Ulloa, Aubry, and the Superior Council
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The cession had now only to go into effect. It seemed to the Louisianians a sentence of commercial and industrial annihilation, and it was this belief, not loyalty to France, that furnished the true motive of the Creoles and justification of the struggle of 1768. The merchants were, therefore, its mainspring. But merchants are not apt to be public leaders. They were behind and under the people. Who, then, or what, was in front? An official body whose growth and power in the colony had had great influence in forming the public character of the Creoles -the Superior Council.
It was older than New Orleans. Formed in 1712 of but two members, of whom the governor was one, but gradually enlarged, it dispensed justice and administered civil government over the whole colony, under the ancient “custom of Paris,” and the laws, edicts, and ordinances of the kingdom of France. It early contained a germ of popular government in its power to make good the want of a quorum by calling in notable inhabitants of its own selection. By and by its judicial functions had become purely appellate, and it took on features suggestive, at least, of representative rule.
It was this Superior Council which, in 1722, with Bienville at its head, removed to the new settlement of New Orleans, and so made it the colony’s capital. In 1723, it was exercising powers of police. It was by this body that, in 1724, was issued that dark enactment which, through the dominations of three successive national powers, remained on the statute-book-the Black Code. One of its articles forbade the freeing of a slave without reason shown to the Council, and by it esteemed good. In 1726, its too free spirit was already receiving the reprimand of the home government. Yet, in 1728, the king assigned to it the supervision of land titles and power to appoint and remove at will a lower court of its own members.
With each important development in the colony it had grown in numbers and powers, and, in 1748, especially, had been given discretionary authority over land titles, such as must have been a virtual control of the whole agricultural community’s moral support. About 1752 it is seen resisting the encroachments of the Jesuits, though these were based on a commission from the Bishop of Quebec; and it was this body that, in 1763, boldly dispossessed this same order of its plantations, a year before the home government expelled it from France. In 1758, with Kerlerec at its head, this Council had been too strong for Rochemore, the intendant-commissary, and too free jostled him rudely for three years, and then procured of the king his dismissal from office. And lastly, it was this body that d’Abbadie, in another part of the despatch already quoted from, denounced as seditious in spirit, urging the displacement of its Creole members, and the filling of their seats with imported Frenchmen.
Ulloa, the Spanish governor, stepped ashore on the Place d’Armes in a cold rain, with that absence of pomp which characterizes both the sailor and the recluse. The people received him in cold and haughty silence that soon turned to aggression. Foucault, the intendant-commissary, was the first to move. On the very day of the governor’s arrival he called his attention to the French paper money left unprovided for in the province. There were seven million livres of it, worth only a fourth of its face value. “What was to be done about it?” The governor answered promptly and kindly: It should be the circulating medium at its market value, pending instructions from Spain. But the people instantly and clamorously took another stand: It must be redeemed at par.
A few days later lie was waited on by the merchants. They presented a series of written questions touching their commercial interests. They awaited his answers, they said, in order to know how to direct their future actions. In a despatch to his government, Ulloa termed the address ” imperious, insolent, and menacing.”
The first approach of the Superior Council was quite as offensive. At the head of this body sat Aubry. He was loyal to his king, brave, and determined to execute the orders he held to transfer the province. The troops were under his command. But, by the rules of the Council it was the intendant, Foucault, the evil genius of the hour, who performed the functions of president. Foucault ruled the insurgent Council and signed its pronunciamientos, while Aubry, the sternly protesting but helpless governor, filled the seat of honor. And here, too, sat Lafréniére, the attorney general. It was he who had harangued the notables and the people on the Place d’Armes when they sent Milhet to France. The petition to the king was from his turgid pen. He was a Creole, the son of a poor Canadian, and a striking type of the people that now looked to him as their leader: of commanding mien, luxurious in his tastes, passionate, overbearing, ambitions, replete with wild energy, and equipped with the wordy eloquence that moves the ignorant or half-informed. The Council requested Ulloa to exhibit his commission. He replied coldly that he would not take possession of the colony until the arrival of additional Spanish troops, which he was expecting; and that then his dealings would be with the French governor, Aubry, and not with a subordinate civil body.
Thus the populace, the merchants, and the civil government which included the judiciary-ranged themselves at once in hostility to Spain. The military soon moved forward and took their stand on the same line, refusing point-blank to pass into the Spanish service. Aubry alone recognized the cession and Ulloa’s powers, and to him alone Ulloa showed his commission. Yet the Spanish governor virtually assumed control, set his few Spanish soldiers to building and garrisoning new forts at important points in various quarters, and, with Aubry, endeavored to maintain a conciliatory policy pending the arrival of troops. It was a policy wise only because momentarily imperative in dealing with such a people. They were but partly conscious of their rights, but they were smarting under a lively knowledge of their wrongs, and their impatient temper could brook any other treatment with better dignity and less resentment than that which trifled with their feelings.
Ill-will began, before long, to find open utterance. An arrangement by which the three or four companies of French soldiers remained in service under Spanish pay, but under French colors and Aubry’s command, was fiercely denounced.
Ulloa was a man of great amiability and enlightenment, but nervous and sensitive. Not only was the defective civilization around him discordant to his gentle tastes, but the extreme contrast which his personal character offered was an intolerable offence to the people. Yet he easily recognized that behind and beneath all their frivolous criticisms and imperious demands, and the fierce determination of their Superior Council to resist all contractions of its powers, the true object of dread and aversion was the iron tyrannies and extortions of Spanish colonial revenue laws. This feeling it was that had produced the offensive memorial of the merchants; and yet he met it kindly, and, only two months after his arrival, began a series of concessions looking to the preservation of trade with France and the French West Indies, which the colonists had believed themselves doomed to lose. The people met these concessions with resentful remonstrance. One of the governor’s proposals was to fix a schedule of reasonable prices on all imported goods, through the appraisenrent of a board of disinterested citizens. Certainly it was unjust and oppressive, as any
Spanish commercial ordinance was likely to be; but it was intended to benefit the mass of consumers. But consumers and suppliers for once had struck hands, and the whole people raised a united voice of such grievous complaint that the ordinance was verbally revoked.
A further motive-the fear of displacement-moved the office-holders, and kept them maliciously diligent. Every harmless incident, every trivial mistake, was caught up vindictively. The governor’s “manner of living, his tastes, his habits, his conversation, the most trivial occurrences of his household,” were construed offensively. He grew incensed and began to threaten. December 1767, Jean Milhet returned from France. His final word of ill-success was only fuel to the fire. The year passed away, and nine months of 1768 followed.
Ulloa and Aubry kept well together, though Aubry thought ill of the Spaniard’s administrative powers. In their own eyes they seemed to be having some success. They were, wrote Aubry, “gradually molding Frenchmen to Spanish domination.” The Spanish flag floated over the new military posts, the French ensign over the old, and the colony seemed to be dwelling in peace under both standards.
But Ulloa and the Creoles were sadly apart. Repeated innovations in matters of commerce and police were only so many painful surprises to them. They were embarrassed. They were distressed. What was to become of their seven million livres of paper money no one yet could tell. Even the debts that the Spaniards had assumed were unpaid. Values had shrunk sixty-six per cent. There was a specie famine. Insolvency was showing itself on every hand; and the disasters that were to follow the complete establishment of Spanish power were not known but might be guessed. They returned the governor distrust for distrust, censure for censure, and scorn for scorn.
And now there came rumor of a royal decree suppressing the town’s commerce with France and the West Indies. It was enough. The people of New Orleans and its adjacent river “coasts,” resolved to expel the Spaniards.