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  • Public Slaves and State Engineers:Modern Statecraft on Louisiana's Waterways, 1833–1861
  • Aaron R. Hall (bio)

On June 9, 1860, seventy-nine men in New Orleans formally left the service of the Internal Improvement Department of the state of Louisiana. Among their ranks were two engineers, four blacksmiths, three pilots, three carpenters, two cooks, and ten boatmates. These public servants had come from clearing the bayous and rivers that drew Louisiana together. Operating steam-powered snagging boats, they had long tended the hydraulic seams of the state, circulating from southern sugar parishes out to the cotton frontier. The men had labored for an official vision of Louisiana's general welfare, ensuring the movement of staples, people, and information. As the state's chief engineer explained, through their exertions the department had pursued its "principal duty … to free the navigable streams of the State of all the natural obstructions which impede their navigation, and thus furnish easy water communication, to the trade, commerce and travel of every section of the State." Some men had spent more than two decades making the state from the riverbed, shoreline, and ground up. In New Orleans, they passed through bustling streets to reach the City Hotel. Citizens gathered around. Then onlookers placed bids, executed notes, and departed owning seventy-nine newly acquired slaves. Louisiana had privatized its "public hands."1

"I attended the sale of the State negroes today," recorded Alexander F. Pugh, noting his kin "bought three of them." Auctioneers collected [End Page 531] $74,000 in fulfillment of the "Act Providing for the sale of the Slaves belonging to the Internal Improvement Department of the State." These men made up most of a "State force" that had often exceeded one hundred people since the mid-1830s. The government kept eight skilled slaves—four engineers and four firemen. Another five people purchased by legislator and future Confederate governor Henry W. Allen remained in public service, and Louisiana canceled his note. Buoyant prices for enslaved people and the enslaved men's expertise redounded to Louisiana's benefit. Pugh observed that the men "sold very high, considering that they were greatly advanced in years and were not guaranteed." First in extracted labor and finally in cash conversion, the state's direct investment in slavery yielded returns to the white commonweal and public fisc. After years of motion compelled by lawmakers, superintendents, and communities of white constituents, the enslaved men were dispersed via eager bidders in the marketplace. From the City Hotel auction block, the department slaves heard their capacities extolled and their injuries elided. In the crowd that assembled to price bodies and calculate returns, the men saw the citizen-beneficiaries of the state they had built.2

Between 1834 and 1861, Louisiana was a slave master. As constituted through popular elections and republican institutions, the state purchased men by legislative deliberation and executive action. Across partisan elections and fiscal crises, Louisiana required these men to work, live, and occasionally perish for the state. State legislators, governors, commissioners, engineers, and superintendents dispatched the enslaved workforce with boats and machinery to extend a riverine network for the steamboat age. Being a slave-master state was a collective, democratic project for Louisiana's enfranchised white public, who exercised their political power to sustain the program and receive its benefits. The project rested on planters and communities who petitioned for the labor, on slaveholding representatives who perpetuated the [End Page 532] system, and on administrators who managed the daily practices of enslavement. The system was a mainstay of public policy. It carried out territorial integration suited to Louisiana's environmental conditions and political economy. State officials wielded the "public hands"—their strength, intellect, health, and knowledge—as instruments of statecraft to improve communication, to open lands, and to increase wealth. With limited manpower and fiscal resources, the system converted clogged bayous into navigable waterways, enabling planters' slaves to turn waterlogged prairies into profitable cane and cotton fields.3

The operation of this internal improvement system opens up an unfamiliar history of American state-building through state slavery. The program represented a government of slaveholders grasping at the institution's developmental potential. At the confluence...


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