How Louisiana Became A State
The process for transition from a territory to a state is carefully laid out in the Ordinance of 1787, which predates ratification of the United States Constitution. Accordingly, a territory must reach a population of 60,000, at which time one delegate for every 1,200 residents must meet in convention to decide if statehood is desired. If the decision is in the affirmative, these delegates draft a constitution, which must be in accord with the American Constitution. The delegates then present a petition to the United States Congress for admission, which, once passed by the House of Representatives, approved by the Senate and signed by the president, affirms admission to the Union.
It seems simple enough, one would think. However, the situation with Louisiana’s petition generated much controversy among the states and within Congress. Some concerns were unique to Louisiana itself; others arose because statehood for Louisiana opened the door for a whole host of other potential national issues.
In brief, opponents raised the following important issues:
1. Louisiana was the first state west of the Mississippi River and part of the Louisiana Purchase to seek statehood. It was also the first state to seek statehood from outside of the borders of the original national borders as established by the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which ended the American Revolution.
2. Admitting more states from any new territory would dilute the power and influence of the original states of the Union as the membership of the House and Senate would naturally reflect these new additions.
3. Louisiana had no fixed borders. The Louisiana Purchase had never determined where the western border would be. According to Napoleon, “You get what we got!” – whatever that was! To the east, the whole issue of West Florida raised its head. Just who owned this territory?
4. Louisiana had no democratic traditions. The other states were outgrowths of British colonial experience. In contrast, Louisiana’s traditions were steeped in French and Spanish Divine Right monarchies.
5. Louisiana’s law was based on the Napoleonic Code, not British Common Law. How could this unique legal system be accommodated in the Union?
6. Louisiana was Catholic! This generated deep concerns among predominately Protestant American citizens. Were they loyal to the nation or the pope?
7. The people of Louisiana spoke with foreign tongues: French and Spanish. They were a foreign land!
8. The city of New Orleans had become notorious for its “unique culture,” which included violence, gambling, prostitution, drinking and other depravities. It was Babylon to many devout Americans, unfit for inclusion into the sacred Union.
9. Perhaps even more important, Louisiana, because of its French and Spanish legal system, had a wholly different approach to slavery. Louisiana possessed a sizable population of very wealthy and influential Free People of Color who played a vital role in the area’s economic and cultural life. That was anathema to most Americans.
Taking all of these issues into consideration, it is not surprising that some delegates in Congress had difficulties digesting thoughts of Louisiana joining the Union.
Questioning the Purchase
The problems began with the Louisiana Purchase. Despite what many may wish to believe, that process did not run smoothly. Many in the Northeast believed President Jefferson’s acquisition was illegal. In fact, the territory itself can be considered stolen because Napoleon never compensated Spain for Louisiana before selling it to the United States. Admitting any states from this newly acquired region raised serious questions about the legality of acquiring new territories, the process of doing so and whether these new territories should be admitted on equal status with the original states of the Union.
However, support for Louisiana statehood lay in the documents of the Louisiana Purchase itself. According to Article III, the “… inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be incorporated into the Union of the United States and admitted as soon as possible according to the principles of the federal constitution.” Given that language, rejection of statehood for Louisiana would be tantamount to rejecting the Louisiana Purchase. The obligation to fulfill that requirement would arise during the debates.
The question of just what was Louisiana arose next. On March 26, 1804, Congress by a vote of 66 to 21 divided the Louisiana Purchase into two parts: the Territory of Orleans (present-day Louisiana) and the District of Louisiana, later called the Missouri Territory. This dissection angered local Creoles, but they lacked the ability to influence it.
President Jefferson appointed W.C.C. Claiborne as governor of the Territory of Orleans, and the process immediately began for admission into the Union.
But … what was Louisiana?
The western boundary remained in dispute. Spain considered the border to be the Arroyo Hondo, just west of Natchitoches (now known as the Calcasieu River). The United States argued that the Sabine River – or possibly even the Rio Grande River much farther to the west – established the western boundary.
Negotiations broke down between these two countries over this issue, and it nearly ended in war. The American Gen. James Wilkinson, who also appears to have been a paid agent of the Spanish government, resolved the problem by establishing the Neutral Strip or No-Man’s Land east of the Sabine River and west of the Arroyo Hondo.
Although a temporary resolution to the growing international crisis, this solution did nothing to firmly establish the western boundary for a potential state of the Union.
To the east another problem reared its head – West Florida!
The United States purchased Louisiana from France in 1803; however, the area of the “Florida Parishes” remained unresolved. Jefferson believed they were part of the deal. Spain claimed that they remained in Spanish hands. The issue remained frozen until 1810.
