Stephen Douglas, the F Street Mess, Phillip Phillips, and Archibald Dixon spent January of 1854 making each other’s lives unpleasantly interesting, before rounding out the month with a Sunday visit to the White House where they and Jefferson Davis twisted Franklin Pierce’s arm until he cried “repeal the Missouri Compromise!” Pierce and his Cabinet by and large did not want the Kansas-Nebraska Act. When they got a feel for the shape of the final bill, they tried to get Douglas to drop the matter and let the courts sort out slavery on the Great Plains. Only after F Street refused that remedy and Davis, Douglas, and the F Streeters cornered Pierce without any of his advisers save Davis himself present did Pierce yield.
Franklin Pierce really wanted Cuba and another slice of Mexico. To get some context for that, one has to look back into 1853. Pierce said as much, if not quite naming names, in his inaugural in March of that year. -That inaugural came just days after Stephen Douglas’ eleventh hour attempt to get a free soil Nebraska bill through the 33rd Congress.
Pierce appointed a motley collection of secessionists, the old Polk crew, and diehard expansionists to various posts up to and including the Cabinet. All of this by itself indicates a very strong interest in acquiring further territory, but with regard to Cuba in particular Pierce appears to have had an explicit policy to steal the island. Only if theft failed would Pierce try to buy the Cuba as Polk had.
I first encountered the steal first policy by implication in reading McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. Potter’s The Impending Crisis made it more explicit and credited Basil Rauch with pushing back the murk surrounding the Pierce administration’s inner workings to prove the case in his The American Interest in Cuba, 1848-1855. Since I last wrote about the subject, I’ve read Rauch’s book.
In 1854, John A. Quitman, former governor of Mississippi and former secession conspirator, had just beat the rap for breaking the Neutrality Laws. Those laws forbade such things as trying to steal other countries’ property on the plausible grounds that the United States should not host or facilitate private military campaigns against foreign nations with no state of war existed with them. Quitman had a career in ruins, but big dreams. He could take Cuba. He could forge a tropical empire by adding Mexico to it. Rauch quotes one of his friends on Quitman’s character:
He was one of the most bigoted egotists I ever met, and all his life eaten up with ambition.
Cuban exiles had wooed Quitman to lead an expedition for years. Why not go for it? Shortly after Pierce took office in March of 1853, Quitman signed on with the Cuban junta in New York. The same junta wrote Pierce damning any attempt to buy the island. Cubans would not be property to buy or sell, but a free and independent people jealous of their liberties and unwilling to trade away the blood of their many martyrs for another imperial master.
But if Cuba got its freedom and, in a word, United with a certain federation of States, that might do very well. It worked for Texas, after all. Pierce received the junta’s letter shortly before one of the few expansion-shy members of his Cabinet, Secretary of State William H. Marcy, drew up instructions for new minister to Spain Pierre Soulé. Those instructions included the administration’s hope that Cuba would soon “release itself or be released” from Spanish control. Soulé should, in light of that, behave himself and not make noises toward annexing the island. Quitman’s expedition certainly proposed to release Cuba from Spain, and the language used fit period descriptions of Texas-style independence-to-annexation plans. Supporting this, Rauch notes that Soulé remained aloof from the junta and other Cuba exiles in New York before he received his instructions, but warmed to them considerably after.
Quitman could take Pierce’s inaugural and his appointments as signs of the administration’s support, even if he didn’t have the inside word like Soulé. He also probably felt that Pierce owed him from back in the campaign, when the Whigs accused Pierce of cowardice in the Mexican War. Pierce served under Quitman then and Quitman stepped up to defend his honor. More than that, Quitman counted Cuba enthusiast Caleb Cushing, now Attorney General, and Jefferson Davis, now Secretary of War, personal friends.
In what Quitman had to take as a further signal, Pierce appointed his friend Alexander M. Clayton the American consul at Havana. Clayton knew of Quitman’s plans and wrote to the ex-governor from the steamer taking him to Cuba about how he anticipated a crisis that would bring about independence “after the fashion of Texas”. Then Cuba could come into the Union by treaty or remain Quitman’s private empire. But Quitman best hurry, lest the Yankees beat them to the punch and turn Cuba into another California.
But could have Quitman read too much into the placement of his friends and other expansionists in high places? Pierce negotiated to buy land from Mexico (parts 1, 2, 3) rather than endorsing a private seizure of it. Maybe he would go the other way still with Cuba? The junta’s adulation of Soulé argued that Pierce heeded their wishes against buying Cuba. Why would they applaud him otherwise? Events over the summer of 1853 argued for it, but did Pierce really have Quitman’s back? Indications and appointments do not necessarily a policy make.