The dream of seizing Cuba for America and for slavery did not begin with Franklin Pierce’s administration. The last Democrat to occupy the White House, James K. Polk, scheduled the acquisition as the next step after the Mexican War. As with Mexico, Polk dispatched a minister with an offer to buy the land in question. That minister, Romulus M. Saunders of North Carolina, arrived in Madrid and made quite a splash. According to Secretary of State James Buchanan, Saunders barely spoke English. He certainly spoke no Spanish.
With such obvious diplomatic skills, Saunders so won over his Spanish counterpart that the latter promised he’d rather see Cuba sink than sell it to the United States. But even supposing Saunders had the skills to carry out the deal, and that the Spanish wanted to sell, the resulting treaty would have had to pass muster with the Whigs in Congress that lately favored the Wilmot Proviso. Certainly no time remained for Polk to arrange another war. The Whigs won the election of 1848 and for four years expansion dropped off the national agenda, officially.
Certainly the Whigs did not have the same enthusiasm as the Democrats for expansion. They spent years fighting against Texas annexation, against the Mexican War, and against taking the largest possible slice out of Mexico after the war. But would a Whig administration refuse territory that offered itself to the nation? Henry Clay’s attempt to have that question both ways on the subject of Texas helped cost him the election of 1844 to Polk. Furthermore, if the Whigs could bend enough to accept the Mexican Cession and nominate a general from the war most of them opposed for president twice in a row, surely they could bend for a fait accompli.
Unlike Texas, Cuba did not have a large population of American émigrés demanding, or even interested in, annexation. Instead Cuba had a would-be revolutionary, Venezuela-born Narciso López, that fled the island after the Spanish caught wind of his plan to stage a planter uprising and started making arrests. López gathered a force of six hundred to steal away the island and chartered three ships to carry them from their gathering point at Round Island, Mississippi.
To command his army, Lopez sought Mexican War hero and United States Senator Jefferson Davis and plied him with promises of hard cash and a coffee plantation. Davis passed but recommended López ask a promising officer he knew from his time in Mexico, Virginia’s Robert E. Lee. Lee, who could probably have used the money and plantation far more than Davis, gave the proposal some thought but also passed. López resolved to lead the army himself.
López’s recruitment, chartering of ships, and audiences with prominent Americans drew the notice of the Mexican War hero just lately arrived in the White House. Zachary Taylor cared little for filibustering and dusted off the Neutrality Act of 1817, which itself reiterated a policy going back to Washington’s time that the United States did not permit its citizens to wage war on other nations except when Congress had also declared war on those same nations. Violators faced fines and a few years in prison. Taylor dispatched the navy to Round Island to seize the ships and keep Lopez’s little army from going anywhere.