Unleashing Quitman?

John Slidell

John Slidell (D-LA)

Pierre Soulé finally got an answer to his Black Warrior ultimatum on May 7, 1854. He accepted it even though the Spanish did not give him the satisfaction he wanted. That relieved the Spanish and puzzled the Madrid diplomatic community, as it had looked all through the affair like Soulé would settle for nothing less than cession of Cuba to the United States. He might, they thought and eventually knew, have exceeded his instructions but that only meant that the exiled French revolutionary turned slavery enthusiast pressed a bit harder than Pierce wanted for goals that Pierce himself endorsed.

Worse still, it looked very much like Franklin Pierce might back Soulé anyway. He shot a fellow diplomat and didn’t even get a reprimand. Pierce’s own message to the House back in March sounded a warlike note. No less an American authority than Edward Everett, until 1852 Millard Fillmore’s Secretary of State and hardly an antislavery man, wrote to James Buchanan in London that he could see the writing on the wall: Pierce wanted Cuba and intended to use the Black Warrior crisis to get it. Everett had no particular inside information. Pierce’s message to the House, and his appointment of Soulé to begin with, provided evidence. But he had one more telling piece of information to add on top and seal the deal.

John Slidell of Louisiana, once upon a time James K. Polk’s special envoy offering to settle the Texas border at the Rio Grande and buy what the administration would soon take by force of the American Southwest, rose in the Senate on May 1 and offered this resolution:

Resolved, That the Committee on Foreign Relations be requested to inquire into the expediency of authorizing the President of the United States, during any future recess of Congress, to suspend by proclamation, either wholly or partially, the operation of the act “in addition to an act ‘for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States,” approved the 20th of April, 1818;” and also of the act supplementary thereto, approved 10th of March, 1838; should, in his opinion, the public interests require such total or partial suspension; such suspension not to exceed the period of twelve months; and the causes which shall have induced the president to proclaim it to be communicated to Congress immediately on its first meeting thereafter.

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Slidell refers to the Neutrality Acts with such verbose circumlocution. Those laws forbade filibustering and had frustrated attempts at Cuba in the past. To put it in other words, Slidell wants the Foreign Relations committee to look into giving Pierce the power to loose John A. Quitman so he can go steal Cuba for the United States and for slavery. Slidell might not have known of Quitman’s concern for his image in taking up Cuban filibustering, but if the Congress authorized Pierce to suspend the Neutrality Acts, and Pierce did so, then Quitman could only have read it as an engraved invitation to move on Cuba then and there.

Even without intimate knowledge of Quitman’s motives, all of this had to look incredibly ominous in Madrid. The Spanish might not have had news of Slidell’s proposal when they answered Soulé, but it came as the logical continuance of Pierce’s stated policies and carried the endorsement of the Washington Union, the administration mouthpiece. Maybe the war within Washington over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, just about to come back before the House, would give way to a war over Cuba. Foreign wars have derailed domestic politics, and united fractious polities, often enough.

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