In revisiting the Cuba filibusters, I dropped one thread of the narrative that I should pick back up. Back in May of 1854, Louisiana’s John Slidell stood in the Senate and presented a resolution that the Congress should give Franklin Pierce the power to set aside the Neutrality Acts and generally tell John A. Quitman to go on his merry way. He did so in support of a like resolution by the state legislature that appointed him and on the grounds that the British had a conspiracy (parts 1, 2, 3, 4) with the Spanish to Africanize the island and turn Cuba into a base from which to harass American shipping and foment servile insurrection in the South. Slidell’s resolution did not win the approval of the Congress, even after Pierce asked for extraordinary powers relating to Cuba later on in August.
All of this leaves unanswered why Congress did not grant Pierce those powers. The same Congress assented to at least a reduced form of the Gadsden Purchase (parts 1, 2, 3) so it did not have a dogmatic opposition to territorial expansion. Pierce ran on an expansionist platform and promised more land in his inaugural address. Everybody in 1852 expected the Democracy to pick up where it left off in 1848 and continue painting the map red, white, and blue. Certainly the Kansas-Nebraska backlash complicated those efforts, but at least some Northerners would happily sign on to more American territory still. Most everyone believed that the United States had some kind of natural destiny to dominate the continent.
What happened? Nicaragua happened. As gentle readers might recall (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), few people wrote home from Nicaragua to comment on its remarkable stability and strong government. Internal divisions and rugged terrain did it no favors on those fronts. Yet Nicaragua sat astride a quick route across the Central American isthmus and thus drew the intense interest of major commercial powers like the United States and the United Kingdom keen on skipping the long haul around South America to reach the Pacific. A steamer line already ran down Nicaragua’s San Juan river to Lake Nicaragua and from there wagons and stagecoaches took goods and people the few miles to the Pacific coast. Cornelius Vanderbilt set up a steamer route between New York and the Pacific using Nicaragua to get people to California for the gold rush and his Accessory Transit Company continued to operate that route.
The United States thus had an obvious interest in Nicaragua. The United Kingdom had ill-defined claims to various parts of Central America, including British Honduras (now Belize) and the adjacent Mosquito Coast (now the Caribbean coast of Honduras and Nicaragua). Those claims overlapped with both the Nicaraguan isthmus route and the oft-proposed canal to make a direct sea connection to the Pacific. The Americans very much did not want the British to dominate an eventual canal through their control of its eastern terminus, a prospect made still more dreadful by various bouts of anglophobia in the American political class.
That anglophobia had some informing it. The British had moved into the Mosquito Coast when it looked like the United States might take larger sections of Mexico than it in fact did. The British guarantees to Spain over Cuba fit in here too, as did British efforts to deny the United States a naval base in the modern Dominican Republic, British efforts to preserve Hawaiian independence, British protests over a commercial convention with Ecuador, and real and perceived past efforts to establish some kind of protectorate over Texas. It looked very much like Albion intended to contain the United States and deny it its geographic, racial, political, and religious destiny.
I have the sense that I’ve pushed the notion that the South chose Kansas over Cuba to the point that a reader could take it too literally. While the choices of various Southern leaders, and Franklin Pierce, certainly brought about that outcome in the end it bears repeating that the choice here did not amount to the same thing as going to a store and picking one or the other off the rack. At no point did Jefferson Davis, by the grace of Calhoun King of the South, or anybody else have before them the explicit decision and power to take one place or the other for the benefit of American slavery.
To the degree that antebellum Southerners did make conscious choices that led to having a chance for slavery in Kansas but precluded stealing Cuba, they made those decisions together only because the Kansas crisis and the Cuba crisis happened largely at the same time. The best opening for Quitman’s filibusters came in the wake of the Black Warrior Affair and the Africanization panic (parts 1, 2, 3, 4). The seizure of the ship in particular gave them some cover against Northern objections, something Franklin Pierce surely understood when he strongly implied that he would start a war over it in his message to the House in March of 1854.
