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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Louisiana's Stillborn Constitution

September 11, 2014 5:47 pm

On Christmas Eve 1864, Abraham Lincoln wrote to Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks in New Orleans to reassure him that he was master “in regard to re-organizing a State government for Louisiana” and “in regard to the military matters of the Department.” 

Frustrated at the slow pace of Banks’s reorganization efforts, the anxious president also entreated his commander of the Department of the Gulf to “give us a free-state re-organization of Louisiana, in the shortest possible time.”

Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks Credit Library of Congress

Banks had already been in New Orleans for nearly two years, having replaced the notorious Benjamin “Spoons” Butler in late 1862. One of the Union’s many political generals, Banks was a former speaker of the House of Representatives and Massachusetts governor who had yet to distinguish himself on the battlefield (and never would). 

His less-than-stirring performance during the Shenandoah Valley campaigns had earned him the sobriquet “Nothing Positive” Banks. One modern day biographer characterized Banks as a man who dealt “in compromises and reversals, catch phrases, weasel words, and politicians’ tricks.” On the other hand, noted the ever-observant Navy secretary, Gideon Welles, although Banks probably lacked “the energy, power or ability of Butler,” he was “less reckless and unscrupulous.”

His “politicians’ tricks” almost certainly made Banks an appealing choice when Lincoln went looking for a general to preside over the “reconstruction” of Louisiana. Indeed, soon after arriving in New Orleans, Banks began reversing many of Butler’s strict and unpopular public-order measures, while continuing his predecessor’s public works and food distribution initiatives. On Jan. 29, 1863, he instituted a work program for enslaved blacks, many of whom had found their way to the city upon learning of the Emancipation Proclamation (which, since it only applied to areas still under Confederate control, excluded most of them).

The program required that blacks sign annual contracts calling for ten-hour work days in return for a monthly wage of $3 or 5% of the yearly proceeds from the crop’s sale as well as food, shelter, and medical care. The regulations protected the newly contracted laborers from physical punishment, but prevented them from leaving the plantations where they worked without the owner’s permission. Provost marshals monitored the program, capturing runaway laborers and subjecting “vagrant” blacks to involuntary public work. Continue reading>>