Academic journal article Early American Studies

Enlightenment and Revolution: The Case of Louisiana, 1768

Academic journal article Early American Studies

Enlightenment and Revolution: The Case of Louisiana, 1768

Article excerpt

On October 29,1768, the Superior Council of Louisiana convened in New Orleans. As they had done hundreds of times before, the councilors heard petitions from residents of the colony and rendered decisions with the advice of the attorney general. This time, however, they were protected and supported by a makeshift militia of more than one thousand men who had gathered in the town's main square. This armed support was necessary because on this day the grievances that the council heard were against the royal governor, Antonio de Ulloa, who had taken up command of Louisiana in the name of Spain in 1766. The charges leveled against the governor attacked the very foundation of his rule. Later that day, finding Ulloa to be a tyrant and an illegitimate usurper, the council ordered him to leave within three days. On November 1 the ill-starred governor departed for Havana from the same quay where he had landed in New Orleans only two and a half years earlier.1

The rebellion that overthrew Ulloa in 1768 made Louisiana a de facto independent state for about ten months, until a Spanish fleet arrived the following year to reimpose imperial authority. The commander of the fleet, the Irish mercenary Alexander O'Reilly, oversaw the execution of six rebel leaders. Litde is known about the colony's affairs in the rebel interim, though some basic developments can be reconstructed from the treason trials of the rebel leaders and a few other surviving documents. The colony's French Creole elite issued a series of letters and pamphlets arguing that Louisiana should return to French rule, under which the colony had been founded and governed before being ceded to Spain as part of a backroom diplomatic bargain. They presented the practical disadvantages of the transfer to Spain and defended the colonists' right to reject an oppressive government. When France failed to respond to their overtures, the colonists began openly to discuss the notion of establishing an independent republic.

The documents produced by the 1768 rebellion present a distinctive critique of imperial rule in the later eighteenth century. The rebels' writings and actions reflect a familiarity with Renaissance civic humanism, Enlightenment radicalism, and the French and Spanish legal traditions, which they use to justify their mutiny. The ouster of Ulloa serves as an interesting counterpoint to the American Revolution that erupted only seven years later, enabling the historian to question and reexamine the purported connection between economic grievances, Enlightenment philosophy, and popular resistance in the Age of Revolution. As Louisiana demonstrates, exposure to Enlightenment ideas did not necessarily lead to more democratic politics, but it did provide a language for the forging of new political alliances.

Nevertheless, the 1768 uprising has been consistendy ignored by American historians. Louisiana's first authoritative chronicler, Charles Gayarré, the descendant of an official in Ulloa's government, set the tone for most treatments of the rebellion: in his 1847 history of Louisiana, he dismissed the uprising as the work of a greedy, manipulative colonial elite, which overthrew a long-suffering and misunderstood governor.2 Local historians have generally either followed Gayarré's lead, sympathizing with the embatded Spanish, or reacted against it by celebrating the rebels' loyalty and attachment to France. These "Hispanophile" and "Francophile" camps have succeeded only in limiting and localizing the rebellion's significance and in reserving the discussion of 1768 to a small, closed circle of specialists whose debates take on the character of a family squabble.3

Meanwhile, Anglo-American authors who do not work in French or Spanish documents hardly notice the Louisiana rebellion, except on occasion to dismiss it as entirely unlike the later American Revolution. The journalist George Washington Cable set the precedent in his 1884 book, The Creoles of Louisiana, telling readers, "It was the misfortune of the Creoles to be wanting in mature habits of thought and self-control. …

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