Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Don Esteban Rodriguez Miró

Sometimes governmental officials and politicians do the right thing; and we should wonder at those moments of grace amid the usual weeds of corruption,  A truly shining example occurred in Louisiana in the 1790's with Don Esteban Rodriguez Miró.

In Louisianan Miró is chiefly remembered for two reasons: his speedy and effective rebuilding of the city after the disasterous fire of 1788, and for having prevented the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition in the territory.  This last act was an act of high courage, without a doubt.

The story as written by 19th century Louisiana historian Charles Gayarré:

"The reverend Capuchin, Antonio de Sedella, who had lately arrived in the province, wrote to the Governor to inform him that he, the holy father, had been appointed Commissary of the Inquisition; that in a letter of the 5th of December last, from the proper authority, this intelligence had been communicated to him, and that he had been requested to discharge his functions with the most exact fidelity and zeal, and in conformity with the royal will. Wherefore, after having made his investigations with the utmost secrecy and precaution, he notified Mirò that, in order to carry, as he was commanded, his instructions into perfect execution in all their parts, he might soon, at some late hour of the night, deem it necessary to require some guards to assist him in his operations.

Not many hours had elapsed since the reception of this communication by the Governor, when night came, and the representative of the Holy Inquisition was quietly reposing in bed, when he was roused from his sleep by a heavy knocking. He started up, and, opening his door, saw standing before him an officer and a file of grenadiers. Thinking that they had come to obey his commands, in consequence of his letter to the Governor, he said: 'My friends, I thank you and his Excellency for the readiness of this compliance with my request. But I have now no use for your services, and you shall be warned in time when you are wanted. Retire then, with the blessing of God.' Great was the stupefaction of the Friar when he was told that he was under arrest. 'What!' exclaimed he, 'will you dare lay your hands on a Commissary of the Holy Inquisition?' — 'I dare obey orders,' replied the undaunted officer, and the Reverend Father Antonio de Sedella was instantly carried on board of a vessel, which sailed the next day for Cadiz."

So much for Gayarré's purple prose.

As a little background, Louisiana was ceded to Spain by France in 1767.  The Louisianans had a brief revolution, which was crushed with a few hangings, and the new Spanish colony drifted off into the usual corruption.  In the 1790's fearing some New World manifestation of the French Revolution, the Crown sent the Inquisition in place.  Fray Antonio Sedella was, in effect, its enforcer.  He was granted extraordinary powers to root out all manner of unorthodoxy, including perhaps the use of torture! 

Governor Miró saw this as a bad thing that would depopulate the colony, so he kicked the good padre out!  Hasta la vista, Padre!  Miró's policy, approved by the Crown, had originally been to strengthen Spain's hold on Louisiana against the newly emergent United States and other powers by encouraging settlement; in doing this, he developed a practice of compromise: requiring the public practice of Catholicism, but ignoring private worship.  Louisianans at that time were Catholic predominantly, but relatively loose and nonorthodox in their practice.  This attitude towards religion there still persists today.

It is important to remember that the Spanish Inquisition had considerable teeth even in the 18th century: it could ruthlessly punish its enemies.  It was not beyond possibility that a governor of a minor colony could himself be the major offering in an auto-de-fé!

So remember Steve Miró and his grandes cojones de acero!  He  rose up to be a courageous leader when it was most important: he thwarted the only attempt to establish the Inquisition in what became eventually the United States.  Louisianans have cause for gratitude.


Anemone said...

He sounded like a great man.

Anonymous said...

It's nice to read about a politician that does the right thing, especially when it's risky.

Banana Oil said...

Apparence must have been deceiving. He looked like a Mama's boy.

Anonymous said...

So how bad can an auto de fe be? Isn't that an act of faith?

Bilbo said...

Nothing like someone willing to stand up against religious intolerance and bigotry. I think we need more Don Estebans today, particularly in the Middle East, but also here at home in the Bible Belt. Great historical insight ... thanks for telling the story!

eViL pOp TaRt said...

Esteban Rodriguez Miró was a product of the Eighteenth century Enlightment, when old stances and prejudices began to be replaced with the new thinking. But as Bilbo pointed out, that change in thinking is not universally found. There's still bastions of religious intolerance.

Anonymous: An auto de fé is a euphemistic term for a public execution, often by a burning at the stake.

Elvis Wearing a Bra on His Head said...

Very interesting.

Anonymous said...

Your essay was very interesting. People like Miro need to be heard about more in history. They are the ones that can make a difference, and should be held up as examples.

Anonymous said...

An amazing story. Miro deserves a prominent place as a true American hero!