In that year, local plantation owners decided they no longer wished to be governed by Spain. Also, considering that Spain had just been occupied by Napoleon, were they now French? Taking all of this into consideration, they rebelled and on Sept. 23, 1810, established the Republic of West Florida, an independent nation.
Their intention was to join with the United States, and they believed that a suitable arrangement could be made whereby they could transition from an independent nation to an American territory.
President Madison had other ideas, however. Going back to Jefferson’s original position, he proclaimed that West Florida had always been American. He clearly laid claim when he wrote, “[West Florida] has at all times, as is well known, been considered and claimed by them as being within the colony of Louisiana conveyed by the said treaty.”
On Dec. 6, 1810, Madison sent in the military and took possession of West Florida, much to the horror and indignation of some members of Congress, Spanish authorities and the shocked residents of the Republic of West Florida. So ended the independent Republic of West Florida after a mere 74 days!
The fact that this was done and how it was done would become a matter of concern during the statehood debates. Some questioned the legality of the entire process while others raised the question: To which American territory should West Florida be attached?
As one can see, once the actual congressional debates on Louisiana statehood began, a whole host of problems arose that faced no other state, not the least of which was, “Just what actually is Louisiana?”
In his 2004 book about the Louisiana Purchase, A Wilderness So Immense, historian Jon Kukla expressed the problem poignantly: “Controversies over race, religion, law, language and culture not only delayed Louisiana’s statehood until 1812, they worked like the rumblings of an earthquake along the vulnerable fault lines of 19th-century American society and government.”
After much dispute and delay, the Territory of Orleans sought admission as a state. In March 1810, Sen. William Giles of Virginia presented to the Senate a petition to accept the Territory of Orleans into the Union. On April 9 the Senate accepted the petition and ordered the territory to hold a convention for the purposes of drafting a constitution and petition for admission as a state. The process followed the Ordinance of 1787.
This motion passed the Senate on April 27 by a vote of 15 to 8. The bill then went to the House of Representatives.
Once there, problems arose. On Dec. 17, Julien Poydras, the territory’s representative, presented the petition for statehood based upon Article III of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. On Dec. 27, U.S. Rep. Nathaniel Macon sought admission based upon the addition of West Florida to the Orleans Territory.
This immediately created a controversy. U.S. Rep. William Bibb of Georgia moved to strike any provisions relating to West Florida. He believed that territory belonged to other territories in the region but should not be attached to the Territory of Orleans.
At this point an eruption of sectional anger exploded. U.S. Rep. Laban Wheaton of Massachusetts rose and declared the entire bill unconstitutional. He then raised an interesting prospect. Wheaton questioned if there would be any limits to the extent of this new nation: “[I]f we may extend our limits at all, without the consent of the people, further than what is expressed in the Constitution, who can tell where may be our ultimate bounds or what number of states we may have in the Union?”
His concerns were prescient. One can only imagine his shock were he to learn that the United States would eventually span the continent and extend from midway across the Pacific Ocean to the frozen Arctic Circle.
Others rose in opposition, as well. U.S. Rep. Pleasant Miller of Tennessee sympathized with those opposed because of the “un-American” character of the population: “For inasmuch as we know that if we send Paddy to Paris, that Paddy he will come back.” Beneath his underlying derogatory comment lay a deep concern about the loyalty of the new population. One must remember that at this time America was struggling desperately to avoid the contagion of the Napoleonic Wars and the nation was terribly split over support for Great Britain or France. Federalists opposed France and saw Louisiana as too pro-French.
U.S. Rep. John Rhea of Tennessee, in opposition to his colleague, opposed any amendments to the bill for statehood. He argued that the United States Congress was bound by the Treaty of Paris of 1803, which formalized the Louisiana Purchase, in particular Article III. Unless they were prepared to surrender this vast territory back to Spain, they had to bring Orleans into the Union.
Rep. Bibb did not disagree; however, he did affirm his position that West Florida belonged to Mississippi and that the state of Georgia had to be consulted before any action was taken on West Florida. In response, U.S. Rep. Daniel Sheffey of Virginia moved to remove West Florida from the Territory of Orleans, and this passed. The future state of Louisiana had just lost a significant portion of its territory.
Next came a most powerful issue and one that likely had never reared its head in the halls of Congress before. The question at hand was race! Louisiana had a large, wealthy, socially influential and politically active community of Free People of Color because of its French and Spanish heritage. This was unique in the South and caused consternation among some members of Congress.
Rep. Miller of Tennessee took particular umbrage to the status of this population to the point that he proposed an amendment restricting the right of suffrage to white males only. He had deep concerns that a person of color might find his way into Congress, in which case he had “no inclination” to work with him. Congress had now opened the issue of voting and race!
