The Weird Adventures of William Walker #1

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

History records William Walker’s birthplace as Nashville, Tennessee and his birth date as May 8, 1824. His life story reads like the imaginative product of the next century, one part pulp fiction and one part comic book. He has the alliterative name and even a marketing-friendly title: “the gray-eyed man of destiny.” In reading about him, I keep picturing him in tights and punching a gorilla with a ray gun  A child prodigy, Walker graduated from the University of Nashville at the ripe old age of fourteen. He then spent two years in Europe, studying medicine in Scotland, the Netherlands, France, and the Grand Duchy of Baden before finally taking a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Walker’s time in Europe exposed him to the revolutions of 1848 and must have helped inspire his own romantic ambitions to begin the world anew.

Medicine did not suit Walker well enough, so he decamped from Philadelphia to read law in New Orleans. Law did not satisfy him and Walker turned to journalism, investing in and taking editorial control of the New Orleans Crescent. Then the Gold Rush drew him to California, where he worked as a crusading journalist in San Francisco. That work helped inspire a vigilante movement against crime in the lawless boom town. He did not let his five feet and two inches keep him from personal hazards either. Walker fought three duels and came away twice wounded. But California could not contain Walker’s restless spirit and he went south in 1853, seeking permission from Mexican authorities to establish a colony in the sparsely populated Mexican northwest as a hedge against Indian raids into California.

The Mexicans had heard this kind of proposal before. Few people lived up there, so why not import settlers? They would hold the territory, develop it, give up tax revenue, and keep it from the hands of land-hungry nations nearby. That worked out horribly for Mexico when Americans came into Texas. Why would it work better when Americans came into Baja California or adjacent Sonora, both hard up against the new American border? The Mexicans, understandably, passed.

Walker would not take no for an answer. He recruited a band of forty-five men, all armed to the teeth, largely from Kentucky and his native Tennessee, and funded their expedition with promises of land in Sonora, On October 15, 1853, a year to the day before the Ostend Manifesto , he and his band set sail. Three weeks later, they seized the local capital, La Paz. On November 3, 1853, Walker declared La Paz the capital of the Republic of Lower California, appointed himself president, and instituted the laws of Louisiana as the republic’s new code. In so doing, he voided Mexico’s abolition of slavery.

Walker’s success made him a sensation and soon two hundred more men joined him. His funding came in exchange for lands in Sonora. He held, to whatever degree two hundred and forty-five retreating men could hold it, only Baja California. Sonora waited across the Gulf of California and with it Walker’s chance to pay off his supporters and proceed with his mission to, in James McPherson’s words:

subdue the Apaches, bring the blessings of American civilization and Anglo-Saxon energy to these benighted Mexican provinces, and incidentally to exploit Sonora’s gold and silver deposits.

To achieve those ambitions, Walker annexed Sonora by presidential fiat and declared it and Baja California the two states of his new Republic of Sonora on January 10, 1854. With his small army, Walker then crossed mountains and the Colorado River to seize their new province. The Mexican government took an interest and clashed with Walker’s ill-supplied, inexperienced, and mutinous troops. Fifty deserted and the rest fell back from the Mexican advance. Thirty-four survivors accompanied Walker in May as he rushed back across the border to surrender to American authorities in San Diego.

The Americans put Walker on trial for violating the Neutrality Act. He had, after all, waged an illegal war against Mexico. But San Francisco, and plenty of Southerners back east, called Walker a hero. His jury listened to the evidence against him and weighed it carefully despite Walker’s local popularity. Doubtless they wrestled with deep concerns about law and morality, focused keenly on questions of fact, and did their utmost to fulfill their civic duty in the eight minutes they required to acquit him.

What’s a Company? A Regiment?

I have read, forgotten, and reread just how many men went into any given Civil War formation many times. They all sound so similar to my civilian ears that keeping them straight requires a lot of work even before allowing for how strength on paper rarely matched strength on the ground. But here’s Gary Adelman explaining it:

Mind how he refers to units coming from the same town or county. Recruiting generally went that way, with predictable results when a unit really got hit hard.

