Tag: 18th century

Bitesized History: the Code Noir and Mercantilism in Jewish Mobile, Alabama

Posted by – July 16, 2014

Tidbits of Colonial Mobile’s Economic and Legal History Through a 19th century Jewish Lens

The rare book “A History of the Jews of Mobile,” a brief monograph published by Springhill Avenue Temple rabbi Alfred Geiger Moses in 1876 on the Jewish history of my hometown Mobile, AL, and now available online, records some fascinating facts.  I’ll get into the super weird history of Mobile Jews serving in the Twelfth Alabama for the CSA in the Civil War in a future post. In this post I’ll go over the most interesting bits of history I was able to glean of the legal and regulatory system early Mobile had in place (when it was considered part of French Louisiana, then British West Florida, then Spanish West Florida).

Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, Quebecois explorer and administrator who co-founded Mobile in 1701 and again and again served as French Louisiana’s governor.

Mobile was founded by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville on his brother Pierre de Iberville’s advice.  Both young explorers had sailed from their birthplace, Quebec, in search of advantageous spots to put trading posts to cash in on trade with the Indians. The earliest decades of Mobile’s existence saw sparse settlement and several relocations of the colony due to flooding and swamp epidemics. Everything was in flux, and often, like the Dutch,¹ the French only supplied enough money and people to support the bare necessities for trading.  But slowly, the Louisiana colonies eventually added settlers.

New colonial societies can’t function or generate sustainable populations (and are totally depressing) without women. Bienville wrote of the sex ratio emergency to his royal backers in France, and in 1704, Mobile was the first port to see “casquette girls” arrive to be the colony’s first official wives.  Bienville went on to found New Orleans, Natchez and New Biloxi after Iberville founded Old Biloxi near what is now Ocean Springs, Mississippi. “Consignments” of casquette girls reached Biloxi in 1719, and New Orleans in 1728, and to this day a mythos surrounds the casquette girls as the most virtuous religious women of France, like Virgin Marys founded the old Louisiana families.  To claim descent from one of them is to gain auto-nobility in the Louisiana context. Like most lore, the legend that the casquette girls were nuns and Joans of Arc is mostly false. But the dynamic honors founding mothers and mostly omits founding fathers, a notable reversal.

Jews, being strictly banned in the “Code Noir,” weren’t much of a presence in Mobile’s early years. Alfred Geiger Moses noted:

The first two articles of the code read as follows: “Article I: Decrees the expulsion of the Jews from the colony. Article II: Permits the exercise of the Roman Catholic worship only. Every other code of worship is prohibited.” Strange to say, the rest of the code deals with laws regulating the sale and conduct of negro slaves. Gayarre finds the reference to the Jews irrelevant to the general subject-matter of the code. My own explanation of the anti-Jewish laws, which is supported by a good authority, is that they were merely a repetition of the similar legislation current in France at the time of Louis XIV. Drastic as the law appears, it was probably never enforced, because there are no further references to it in Louisiana records. The expulsion of the Jews from America would have been in the sixteenth century an event worthy of the chronicler’s notice.

The Code Noir was developed in France and strictly regulated every corner of economic life that related to the (highly active) slave trade, all activities of the enslaved and freed black population, in enormous detail. And of course a perfunctory ban on all Jews, though Jewish settlement nonetheless accelerated, especially during the subsequent periods of British and Spanish quasi-control.

The main point of controlling Mobile was its lucrative port, so imports and exports were heavily regulated and taxed for the crown’s benefit, and if you didn’t interfere with that imperial extraction process you were relatively free, hence “quasi-control.”
Non-paying the right amount of tribute/taxes, though, could imperil your ability to operate within that colony, and if you were seen as thieving, speculating or profiteering to the detriment of the power people’s loot, you could be imprisoned or death-penaltied.

Rabbi Alfred G. Moses explains:

In the British epoch of Mobile’s colonial history, which extended from 1763 to 1780, an interesting reference to a Jew is citable: Major Robert Farmer, the British commandant of Mobile, was accused, among other charges, of selling flour belonging to the King to New Orleans, or selling or attempting to sell it there by means of “Pallachio, a Jew.” The Major was afterwards acquitted of the charges.

What became of poor Pallachio isn’t known, but it was quite possibly a noir fate.

The concept of “the King’s flour” is really hard to grasp in the 21st century but I think of it as explicitly royalist mercantilism.