U.S. Rep. George Poindexter of Mississippi, an early champion of Louisiana’s statehood, then rose up. He pointed out that a very large number of wealthy and respectable people fell into the category of Free People of Color.
Nevertheless, Miller persisted in offering his amendment, and it passed with 17 “ayes,” the “nays” not being recorded. White-only suffrage had been dictated by the House of Representatives. For the first time, Free People of Color gained an early indication that life for them under American law would prove to be decidedly more difficult compared to what they had come to experience under French and Spanish control.
Cracks in the Union
The issues concerning Louisiana’s bid for statehood exposed a variety of cracks in the Union and placed on display many underlying prejudices and concerns about race and power.
The boundary question was not limited to West Florida. The entire western boundary of Louisiana was open to debate. On Jan. 14, 1811, U.S. Rep. Timothy Pitkin of Connecticut called attention to the undetermined borders to the west with Spain. Just where was it, he asked: the Sabine River, Rio Bravo, Rio Grande, Natchitoches, Arroyo Hondo? How can anyone seek to admit a state into the Union if its borders are as yet undetermined?
This awakened U.S. Rep. Richard Johnson of Kentucky, who again raised the principle that admitting any territory to the Union violated the Constitution. At this point, the most vociferous opponent of statehood rose from his seat: U.S. Rep. Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts.
Quincy had an interesting background; he had single-handedly attempted to impeach President Jefferson but lost that bid by a vote of 117-1. One has to wonder who seconded his original motion. Nevertheless, this firebrand took to the floor in strong opposition to Louisiana’s entrance into the Union: “I address you, Mr. Speaker, with an anxiety and distress of mind with me wholly unprecedented. To me it appears that this measure would justify a revolution in this country. I am compelled to declare it as my deliberate opinion that, if this bill passes, the bonds of this Union are virtually dissolved.” He further stated: “The constitution is a political compact from which the original parties would be released if the assumed principle of this bill became law.”
This threat to the Union angered Rep. Poindexter of Mississippi. He accused Quincy of treason for even suggesting secession from the Union. The Chair sustained Poindexter, but then the House voted 56-53 for Quincy.
Now vindicated, he continued on the attack. The decision was clear in his mind. Members had to make a choice as to “whether the proprietors of the good old United States shall manage their own affairs in their own way, or whether they and their constitution and their political rights shall be trampled under foot by foreigners.”
He added: “You have no authority to throw the rights and liberties and property of this people into hotch-potch with the wild men on the Missouri or with the mixed, though more respectable, race of Anglo-Hispanic-Gallo-Americans who bask on the sands at the mouth of the Mississippi.”
He continued his assault by saying that passage of Louisiana statehood would produce states that were free “from their moral obligation, and that, as it will be the right of all, so it will be the duty of some, to prepare, definitely, for a separation: amicably if they can, violently if they must!”
Some representatives from other states shared his sentiments, although not to his extreme.
He tried to soothe emotions to some degree by stating that his opposition did not spring from any animosity toward anyone seeking protections of the great American Constitution but sprang entirely from a “deep conviction that it contains a principle incompatible with the liberties and safety of my country.”
The next day, Jan. 15, Congress again addressed the issue of Louisiana’s statehood with emphasis now placed on the western borders of the territory and its impact on relations with Spain. Poindexter sought to ease concerns about any war with Spain growing out of undue national claim to territory. He then injected another issue: Opposition was not driven by the issue of statehood for Louisiana; it sprung from New England’s pro-British sentiments concerning the Napoleonic Wars. Louisiana’s statehood debate had now taken an international turn.
At this point U.S. Rep. Thomas Gold of New York chimed in. He raised an important question, the resolution of which would establish Louisiana statehood and benefit the future of the United States, although not to his liking.
In considering the extension of statehood from beyond territories granted by the Treaty of Paris 1783 that ended the Revolutionary War, he wondered aloud: “Whether this empire should be bounded by its existing limits or by the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Whether this would be a commonwealth of reasonable limits … or a government of acquisition and conquest, whose ambition knew no limits and in whose extension the original states would be lost.”
The issue he raised focused on how big this new nation could become. Once the door for new states from new territories had been opened, could it be closed? The implications of his argument are profound!
In response, Rep. Rhea argued that taking Rep. Gold’s position was itself unconstitutional because it denied the nation’s ability to gain territory.
Debate had become overheated.