Mexican Dreams Deferred

Nicholas Trist

Nicholas Trist

Though frustrated on Cuba, American expansionists had other locales to draw their eyes. The nation just recently took away a third of Mexico, why not take more? In fact, the United States might have done just that. The Polk administration first wanted only California, New Mexico, and resolution of the Texas border dispute in its favor. One might expect that massive expanse of land, as large as all Western Europe, to satisfy the expansionists. If they could make five new slave states from Texan territory, they could certainly make at least five or six more from the Mexican Cession. Polk’s instructions to his negotiator in Mexico City, Nicholas Trist, stated just that aim.

Battlefield success whetted territorial appetites and filled dreams with visions of a still grander acquisition. Mexico proved so weak and the United States so strong, why not take the whole country? A serious movement formed in the Democratic Party for just that even as the Whigs rallied behind No Territory. But the Democracy might concede and suffer the continued existence of a Mexican state at the low price of additional territory south of the Rio Grande. With those Manifest Destiny dreams spurring him on, Polk recalled Trist in October, 1847.

After wrestling with Santa Anna for some time to secure merely half his country for the United States, Trist felt he had just began to make progress and so wrote back a long letter explaining why he chose to remain. Polk’s envoy depart from his instructions in one other way: Polk meant for him to collect Baja California in addition to Upper California. Trist demurred.

When the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo came into Polk’s hands in February, 1848, he overcame his initial impulse to toss it and submitted it to the Senate with the implicit threat that if the Whigs blocked its ratification, he might go back and get still more land from Mexico on top of making them pay the political cost of opposing expansion.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

The expansionists had one last go of it in the Senate. Jefferson Davis, with the support of both Texan senators, Stephen Douglas of Illinois, a few other Northerners and several Southern senators proposed to take all of northeastern Mexico by amendment. The Democracy’s cooler heads, and Calhoun who opposed taking more of Mexico on the grounds that it simply had too many Mexicans for a white man’s Union, prevailed. The amendment’s opposite party twin, a Whig initiative to remove all the Mexican Cession and take only the disputed Texan territory, likewise failed.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

But Mexico in the 1850s did not look any stronger than Mexico in the late 1840s when the United States easily dismembered it. Another war, or a handy filibuster on the Texas model, could easily carry off more. Mexico, unlike Cuba, lacked a European parent with European allies to fear. Furthermore, the northern reaches of Mexico did not have the same dense population that Cuba did so future Mexican acquisitions could follow the Cession’s example in opening new lands for Americans and American slavery.

When Franklin Pierce replaced Millard Fillmore in the White House, he endorsed the Mexican War and staffed his administration with men of solid expansionist ideals, chief among them Mexico Gang alumni from the Polk years. Even as Pierce gave John Quitman his pep talk and blessing, he looked to continue their work against Mexico. The Democracy would not have to wait any longer.

Manifest Destiny for Almost Everyone

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

I have until now minimized my use of the phrase in the title, but one can’t go without it forever. In school, I learned that Manifest Destiny enjoyed great support in the antebellum United States. Disputing the point seems futile, given a comparison of the nation’s borders in 1790 or 1800 and those same borders in 1850. But expansion had its critics too. Some of Jefferson’s own party saw him as a traitor to its principles for the Louisiana Purchase. The annexation of Texas proved too controversial to get through the Congress with a proper treaty, so John Tyler finessed it via a joint resolution with a slim and sectional majority. Whigs in the North and South at the time did not necessarily mind expansion, but did not like expansion with a war thereafter and preferred to grow the nation by treaty and purchase.

Expansion found its adherents chiefly in the South and chiefly for the cause of slavery. But some Northerners, including Stephen Douglas, supported expansion. So did John Quincy Adams, no friend to slavery, right up until Texas bound it to the peculiar institution in his mind. The chief supporters of a policy need not be it sole supporters.

In understanding expansionism and the kind of belief in an inevitable racial and national progress that would spread the United States across the continent which drove it, I want to explore a two different kinds of expansion and their nuances. All fit under the rhetorical rubric of Manifest Destiny, the nation’s redeeming, regenerating, divinely sanctioned place as a shining city on the hill, a light to the world, an oracle of progress, and so forth. They don’t all fit within the usual generalizations.

Expansion by definition involves space; things that take up more space than previously have expanded. But expansionism involves both more and less than that. Painting a larger section of the map in red, white, and blue forms a part of expansion, but not all of it. Legal expansion, de jure territorial growth, makes enough intuitive sense that I don’t think it requires a lot more explanation. Most of what I have read on expansion has focused on it and the generalizations hold fairly well here. Southerners had more interest in it than Northerners and their interest bound tight to their interest in growing slavery. As a matter of simple pragmatism, taking on old and enfeebled empires like Spain or new and weak ones like Mexico made more sense than collision with the world’s leading superpower, and so even absent those sectional interests one would expect legal expansion to skew West and South.

