Portrait of Pierre Clément Laussat, who served as the French colonial prefect of Louisiana during the period in late 1803 and early 1804 when Spain returned the colony to French possession and the United States assumed ownership of the territory through the Louisiana Purchase. Learn more »
Pierre Clément de Laussat presided as the highest French civilian official in Louisiana for a short but crucial period in 1803. As colonial prefect he took possession of the colony from Spanish officials as stipulated in the Treaty of Ildefonso; three weeks later Laussat, in turn, ceded control of the territory to the United States as a result of the Louisiana Purchase.
Laussat was born in Pau, France, on November 23, 1756, to a family of government officials. Educated in French law, he served as receiver-general of finances for the local assembly in his home province of Béarn from 1784 to 1789. As political institutions underwent considerable reorganization during the French Revolution, his career took several turns between 1789 and 1799.
After Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte carried out a coup in 1799, establishing the governing body called the Consulate, with himself as First Consul, Laussat served in the legislature and assisted with the creation of the constitution. When Napoleon successfully negotiated the return of the Louisiana colony from Spain, Laussat recognized an opportunity for advancement and requested that he be named colonial prefect of Louisiana. In August 1802 Napoleon appointed Laussat to the position, and in January 1803 he and his family set sail. The new colonial prefect arrived in New Orleans in March; unbeknownst to him and the residents of Louisiana, Napoleon had already agreed to sell the entire colony to the United States barely a month later.
After receiving official notification of the sale in August, Laussat served as commissioner of the French government for the retrocession of Louisiana from Spain to France on November 30, 1803. Juan Manuel Salcedo, the Spanish governor, handed over the keys to New Orleans’s fortifications, and the Marqués de Casa Calvo, the previous governor, declared that all Louisiana residents were released from their oath of allegiance to Spain. Just three weeks later, on December 20, Laussat would preside over a similar ceremony with William C. C. Claiborne and Gen. James Wilkinson, transferring the territory to the United States.
Laussat used the time between these two momentous events to select the most talented Frenchmen he had encountered during his brief residency in Louisiana to serve in New Orleans’s municipal government, in the hope that it would help the city’s French population maintain their position and influence under the new regime. To honor the memory of the “Martyrs of Louisiana,” whom Governor Alejandro O’Reilly had ordered executed in 1769 for refusing to submit to Spanish rule of Louisiana, Laussat named Jacques Philippe Villeré, the son of one of the patriots, to the governing body. Laussat also took pains to include two Americans on the municipal council.
Laussat next served as colonial prefect of Martinique until 1809, when the British successfully invaded the Caribbean island. He was captured and sent to England as a prisoner of war but was released at the end of 1809. From 1810 to 1814, Laussat acted as prefect in the Belgian cities of Antwerp and Jemmapes; in 1819 he was named administrator of French Guiana and governed there until 1823. For his service Laussat received the Cross of St. Louis and was made a baron. Laussat married Marie-Anne de Péborde in 1790, and they likely had four children: Zoë, Sophie, Camille, and a son (whose name is unknown). He died at his château of Bernadets, outside of Pau, France, in 1835.
Sources: Pierre Clément de Laussat, Memoirs of My Life to My Son … , trans. By Sister Agnes-Josephine Pastwa, ed. By Robert D. Bush (1978); Alcée Fortier, Louisiana, 3 vols. (1914).
This text was adapted from Pamela D. Arceneaux’s entry for the Dictionary of Louisiana Biography, a publication of the Louisiana Historical Association in cooperation with the Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. http://www.lahistory.org.
Cite This Entry
Chicago Manual of Style
Mizell-Nelson, Catherine. "Pierre Clément de Laussat." In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published August 23, 2013. http://www.knowla.org/entry/919/&view=summary.
Mizell-Nelson, Catherine. "Pierre Clément de Laussat." KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 23 Aug 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.
Would you like to learn more about this topic from books and other reading materials?
Kukla, John, Angelita Rosal, and Alfred E. Lemmon. A Guide to the Papers of Pierre Clement Laussat. New Orleans: The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1993.
Laussat, Pierre Clément de. Louisiana, Napoleon and the United States: An Autobiography of Pierre Clément de Laussat. Translated by Sister Agnes-Josephine Pastwa, Order of Saint Francis. Compiled by Joan LaVerne Lutz. Edited by Maurice Lebel. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1989.
Laussat, Pierre Clément de. Memoirs of My Life to My Son During the Years 1803 and After, Which I Spent in Public Service in Louisiana as Commissioner of the French Government for the Retrocession to France of That Colony and for Its Transfer to the United States. Translated by Sister Agnes-Josephine Pastwa, Order of Saint Francis. Edited by Robert D. Bush. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press/The Historic New Orleans Collection, 2003.
Powell, Lawrence N. The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.