But that same month, the Kansas-Nebraska Act made it through the Senate after a seventeen hour marathon session that went all through a Friday night and into Saturday morning. The bill hit the House, where it would have the harder fight, just as the Cuba crisis really blew up. Confronted with both questions, both deeply entwined with slavery and thus deeply perilous, the Pierce administration seems to have walked back its steal first Cuba policy. We know that Pierce switched to trying to buy Cuba from the new instructions to Soulé in Madrid, but how much success he expected from those negotiations we can’t know.
That amounts to something like a deliberate choice, but if someone in the Pierce Cabinet made that choice explicitly, that person did so at a late date. All through the spring and summer, as Kansas-Nebraska debates raged in the House, as the Anthony Burns affair (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) sprung up, as the bill finally passed, and as the reaction set in in the North, Pierce seems to have maintained a course directed toward getting Cuba somehow. As late as early August, he repeated his saber-rattling message to the House. Only in November, after the Democracy took its electoral beating does Soulé receive his dressing down and the Ostend Manifesto went public, does Washington appear to completely give up the idea of a Cuban annexation. The costly Kansas controversy appears to have forced the administration to yield on the dream of a Caribbean empire.
Thus Samuel R. Walker’s eleventh hour plea for support in the pages of DeBow’s Review really did come at the last possible moment. Later that winter, Pierce had Quitman down to Washington and laid out for him just how thoroughly the Spanish had reinforced the island. By that time, the Democracy had bigger problems than an emancipated, Africanized Cuba. It had Know-Nothings and Republicans to face.
Back when I returned to the subject of Cuba filibustering, I said that I wanted to explore just how the South chose the questionable prospect of slavery expanded into Kansas over the sure thing of slavery in Cuba. I don’t think that I ever came out and said how that choice happened. This seems like a good moment to go back and unpack the narrative a bit.
Essentially, expansionist-minded Southerners had two opportunities to spread slavery in 1854 and 1855. They could bring the institution to Kansas, or they could bring Cuba with the institution to the Union. Each place had its attractions. If Cuba came into the Union, it must come in as a slave state. It already had slavery, so no one could complain about losing territory promised over to free soil. Even an eleventh hour emancipation poison pill from the departing Spanish could easily be reversed. Unlike the American Southwest, Cuba came thick with slaves and so no one could reasonably call it an undeclared region.
All in all, Cuban slavery looked very secure. The Spanish might threaten, cause panics, and inspire resolutions against the Neutrality Acts and conspiracy theories about British involvement (parts 1, 2, 3, 4), but a swift conquest would moot those fears. A fleeting emancipation could easily end with slavery reinstated. Geography would keep slave-stealing abolitionists away and offer self-stealing slaves fewer places to run. If the John A. Quitman and his filibusters could achieve a swift conquest, especially if aided by local revolts, it seems very reasonable to conclude that slavery would persist without disturbance on the island.
If Quitman could win his game of Grand Theft Island, the Union might not instantly accept Cuba. The Cubans might not instantly accept the Union. But the example of Texas, always on their minds, argued that if Cuba could maintain some kind of de facto independence long enough then somehow, annexation would come. While Texas came in at the price of a war and amid great controversy, nobody proposed giving it back. The imperialistic, missionary attitudes of nineteenth century Americans, convinced that progress expanded with the nation’s borders, could easily ensure that. Would Franklin Pierce, Jefferson Davis, Caleb Cushing, and Stephen Douglas really refuse Cuba offered up on a silver platter?
But much hangs on that little word ‘if’. If Quitman could take Cuba, if a revolt erupted that he could sail to aid, if he could sail, if he had the ships and men, if the law did not intervene, then all of this might come to pass. Kansas did not have slavery. Bringing it there would involve a fight. But no one save Indians would question the right of Americans to the land.
