From the Editor – 1812: Hail to the Chief

With this issue we celebrate the bicentennial of Louisiana statehood. Louisiana, the expansive territory, had long existed, but in 1812 the current state took shape. In many ways we are honoring the true birth of Louisiana.

Every Louisiana governor has had to do battle with someone – at the very least, the state Legislature. Louisiana’s first elected governor, W.C.C. Claiborne, faced two other enemies: the British and yellow fever.

Claiborne is a transitional figure in Louisiana history, having been both the state’s territorial governor under American rule and the first to be elected once statehood was granted. Thomas Jefferson sent the Virginia native to govern the Louisiana territory. Claiborne made enough of a name for himself that in 1813, he defeated Jacques Villeré, a Creole whose presence on the ballot reflected the cultural division of the day.

No one knew the region that would become the state of Louisiana better than Claiborne, and he did not like what he saw. “I believe the citizens of Louisiana are, generally speaking, honest and a decided majority of them are attached to the American government,” he wrote to Jefferson. “But they are uninformed, indolent, luxurious, in a word illy fitted to be useful citizens of a republic.” He complained about the “injustices” many of the youths suffered from because of the “inattention” of their parents.

Education, he said, was in a sorry state and added that a university system should be established.

Then there were the British, who in the same year as statehood had started another war with the United States. Much of Claiborne’s first term was spent preparing for attacks.

One battle he could not win was with yellow fever. In 1804 he lost his wife and daughter to the pestilence. Five years later his second wife succumbed to the same.

Claiborne was the first American governor to preside over a state that spoke two languages, English and French. He assured that the codes were written both ways. As an Anglo politician, he had to work extra-hard to prove himself to the French-speaking Creoles.

Claiborne’s name still dots the Louisiana landscape. The avenue named after him in New Orleans rambles across the city, connecting Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes at either end. A parish named after Claiborne sits on the state’s northern border with the town of Homer as its seat. In Baton Rouge the state’s land office is located in the Claiborne Building. Former Congress member Lindy Bogg’s family name is Claiborne. (Did anyone notice that among the players on the past season’s LSU football team were a Claiborne and a Jefferson?)

 W.C.C. Claiborne left many legacies, but education was clearly one of his biggest concerns. Two hundred years later, his successor, as have others before him, wrestles  with the same issue. In honor of those who have served, a model education system could be the bicentennial’s greatest gift.

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