"A Strong Case of Wanton Oppression": Edward Livingston and the New Orleans Batture

Thursday, January 3, 2013: 1:40 PM
Chamber Ballroom II (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Eberhard L. Faber, Princeton University
A half-mile of accumulating mud on the Mississippi River bank played a crucial role in the expansion of the American republic. This literal “new land” touched off one of the most famous economic and legal controversies of the Jeffersonian period, one situated at the junction of land speculation, urban development, and the limits of federal power in the new nation.  Located just upriver from the colonial city of New Orleans, the Sainte-Marie Batture was formed from freshly-deposited alluvial soil that had accumulated since the city’s 1718 founding. By the time of the United States takeover in 1803, residents were accustomed to using the batture for storage of imports, shipbuilding, and taking earth to build streets and sidewalks.  All this changed when Edward Livingston came in February 1804.  Recently resigned from his position as mayor of New York amidst allegations of financial impropriety, Livingston fled to New Orleans armed only with his fluency in the city’s three languages and a determination to rebuild his private fortune.  Livingston envisioned the batture along Manhattan waterfront lines, reclaimed with a new levee and drained by canals, with wharves to accommodate the thriving commerce of this “Emporium of the West.” In 1807 the Orleans Territory Superior Court granted Livingston private ownership of this valuable terrain, but this was followed by outrage of the City Council, whose members saw the verdict as a miscarriage of justice and creole customs or law.  Opponents transformed the controversy from a local to a national struggle with the argument that the batture was in truth the property of the United States, which was alarming to American leaders against the backdrop of international upheaval and war.  Meanwhile, New Orleans grew at an unprecedented rate to become the commercial metropolis of the American West, while the centrally-located Batture remained an
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