The Fashions and Passions of Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

By the time Joshua Giddings rose to oppose the Pierce administration’s plan to get Cuba by war, or induce Spain to sell with the threat of war, over the Black Warrior affair (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4), the Senate had signed off on the KansasNebraska Act. That chamber did so on March 3. The Cuban port authorities seized the ship on February 28. Giddings sp0ke on March 16, as the House stared down the barrel of its own Kansas-Nebraska debates and vote. Giddings spoke for many in the increasingly antislavery North.  

In theory, William H. Marcy had control of American foreign policy on behalf of Franklin Pierce. Pierce had chosen him to lead the State Department and the Senate confirmed him as Secretary of State. He often had reason to doubt that those facts mattered, but he did have the authority to send instructions to Pierce’s minister in Madrid, exiled French revolutionary turned proslavery zealot Pierre Soulé. That incendiary politician, former Louisiana senator, had warmed to the Cuban junta in New York and its revolutionary, with a side of future annexation, goals on hearing from the Pierce administration just what it intended toward the island. Now he had his big chance to achieve what he understood as the whole goal of his mission and be the diplomat who negotiated Cuba’s purchase or oversaw the opening of the war from Madrid.

Soulé had just one problem dogging him at this critical moment in his career: everybody in Madrid high society wanted nothing to do with him. That high society emphatically included the court to which he had to represent American interests. Matters had not begun that way, despite Soulé’s involvement with Cuban revolutionaries. Marcy had issued a circular letter ordering American diplomats to appear in the simple clothes of an American citizen, a plain black suit, rather than elaborate court uniforms. That strategy worked well enough for Ben Franklin in Paris during the Revolution. Why not now?

William L. Marcy

William L. Marcy

Marcy ought to have noted that when Franklin lived in London, he dressed to high society norms. His Parisian austerity made him a striking standout figure at court. It may also have been the kind of audacious fashion choice that only an amiable man like Franklin could pull off. American ministers in various courts had a great deal of trouble. Some ignored the instructions outright, some obeyed and took the lumps for the slight they gave to the courts. In London, James Buchanan absented himself from state functions to avoid having to pick a side. Soulé had a better idea: he went to a Parisian tailor and got a simple, American suit made out of fine black velvet and embroidered in silk instead of the customary gold lace. Amos Aschbach Ettinger has a contemporary description of him in The Mission to Spain of Pierre Soulé, 1853-1855, from which much of my details about Soulé’s mission come:

the black-velvet clothes, richly embroidered, the black stockings, a black chapeau, and a black dress sword set off his black eyes, black locks, and a pale complexion, and gave him a striking appearance. He looked indeed, not like the philosopher whose costume he imitated, but rather like the master of Ravenswood.

Forget charming, plain Franklin. Pierre Soulé had him beat. The Queen and court agreed. He must have cut a striking figure indeed to the Europeans. The American press criticized him for giving up his republican simplicity to dress like an Old Europe aristocrat, suggesting that he would do better to dress as a monkey than follow the bidding of crusty nobility. But Madrid’s opinion counted in Madrid, not that of far away American newspaper men. The Spanish court liked the outfit and liked Soulé. How, then, did he find himself in disgrace and ostracized when he received Marcy’s new instructions regarding Cuba and the Black Warrior?

Pierre Soulé offended polite society in one of those ways most scandalous to the European glitterati: He shot one of them.

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