The Kansas question revolved not on whether expansionists could prevail against a foreign power and then smoothly consolidate their gains into the Union, but rather on whether they could prevail against other Americans. With Kansas adjacent to the Missouri black belt, drained by the same river, and slavery-friendly Missourians possessing a geographic leg up on the competition, that must have looked like the better gamble. Even if Southerners largely understood Kansas as a Missourian issue which they, as fellow slaveholders, had a duty to advance that still left them united in a way that filibustering did not. Lawless filibusters might come off as lovable rogues and high-spirited patriots in Louisiana, but many sections of the South looked on them less charitably than on legitimate, honorable military conquest or lawful purchase of more land (parts 1, 2, 3) from Mexico.
Looking back, we can say that the South made the wrong choice. We know that the North’s fury over being sold out did not abate but instead fueled the foundation of a new, avowedly antislavery party. We know that party nearly won the presidency in 1856 and did in 1860. We know that the Kansas-Nebraska Act brought Abraham Lincoln back into politics. They did not. With the two options before them, Kansas could very reasonably look like the safer bet. The South had dared Northern outrage, won, and endured the backlash over the fugitive slave act. Slavery in Kansas might ensure its spread, with time, to Utah and New Mexico. With a gloss of popular sovereignty, especially if freedom prevailed north of Kansas, they could reasonably have thought that everything would blow over.
This post draws from Samuel R. Walker’s filibustering advocacy in DeBow’s Review (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), but the passage says at least as much about constitutional thought in the late antebellum South as about filibustering. The simple, popular narrative has Southerners united by an intense localism and a set of shared propositions about the nature of the Union. These include the voluntary nature of the Union, the resting of ultimate sovereignty in state legislatures and conventions, the supremacy of local state law over federal enactments, and a constellation of other ideas variously summed up as nullification, states rights, and ultimately secession.
Those ideas really did exist in the minds of period Southerners, but they did not live there alone. Nor did they, as one sometimes hears, equally dominate the minds of Northerners. Conflicts over the nature of the state and freedom dominate American history, not happy consensus. That remains true even if one restricts consideration of what Americans thought to what white male Americans thought, as virtually everyone then did. Some Southerners and some Northerners believed those things. Others believed other things.
To whatever degree the antebellum South’s leaders believed the ideology ascribed to them, they spent most of the period acting in almost completely the opposite way. Unless it came to preserving slavery in the face of national movements against it, Southerners searched in vain for a situation where they could happily prefer to let states do as they would. This only makes sense, as the South consistently dominated the federal government and so usually had a de facto veto power on federal policy. Any fair reading of the decade before the Civil War testifies to that. If anything, Southern power in Washington reached a remarkable apex in the 1850s. Had secession not intervened, the Southern-dominated Supreme Court probably would have handed down a second Dred Scott-style ruling which would have eliminated the power of Northern states to forbid slavery within their bounds within a few years.
They knew all of that. The doctrinaire states rights ideology probably did not command a majority of the Southern ruling class until after the war. Even during the Secession Winter, the decisions of many states came contingently and as near things indeed. The Upper South stayed out of the rebellion until Sumter, but even South Carolina’s decision came in part thanks to a railroad opening and running its maiden voyage full of Savannah businessmen into Charleston at just the right time. Those businessmen assured the South’s most doctrinaire radicals that if they bolted the Union, Georgia would surely follow. Complaints about the timidity of moderates enervating the counter-revolution fill the writings of fire-eaters and their more sober but still radical counterparts within the Southern mainstream.
Walker gives us something quite like that:
It was a prevailing feeling when our Colonies had, by their united efforts, achieved their independence, that they should lose their recollection of their former separate positions as individual States in the greatness of the result achieved by their Union. This idea was a natural one: we and our fathers have been educated in it, and we seem to view our federal as a centralized government, rather than a federation of independent States, linked together by a league, offensive and defensive, with a common purpose of free government; a common interest in commercial prosperity; a common protection in war, and advancement in peace. A more enlightened view is beginning to prevail and extend among the people, as its necessity increases, and the philosophy of our system is properly considered.
