A Diplomatic Offensive on Cuba


John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Filibuster and former governor of Mississippi John A. Quitman missed whatever window he had to snatch Cuba away from Spain. The administration that once shook his hand and wished him well turned on him. The Spanish reinforced the island. He lacked the men, ships, and weapons to go when the prime chance came. That brings the story to the end of 1854, but neglects a few relevant points on the diplomatic front. When Marcy went word along for Soulé to work on buying Cuba, he probably did not have high hopes. Any diplomatic effort involving Pierre Soulé probably did not deserve the description. Even aside that, the Spanish did not really want to sell.

But maybe the United States could lean on Spain a little. The holders of Spanish bonds would want their money back eventually. The United States could, perhaps, find those bond holders and get them to make noise about repayment. That could come coupled with an American proposal to open its treasury for Spain’s debts in exchange for the island’s independence. What happened after independence, who could say? The Spanish and the Great Powers would no longer be concerned directly, or so one could imagine, and so if Cuba somehow fell into Florida’s back pocket who could object?

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

While the odds might seem long, and we know how things did turn out, as late as August Pierce appeared to think he still had a chance of getting the island. On the first of the month, Pierce answered a resolution of the Senate asking how relations with Spain had progressed since his message to the House back on March 15. Pierce recapped the situation then: Cuba sat astride American shipping and its piratical officials insulted the national flag and honor with impunity. That could not stand. How did things look now? More of the same, but Pierce did have some startling new information that he could not possibly have known in March:

Meanwhile information, not only reliable in its nature, but of an official character, was received to the effect that preparation was making within the limits of the United States by private individuals under military organization for a descent upon the island of Cuba with a view to wrest that colony from the dominion of Spain.

He just now found out? Not likely, unless Franklin Pierce somehow missed the major activities of his Cabinet toward Cuba the previous summer. But things had changed a bit since then as the administration shifted to a less lawless policy:

International comity, the obligations of treaties, and the express provisions of law alike required, in my judgment, that all the constitutional power of the Executive should be exerted to prevent the consummation of such a violation of positive law and of that good faith on which mainly the amicable relations of neighboring nations must depend. In conformity with these convictions of public duty, a proclamation was issued to warn all persons not to participate in the contemplated enterprise and to invoke the interposition in this behalf of the proper officers of the Government. No provocation whatever can justify private expeditions of hostility against a country at peace with the United States. The power to declare war is vested by the Constitution in Congress, and the experience of our past history leaves no room to doubt that the wisdom of this arrangement of constitutional power will continue to be verified whenever the national interest and honor shall demand a resort to ultimate measures of redress. Pending negotiations by the Executive, and before the action of Congress, individuals could not be permitted to embarrass the operations of the one and usurp the powers of the other of these depositaries of the functions of Government.

Pierce concluded that he had nothing to add to his request for special powers with regard to Cuba. He still wanted them. At the time, the administration floated sending a special commission to Spain to negotiate over Cuba’s future. Such a commission would imply that the administration repudiated Soulé, who had until then been the point man for American ambition toward Cuba. Such mixed messages would do little to help the effort. Nor did the failure of Slidell’s motion to suspend the Neutrality Acts. Congress declined to give Pierce those special powers he aspired to.

By mid-August, Pierce seems to have had enough. The Nebraska storm continued to grow. A North enraged over losing the Great Plains would take a new slave state in the form of Cuba as yet another insult and act of treachery. They voted for Pierce to have peace and sectional comity. Now he leaned so far South it must have looked like he wore the Gulf of Mexico like a hat. Expansion might have been a winning strategy for James K. Polk. Nobody wanted to give back the Mexican Cession. But the poisoned fruit of Manifest Destiny had become all too clear in the years since. Hadn’t Pierce done enough already to ruin his party north of the Mason-Dixon line?

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