Did you know President McKinley visited New Orleans in 1901?
He did, and here’s the story:
In late April 1901 President McKinley embarked on a transcontinental trip of the United States, including a brief stopover in New Orleans. While he was in town, he stayed the St. Charles Hotel (now demolished), addressed the students of Southern University, took a riverboat cruise, and was entertained by the Louisiana Historical Society.
I found a transcript of the address given by Alcée Fortier, as recorded in the Times Democrat, May 3, 1901. It is a quick summary of various points of New Orleans history. I always find it interesting to reflect on what people add to speeches and what they omit. One of the points that comes across strongly is the use of this speech as a subtle appeal for the preservation of the Cabildo, a building built in the late 1790s that had witnessed some of the city’s most important moments. His concern was not without warrant, as just a few years earlier there had been proposals to destroy the building to make way for a new modern court building. Luckily, the building was turned into a museum which is visited by millions of people each year.
“Mr. President – When it was announced that you would honor Louisiana and New Orleans with your presence, it was thought eminently proper that an event of such great importance as a visit of the chief magistrate of our country and of members of his cabinet be celebrated by the Louisiana Historical Society. It was, therefore, decided that a reception be held in this old historic building which the justices of our Supreme Court have kindly placed at our disposal.
“The Governor of Louisiana and the Mayor of New Orleans have already welcomed you officially, but we believe, Mr. President, that you will appreciate the hearty welcome to our midst which I have the honor to extend to you in the name of the Louisiana Historical Society, an association which was founded in 1836, and which is one of the oldest of its kind in the United States. We do not consider you a guest, we do not consider you a stranger here, for an American is always at home in an American city, and the President of the United States is always at home in an American State, and surely no city is more American than New Orleans, and no state is more American than Louisiana. We do not forget, however, that such has not always been the fact, and this building in which we stand, this old Cabildo, as we call it, reminds us that our history extends further back than the establishment of the American Union, back into the seventeenth century, when Louis XIV was reigning over French in his grand palace at Versailles.
“We are proud of the history of our State, Mr. President; we would not tear a single page from it, we would not erase a single line from it, and I will ask you to allow me, in a few words, to call your attention to some of the events which have taken place here, to evoke a few personages who have left their impress on the history of Louisiana, who have stood at this very spot where we are now, or who have seen from the site on which the Cabildo stands.
“In April, 1682, canoes in which were white men, passed down the mighty river which flows by us only a few steps away, and in one of those were Robert Cavalier de la Salle and his faithful companion, Tonty with the Iron Hand. La Salle reached the mouth of the Mississippi; he gave to the vast country which he had rediscovered the sweet name of Louisiane, but he was unable to colonize it. It was Iberville who settled the new colony of Biloxi, and in March, 1699, two small boats ascended the Mississippi. They contained two brothers, Iberville and Bienville, and Sanvolle, who was to be the first governor of Louisiana, and of whom Gov. Heard is now the honored successor. In 1718, Bienville laid the foundation of our New Orleans, and in the little French town there resided for a time, Gov. Périer, who received so well, in 1727, the good Ursuline nuns; then in Vaudreuil, the grand marquis, and later, the stately and learned Don Antonio Ulloa. Louisiana was no longer French; the wretched King Louis XV had ceded the greater part of it, in 1762 to Charles III, of Spain.
“Now comes, Mr. President, the event in our colonial history that we are the proudest, it is the Revolution of 1768, by which the Louisianans, guided by Lafrénière, Villeré and other valiant men, overthrew the Spanish domination. Our ancestors resisted oppression and thought of establishing a republic in New Orleans, several years before 1776. They failed, and not far from this place, several brave men paid with their lives for their heroic dream of independence. O’Reilly established securely in the blood the Spanish domination; he abolished the Superior Council of the French, and substituted for it the form of government called the Cabildo, which has given its name to this ancient building. Begun with cruelty, the Spanish domination was afterwards mild, and it was glorious with Bernardo de Galvez, who gave to Louisiana the honor of taking part in the war for American Independence, when he captured from the English, between 1779 and 1781, the towns of Baton Rouge, Mobile, and Pensacola.