Rep. Quincy exercised a last-ditch parliamentary effort to kill the measure entirely by postponing any vote on statehood. That motion failed by a 78-28 vote. The enabling act for Louisiana statehood then came before the entire House of Representatives. The resolution passed 77 to 36 with the New England states opposed. There were no “ayes” from Rhode Island, Connecticut or New Hampshire, and the vote from Massachusetts split 6 “aye” to 4 “nay.” The vote proved the case for regional opposition.
It had been a hard, brutal and acrimonious debate. But passage of the resolution through the House of Representatives had finally been achieved. Now for the Senate.
In late January 1811 the Senate opened debate. Immediately, Sen. James Bayard of Delaware struck out the amendment giving the United States power over territory east of the Mississippi River: West Florida! He also inserted a provision restricting voting in Louisiana to white males only. This passed 24-8. The issue of race and voting had again raised its head during this debate, for the first time in the United States Senate.
Sen. Samuel Dana of Connecticut proposed an amendment requiring every state individually to vote to admit a new state. The constitution had no provisions for admitting new states from lands beyond those derived from the original territory.
Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky defeated this amendment, and on Feb. 7, 1811, the Senate passed the bill for Louisiana statehood by a vote of 22 to 10. However, it contained a poison pill: The western boundary was to be the Sabine River and only white males were to be allowed suffrage. It then went back to the House.
At this point Louisiana’s statehood became a tennis match between the House and the Senate. It was volleyed more than seven times, back and forth, over the issue of requiring white-only voting. Every time the House passed it, recognizing the right of Louisiana to establish its own control over voting rights, the Senate objected and sent it back.
Finally, on Feb. 10, 1811, the House caved in and acceded to the Senate’s version preventing Free People of Color from voting on statehood for Louisiana.
Following the process laid out in the Ordinance of 1787, a convention was convened in New Orleans to adopt a constitution. Julien Poydras came back to the Territory of Orleans to preside over the meeting. There were 43 members in attendance: 17 Americans and 26 Creoles. In December 1811, after some debate, the delegates decided to name the new state Louisiana in honor of the territory’s first claim. Other state names suggested were Jefferson and Orleans.
On Jan. 23, 1812, the completed document was returned to Congress with a provision for adding West Florida to the new state.
On March 20, 1812, the House passed the bill by a vote of 79 “aye” to 23 “nay,” and on April 1, 1812, the Senate passed the same bill without further amendments, being satisfied that the issue of white- only voting had been established. The conference committee composed of members of both houses passed an identical bill on April 6, 1812, and soon after, President Madison signed the bill into law. Louisiana had become the 18th state to join the American Union.
Because this date neatly aligned with the ninth celebration of the Louisiana Purchase on April 30, it was determined that April 30 would become the official date for Louisiana statehood.
Thus, after a very confused and tortured process, the first state west of the Mississippi River carved from territory not a part of the original lands ceded by Great Britain after the Revolutionary War had become a state.
The western border would not become formalized until 1819 after ratification of the Adams-Onís treaty with Spain. As for the eastern border, West Florida had finally been included in the new state of Louisiana. Its eastern border was to be the main stream of the Pearl River.
Not surprisingly, that too created a problem. Just exactly what was the “main stream of the Pearl River”? Anyone knowledgeable about this area knows that a multitude of tributaries flow into the Mississippi Sound. Which one is the “main stream”?
To resolve this issue required a bit of Louisiana ingenuity. Legend has it that several gentlemen traveled up the Pearl River to the 31st parallel, which marked the demarcation line of West Florida. They then took an empty whiskey barrel, which likely was not empty when they departed, and floated it down the Pearl River. By their thinking, the barrel would naturally follow the main channel, thereby settling the dispute as to what the eastern boundary of Louisiana would be.
Thus we have the long and tortured process whereby Louisiana became the 18th state to join the Union. Many arguments arose in opposition. Some related directly to the history, culture, laws and racial characteristics of the Territory of Orleans. Others focused on the questionable boundaries of this newly proposed state.
But a significant portion of the opposition grew out of deep constitutional concerns over just how large the United States could become. Did the Constitution allow the acquisition of lands beyond those established by the Treaty of Paris of 1783? Could states be carved out of the lands gained by the Louisiana Purchase? Was there a limit to the number of states that could be admitted to the Union? What impact would a growing nation have on the power of the founding states?
Although it took a long time, the goal had been achieved. Louisiana took its rightful place among the other states of the Union. Then, a mere six weeks later, the United States declared war on Great Britain, thus opening the War of 1812.
The value of Louisiana’s statehood to the Union would be proved by combat on a sugar plantation in Chalmette during the Battle of New Orleans. The very people denigrated by some members of Congress just two years before would secure the nation’s freedoms in America’s Second War of Independence.