Better to Steal Cuba than Buy It


Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Through his addresses and various appointments, as well as his instructions to his minister to Spain, Franklin Pierce indicated that he wanted Cuba. He did not, if he could help it, want to pay for Cuba. The latter suited the Spanish just fine, as they did not want to sell it. Pierce appears, per Basil Rauch’s The American Interest in Cuba, 1848-1855, to have had a policy of stealing the island. To accomplish this theft, he had in mind John A. Quitman’s then-gathering filibustering expedition. This remarkable policy did not, of course, exist in writing. Pierce did not announce to the world in so many words that the United States would knock Spain over the head and rifle through its pockets for loose real estate.

So how do we know? Aside from Pierre Soulé’s change in behavior towards the Cuban junta in New York, Quitman’s own behavior provides strong circumstantial evidence. A veteran  of the Mexican War and the 1850 secession conspiracy, Quitman had offers from the junta going back some time. He always found reason to refuse them. First, Quitman could not steal Cuba because he would soon steal Mississippi out of the Union. Then he needed to defend himself against charges resulting from his fundraising and recruitment efforts for past efforts against Cuba. But in 1853, he had all of that behind him. It came at the cost of his governorship, which had to sting for a man who once declared that he would raise the Mississippi militia against any attempt to seize him.

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Quitman still played hard to get, demanding the support of all Cuban exile groups and numerous powers that would make him dictator of Cuba should he prevail. Even his friends called him an incredible egotist, but aside from the powers, and generous compensation that Quitman said he would use to establish a military college in Havana, Quitman had one other condition. The effort should “not compromit [his] own character and reputation.”

The ex-governor had an American reputation he did not want dragged through the mud. Filibusters often got called pirates, lawless and dangerous rogues who transgressed against the laws of nations and made themselves the enemies of all men. What changed his mind and prompted Quitman to finally take the junta’s offer in late summer, 1853? He had most of the previous indications already in hand before then, from Pierce’s appointments to word from his friend and the new consul at Havana that he should move quickly.

The decisive moment seems to have come in July, 1853, while the administration drew up Soulé’s instructions anticipating the end of Spanish control of Cuba. Quitman, who had friends in the Cabinet, passed through Washington about the same time. According to his biographer and friend, John F. Claiborne, Quitman told “distinguished persons” there about his plans. He got back not just their best wishes, but assurance that the administration would not enforce the Neutrality Laws against him. Between Quitman’s personal friendships, his presence in Washington at the right time, and his acceptance of the junta’s offer soon after, it looks very much like he got word direct from the horse’s mouth.

Caleb Cushing

Caleb Cushing

The horse may have been Franklin Pierce himself, but could just as easily have been his friend Caleb Cushing and Jefferson Davis. The difference might not have mattered. Davis had the power to induce Pierce to sign on to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and told James Gadsden of his mission to Mexico before the Secretary of State found out. He and Cushing appear to have had the real deciding power. Certainly William H. Marcy, that Secretary of State, doubted that he controlled American foreign policy.

Davis, Cushing, and maybe Pierce, had the power to commit the administration and ensure that Quitman would face no legal troubles. He just had to detach Cuba from Spain, set up a new sovereign government, and then petition for its annexation. It worked for Texas.

The case lacks any smoking gun, but I concur with the competent historians that Quitman probably had deliberate, explicit personal guarantees from the Pierce Cabinet. His own and Soulé’s decisions in July and August of 1853 point to such assurances existing. Furthermore, they square very neatly with both the junta’s anti-purchase position and the administration’s expansionist platform. On the balance, whoever made the decisions in the Pierce administration preferred that Quitman’s expedition steal Cuba from the Spanish with an eye toward its Texas-style annexation afterward.

All of which left Quitman and his army poised to strike Cuba as soon as the right moment came. In 1854, it did.

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