From the Pens of Filibusters, Part One

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

In all I’ve written about Cuba filibusters, I think that I’ve repeatedly characterized their motivations, but never actually dug down and quoted the men themselves on what they saw in the island. Partly that’s from my not having access to their papers, or even reliable access to period newspapers, but I do have fairly good access to DeBow’s Review, thanks to Google and the University of Michigan. Longtime readers might remember the Review from my series on the diseases of slaves, as invented by Samuel A. Cartwright.

In the mid-nineteenth century, James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow published one of the South’s notable periodicals. When he opened his pages to you, your words found large audiences. In November of 1854, after Pierce had given up on filibustering and the same month that Marcy dressed down Soulé in the wake of the electoral catastrophe that Nebraska worked on the Democracy, DeBow opened those pages to Samuel R. Walker.

Who? Not the Walker from Lower California or Nicaragua. Quitman did have that Walker, William, on his side briefly. He also had a Robert Walker, James K. Polk’s Secretary of the Treasury, offering him money. Samuel R. Walker had been with Quitman for a while. He went to Washington in July, after Pierce’s anti-filibuster proclamation, to sound out the administration and received word from Jefferson Davis and Pierce himself that if Quitman went to Cuba, the United States would not cut him loose and see the filibusters rot in Spanish prisons. After that, in September, Walker sailed to Cuba and found a local revolutionary for Quitman to build connections with. But things had turned against the filibusters by November and Walker’s article, Cuba and the South, has a bit of last-ditch pleading about it.

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

That said, Walker, identified by the editors as “an intelligent Citizen of New-Orleans” who “expresses the views of a large part of the Cuban sympathizers”, opened with a bang:

Believing from my heart that the question of Cuban independence is one of momentous import to the people of this Union-the most important in result to the world-and to the South, a question freighted with the issue of life and death, and willing to contribute in directing to this subject the attention of gentlemen of our own State, and those sister States linked to us by a common destiny, you will, I am sure, pardon me that I have chosen this mode of communication.

The scales have at last fallen from the eyes of our citizens as to the scenes being enacted near us, and we begin to regard with serious attention the measures which threaten disaster to our own land, and endanger that interest which is to us, in this portion of the Union, a vital one. We behold how the insidious action of England and France, having in view the emancipation of the slaves in Cuba, has at last, by an outstanding pressure, impossible to be resisted by the weak and enervate government of Spain, forced her to the bold and destructive measures which are now being consummated.

John Slidell

John Slidell

Spain can’t hold up for slavery, guys. England and France are leaning on her. John Slidell told the Senate that (parts 1234) and now Samuel Walker would tell everyone. We live in momentous times and the eyes of the world rest upon us. Will the Union, the world’s greatest hope, endure or will Spain’s Cuban emancipation snuff the torch of liberty? Not merely the destiny of Cuba, or even that of the slaveholding states, hangs on the issue. Rather instead, the future of mankind hangs in the balance.

When period sources go on like this, one must always wonder a bit about their sincerity. That said, given the great personal horror that emancipation presented, they really did fear that freedom meant four million Nat Turners set free to rape, pillage, and burn across the entire South. Their fortunes, their lives, the lives of their loved ones, all would die in the fires of emancipation. Possibly worse, the freedmen might rise up and reduce the former masters to slavery. Anybody would want to avoid that future and might take drastic steps to do so. We know their fears didn’t come to pass, but they did not.

The intensely parochial idea that the world’s future rested on the United States should make us roll our eyes. It certainly did for plenty of people then, mostly in Europe. But as much as the lurid visions of slave revolt animated nineteenth century slaveholders, so too did a great many nineteenth century Americans in both sections really believe that they lived in the last, best hope for humanity in a world filled with tyrants.

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