Why Not Bigger Than London
The following data is extracted from The Creoles of Louisiana.
The great Creole city's geographical position has always dazzled every eye except the cold, coy scrutiny of capital. "The position of New Orleans," said President Jefferson in 1804, "certainly destines it to be the greatest city the world has ever seen." He excepted neither Rouge nor Babylon. Put man's most positive predictions are based upon contingencies; one unforeseen victory over nature bowls them down; the seeming certainties of tomorrow are changed to the opposite certainties of today; deserts become gardens, gardens cities, and older cities the haunts of bats and foxes.
When the early Kentuckian and Ohioan accepted nature's highway to market, and proposed the conquest of New Orleans in order to lay that highway open, they honestly believed there was no other possible outlet to the commercial world. When steam navigation came, they hailed it with joy and without question. To them it seemed an ultimate result. To the real-estate hoarding Creole, to the American merchant who was crowding and chafing him, to every superficial eye at least, it seemed a pledge of unlimited commercial empire bestowed by the laws of gravitation. Few saw in it the stepping stone from the old system of commerce by natural highways to a new system by direct and artificial lines.
It is hard to understand, looking back from the present, how so extravagant a mistake could have been made by wise minds. From the first - or perhaps, we should say, from the peace of 1815 - the development of the West declined to wait on New Orleans, or even on steam. In 1825, the new principle of commercial transportation - that despises alike the aid and the interference of nature - opened, at Buffalo, the western end of the Erie Canal, the gate-way of a new freight route to northern Atlantic tide-waters, many hundreds of leagues more direct than the long journey down the Mississippi to New Orleans and around the dangerous capes of Florida. In the same year another canal was begun, and in 1832 it connected the Ohio with Lake Erie; so that, in 1835, the State of Ohio alone sent through Buffalo to Atlantic ports 86,000 barrels of flour, 98,000 bushels of wheat, and 2,500,000 staves.
Another outlet was found, better than all transitsmanufactures. Steam, driving all manner of machinery, built towns and cities. Cincinnati had, in 1820, 32,000 inhabitants; in 1830, 52,000. Pittsburg became, "in the extent of its manufactures, the only rival of Cincinnati in the West." St. Louis, still in embryo, rose from 10,000 to 14,000. Buffalo, a town of 2,100, quadrupled its numbers.
Meanwhile, far down in New Orleans the Creole, grimly, and the American, more boastfully, rejoiced in a blaze of prosperity that blinded both. How should they, in a rain of wealth, take note that, to keep pace with the wonderful development in the great valley above, their increase should have been three times as great as it was, and that the sun of illimitable empire, which had promised to shine brightest upon them, was shedding brighter promises and kinder rays eastward, and even northward, across nature's highways and barriers. Even steam navigation began, on the great lakes, to demonstrate that the golden tolls of the Mississippi were not all to be collected at one or even two gates.
How might this have been stopped? By no means. Time moment East and West saw that straighter coursees toward commercial Europe could be taken than wild nature offered, the direct became the natural route, and the circuitous the unnatural. East-and-west trade lines, meant, sooner or later, the commercial subordination of New Orleans, until such time as the growth of countries behind her in the Southwest should bring her also upon an east-and-west line. Meantime the new system could be delayed by improving the old, many of whose drawbacks were removable. That which could not be stopped could vet be postponed.
But there was one drawback that riveted all the rest. Through slave-holding, and the easy fortune-getting it afforded, an intellectual indolence spread everywhere, and the merchant of Faubourg Ste. Marie, American - often New Englander - as he was, sank under the seductions of a livelihood so simple, so purely executive, and so rich in perquisites, as the marketing of raw crops. From this mental inertia sprang an invincible provincialism; the Creole, whose society he was always courting, intensified it. Better civilizations were too far away to disturb it. A "peculiar institution" doubled that remoteness, and an enervating, luxurious climate folded it again upon itself. It colored his financial convictions and all his conduct of public affairs. He confronted obstacles with serene apathy; boasted of his city's natural advantages, forgetting that it was man, not nature, that he had to contend with surrendered ground which he might have held for generations; and smilingly ignored the fact that, with all her increase of wealth and population, his town was slipping back along the comparative scale of American cities. "Was she not the greatest in exports after New York?"
Source: The Creoles of Louisiana