Decadence Destiny: New Orleans’s American Tourists Often Feel That They’ve Arrived in a Foreign Country, and They’re Not Wrong
New Orleans’s American tourists often feel that they’ve arrived in a foreign country, and they’re not entirely wrong. The city’s history dates back to its status of uneasy observer of the nation’s founding. As the 13 colonies were forging a nation, the elite Spanish subjects in New Orleans looked on not with elation, but with unease, Tulane professor Lawrence N. Powell writes in The Accidental City, his chronicle of the Big Easy’s pre-1812 history. Plantation owners and wealthy merchants worried about what kind of message their slaves would absorb from the inconvenient republican rhetoric up north. New Orleans has always been just a bit different, and those differences endure to this day.
The Crescent City’s location is its original sin—but the sinners, like many of their lot, had their reasons. In the early eighteenth century, the French crown, Louisiana’s first royal sponsor, needed money to pay off its massive debts, and it hoped tobacco might wean the populace off British-controlled imports. “New Orleans was founded as a company town,” writes Powell. Impresarios of the royally chartered Company of the West, which would administer the new colony, found an easy mark at Versailles, as French colonial policy under Louis XIV “was largely one of aimlessness and drift.”
France needed water access from the American continent to Europe, and the Mississippi River provided that route. “The site was dreadful,” Powell observes, but the “situation” was “superb.” The river itself was so difficult that explorers had a tough time even finding it, and, once they did, not losing either it or themselves. As for the dry ground alongside the water: Europe has paintings older than this land, which was much more suitable for flooding than for building. Crown and company preferred to defend a much smaller settlement near present-day Biloxi, Mississippi or Mobile, Alabama, rather than a dense city. As one French official put it, “The land is flooded, unhealthy, impracticable.” Another said, in Powell’s paraphrase, that “it must be abandoned, pure and simple.”