Not because anyone recognized their right to self-determination, but because it took that long for Don Alexander O’Reilly, an Irishman in the service of Spain, to arrive with 2,000 Spanish and Irish troops and do nothing.

This was enough for the architects of the revolution to start grumbling about how they didn’t have anything against the Spanish Crown per se, just Spanish wine. In their defense, historically, a lot of Spanish reds have been awful. What’s more, the rebels went on, they didn’t actually kill anyone (at least not anyone who warranted bringing in an army) but just threatened to. All they’d really done was indulge in some good-natured rioting and destruction of government property. So, how bad could they be?

Don O’Reilly said all was fine, and invited the ringleaders of the revolution to dinner to talk things out. There he had nine of them arrested and five of them shot. For this he’s called Bloody O’Reilly. A great deal of historical research is placing events in historical perspective. Having a revolution, then a crushing counter-revolution with only five fatalities, at a dinner party no less, is hardly worthy of being called "Bloody." The French tend to get emotional when they drink.

Which is to say that we could all just learn to settle down about the past. It’s not as cut and dry as you’ve been told, and a riot isn’t a revolution, it’s just destructive. No matter how passionate your devotion to the cause, eventually, we have to get to the business of governing ourselves, before someone else does it for us.

Louisiana did finally get short of Spain, in 1800, not through revolution. The colony got ceded back to Napoleon who didn’t even want the place, but he was on a roll. Thomas Jefferson’s 1803 purchase of Louisiana for $15 million dollars has been described as the greatest real estate deal in history. But it was a fixer-upper. When Napoleon sold the colony to the US, he threw in the West Florida to sweeten the deal. Florida belonged to the Spanish at the time. Which is like having a yard sale and hocking your neighbor’s couch. Jefferson thought a deal was a deal, and established the long-standing American policy of ignoring all Spanish claims to anything.