But all that land we took from Mexico in one of history’s greatest acts of armed robbery came with decidedly few people who counted to nineteenth century Americans. To them, almost nobody lived in the Mexican Cession. White, Protestant Americans could flood in and set up their independent little farms to enjoy the kind of self-sufficient freedom from the constraints of others and decide their own involvement in the market economy in a way once possible back East but now living on only in the history books. That demographic expansion did not always come with legal expansion. The future Texans expanded demographically before they did legally. So too did the Mormons in Utah, though they hardly meant that when they left the United States.

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Conversely, Cuba offered opportunities for some demographic expansion, but chiefly for men like Quitman who involved themselves in stealing it away from Spain. The island had European settlement going back farther than all of North America and an established, wealthy planter class. A Cuban annexation would have helped the South politically, but not given the same kind of opportunities to vast numbers of Americans who took a personal interest in a kind of demographic expansionism. But those vast multitudes did have one genuinely, nigh-universally popular form of demographic expansionism: going west.

After the Mexican War, the United States owned legal title to all the land between British Canada and Mexico, from sea to sea. Those vast, “empty” lands held the nation’s future and the personal futures and hoped-for fortunes of at least hundreds of thousands of Americans of both sections. They certainly saw westward demographic expansion as inevitable and in the national interest. Who was using all that land anyway, a bunch of Indians? Surely not. They don’t differ so much from the future Texans, except in that the United States already owned the territory they wanted to settle. Small farmers in the Midwest might not care about Cuba and might have opposed the Mexican war, but they had a very keen interest in the land just over the Missouri river in the future Kansas, Nebraska, and Dakotas.

That interest expressed a kind of Manifest Destiny, if an internal one that involved less filibustering and more acts of Congress. In the old Southwest, it had an exponent in Andrew Jackson and operation in his Indian Removal program. But twenty years had filled in some of that territory, if perhaps not as much as Southern radicals feared, and left Southerners to look to Texas and Arkansas for the future. Waves of white settlement had done the same to sections of the old Northwest, pushing the frontier further out west every year. Here, as with Mexico, sat land filled only with people who did not really matter and who only stood in the way of the national destiny and personal aspirations of the settlers. In that sense, Manifest Destiny really did represent something close to a national consensus even if it always fell short of that in the realm of international politics.

That Manifest Destiny proved far more dangerous to the nation’s domestic harmony than the more sectional interest in Cuba and helped ignite the great sectional crisis that undid the Armistice’s finality all of four years later.

The Manifesto Exposed

A cartoon mocking the Ostend Manifesto with its own text

A cartoon mocking the Ostend Manifesto with its own text

A small programming note, Gentle Readers:

Over the past two weeks I have discovered a fascination with the whole business of stealing or, if theft failed, buying Cuba. I consequently made an investment in some more dedicated works on the subject. Copies of Basil Rauch’s The American Interest in Cuba, 1848-1855 and hopefully the correct volume of Allen Nevins’ Ordeal of the Union are on their way to me. I plan to go through them and then dig into William W. Freehling’s The Road to Disunion: Secessionists Triumphant and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. I will surely have more to say on the subject then.

But enough about me.

William L. Marcy

William L. Marcy

Secretary of State William L. Marcy certainly meant for whatever came out of the meeting in Ostend to remain secret, even if he did not anticipate the radical document that Buchanan, Mason, and Soulé produced. Soulé and secrecy made for an unlikely combination. The European press knew the Americans aimed to hatch something at Ostend before they arrived. The New York Herald, one of the most read papers in the United States, got wind of the Manifesto’s contents and published them. The Herald had the details so accurately that they might have come from a leak. Soulé sounds to me like a good candidate for the source, but I defer to the experts.

The rumors and possible leaks resulted in the House subpoenaing diplomatic correspondence. Pierce complied in March, 1855, but excised Marcy’s open-ended instruction to Soulé that, failing purchase, “you would then direct your effort to the next desirable object, which is to detach that island from the Spanish dominion.” Soulé and his allies ensured that Pierce suppressed nothing else. Marcy and the administration retaliated by denouncing the Manifesto and forcing Soulé to resign his post.

