Pierre Soulé, Franklin Pierce’s minister to Spain, went to Madrid with instructions to keep his eyes open. Something, perhaps involving John A. Quitman’s filibustering expedition and the Cuban junta that supported it, might just happen. If it did, Soulé must stand ready. His mission might suddenly involve negotiating a treaty to cede the island. Pierce instructed Soulé not to attempt purchase negotiations on the grounds that the junta found such things offensively colonial and, doubtless, with a mind to the far cheaper five finger discount. You really can’t beat that price for a tropical island slavery paradise.
But when Soulé’s big chance came, when Cuban authorities seized the Black Warrior, and the United States Army and Navy might just render Quitman’s expedition superfluous, Soulé stood in disgrace. The diplomat had taken it upon himself to shoot the French ambassador, a procedure not found in most manuals of international statecraft. Why would he do a thing like that?
On November 15, 1853, before the 33rd Congress met, before Douglas went on his carriage ride with Archibald Dixon, before Nebraska and anti-Nebraska and Republicans, in an era that must have seemed ages gone six months later, Louis Félix Étienne, the Marquis de Turgot, threw a party in Madrid in honor of both the French Empress and the baptism of the Duke and Duchess of Alba’s new daughter. Men like the Marquis de Turgot had tossed Soulé in prison for his revolutionary politics back in the day. Further complicating things, Soulé had met the Marquis’ boss, Louis Napoleon, back in 1849 when the latter still served as president of France instead of its emperor. From that point on, Napoleon III fairly loathed Soulé. The latter, seeing in Napoleon an autocrat like those he had opposed in his youth, returned the feeling.
Napoleon III married a Spanish noblewoman, the Duchess of Alba’s sister. Thus on two fronts, the Marquis de Turgot’s party must have looked like a reactionary gala indeed to Soulé. But he went anyway and there fashion returns to the story. Soulé himself cut quite the figure but his wife proved the belle of the ball. Even if the hosts did not especially care for the Soulé’s, and they did not, Madame Soulé’s fashion choices stood out. As she passed the Countess de Montijo, the mother of the French Empress, remarked to her son-in-law the Duke of Alba and the Marquis de Turgot about just how much of her chest Madame Soulé chose to display. The Duke, in her hearing, likened Henrietta Soulé to Marie de Bourgogne, who had allegedly cheated on the king of France centuries before. Educated, refined aristocrats do not say that a woman’s dress implies that her favors come to all with enough cash on hand. They imply it with historical allusions.
Henrietta Soulé grew up speaking the French with which the Duke of Alba had insulted her. So did her son, Nelvil, who also heard. He demanded to know the scoundrel who said such things of his mother. Soulé pere gave the Duke a push, but let matters drop. Nelvil did not and sent off a letter demanding satisfaction. The Duke might have obliged, but reports of the event hit the London papers. He suspected the loose lips of the younger Soulé and asked how the London papers found out about the affair. Nelvil refused to answer.
With things now public and at an impasse, the prickly honor codes that both men subscribed to demanded a duel. On December 14, 1853, aggrieved son and Spanish aristocrat met one another with heavy swords. They swung their blades for half an hour, until both had thoroughly spent themselves. As they did so, their seconds discussed matters and reached a settlement: Both men had proved their honor, so why not burn all the letters and call it a day?
Sanity prevailed and they did just that. Sanity did not, however, prove quite equal to containing the passions of Nelvil’s father.