Here we have the complete opposite of the popular narrative. Walker testifies to a nationalist mindset often overlooked in quick glances at the antebellum era. Reading between the lines just a little, he even tells us that nationalist thought generally prevailed and that ideas about states rights, nullification, and all the rest developed as a reaction against the North’s great population growth and increasingly vocal antislavery movement. Its necessity, to safeguard slavery, had increased in the minds of the slaveholding white South. But even in 1854, the ideology had not prevailed. Louisiana, fan of filibustering and home of DeBow’s Review, in particular had a nationalist bent despite its location in otherwise more radical Lower South.
Old Calhoun might have invented a Southern consensus and rooted it back in the foggy mists of the revolution as the official ideology of everyone, but each time he called on the South to join it he found no shortage of uninterested Southerners. Sometimes, as when it came to the Pacific railroad and the Missouri Compromise, he declined to even join himself.
Samuel R. Walker’s promotion of John A. Quitman’s filibustering against Cuba came around at last to the subject always lingering in the margins of his piece. I’ve nudged it back in often enough on my own and Walker has raised the issues a few times himself, but four pages in he finally tackles slavery in detail. He begins by asking the reader, in the pattern of past concerns, to consider Cuba’s future “lastly, and chiefly, as a Southern question.”
we will know that a feeling is rife at the North antagonistic to the institution of slavery-a feeling which is extending amongst many even of their men of education and liberal feelings. They make the same error which has lain at the bottom of this false philanthropy since its beginning (for slavery is much the older of the two); and this error lies in regarding the negro as a white man-in speaking of him and arguing of him thus. This is their chiefest error, and the germ of all their fanaticism.
At least for hardcore abolitionists, Walker had the right of it. I don’t know that the white North at large reached that point in the 1850s or 1860s. I don’t know that we have reached it now, though we are far closer. But Walker’s words tell us more about the minds of slaveholders and their racial consciousness. White must enslave black as black as they could not and could never be anything like white. The whole justification of the system, aside naked self-interest, rested on the division of humanity into a superior and an inferior race. The conception of race that Walker trades in here has been with us so long that it takes some effort to remember that it grew up in Virginia’s tobacco fields over a few generations in the seventeenth century. Before then, black men who came to the colony as slaves could serve out indentures, however involuntarily entered into, come out free, own slaves themselves, successfully sue whites in court, and generally seem to have enjoyed as much equality as any white man. Their grandchildren could do no such thing.
But I digress. Back to Walker and Cuba:
Although I believe the Union will endure so long as it is the interest of both sections of our country to be united, yet this fatal idea festers like a cancer at its heart, and may eat it up. The safety of the South is to be found only in the extension of its peculiar institutions, and the security of the Union in the safety of the South-towards the equator. The great beauty of our system of government is in its power of expansion. An hundred States may be governed under such a system as well as a few.
Walker draw out a key point here. While the security of slavery in the South concerns him greatly, he ultimately sees slavery as only safe if it can go out of the South and into new lands, a sort of Greater South reaching down toward the equator. The South cannot, per Walker, endure as a minority section in an increasingly unfriendly Union. It must grow out and take back the reverses inflicted on it in 1820, by reserving the Great Plains to freedom, and 1850, by giving California over to the same. The section needs a kind of defensive offensiveness to match the growing numbers and power of the North or the North must encircle and smother it bit by bit.
What better place to grow than Cuba?
New fields for a restless and enterprising population will demand all the energy and labor of the land; and in the blessings and in the returns of an unlimited commerce, the superfluous sympathies of our Northern brethren would be absorbed. Thus would the bonds of interest be drawn closer together between the North and the South, and their union be the more thoroughly cemented. With Cuba, an island seven hundred miles long, and capable of sustaining such an increased population, assimilated to our own in their government, what a splendid prospect of commercial eminence opens to the South! What wealth will float upon our waters! What a bright gem will she, “the Queen of the Antilles,” be in the coronet of the South, and how proudly will she wear it!
The profits and patriotic joys of expansion will enrich the South and leave enough for the discontented Yankees to forget all about antislavery politics. What could go wrong? Here, like on the fields of Kansas and later in the Dred Scott decision, Southern triumph and slavery’s advance would ultimately work to defuse the entire explosive controversy and bring the Union back together.