Denounced or not, the Manifesto reached the general public. The antislavery press complained, quite accurately, about a slaveholder conspiracy. The international reaction proved equally laudatory. Potter sums it up in The Impending Crisis:

For months the administration was held up to the country and to the world as the advocate of a policy of “shame and dishonor,” the supporter of a “bucaneering document,” a “highwayman’s plea.” American diplomacy, said the London Times, was given to “the habitual pursuit of dishonorable objects by clandestine means.”

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

The Pierce administration did denounce the Manifesto and could not have anticipated what came out of the Ostend meeting. Americans, as a later British commentator would observe, did the right thing after exhausting the other options. But in retrospect, the Manifesto accomplished more than a practical end to American ambitions toward Cuba until the late 1800s. Its rhetoric exposed the nasty, self-serving, and reckless side to expansionism. The cause of Manifest Destiny, if generally more a southern and southwestern priority in the past, had northern exponents as well. Those northerners took their lumps in the Oregon Treaty, where James K. Polk did not press for the most extreme of American claims, but could still plausibly claim a kind of religious and political mission unconnected with slavery. They had far more trouble staking out that position when the most radical official document on hand declared, if in careful diplomatic language, its common cause with slavery.

The Pierce administration paid a heavy political cost for the Ostend Manifesto and its Cuba policy in further alienating northern opinion that it almost at the exact same time brutally abused with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Its attempt, and the attempt of radicals like Soulé, to make a safer future for slavery did just the opposite. Taking expansion off the table, even if Southerners didn’t quite realize it at the time, left them even more firmly ensconced in a world going the other way. Without expansion, slaves would pile up and outnumber whites more and more. The Upper South would sell its slaves South and then emancipate, leaving a smaller and smaller, and blacker and blacker, rump South to someday have abolition forced on it and turn into another Haiti through brutal race war. At the same time, the Manifesto cut another ideological tie, however tenuous, between the sections.

The whole contorted affair abounded with paradoxical actions and outcomes: trying to strengthen the South left it weaker. The candidate of the South repudiated Southern aspirations after first embracing them. Cautious old Buchanan put his name to a wildly radical document. The last administration chosen by both sections ended up driving further wedges between them. Southern radicals would have done better to focus their efforts on carving new slave states out of Texas or backing Quitman’s expedition even against the administration, but they lacked our hindsight to know it.

The Ostend Manifesto: Why So Serious?

A cartoon mocking the Ostend Manifesto with its own text

A cartoon mocking the Ostend Manifesto with its own text

The Ostend Manifesto threatened war, which it treated as an inevitability unless Spain sold Cuba, against Spain, against its European allies, and against essentially the whole world. America would take on all comers to secure Cuba for its god, for its freedom, and for its slavery. No human power could stop the United States from intervening in a coming Cuban revolution. Fiery words, however, need not carry sudden violence in their wake. Diplomatic saber-rattling, like Soulé’s off-script forty-eight hour ultimatum to Spain in the Black Warrior affair, could arise from genuine feeling and national interest or from the need for a bit of domestic or international theater. The Manifesto’s text does not alone permit us to tell what category it falls into, but it at least provides rhetorical support for the seriousness of the threat.

Self-preservation is the law of states as well as with individuals. All nations have, at different periods, acted upon this maxim. Although it has been made the pretext for committing flagrant injustice, as in the partition of Poland and other similar cases which history records, yet the principle itself, though often abused, has always been recognized.

[…]

Whilst pursuing this course we can afford to disregard the censures of the world, to which we have been so often and so unjustly exposed.

Spanish Cuba presented an existential crisis to the United States. National survival, on top of the survival of the white race in the South, depended on having Cuba. If Spain would not sell for the incredibly generous price offered

then, by every law, human and divine, we shall be justified in wresting it from Spain, if we possess the power; and this upon the very same principle that would justify an individual in tearing down the burning house of his neighbor if there were no other means of preventing the flames from destroying his own home.

Under such circumstances we ought neither to count the cost nor regard the odds which Spain might enlist against us. We forbear to enter into the question whether the present condition of the island would justify such a measure. We should, however, be recreant to our duty, be unworthy of our gallant forefathers, and commit base treason against our posterity, should we permit Cuba to be Africanized and become a second St. Domingo, with all its attendant horrors to the white race, and suffer the flames to extend to our own neighboring shores, seriously to endanger our actually to consume the fair fabric of our Union.

