Plain English: What this Dissertation is All About

This is the first in a series of posts where I explain things in plain English without feeling obliged to sound like a professor, and without recourse to academic jargon to convey my meaning. It’s also my first attempt to explain what the hell my dissertation is about, a task that is not always as easy as you might think it should be.

There are tons of books about the Louisiana Purchase; and there are lots of histories of New Orleans and of Louisiana. I am not writing at all about the diplomatic history of the Purchase, its geopolitical implications, or even how it played out in the politics of the early United States. That’s all been done (and I’ve read a lot about all that).

What hasn’t been done, and what I would like to do, is a history of what the attachment of Louisiana to the United States looked like from the perspective of New Orleans. How did was the development of this city affected by becoming part of the American nation (quite drastically, I argue). How did attachment to the U.S. affect: social structure? urban growth? slavery? politics? culture?

What did the inhabitants of New Orleans — the ones who already lived there, and the ones who started arriving in large numbers after 1803 — think American sovereignty meant to them? And how was that sovereignty manifested?

Implicit in this topic, as I’ve described it, is an argument. Many previous histories, valuable though they have been, have portrayed Louisiana and New Orleans as passive places, being acted on by powerful outside forces: monarchs and diplomats in Europe, Presidents in Washington. One of my major meta-ideas is that the power in this story was not located in distant capitals but on the spot, that the people of New Orleans and Louisiana (from planters and merchants to slaves and rednecks) made their own destiny, and even that they ultimately helped make the destiny of the much larger continental nation of which they became a part.

How they made it is the story at the heart of  my dissertation.