Samuel R. Walker advertised Quitman’s filibustering expedition against Spanish Cuba by appeals to patriotism, to religion, to the missionary spirit of the American people, and to their wish for domestic tranquility in a healthy Union. He came around at last to another hallowed American folkway: making money. Taking Cuba would surely enrich the filibusters. The Cuban Junta promised Quitman millions and a plantation. The invaders would surely find a few propertied loyalists to dispossess and share that booty amongst themselves. But even for those who did not go or invest in the effort themselves, profits beckoned.
Look at it as a commercial question, and the necessity of a change in the political condition of the Island of Cuba appeals with an irresistible power to the mercantile mind of this country, and to that of the commercial world. See how our commerce is harassed by an island so governed, guarding the mouth of the mightiest river in the world, whose shores are bordered by the rich States of the West, and bearing on its bosom their untold wealth-this land governed by a jealous, unfriendly, and pusillanimous power, whose only aim seems to be, to embarrass all intercourse with us-tampering with our national honor, just so far as they may believe their weakness will be their protection-vaunting with the boldness of a braggart, and trembling with the trepidation of a coward-driving, by high and excessive duties, all our products from her markets, when the articles we produce are those they most need-our citizens are insulted even as the Creoles themselves! How long would England or France endure a condition of things like this? How long would they have suffered such an incubus to have existed at the outlet of even their petty rivers, weighing down their commercial advancement, and not have removed the cause?
Walker knew how to play his audience, most especially commercially minded and filibuster friendly New Orleans merchants. But even when appealing to their self-interest he takes care to dress it up in patriotic language. The Spanish insulted the national honor by interfering with the shipping routes. The British and French would not stand for such insulting customs shenanigans. Patriotism and profit ran close together.
Taking Cuba would remove all those burdens to trade. But if sweet reason and a handy carrot could not woo supporters unaided, Walker had a stick too:
Let Cuba be Africanized, and then with another San Domingo [Haiti] blocking the mouth of the Mississippi, all we can do by internal improvements will help us little. Our seas will be divested of ships, and those white-winged birds of commerce will fly to other oceans, or furl their pinions, and droop upon our waters.
Accepting the status quo did not mean getting more of the status quo in return. Who knew what the Spanish would do next, with the British and French plotting (1, 2, 3, 4) with them? They might go ahead with their terrifying program to free the slaves anyway, and turn the present state of uncertainty and harassment into a far more active campaign of obstructing trade. Inaction might mean not just accepting the present circumstances, but rather inviting far worse calamities. Americans must wake up. They had profits to lose as well as to gain. By taking Cuba, they could eliminate the risk of loss and ensure the gains.
The readers of DeBow’s Review now had Samuel R. Walker’s explanation of the Cuban situation. To save American and Cuban slavery, and the Union, Cuba just had to come into American hands. Achieving that end without wrecking Cuban slavery along the way and thus making the whole exercise pointless meant waiting for a domestic revolt that filibusters like Walker’s boss, Mississippi’s ex-governor John A. Quitman, sweeping in to ensure the success of the revolt. Local Cuban revolutionary elements did exist and had risen before. Quitman did have an army poised and ready, more or less. Once the filibusters arrived they would naturally guide Cuba toward its destiny within the Union.
But they did have a problem: the Neutrality Acts made filibustering illegal. That put anybody who signed on with Quitman and Walker at risk of prosecution. Past filibustering expeditions had ended when the Navy arrived and seized their ships. Even then Quitman had a bond out pledging that he would not break the Neutrality Acts for some months. The taint of criminality might not deter a real soldier of fortune sort, but Quitman cared about his reputation and many potential financiers had similar concerns. A rootless adventurer had little to lose, but a successful expedition required the aid of men of property and substance as well. They would not lightly break such laws. Walker assured his readers that they would “scrupulously avoid any violation of the neutrality law” but continued to call it
a law which is a libel upon our free institutions-a similar law to which, we believe, is not found in the code of any other civilized nation. It is a mockery of our Constitution-an ovation from obsequious Republicanism to courtly Royalty. Kossuth and Mazzini may plan the liberation of their countrymen, and plot against oppressive governments in monarchical England, but in republican American it is criminal, and the suspected parties must be annoyed by the means of the government, squandered in shameful and ineffectual prosecutions.
