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Louisianans React to the Louisiana Purchase: Pierre Derbigney's Memorial to the U.S. Congress
Digital History ID 261

Author:   Pierre Derbigney
Date:1804

Annotation:

Jefferson sent James Monroe (1758-1831) to France, with instructions to purchase New Orleans and as much as the Gulf Coast as he could for $2 million. Then suddenly circumstances played into American hands. In 1802, French troops seemed to be on the verge of crushing the Haitian Revolution when they were wiped out by mosquitoes carrying yellow fever. "Damn sugar, damn coffee, damn colonies," Napoleon reportedly exclaimed. Without Haiti, the centerpiece of France's American empire, Napoleon had little interest in keeping Louisiana.

Two days after Monroe's arrival, the French finance minister announced that France was willing to sell all of Louisiana, a territory stretching from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and westward as far as the Rocky Mountains. The negotiators agreed on a price of $15 million. Since the Constitution did not give the president specific authorization to purchase land, Jefferson considered asking for a constitutional amendment. In the end, fearing that Napoleon might change his mind, Jefferson simply sent the agreement to the Senate, which ratified it. In a single stroke, Jefferson doubled the size of the country.

The status of slavery in Louisiana touched off a major debate in Congress. In the treaty of purchase, the federal government recognized the property rights of inhabitants who owned slaves under French and Spanish rule. Congress voted to restrict incoming slaves to the bona-fide property of actual settlers and rejected a motion to limit the bondage of incoming slaves to one year.

The following document expresses the grievances of French settlers in Louisiana after they were annexed by the United States.


Document:

We the subscribers, Planters, Merchants and other inhabitants of Louisiana respectfully approach the Legislature of the United States with a memorial of our rights, [and] a remonstrance against certain laws which contravene them....

Without any agency in the events which have annexed our country to the United States, we yet considered them as fortunate, and thought our liberties secured even before we knew the terms of the cession. Persuaded that a free people would acquire territory only to extend the blessings of freedom; that an enlightened nation would never destroy those principles on which its government was founded, and that their Representatives would disdain to become the instruments of oppression, we calculated with certainty that their first act of sovereignty would be a communication of all the blessings they enjoyed.... It was early understood that we were to be American citizens: this satisfied our wishes, it implied every thing we could desire, and filled us with that happiness which arises from the anticipated enjoyment of a right long withheld. We knew that it was impossible to be citizens of the United States without enjoying personal freedom, protection for property, and above all the privileges of free representative government, and did not therefore imagine that we could be deprived of those rights....

With a firm persuasion that these engagements would be soon fulfilled, we passed under your jurisdiction with a joy bordering on enthusiasm.... Even the evils of a military and absolute authority were acquiesced in, because it indicated an eagerness to complete the transfer, and place beyond the reach of accident the union we mutually desired. A single magistrate vested with civil and military, with executive and judiciary powers, upon whose laws we had no check, over whose acts we had no control, and from whose decrees there is no appeal, the sudden suspension of all those forms to which we had been accustomed, the total want of any permanent system to replace them, the introduction of a new language into the administration of justice, the perplexing necessity of using an interpreter for every communication with the officers placed over us, the involuntary errors, of necessity committed by judges, uncertain by what code they are to decide, wavering between the civil and the common law, between the forms of the French, Spanish and American jurisprudence, and with the best intentions unable to expound laws of which they are ignorant...these were not slight inconveniences...but we submitted with resignation....

We pray leave to examine the law for erecting Louisiana.... This act does not "incorporate us in the Union," that it vests us with none of the "Rights," gives us no advances and deprives us of all the "immunities" of American citizens....

A Governor is to be placed over us, whom we have not chosen, whom we do not even know, who may be ignorant of our language, uninformed of our institutions, and who may have no connections with our Country or interest in its welfare.

The Governor is vested with all executive, and almost unlimited legislative power; for the law declares that "by and with the advice and consent of the legislative body he may change, modify and repeal the laws," &c. But this advice and consent will no doubt in all cases be easily procured, from the majority of a council, selected by the President or Governor, and dependent on him for their appointment and continuance in office, or if they should prove refractory, the power of prorogation frees him from any troublesome interference, until a more prudent selection at the end of the year, shall give him a council better suited to his views; the true legislative power then is vested in the Governor alone, the Council operates as a cloak, to conceal the extent of his authority, to screen him from the odium of all unpopular acts, to avoid all responsibility and give us the faint semblance of a representative assembly, with so few of its distinguishing features....

Taxation without representation, an obligation to obey laws, without any voice in their formation, the undue influence of the executive upon legislative proceedings, and a dependent judiciary, formed, we believe, very prominent articles in the list of grievances complained of by the United States, at the commencement of their glorious contest for freedom; the opposition to them, even by force, was deemed meritorious and patriotic, and the rights on which that opposition was founded were termed fundamental, indefeasible, self-evident, and eternal; they formed, as your country then unanimously asserted, the only rational basis on which government could rest....

These were the sentiments of your predecessors, were they wrong?... No, they were not wrong!...

Are truths, then so well founded, so universally acknowledged, inapplicable only to us? Do political axioms on the Atlantic, become problems when transferred to the shores of the Mississippi? or are the unfortunate inhabitants of these regions the only people who are excluded from those equal rights, acknowledged in your declaration of Independence, repeated in the different state constitutions, and ratified by that, of which we claim to be a member?... Liberty? Self-government? Independence? and a participation in the advantages of the Union? If these were offered to us as the reward of a certain term of patience and submission, though we could not acquiesce in the justice of the procedure, we should have some consolation in our misfortunes; but no manifestation of what awaits us at the expiration of the law, is yet made....

We know not with what view the territory North of the 33d degree has been severed from us.... If this division should operate so as to prolong our state of political tutelage, on account of any supposed deficiency of numbers, we cannot but consider it as injurious to our rights, and therefore enumerate it among those points of which we have reason to complain....

There is one subject however extremely interesting to us, in which great care has been taken to prevent any interference even by the Governor and Council, selected by the President himself. The African trade is absolutely prohibited, and severe penalties imposed on a traffic free to all the Atlantic states, who choose to engage in it, and as far as relates to procuring the subjects of it from other states, permitted even in the territory of the Mississippi.

It is not our intention to enter into arguments that have become familiar to ever reasoner on this question. We only ask the right of deciding it for ourselves, and of being placed in this aspect on an equal footing with other states. To the necessity of employing African labourers, which arises from climate, and the species of cultivation, pursued in warm latitudes, is added reason in this country peculiar to itself. The banks raised to restrain the waters of the Mississippi can only be kept in repair by those whose natural constitution and habits of labour enable them to resist the combined effects of a deleterious moisture, and a degree of heat intolerable to whites; this labour is great, it requires many hands and it is all important to the very existence of our country....

Another subject...of great moment to us, is the sudden change of language in all the public offices and administration of justice. The great mass of the inhabitants speak nothing but the French: the late government was always careful in their selection of officers, to find men who possessed our language and with whom we could personally communicate...their judicial proceedings were indeed in Spanish; but being carried on altogether by writing, translations were easily made; at present for the slightest communication an interpreter must be procured... That free communication so necessary to give the Magistrate a knowledge of the people, and to inspire them with confidence in his administration, is by this means totally cut off....

We therefore respectfully pray that so much of the law mentioned above as provides for the temporary government of this country, as divides it into two territories, and prohibits the importation of slaves, be repealed.

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: Pierre Derbigney, Memorial Presented by the Inhabitants of Louisiana to the to the Congress of the United States

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