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Michael Hahn vs. a Brick

Each week, historian Sean Michael Chick will highlight some of the country's unsung heroes during the Civil War era who could serve as positive replacements following the takedown of New Orleans' Confederate monuments. This week, learn about Louisiana politician Michael Hahn. 


Michael Hahn had one of the most unusual careers in Louisiana politics. He was a Bavarian, his father dying before he was born. He was brought to New Orleans in 1840, when his mother died of Yellow Fever the next year. Hahn was only eleven, but his older siblings took care of him. He was hobbled by a club foot, but proved to be exceptionally intelligent. By age 19, he was learning to become a lawyer under Christian Roselius. Roselius was a fellow German and one of the greatest lawyers of the time, and was dean of faculty at the University of Louisiana, which is today called Tulane.


Hahn became involved in politics, joining the Democratic Party, which in Louisiana was pro-immigration. In 1860 the party split between Stephen Douglas and John Breckinridge. Hahn supported Douglas, who was stridently pro-union. Hahn opposed secession, but unlike most he did not pledge loyalty to the Confedracy once secession was successful. After the Union military captured New Orleans, Hahn won a seat in Congress. Hahn took a moderate poisition during the war. He aligned himself with Nathaniel P. Banks, the military commander in Louisiana from 1863-1864. Together they pushed a program of education for former slaves, but very limited voting rights. Hahn espoused his ideas through the New Orleans True Delta.


Hahn won the governorship of Union-controlled Louisiana. He was the first German-American to be elected governor. His inaugration on March 4, 1864, was ostentaious: 20,000 turned out at Layeyette Square, there was a choir of schoolchldren, as well a parade with fireworks and over 300 muscians. Hahn proved to be flexible, almost compliant as governor. He was also optimistic, perhaps to the point of naiveté. His tenure was wracked by debate over black enfrachisement and when Louisiana should be brought back into the union. A year later he resigned to take a seat in the Senate, but he was barred from the chamber.


Hahn’s views on race became more radical in 1865. He began to push for full enfranchisement. He took part in the 1866 reform of Louisiana‘s Constitution of 1864. The meeting was broken up by a mob. The police, including many former Confederate soldiers, mostly stood aside. Some of the cops had orders to kill Hahn, while many rioters shot at him. He did not run but stood up, daring the crowd to shoot him. Instead, he was hit with a brick. Before the mob could kill Hahn, Chief of Police Thomas Adams and some of his men rescued Hahn, placing him in a commandeered carriage on Carondolet Street. When the mob moved in to kill Hahn, Adams drew his pistol and yelled “The man is dying. Leave him alone.”


Hahn survived and had one of the most successful political careers of any Republican. After editing the New Orleans Republican newspaper, Hahn moved to St. Charles Parish and founded Hahnville. He returned to politics in 1871, becoming speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives. By the 1880s the Democrats were ascendant. Hahn lost his fortune running in the New Orleans Ledger and his career seemed to be over. In 1884 he won a seat in the House of Represetatives. Hahn won with a coalition of Republicans, immigriants, and Demcrats disillusioned the corrupt Samuel D. McEnery. He died on March 15, 1886.


Hahn was among the most sucessful and resilient Republican politicians from the South. Although not above using patronage and lies to get his way, he was not particularly corrupt. He was steadfast in his loyalty to the Union. On black enfranchisement he was accused of being inconsistent. Arguably he was less an opportunist and more a man who was radicalized by the tumult of the Civil War and Reconstruction. His proud defiance during the 1866 riot earned him the respect of even his enemies. Today, the only thing that honors him is the town he founded. Of all the Reconstruction era Louisiana politcians, he more than most deserves a place of honor, whether it be as a statue or a street name.

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