Pierce in Washington and Soulé in Madrid

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

The third attempt to steal Cuba away from Spain ended with its ringleaders captured, many executed, and the rest imprisoned until the Fillmore administration secured their release. The executions prompted a New Orleans mob to riot and attack the Spanish consulate. But another failure, going three for three now, only momentarily dampened enthusiasm for filibustering.

The filibusters and their friends had good reason to reason to hope for a more successful future. Franklin Pierce endorsed expansion in his inaugural address and once sworn in took steps to show he meant it as more than a sop to a powerful Democratic constituency. He put William L. Marcy of New York, Polk’s Secretary of War, in charge of the State Department. For Secretary of War, Pierce chose no less a Southern radical and expansionist than Jefferson Davis. He sent Edwin de Leon, one of the founders of the expansionist Young America movement, as consul-general to Egypt and John O’Sullivan, the man who coined the phrase Manifest Destiny and had raised sufficient money for Narciso López to earn himself an indictment under the Neutrality Act, as minister to Portugal. The latter two posts hardly put their occupants into the limelight, but the fact that Pierce went so far as to reward such conspicuous expansionists with even minor posts had to send a signal to their supporters that the administration stood with them.

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

Looking at the Pierce administration through Spanish eyes, however, meant looking at Pierre Soulé. The French exiled Soulé from his native land for his revolutionary politics, let him back in, and then imprisoned him for continuing on his previous course. Soulé escaped and came at length to Louisiana. Somewhere along that path he improbably combined European revolutionary radicalism with an abiding love for slavery. In dispatching him to Madrid, Pierce sent a man who spent his time in the Senate eulogizing Narciso López. When he departed from New York, a junta of expatriate Cubans sung his praises.

His politics alone made Soulé a poor fit for the Madrid post. His temperament ill-suited him to any diplomatic position. Soulé’s diplomatic career involved wounding the French Ambassador in a duel on account of a third party commenting on his wife’s cleavage. When Cuban authorities seized the Black Warrior, an American ship docked at Havana, he exceeded his instructions to protest by delivering a forty-eight hour ultimatum. The Spanish ignored it. Within four months, Soulé had involved himself with Spanish revolutionaries to the point that the government thought he paid them. Soulé reported back to Marcy that those revolutionaries promised to hand over Cuba in exchange for $300,000.

Did the Pierce administration actually support all of this? Leaving aside that one could not expect an ambassador to require instruction on avoiding duelling with his peers and so one can hardly fault Washington for neglecting the point, Soulé arrived with instructions forbidding him from negotiating for Cuba’s purchase. Pierce, like Polk before him, certainly knew the Spanish had no interest in selling. But ruling out a purchase did not exclude the possibility of acquiring Cuba through other means. Soulé knew that the administration preferred that Cuba either stage a Texas-style revolution or have one staged for it.

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