When the Pierce administration dispatched Pierre Soulé to Madrid, he had instructions not to buy Cuba, but the administration’s hope that Cuba would soon free itself from Spain…or be freed. That hope came with less than the usual degree of uncertainty. John A. Quitman, fresh off beating the rap for his last violations of the Neutrality Act and no longer encumbered by his duties as governor of Mississippi, openly led the organization for just such an attempt.
Quitman had ample support, naturally, in New Orleans but also in Kentucky and New York. He furthermore had friends in the cabinet: Secretary of War Jefferson Davis and Attorney General Caleb Cushing. Quitman met with them, and probably with Pierce himself, in July 1853. Far from warning him off as the Neutrality Act might theoretically require of it, the administration told Quitman to go and go big. López’s tiny expeditions relied heavily on the hoped-for local uprising to swell their ranks. More men would naturally reduce that vulnerability.
A band of Cuban émigrés in New York deeded over the movement to Quitman, signing papers that gave him, as David Potter put it in The Impending Crisis:
complete control of all funds, the power to issue bonds and military commissions, the power to raise troops and charter vessels, and all the prerogatives of a dictator. Quitman was to devote these powers to the creation of an independent government in Cuba which would retain slavery; he was to receive $1 million if and when Cuba became free.
With the support of the junta in New York, the Pierce administration, and other politicians like Alexander Stephens, Quitman gathered together several thousand volunteers in New Orleans. Their Cuban contacts made plans for another uprising timed to coincide with the expedition’s arrival.
An expedition of several thousand did not simply happen without anybody noticing, least of all the Spanish. The junta made Quitman their dictator in August, 1853. In September, Madrid made the Marqués de la Pezuela captain general of Cuba. The Spanish aristocrat, on behalf of the Spanish reactionaries back home, embarked on a program just the reverse of Pierre Soulé’s politics. The French revolutionary wedded the European left to the American right. The Spanish reactionary came to defend empire by embracing the far left of American politics. Arriving in a Cuba that still practiced the African slave trade on a large scale, he harshly suppressed that trade. He went further and supported emancipation for all slaves brought to Cuba since 1835, which amounted to almost all of them. Then he anticipated the Emancipation Proclamation and organized free Cuban blacks into milita companies. De la Pezuela even went so far as to encourage racial intermarriage, a bridge too far for some American states into the 1970s. To top it all off, he prohibited Cuban whites from owning guns.
The Marqués de la Pezuela armed black men to fight against any filibuster expedition and any Cuban planters who decided to help it. To the South, that meant slave revolt and the usual defensive panic ensued. What if the slaves in Louisiana or Florida got wind of what went on in Cuba? They could get ideas. In the black belts, that kind of paranoia always lurked at the edges of the planter consciousness. Now Old Europe planned to quash American freedom and American slavery, largely the same cause to many, together. In a deeply religious society, where America’s religious mission to politically uplift the hemisphere bound tight to a religious vision sanctioning slavery, the new Cuban administration must have looked like the Antichrist howling just outside the door.