Mercantilism meaning “2:  an economic system developing during the decay of feudalism to unify and increase the power and especially the monetary wealth of a nation by a strict governmental regulation of the entire national economy usually through policies designed to secure an accumulation of bullion, a favorable balance of trade, the development of agriculture and manufactures, and the establishment of foreign trading monopolies” (see Merriam-Webster dictionary definition)

The “foreign trading monopolies” were the point of colonization, and more purely about royalist monopolies for the French, being less encumbered by entrenched notions of self-sufficient land-ownership meaning individual freedom and citizenship.

North America has centuries of royalist mercantilism baked into its historical crust! It is deeply enmeshed in our laws, customs, folkways and collective subconscious. When the UK’s imperial-aristocratic profiteering off the tea monopoly became intolerable, you ended up with destruction of corporate tea property at Boston Harbor and shots fired at Lexington and Concord. But British mercantilism was replaced with mercantilism for the republic, pro-American trade policy.

Political rants invoking a bygone golden age of “the free market” and no regulation are misinforming the people.  “The American Way” is another term for the American System, the tariff-heavy economic plan that predominated in the 19th century, mercantilism in reality.  The next time a buffoon is waxing nostalgic about an economic past completely unlike anything we had in North America, remember Pallachio and remember royalist mercantilism.

Nick

 

Footnote:

1. the Dutch were so focused on trade, city design revolved around cramming as many lots as possible as close to trade corridors as possible, which meant tiny lots and mini-buildings.  For a fascinating look at New Netherlanders’ use of space, see
Merwick, Donna. “Dutch Townsmen and Land Use: A Spatial Perspective on Seventeenth-Century Albany, New York.” The William and Mary Quarterly 37 (1980), http://www.jstor.org/stable/1920969

George Washington’s Ideas about Technology and Transportation Infrastructure Offer Lessons for Today’s U.S.

Posted by – July 8, 2014

An Independence Day post (belated) – bloggery for the Founders

We would do well to mark the 4th not with the flag-waving militarism and “fighting for freedom” boo-yahs that typify so many public Independence Day events, and focus on the thing that Independence Day was really commemorating: the Declaration of Independence (adopted prior to large-scale war), our separation and unique vision for our republic. It should be a day of reading the Declaration of Independence and Constitution first and foremost, and yes, as John Adams wrote, “It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other…”
And in addition to a day of remembering the actual founding documents and principles, which include freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures of your files, we should have a day of loudly reading, painting, sequential art explainer-drawing, studying, and debating the ideas of the founding brothers and sisters (their actual ideas, which are really diverse and disagree with each other). We can glean relevant lessons for today from all our founding people.

Today I’m talking about George Washington’s ideas. Exalted as the first General of the first-ever separate American army and victor of the War for Independence, his actual words and ideas get lost.
John Adams objected to this oversimplified exaltation of the revolutionary generation more than anyone else. Adams was always writing letters lamenting the editing out of the Revolution’s complexities, that the Revolution was a process not an event and its processes were as diverse as the 13 colonies that fought, and that the gruesome War for Independence was waged at great cost of life and limb and nothing to boo-yah about! He hated

Parson Weems’ Fable,” is a 1939 Grant Wood painting depicting Parson Weems telling his famous “Cherry Tree” fable. It’s unique for kind of breaking the fourth wall, acknowledging that Weems narrated this myth.

the prospect of the Independence struggle being dumbed down so badly that kids think “Washington chopped down a cherry tree,” the redcoats ran, and everything was copacetic. In the years prior to John Adams’ death, the leading figures of the revolutionary generation were increasingly remembered in low-information hagiographies, a trend that was yet to peak. Throughout the 1800s, the founding fathers were so ridiculized and mythologized, you end up with craziness like Constantino Brumidi’s 1865 fresco The Apotheosis of Washington on the oculus of the capitol dome ceiling to this day, depicting Washington ascending to the heavens and becoming a god, AKA apotheosis,

detail shot of the George Washington part of the enormous, epic mural The Apotheosis of Washington by Constantino Brumidi. These painted figures are as big as 15 ft tall! (photo by Michael Edward McNeil)

surrounded by figures from classical mythology, the goddess Victoria (draped in green, using a horn) to his left and the goddess Liberty to his right (seriously).