Buchanan, Mason, and Soulé concluded with the ominous note that already the United States and Spain stood on that precipice. The Black Warrior affair very nearly brought them over the edge. If Soulé had his way, it would have. Spain stood unrepentant, secure in its legal rights. Only by selling the island could Spain avert an eventual war over Cuba.

So much for the hope that cautious old Buchanan would reign in fiery Soulé. Apparently, in the words of the Manifesto:

the present is an age of adventure, in which restless and daring spirits abound in every portion of the world.

The Ostend Manifesto: Deadly Threats

A cartoon mocking the Ostend Manifesto with its own text

A cartoon mocking the Ostend Manifesto with its own text

The Ostend Manifesto opened with fairly conventional diplomatic language. The United States wanted Cuba for various reasons, including fear that American slaves might get ideas of freedom from a successful slave uprising there. The Manifesto left unstated the desire to revise the Armistice measures in a more pro-Southern direction by bringing in a new slave state to balance out free California, but that kind of thing would be of less interest to the Spanish or other European powers than to men like Soulé and Jefferson Davis. To Spain, sale would offer a chance to free it from its serious foreign debts and engage in internal improvements to put it on a sounder footing in the future.

But what if Spain rejected that generous American offer?

Extreme oppression, it s now admitted, justifies any people in endeavoring to relieve themselves from the yoke of their oppressors. The sufferings which the corrupt, arbitrary, and unrelenting local administration necessarily entails upon the inhabitants of Cuba, cannot fail to stimulate and keep alive that spirit of resistance and revolution against Spain which has, of late years, been so often manifested. In this condition of affairs it is in vain to expect that the sympathies of the people of the United States will not be warmly enlisted in favor of their oppressed neighbors.

James Buchanan

James Buchanan

Such a nice colony Spain had there. The United States hoped nothing happened to it. A successful uprising would break American hearts, but the Spanish putting it down would break them even more. Don’t take my word for it:

We know that the President is justly inflexible in his determination to execute the neutrality laws; but should the Cubans themselves rise n revolt against the oppression which they suffer, no human power could prevent the citizens of the United States and liberal-minded men of other countries from rushing to their assistance. Besides, the present is an age of adventure, in which restless and daring spirits abound in every portion of the world.

It is not improbable, therefore, that Cuba may be wrested from Spain by a successful revolution; and, in that event, she will lose both the island and the price we are willing now to pay for it-a price far beyond what was ever paid by one people to another for any province.

[…]

It is certain that, should the Cubans themselves organize an insurrection against the Spanish government, and should other independent nations come to the aid of Spain in the contest, no human power could, in our opinion, prevent the people and the government of the United States from taking part in such a civil war, in support of their neighbors and friends.

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

Men in business suits and fedoras with Tommy guns under each arm couldn’t have said it better. If Spain did not sell, a Cuban revolution would provoke American intervention to ensure its success. Pierce’s invocation of the Neutrality Act amounted to a fig leaf for future filibustering and a part of the carrot for Spain. Washington sent a message that it preferred to buy the island by quashing Quitman, but if purchasing went off the table then purloining took purchase’s place even if that meant war with not just Spain but Spain’s Great Power allies.

The United States went to war with a European power twice in its history to that point, winning the Revolution largely due to the other powers ganging up with it against the United Kingdom and flat-out losing the War of 1812. Now it proposed to take on any combination of empires for the cause of Cuba.

How on Earth did cautious old Buchanan put his name to that? What would prompt any American diplomat, save perhaps Soulé, to propose such an extraordinary course without so much as running it by Washington first? Self-interested national benevolence only goes so far. The fiery, existential language that the Manifesto used to frame American interest in Cuba deserves its own post, which will come Monday.

The Ostend Manifesto: Reasons to Buy and Sell

James Buchanan

James Buchanan

When Buchanan, Mason, and Soulé met in Ostend they reached agreement on a Cuba policy. The Pierce expected some kind of secret position paper that would go into the mail and in due course arrive back in Washington for careful consideration. Doubtless steady, cautious Buchanan would keep things from flying off the rails.

