By Jim Smilie
Citing the unique mixture of people who make up Louisiana’s population, Louisiana Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne explained to members of the Rotary Club of Alexandria why Louisiana isn’t Mississippi, or any place else, at noon Tuesday in Alexandria Convention Hall.
“It’s not a put down on Mississippi,” Dardenne said. “We could have done why Louisiana is not like any other state.” Dardenne, who served two terms each as Louisiana Secretary of State and as Lieutenant Governor, has been presenting his program on what makes the state unique for 12 years.
Two years ago, the presentation was made into a four-hour documentary for Louisiana Public Broadcasting titled “Why Louisiana Isn’t Mississippi, or Any Place Else.” The documentary, which is available online to LPB Passport members, is scheduled to air again in June.
“Louisiana has a human gumbo found no place else,” Dardenne explained. “The Mississippi River empties through only one state – ours. That population is a result of America draining into Louisiana.”
Noting that the state has no single ethnic majority, Dardenne discussed the various groups of people who came to Louisiana over the years. Native Americans were the first inhabitants and they were joined by a variety of settlers. Some came under force – specifically slaves. Others, including the Acadians, came to the state as they fled persecution in Canada. Adding to the French influence were immigrants fleeing disease and poverty in places like Haiti. Each group brought their own unique contributions, including voo doo, crop production skills and food preferences.
Mixing in with all of that were white Anglo-Saxon protestants from Europe. “We had a flood of immigrants coming in through New Orleans,” Dardenne said. “New Orleans was the major port at the time. It wasn’t Ellis Island – the Port of New Orleans was the gateway to the new world.”
As people from across the world mixed in the areas around New Orleans, it resulted in a population unique to Louisiana Dardenne said was described at the time as, “new world goods from old world stock.”
Louisiana’s impact on the country was magnified with the Louisiana Purchase, in which the fledgling United States gained land that would ultimately become part of 15 states. “The Louisiana Purchase is really a microcosm of Louisiana politics,” Dardenne said.
He explained that the original plan was simply to purchase New Orleans, and negotiators had $10 million to offer to France’s leader Napoleon Bonaparte. Dardenne explained that at the time, Napoleon had recently conquered Europe and had his sights set on the new world, with an army waiting in South America.
However, illness and other hardships wiped out that army, and Napoleon decided to abandon the project and sell his full interest in the area. So, rather than getting New Orleans for $10 million, the U.S. was able to get the full Louisiana purchase territory for $16 million. “The negotiators didn’t have the authority to spend the extra $6 million, but they did it,” Dardenne said. To get the extra funds, the U.S. government had to borrow $6 million from Great Britain. In an interesting turn of events, Dardenne said, Napoleon used the money he received from selling the Louisiana territory to finance his war efforts against Great Britain.
That was just one example Dardenne cited as a way, “we have had a disproportionate impact on things that matter.”
Sports, music, food, literature, and politics are all areas Dardenne said Louisiana has had a larger impact than any other state. “We have contributed more great athletes than any other state,” he said. “And so much music, including songs by Louisiana artists as well as songs about Louisiana.”
Looking ahead, Dardenne said the next step for the program is to create an educational component for school students. “We’re working on a seventh through 12th grade curriculum for teaching Louisiana history.”