“We have now reached the year 1794. It was Don Andres Almonester, regidor and Alferez Real, who had founded a hospital, rebuilt the Cathedral. He built, at the same time this edifice, and the Cabildo met here until 1803. Three years previously Bonaparte, victorious at Marengo, had taken back Louisiana from Spain. Laussat, the colonel prefect, arrived in New Orleans, and on November 30, 180, he received, in the Cabildo building, from the Spanish commissioners, Salcedo and Casa Calvo, the keys of New Orleans and was put in possession of the province of Louisiana. He abolished the Cabildo and established a municipal government which has continued to our days and of which the Hon. Paul Capedeville is now the esteemed head. The banner of Spain went down in the Place D’Armes, and the banner of France rose in its stead. Not long, however, did the tri-color wave in front of the Cabildo. On April 30, 1803, Louisiana had been ceded to the United States, and on Tuesday, December 20, 1803, the transfer of the province took place in this very hall. Let us endeavor to picture the scene and to consider the importance of this event.
“At 11 o’clock the militia companies are drawn up in the square by order of the Prefect; at noon the American commissioners entered the city at the head of their troops, which were placed in the square, on side opposite the militia. The Colonel prefect proceeds to city hall amidst a large concourse of people, and he delivers to the American commissioners, Wilkinson and Claiborne, the keys of New Orleans and gives them formal possession of the province. Claiborne rises, congratulates the people of Louisiana on “the event which,” says he, “places them beyond reach of chance,” and he, Wilkinson, and Laussat go to the balcony of this building and see the banner of the United States ascend to the top.
“The French colonists must have seen with some regret the lowering of the tri-color from the staff, but the act made them free and independent and they were soon passionately attached to the United States, as are their descendants today, although the latter still love dearly the country of their ancestors. The Louisianans became masters of their own destiny in 1803 and still more so in 1812, when the Territory of Orleans became a State of the Union, and God willing they will be freemen to the end of time.
“Thomas Jefferson, by acquiring Louisiana, rendered immense service to the United States, and this building, where the transfer of the province took place has national importance. In 1803, the immense province of Louisiana contained less than 50,000 inhabitants; to-day in its several States, it contains many millions. In 1803, New Orleans contained 8000 souls; to-day it has a population on 300,000, and is destined to be one of the greatest cities on the American continent.
“From the balcony of the Cabildo the men of January, 1815, saw Andrew Jackson and his valiant army, returning from the glorious field of Chalmette, pass through the Place D’Armes, now called Jackson Square, and the hero enter the Cathedral to thank God for the overwhelming defeat of the invaders. In 1825 another great general visited New Orleans and Dwelt in this very building. Lafayette, the friend of Washington, stood on this very spot.
“For a numbers of years, the Supreme Court of Louisiana has held its sessions in this building, and many distinguished jurists have stood here and have sat on this bench. Around us we see the busts and portraits of men eminent for their learning and their high character, and this hall presents already the appearance of an historical museum. The old Cabildo of New Orleans should be held sacred by the people of Louisiana, and of the United States, and here Mr. President, we intend to celebrate worthily, in 1903, the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. The visit with which you have honored us, your presence here to-day, has added new interest to the history of the Cabildo, and the future historian of our old and picturesque edifice will associate with the names of the men honored in the history of Louisianans that of William McKinley, President of the United States in 1901.”
I’ve never associated McKinley with the Cabildo or New Orleans, but now I guess I have to. 🙂
- “President Departs.” Times Democrat (New Orleans), May 03, 1901. Accessed July 07, 2019. https://www.newspapers.com/image/146156815/.
- Originally published in above mentioned article, but better copy accessed from Library of Congress Website: https://cdn.loc.gov/service/pnp/cph/3b40000/3b44000/3b44400/3b44452v.jpg. I think this photo is really interesting. I really love the decorations that were chosen to honor the President’s visit.