Soulé’s theatrics put the notion of secrecy to rest and anybody paying attention to the European diplomatic scene knew the American ministers had something up their sleeve. The Manifesto went public and presented Washington with the unhappy choice of repudiating it and paying both a domestic political price and suffering international humiliation over letting its ministers engage in wildcat diplomacy or owning up and endorsing the document and so embracing a kind of secretive chicanery from which the administration had lately disassociated itself by suppressing Quitman’s expedition.

But what did it say? It opened with a very conventional sort of diplomatic language. Anybody would ask what vital interests prompted such a deep concern for Cuba on the part of the United States, so the Manifesto explained that

Cuba is as necessary to the North American republic as any of its present members, and that it belongs naturally to that great family of states of which the Union is the providential nursery.

From its locality it commands the mouth of the Mississippi and the immense and annually increasing trade which must seek this avenue to the ocean.

[…]

The natural and main outlet to the products of this entire population, the highway of their direct intercourse with the Atlantic and Pacific states, can never be secure, but must ever be endangered whilst Cuba is a dependency of a distant power in whose possession it had proved to be a source of constant annoyance and embarrassment to their interests.

The Black Warrior affair might subside, but what about future shipping? Any captain-general down the road could seize another ship, or a dozen. In the interests of fairness, one must note that the ship in question only touched at Cuba and plied what amounted to a domestic trade. It stretches the idea of national sovereignty to extend it over foreign ports but the idea has at least a grain or two of plausibility.

But another concern made acquisition urgent and its delay “exceedingly dangerous to the United States.”

The system of immigration and labor, lately organized within its limits, and the tyranny and oppression which characterize its immediate rulers, threaten an insurrection at every moment which may result in direful consequences to the American people.

Cuba has thus become to us an unceasing danger, and a permanent cause of anxiety and alarm.

The skilled hand of a diplomat shows through. One could ready that passage quickly and miss that it refers to slave revolts. A successful slave revolt would give American slaves the benefit of a good example. This genuinely terrified many of Southerners. But Europe should assent for humanitarian reasons as well: Cuba supported the African slave trade. (A Louisianan like Soulé ought to know, as his state housed many who wanted that trade reopened and smuggled slaves in illicitly from Cuba.) The Manifesto further held that the Cubans lived under a brutal, arbitrary tyranny, words sure to endear their authors with Madrid.

Then came carrots for the Spanish. With the money the United States would hand over, Spain could catch up to France and link itself to the French rail network, facilitating trade and the attendant revenues from the Channel to Gibraltar and have cash left over to pay off bonds that sold at one-third their face value even on the Spanish market. A chance to pay off that debt, especially the part of it owed to British speculators who had a history of calling on their nation to serve as a collections agency, might never come again.

So, according to Buchanan, Mason, and Soulé, the Spanish ought to sell immediately. Only a fool would refuse. So far as that goes, the Manifesto did not much transgress the usual line of bellicose imperialistic diplomacy. In an era when the Great Powers fairly routinely invaded and seized for themselves entire countries, Cuba stood out mainly in that a Great Power already held it.

If the Manifesto stopped there, probably no one would have much cared. It might push hard sell a bit too much, but it ultimately amounted to a statement about a legal purchase.

Stealing Cuba, Part Six

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

The Pierce administration changed directions to a purchase first, steal second strategy for Cuba and made it stick by putting the legal screws to John A. Quitman’s well-publicized expedition. Quitman, who had every reason previously to count the administration as his unofficial partner, found this understandably distressing. With a fair bit of his own money locked up on a bond against his breaking the Neutrality Act, Quitman prudently delayed his expedition until 1855.

That postponement cost him. Spain refused even grant a meeting for Soulé to present an offer for the island. The owners of the Black Warrior paid their fine. De La Pezuela eased off on his plan to transform Cuba for its own defense. He returned to Spain in September. Pierce called Quitman to Washington and apparently gave him sufficient evidence that with the radical plan to arm Cuban slaves or without the island would not just roll over before a single show of force. In January, the captain general who replaced De La Pezuela arrested upwards of a hundred of Quitman’s Cuban supporters and executed some of them. So much for the uprising Quitman hoped to support and then steer to annexation. In April, Quitman gave back the powers the New York junta signed over to him.

Quitman’s career as a freebooter ended before it began, but the movement to take Cuba no more died with his expedition than it did with Narciso López. When William L. Marcy, Secretary of State, sent new orders to Pierre Soulé in Madrid, those orders authorized purchase negotiations and included the rather open-ended proviso that if those negotiations should fail “you would then direct your effort to the next desirable object, which is to detach that island from the Spanish dominion.”

