book cover imageThe Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans,
by Lawrence N. Powell.
Harvard University Press, 2012.
Cloth, 448 pages, $30.

The city of New Orleans has long had a firm grip on the imagination of Americans (a grip that existed long before the round-the-clock news coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath). This is perhaps due to a perception that New Orleans has historical roots very different from those of most other American cities (or, to quote a college roommate from suburban New York, “you’re not really from the United States at all; New Orleans is like some weird foreign transplant or something”). It must be said, however, that non-New Orleanians are not the only people to view the Crescent City as exotic and distinct in important ways from most of the rest of the America—natives have embraced, for decades if not longer, a romanticized vision of the city’s past that seesit as significantly different from other American cities (and, for most natives, better than other cities).

In his recent book The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, Lawrence N. Powell has provided an enlightening and interesting view of the early history of the city of New Orleans, and one which will support the view, beloved of New Orleanians, that no one else in America has a city quite as interesting as theirs. The Accidental City focuses on the founding of New Orleans by, among other colorful characters, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville (known to most New Orleans high school students simply as Bienville) and the period of French and Spanish rule that preceded the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The opening chapters focus on the intrigues between Bienville and his supporters in France, on the one hand, and a shifting alliance of French courtiers and bureaucrats, on the other, over the location and character of the colonial capital that would become New Orleans. This account may give those familiar with the city a strong sense of déjà vu. It appears that from the beginning decisions were influenced more by self-interest than practicality and foreseeable problems were shrugged off until they simply could not be ignored. As they say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The first of the squabbles between Bienville and his opponents was over the location of the city itself. At first the administrative center of the nascent colony was located near Biloxi in present day Mississippi, in part because early explorations by Bienville and others (including his brother, the Sieur d’Iberville) had difficulty even locating the mouth of the Mississippi, to say nothing of finding an appropriate spot to locate a city on its banks. It was only after the founding of the Company of the West by the financier John Law that colonial officials seriously considered putting the capital of the Louisiana colony on the Mississippi. Even then, any number of sites were considered more likely than the now-famous crescent—Bayou Manchac, Natchez, and Baton Rouge were all considered better sites, and indeed the board of directors of the Company of the West at one point directed Bienville to construct a city to be named New Orleans on Bayou Manchac while retaining the capital of the colony at Biloxi. But the coalition of courtiers and bureaucrats supporting other locations were no match for the cunning of Bienville who, by a remarkable coincidence, had earlier awarded himself large land concessions including the area which is now the French Quarter.

Acting rather beyond his authority (but with a firm eye on his own personal bottom line), Bienville simply went ahead and started building the city where he wanted it. He then outwitted or outlasted his adversaries until Paris, presented with a fait accompli, went ahead and ratified the present day location of New Orleans. As Professor Powell notes, dismissing the idea that there was anything geographically or politically inevitable about the location of New Orleans: “the self-interest of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, combined with the boundless ambition of the risk-taking John Law, provides a more plausible explanation for the rise of the Crescent City on the famous crescent. . . . [though] . . . Bienville’s guile can’t be ruled out either.”

Similar tales of local conditions and local people trumping the best laid plans of distant elites can be gleaned from the book’s early chapters, ranging from the terrain’s unwillingness to go along with some of the more outlandish agricultural schemes proposed for the Mississippi delta (from a modern perspective, it may fairly be said that the only thing less sensible than attempting tobacco cultivation in southern Louisiana was attempting buffalo herding there) to the refusal of early settlers in New Orleans to build their residences according to proper Enlightenment principles. True enough, the streets of the French Quarter are laid out in a grid, butcontained within that grid are enough warrens, courtyards, and alleyways to give a proper Enlightenment-era city planner the hives. Time and again, it seems, distant colonial elites and their representatives—regardless of whether they were dispatched by Paris, Madrid, or Washington—seeking to impose their will on New Orleans and its inhabitants found their will subverted, undermined, or just plain ignored. The economy of the city never followed the rules of mercantilism in the way French officials must have hoped (because smuggling was far more profitable), nor did Spanish efforts to regularize trade ever quite work out (see Chapter 7, “In Contraband We Trust,” which lays out Madrid’s ultimately futile plan to end the city’s shadow economy.)

Yet for all that colonial officials were seldom in control of the city and its environs, it cannot be said that local creole elites were particularly in control either. A prime example of the creole elite’s inability to control their fate can be found in Professor Powell’s account of the ill-fated 1768 rebellion against Spanish rule (seeking not freedom but a restoration of French rule). The rebellion was defeated when, among other problems for the rebels, France proved uninterested in resuming control over the colony she had so recently relinquished. The local elites also suffered repeated setbacks in their attempts to create a strict racial hierarchy by passing ever more draconian slave codes. Such attempts were often undermined as much by the creoles themselves (both because such elites often benefited from allowing a certain amount of license and because they were unwilling to foot the bill for enforcing strict slave codes) as by resistance from colonial authorities and the slaves themselves.

A good deal of the book’s second half, indeed, is concerned with the institution of slavery in New Orleans and its environs (primarily African slavery, although there was a good bit of Indian slavery in the colony’s early days). Once again, the narrative makes it quite clear that things were never as straightforward as various elites, both colonial and creole, might have wished. This, according to Professor Powell, was due to many reasons. The shifting economy of the colony caused it to drift back and forth between being a “slave society” and a “society with slavery.” The geography of the city and its surrounds made it relatively easy for slaves to escape into the cypress swamp (and to move between camps in the swamp and plantations outside the city). And the creole elites had a schizophrenic attitude toward their African bondsmen. They constantly sought to enhance their control and fend off the threat of slave rebellions yet were unwilling to shoulder the social and financial costs of imposing such control. Similarly, local creole elites frequently seemed troubled by the existence of a relatively large population of free people of color who undermined the strict racial hierarchy for which the creole elites devoutly wished (but never achieved), but they found such people sufficiently necessary to their lifestyles to render the social costs of enforcing strict racial hierarchy untenable.

In sum, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans is a fascinating history of early New Orleans, accessible to the lay reader and full of detail which this reader, at least, never learned in tenth-grade Louisiana history. If a lesson is to be gleaned from the history of New Orleans and its rich cultural traditions, it may be that things almost invariably work out differently than elites—whether local or distant—intend. The development of a city and a local culture is almost inevitably an accidental process, contingent upon circumstances of geography, colonial and imperial politics, trade routes, personalities, and shifting relations between elites and the general population. This is perhaps true of most cities, but as Powell points out, it is particularly true of New Orleans. 

Charles H. Jeanfreauis a native of the Crescent City.