What business did free America have in protecting the crusty old Spanish empire? Walker pledged obedience to the law even as he made the case for casting it aside, just as the state of Louisiana and John Slidell (1, 2, 3, 4) had suggested. Walker’s appeal captures much of the romantic, nationalistic idealism of antebellum America’s conception of itself:
View this question, if you will, in a national light. It is the first outpouring of American feeling from the great valley of the West, which must sweep before it the rotten and tottering fabrics of the absolutism of the Old World has set up in the New. It is the first crusade of the people against the divine right sacrilegiously claimed by imbecile king-craft. Our people do-the Government must sympathize with it. The existence of an island peopled by a race of intelligent men, so ready for the reception of, and so imbued with American ideas, with a social institution identified with that of all the Southern and South-western States, and this race ruled simply by the force of the bayonet, is, in this age, an anomaly to monstrous to be borne.
Walker transforms the filibuster into freedom’s missionary, not a pirate out for gain or a conquistador for glory but rather the light of the world, pushing away ancient darkness for a new birth of freedom and slavery. He would free Cuba’s slaveholders, teach them the true religion of the American national creed, and secure them in their rights, most especially those to human property, and everyone would live happily ever after. Truth, justice, and the American way must and would prevail.
In November of 1854, Samuel R. Walker, associate of Cuba filibuster John A. Quitman, told to the readers of DeBow’s Review that for the safety of the whites of Cuba, of the slaveholding whites of the American South, and for the safety of the Union, the world’s last best hope for liberty, the island must come into the Union. But it must come in with its slavery intact. A war would spoil that hope at once, as the Spanish would surely order emancipation and arm Cuba’s slaves to defend their freedom against Americans come ashore with chains in hand. Spain would never sell the island, but even if a miracle happened and it did the corrupt, hateful Spaniards might poison the feast for slavery on their way out by issuing emancipation decrees in advance of the date of sail. Thus, Cuba must come into the Union by the path paved by Texas: a domestic revolution with Americans coming to join the fray.
Here Walker hit on a substantial difficulty. While Cuba and Texas both had the benefit of considerable distance from the central authority that possessed them, Texas had the benefit of a sparse population easily united and, thanks to only lines on a map and the Sabine river between them, a handy supply of American Southerners eager to insert themselves into a brewing revolution. With small numbers of the right sort of white person on hand, a flood of southerners could quickly turn any revolution into one very much of their own liking. Why, they even had Texans bent on revolution who hailed largely from the South and who revolted in part because the Mexican authorities tried to sever their commercial ties to their old homes.
Cuba, by contrast, had a Creole population. While some southerners saw them as essentially white, no small thing to nineteenth century Americans, they did not share a strong, common history or culture except insofar as both had extensive experience with plantation slavery. Would they really flow together like two drops of water with Americans rushing to their aid the moment the United States set aside the Neutrality Acts and gave Quitman and his filibusters national blessing? Certainly Quitman had Cuban exiles on his side, but his little army would come full of Americans. The Cubans actually on the island might not welcome them. While some might accept annexation, possibly with an American-dominated government during a brief independent interlude, to others that would only come down to another colonial power taking control.