James Buchanan

James Buchanan, minister to London

Soulé read the line, quite understandably, as authorization to engage in skullduggery to ensure Cuba fell off the back of the proverbial truck. Pierce may have pressured Marcy into authorizing a meeting of the important European ministers, which he did in August, 1854. (The United States did not dispatch ambassadors until some decades later.) So the American ministers plenipotentiary from London, Paris, and Madrid met at Ostend in Belgium from October 9-11 for discussions before adjourning to Aix-la-Chapelle, capital of Charlemagne’s empire, where the minister to the Court of St. James, old hand James Buchanan, wrote up their resolutions on an American empire.

Soulé dreamed up the Ostend meeting and dashed any hopes of keeping it secret. His flare for drama would not permit such discretion, but the administration surely hoped that steady, cautious Buchanan would keep a leash on the fiery revolutionary. The London minister’s own vision of acquiring Cuba involved using Spanish bondholders to pressure the cash-strapped court at Madrid to sell. Buchanan did not get his way. Instead of that, the Ostend Manifesto announced to the world that

Cuba is as necessary to the North American republic as any of its present members, and that it belongs naturally to that great family of states of which the Union is the providential nursery.

John Y. Mason, minister to Paris

John Y. Mason, minister to Paris

And therefore:

We firmly believe that, in the progress of human events, the time has arrived when the vital interests of Spain are as seriously involved in the sale, as those of the United States in the purchase of the island, and that the transaction will prove equally honorable to both nations.

Under these circumstances we cannot anticipate a failure, unless possibly through the malign influence of foreign powers who possess no right whatever to interfere in the matter.

In other words: We want it and mind your own business.

The Ostend Manifesto deserves a further treatment, but that would make for a longer post than I’d like. Instead, I’ll dig into it in detail tomorrow.

Stealing Cuba, Part Five

Quitman’s delay need not mean the moment passed. A friendly administration and a larger expedition gave him an edge on past filibustering expeditions. Southern racial panic over the proposed Africanization of Cuba gave him an additional recruiting tool. But López required no casus belli at all. The Texans put up only a vague smokescreen over their revolution to save slavery. James K. Polk simply lied. A respectable casus belli might make the whole operation look good, or at least less odious, to the international community but in the mid-1850s, the Great Powers had their eyes fixed on the Crimean. Even aside all of that, it took considerable wooing and more than a few stretches of the truth to prompt enough action for Southerners to claim the United Kingdom wanted to interfere in Texas and those same Great Powers hardly stirred themselves over the American dismemberment of Mexico. Quitman could reasonably miss the ideal moment to strike and still carry off a successful expedition.

William L. Marcy

William L. Marcy

But the Pierce administration’s support helped ensure his endgame of a swift annexation. Cuba might endure a decade like Texas did, but that tense decade did Texas few favors and carried with it the risk of Mexican armies returning. The Lone Star Republic vacillated between trying to make a serious go as its own nation, annexation by the United States, and even trying to get a British protectorate. Texans had years of their lives invested in their little nation and rebelled to keep living as they had. Quitman and his army did not grow up in Cuba. They did not have entrenched social networks there. Their personal investment as a band of soldiers of fortune largely hinged on the rewards that conquest would bring them and an uneasy decade or so in a foreign land clinging to those concessions by the skin of their teeth meant exposure to a lot of risk. For Quitman’s expedition, annexation had to ride on conquest’s coat tails.

John Slidell

John Slidell

The administration did not stop there. Pierce sent out a proclamation declaring his intent to prosecute anybody, like Quitman, who violated the Neutrality Act. That effectively killed the aim of John Slidell, who now occupied Soulé’s old seat in the Senate and in past adventures tried to buy Mexican territory for the United States right before the war, to repeal the law just as the Foreign Relations Committee stood poised to report it out to the full Senate for passage. To make sure Quitman got the message, Marcy asked Slidell to telegraph him in New Orleans with word that Pierce would acquire the island through diplomacy and his expedition complicated things. Slidell refused, so Marcy stepped up his efforts by reaching out to the US District Attorney in New Orleans, who brought Quitman and five supporters brought up on charges. The grand jury refused to indict, but a judge required from Quitman and two confederates a three thousand dollar bond securing their respect for the Neutrality Act for the next nine months.