But George Washington wasn’t a deity like Zeus.  George Washington was a person, and as much as he preferred to stay atop his white horse looking majestic and being “above the fray,” he was often forced into the fray. He had opinions, and if you think of late 18th century American politics as a spectrum—Jeffersonians with states’ rights positions and a vision of the United States as an almost E.U.-like confederation with a tiny low-tax federal gov’t that’s big enough to do foreign policy and raise armies (kinda) in the event of national emergencies but little else on one end of the spectrum, and the Hamiltonians who advocated a strong national gov’t with united goals, federally funded “internal improvements,” more spending for a federal military, and the taxes to pay for such a robust federal gov’t. on the other end of the spectrum—Washington was more of a Hamiltonian, through this vastly oversimplifies Washington.  George Washington adopted Alexander Hamilton as a political right-hand-man of sorts, and though that relationship got very fraught and cranky and “good day to YOU, sir!” even breaking up sometimes—read Ron Chernow’s excellent biography Alexander Hamilton for the details—Hamilton’s influence on the old dude was unmistakable, especially when it comes to things like Washington’s famous Farewell Address, where Hamilton’s ideas are particularly prominent.

But Hamilton and Washington were very different men.  Being roughly a generation older, and a pious Virginia landowner, George Washington always saw the world through a distinctly “landed Virginia gentry”-type of lens, and definitely held a vision for the United States of a republic of white yeoman farmers independent of corrupt cities, similar to the vision of fellow Virginia bros Jefferson and Madison, though better on the question of slavery.  Washington was definitely way better than Jefferson at freeing the slaves on his estate; Jefferson only freed five slaves in his will, all males of the Hemings family. two of whom have DNA-tested positive as his sons.

With George Washington, after his presidency and time teamed with Hamilton, you get a man applying the federal “internal improvements” concept, a robust program of road-building and canal-ing, to his goal of a nation of republican landowners.  You get Washington: rural technocrat. This is super interesting in light of today’s infrastructure problems, rural America being in its death throes and so on. But there isn’t much written about “Washington the technocrat,” aside from chapter five of Paul Johnson’s George Washington: The Founding Father, available as a stand-alone book, or as part of the Eminent Lives presidents collection as an ebook or audio conglomeration.

An excerpt:

Back in Mount Vernon, Washington, now fifty-two, took stock of his personal state… Not for the first time he reflected that America’s first problem was the tyranny of distance. It was vast, and growing each year, and communications were not keeping up. … He saw America increasingly in unitary terms and this vision was strengthened by further travels… His diaries show what chiefly interested him: the impact of distance on the economy, social life, and opportunity. Any steps to speed up travel were central to the country’s future. He noted that stagecoaches ran three times a week from Norfolk, Virginia, up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. But just to get from Richmond to Boston by stage might take twelve days. There was one good wagon road into the interior, but south of Virginia, roads, stages, and tracks were so bad that people preferred to travel by sea, a sure sign of a primitive transport economy.

…Washington was the pioneer. He realized early that the tyranny of distance could be reduced by intelligent use of her tremendous rivers, having canoed some of the fiercest himself. As early as 1769 he tried to promote the use of lock canals to improve natural waterways like the Potomac and Ohio. The canal (linked to improved post roads) was the dynamic of the revolution in transport of the eighteenth century, just as steam was for the nineteenth, and the internal combustion engine, in cars and aircraft, was for the twentieth. Washington’s diaries show that as soon as the war was over he turned again and again to canals. In September 1784 he traveled across the Alleghenies partly to inspect his western lands but also to plan canal routes (and roads) to link Ohio tributaries to the Potomac. …In May he became president of the Potomac Navigation Company, empowered with a joint charter from Maryland and Virginia to improve roads and build canals throughout the area. As always, Washington pushed for the rapid development of the area, emphasizing that improved transport to the whole Ohio valley was the surest way to bind the settlements there to the states, and encourage new ones.

It’s not much of a stretch to imagine Washington enthusiastically advocating and

George Washington’s head in the Head Museum, New New York City in the year 2999

planning high-speed rail lines today if his head were preserved Futurama-style, or planning for freight trains for the underserved Southern states during the 19th century rail revolution he didn’t live to see.  He was also big on Ag innovations and new technology to improve livelihoods for American farmers.

Most of Virginia’s representatives today are skittish at best about any sort of centralized infrastructure planning, but George Washington wasn’t. When reading the aforementioned chapter, it comes through clearly: Washington expected people to get behind things like the Potomac Plan.  Building infrastructure so your country can function is simply leadership, and he was disgusted by the federal Congress’ inability to deal with the desperate need for transportation infrastructure.  The system now is even more unable to do things; we’ve got corruption in Congress and federal agencies rivaling only the capital’s “Gilded Age” machinations.
But I think we would do well to internalize ol’ GW’s ideas about internal improvements.

Nick