Walker owned up to the difficulty. The Cubans wanted their independence, not a new set of masters. The filibusters knew that and would go anyway. Their patriotic spirit demanded it. A revolution without external help would surely fail. Thus, naturally, the native Cuban revolutionaries would welcome the filibusters with open arms. They had the same enemy. Perhaps later they would sort out the rest. The lure of freedom trumped all other concerns. Walker knew it did. After reporting a series of motions, protests, and the suppression of a secret society Walker got to the meat of Cuban revolutionary history:
They evinced it [their commitment to revolution] by an imperfect plan of revolution, which failed in 1848, and by the ill-fated expeditions of 1850 and 1851, when a band of our gallant countrymen were murdered under circumstances of so much ruthlessness and barbarity-whose blood cries out aloud from the ground, even now, for vengeance; when that gallant and ill-fated general who led them paid the forfeit of his daring with his life. But he has not died in vain. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Future generations of his enfranchised countrymen will revere him as a hero, and the dark-eyed daughters of his “beloved Cuba” will deck his grave, as a hallowed spot, with the fairest, freshest flowers, and his memory will live ever in the hearts of his countrymen.
They have evinced their desire to be free, in 1854, by their untiring efforts to direct public sentiment in this country to the matter of their condition and desires; by the accumulation of the means of war, in the midst of dangers actually incomprehensible to an American mind. They have done more than Poland, Hungary, or Italy; for they have shown a disposition to assist themselves in a practical, sensible manner, in accordance with the difficulties which surrounded them, and in the only manner in which success can be accomplished.
Fair enough, Cubans had risen up against Spanish rule without the help of invading Americans. Even then some revolutionary groups operated on the island. If past expeditions had gone off to their deaths, that did not mean that Cuba would never rise to aid a filibustering invasion. Completely aside slavery, the Spanish had given many Cubans reason to want out of their empire. Ill-timed and ill-fated expeditions did not have to continue forever. The broad strokes of the plan all seemed to fit together.
While we can’t take Walker as a disinterested party, he does have a few legitimate points and has grappled with the practical difficulties of revolution. Underneath all the nineteenth century romantic adventure and idealism, and the horrific proslavery pandering, one can see how filibustering could have worked out. If Cuba had more people than Texas, those people had a far more up close and personal experience of Spanish brutality than the Texans had with its Mexican counterpart. They had at least as much reason to revolt as a Texan did and more people could mean more revolutionaries on the ground to join up with incoming Americans.
Samuel R. Walker, associate of Cuba filibuster John A. Quitman, took to the pages of DeBow’s Review in November of 1854 with a last-ditch effort to drum up support for taking the island from Spain. He began by emphasizing its importance to the Union and articulating a domino theory of emancipation: Should the slaves of Cuba receive their freedom, it would inflame the slaves of America to rebel. The South could not risk such a thing and to save itself from racial annihilation might have to break the Union. But taking Cuba by force would only ensure that Cuban emancipation proceeded. Thus the United States could not war upon Spain to seize the island, despite what Pierre Soulé and company thought in the Ostend Manifesto and Franklin Pierce briefly pondered.
Walker moved to the obvious second option. Couldn’t the United States buy Cuba?
The plan of acquiring Cuba by purchase, if not obnoxious to all the objections which attach to its acquisition by conquest, yet many of these, applicable in the latter case, apply with equal force in the former; with this insuperable objection on the part of the Southern States, that it would introduce into our Union a State burdened with such decrees as have been already ordained, as well as such as might be hereafter enacted by the existing government, respecting the status of the negro, between this and the date of purchase. All these the power purchasing would be compelled to maintain and to carry out. All of these are and would be at war with a proper administration of the domestic policy of the South.
Walker had a point. Any purchase deal would be negotiated in advance and take place on a scheduled date. One does not buy islands by going out to Islands-R-Us and picking one off the shelf on a whim. The Spanish could poison the deal after the fact with some kind of emancipation policy. Once freed, the former slaves would need re-enslaving and that struggle would probably involve great effort. It might erupt into an island-spanning slave revolt to inspire slaves across the water in the United States to join in. That struggle would also surely create a dramatic controversy in Washington. The South might prevail then, as it had before, but that victory could be another of the Pyrrhic kind which it spent the 1850s perfecting.
But really, purchase discussion amounted to a sophisticated way to accomplish nothing and feel otherwise:
This question, however, will never arise. Spain will never sell Cuba. It is not probable that her overweening pride will be drowned in her avarice, when so large a portion of the purchase money will go to her creditors, and not into the pockets of her corrupt administration.
