Did Pierce Intend to Shut Quitman Down?



Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Marcy’s new instructions to Pierre Soulé told him to try buying Cuba. The Spanish, however, would probably not sell. In that case, the fiery French revolutionary should turn toward doing what he could to see Cuba achieve its independence. One can read that as the end of the Pierce administration’s policy if first attempting to steal the island, but in light of Marcy’s intended Plan B still involving some kind of theft, the difference seems more in terms of how much political cover the administration wanted while pursuing the same ends than a real departure from past strategy. Certainly Soulé got up to more adventures in Spain to that end, just as he had before.

In writing about those, I dropped the other thread from Friday. Pierce and others cast John A. Quitman as the Carmen Sandiego in this drama. He and his thousands would sweep into Cuba, knock some Spaniards over the heads, and slip the island into a back pocket before legging it back to the United States. But the day after the Kansas-Nebraska Act cleared his desk, Pierce issued a proclamation declaring his intent to zealously enforce the Neutrality Acts against all comers. That meant trouble for Quitman. Past filibusters found themselves caught by the US Navy and hauled back to port to face prosecution. Quitman himself beat the rap in such a prosecution once before only because the jury in filibuster-happy New Orleans refused to convict the guilty.

This could not have come at a worse time. Pierce’s agent, sent to Cuba to investigate the Africanization program, had just come back with news that the Captain-General really meant to follow through. Emboldened by his success in the Black Warrior affair, he seemed bent on what the agent considered a bloody race war. The South could scarcely summon up more panic than it then had over Cuba, with visions of Nat Turners murdering them in their beds. John Slidell’s proposal to spend those encumbering Neutrality Acts came to Quitman with news that the administration had his back. Quitman pronounced himself all but ready, waiting just until he had three thousand men, some extra cash, and an armed steamer. He had a man working on getting the steamer. What happened?

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Maybe Pierce imagined that Quitman and his filibustering would only hasten the Africanization program along. Maybe he decided that he had sacrificed enough of his party’s support in the North over Kansas and the South should take the win with satisfaction rather than demanding a second. But Basil Rauch points out in The American Interest in Cuba, 1848-1855 that Pierce’s proclamation lacked the fire of past declarations from his Whig predecessors. Pierce had a habit of making commitments that he then did not follow through on, even if he did mean what he wrote. Could this be one of those?

One of Quitman’s confidants, concerned about the apparent split between filibuster and president, wrote to Jefferson Davis, Pierce’s Secretary of War and sometime power behind the throne. Did he really want to risk the wrath of the Southern Democracy? That letter prompted a meeting between Davis, Slidell, James Mason (of Fugitive Slave Act fame), and Stephen Douglas where they leaned on Pierce until he agreed to tell Marcy to send along to the District Attorney in New Orleans news that the administration would act soon and swiftly on Cuba. Pierce had it all tied up and did not need Quitman’s freelance help, thanks.

Quitman did not get wind of all of that and attributed his subsequent woes to an overzealous judge that made him and two other filibuster principals post a bond on their good behavior with regard to the Neutrality Acts for nine months. But even that did not stop Quitman. The federal marshal who briefly took him into custody over the matter also attended a feast in Quitman’s honor and offered the toast. Reading this as, at most, a sign that the Cabinet split over him Quitman resolved to keep on preparing while he waited out his bond. The administration’s public clamp down only raised his stock, with Northern Mexico and future Nicaragua filibuster William Walker signing on and the Memphis Whig reporting that Quitman had a million dollars in the bank, twelve ships, eighty-five thousand guns, ninety cannon, and as many as fifty thousand men. Read those numbers with some skepticism; the entire United States peacetime army didn’t amount to fifty thousand.

Hyperbole or no, the most Quitman seems to have done is postpone his expedition until the spring of 1855. Men associated with him went to Cuba in October of 1854 with a shipment of arms to help a revolutionary group already present. Sweeping in to aid a domestic revolution had long been Quitman’s preferred excuse. But the Spanish caught on, caught the men, and the Captain-General who replaced the Marqués de la Pezuela executed their leader.

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