Louisiana’s John Slidell set out to prove that the British and French had it in for Cuban whites, to the point of fomenting race war against them, and by extension American whites, by digging up their official correspondence about guaranteeing Spanish possession of Cuba against any American expeditions. That only went so far. Yes, they wanted to contain the United States and nineteenth century Americans found that especially outrageous, but the diplomatic correspondence ran long on suggestions and proposals. Those alone did not necessarily amount to policy and that policy dated to before the Crimean War erupted and the British and French empires joined in the bloody affair.
Doubters could rest easy, though. Slidell had more recent information. He quoted the then-current British Foreign Secretary speaking at the opening of the then-current session of Parliament:
I will further add that the union between the two Governments has not been confined to the Eastern question. The happy accord and good understanding between France and England have been extended beyond Eastern policy to the policy affecting all parts of the world, and I am heartily rejoiced to say that there is no portion of the two hemispheres with regard to which the policy of the two countries, however heretofore antagonistic, is not now in entire harmony. [Cheers.] Thus, then, my lords, at least one great good will have been secured by these transactions-that two great, and hitherto rival, nations have learnt to know and appreciate each other better, to reject the fallacy that they are each other’s natural enemy, and to be ready to act heartily together in any just and righteous cause. [Cheers.]
Good news for England and France meant bad news for American slavery and ambitions to expand it, as the French disliked slavery and the British disliked it more. But Slidell still only had words. Would verbal commitment translate into real action? According to Louisiana’s senator, it already had:
Now, there is another matter which to many, indeed most Americans, will appear too trivial for notice here, but which to me seems of very great import. In the recent duel at Madrid, between our Minister and the French Embasador, M. de Turgot, Lord Howden, the representative of a Government where duelling is not only a felony at law, but where-what is much more important-public opinion permits the penalties of the law to be enforced, acted as the second of the French Minister; and, although this happened some three or four months since, he has not been recalled, nor have we heard that he has been even reprimanded for his conduct.
One can imagine an excited Pierre Soulé in Madrid hopping up and down and insisting that he’d been saying that for months. The French, out of personal animus and at British urging, orchestrated the duel to make him look like a maniac and fool. If not for some political end, why would Howden have involved himself in so unbecoming an affair? Slidell laid it right out:
on the part of Lord Howden, there could be no possible obligation to go out with M. de Turgot, and her certainly would not have done so, had he not felt assured, in advance, of the approbation of his government. I have taken some pains to inquire, and learn that there can be nowhere found a parallel case.
We don’t share Slidell’s racial paranoia but if we can set that aside and set aside knowing how events played out, the duel does look like something more than a random event in history. It fits together very neatly with British policy on slavery and the emerging Anglo-French accord. The British had an excellent, experienced foreign service. One has trouble imaging a diplomat at a major post flying off the handle and signing on for a duel just for the hell of it, under his own authority. Men like Lord Howden left that kind of thing to unstable amateurs like Pierre Soulé.