This naturally brought Walker to the obvious conclusion for a filibuster:
If we get Cuba, we must get it in another way; and the road is open. Let but the United States Government hold off, and Cuba will free herself in a short time. So long as the government of Spain has to deal only with a domestic foe, she will be confident in her strength to quell the revolution, and will not, we may hope, discover her error, until too late to remedy it; but the attack of so powerful an adversary as the United States will, on the very first hostile demonstration, bring down the decree. If we acquire Cuba, we must acquire her as we acquired Texas.
From the Pens of Filibusters: part 1
Samuel R. Walker, one of Cuba filibuster John A. Quitman’s associates, began his case for the expedition in the pages of the November, 1854 DeBow’s Review by laying out the stakes. The future of not just slavery and the white race in Cuba, but also slavery in the American South and thus its future in the Union hung in the balance. Without Cuban slavery secure, American slavery could never be secure. Without American slavery secure, the slave states could not remain in the Union. Without the Union, freedom’s lone hope in the world died. Most nineteenth century white Americans thought similar things about the Union. Most white Southerners thought the same things about slavery. Only the Cuban connection, and how Walker and Louisiana senator John Slidell drew Britain and France into the issue as scheming masterminds, presented substantial controversy within the South.
But Walker skipped over those controversies. “All admit the necessity of action” he began,
but it is as to what manner of action is best calculated to achieve the end in view, that is of the chiefest importance in this matter; and it is to this point that the Cubans, and the friends to the Cuban cause, would ask the attentive consideration of Congress, the Government and the people.
We all know the problem. We only need to find a solution for it. Fortunately, Samuel R. Walker set himself the task of reviewing possible solutions. Did he propose war, as Franklin Pierce had briefly threatened and Pierre Soulé had pursued on his own initiative? Surely not:
No true friend of Cuba will for a moment desire any hostile action at this time, on the part of the United States, towards Spain. It is the opinion of the Cubans, and of our most substantial and influential men here and elsewhere, favorable to this cause, that such a step would be destructive to every hope for the salvation of Cuba. The first gun fired by an American ship of war on the coast of that island, would be the signal for the sacrifice of all property of the Creoles, and all this accomplished by a single decree, which it is is as well known at Washington as here, the Captain-General is authorized at his discretion to promulgate. The United States, taking the island after the promulgation of such a decree, would hold but a worthless wreck. A crown robbed of its jewels, would be all that they would gain by such unfortunate action. Taking it too in such a condition, they could never again return the savage and brutal population to their servile state, for this, if no other reason, that the fanaticism of the North would rear the banner of civil war to prevent such a consummation. All the Compromise and Nebraska Bills in the world would not create such discussion and distraction. A contest would commence, which would end in the dismemberment of the Union.
Walker thought much better of the North than the evidence probably warrants. I don’t know that if the emancipation genie got out of the bottle in Cuba, the slaves could not be forced back into slavery. Emancipation could prove fleeting, a decree quickly issued and quickly repudiated. Furthermore, Cuba had slavery already and so might fit into northern minds as not a territory taken from them, as the Slave Power had purloined Nebraska, but rather as an established slave regime which antislavery men routinely made no direct efforts to threaten. Perhaps annexation would have driven more antislavery men over into abolition and raised the political stock of the antislavery movement in the North, as Nebraska did, but the two situations do not seem all that similar. Precious few Northerners grew up thinking that they had a future in Cuba some years down the road.
But as disrupted slave system would be very dangerous for the South. The expansionists wanted Cuba to make it a new slave state. If its native slaveholders fled or suffered dispossession, they could not ally with the slaveholding white South and help redress its reverses in Congress. Likewise without slavery on sound footing in Cuba, why would slaveholders move there when they had safer bets expanding in Arkansas and Texas? Such doubts kept them from Kansas far nearer to home.
That ruled out taking the Cuba by conventional war.