More Cuban Adventures Still?

William L. Marcy

William L. Marcy

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Secretary of State William Marcy sent new instructions to Pierre Soulé in Madrid. Those instructions told him that he could offer up to $130,000,000 to Spain to buy Cuba, changing the administration’s implicit policy from stealing the island to buying it. The day after Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act he joined in by proclaiming that he would zealously enforce the Neutrality Acts against all offenders. On the face of it, both of these facts suggest that the administration had more than enough “fun” with Kansas-Nebraska and would call it quits on Cuba.

One can, and I certainly have, read the evidence that way. But contrary evidence does exist and presents an equally compelling case. Marcy’s instructions told Soulé to try to buy the island. The previous instructions told him to entertain no such negotiations. Furthermore, they included this telling line:

the next most desirable object [after purchase] which is to detach that island from the Spanish dominion and from all dependence on any European power.

If that didn’t make things clear enough, Marcy pressed on:

If Cuba were relieved from all transatlantic connection and at liberty to dispose of herself as her present interest and prospective welfare would dictate, she would undoubtedly relieve this government from all anxiety in regard to her future condition.

Soulé’s new mission then included purchase negotiations, but if those failed he should strive for Cuban independence. An independent Cuba would, naturally, relieve the United States of all its worries by promptly applying to join the Union. The more things changed, the more policy stayed the same. Marcy saw Cuba as a second Texas, freeing itself with a bit of American help and then rushing to join up with Uncle Sam. This would neutralize many of the objections in America, as the nation itself would not go to war and the independent Cuba would in turn offer itself to the United States. If the Cubans themselves wanted in, would the country really refuse them?

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

That accounted for Plans A and B, not all that much changed from the original. But Marcy did not elaborate on what methods Soulé should undertake for his end of Plan B. He knew, however, of Soulé’s past revolutionary activities. He also knew, as anybody looking did, that in 1854 Spain teetered on the brink of revolution. Few Spaniards liked their queen. The nation had little money and could only get more at exorbitant rates of interest. The infrastructure withered. The army consumed prodigious amounts of money that Madrid could ill afford, but which it could afford even less to cut. That would almost surely bring armed revolt.

Spain desperately needed the money that purchasing Cuba would bring. It could come through Soulé to the Spanish treasury. Daniel Sickles, who had a prewar adventure so colorful that I don’t feel I can tell it here without it taking over the post, floated the idea of a bribe to the Queen Mother, who owned much of Cuba. Plan B could also come from the fruits of Spanish discord. Soulé intrigued with various revolutionary factions, promising them cash now for Cuba later.

With Marcy’s new instructions, all these options remained on the table.

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The End of Cuban Adventures

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

The British Plot Against America: parts 1, 2, 3, 4

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

The conniving British, with their French allies, would turn Cuba into an emancipated hell from which they could interrupt American shipping and destabilize slavery in the South. They proved it with their involvement in Soulé’s duel. They showed it in their longstanding abolitionist foreign policy. They further demonstrated as much in their firm adherence to protecting Spain’s ownership of the island. Furthermore, they had tried the same scheme before with Texas. The Spanish, likewise, proved quite willing to let the British do it and embraced potential emancipation as one of their main weapons against American filibustering.

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

On the American side, a president who openly advocated for expansion sat in the White House. He had close dealings with filibuster John A. Quitman. He stacked his Cabinet with men who supported expansion at the expense of Mexico and Spain. He had just, via James Gadsden, cut a deal to get still more of Mexico added to the United States. He sent another devoted Cuba annexationist off to Madrid to represent the nation and connive to get the island. In every way, the administration seemed primed to make a move.

The Black Warrior affair gave Franklin Pierce his opening. The Louisiana legislature and John Slidell suggested a method: free Quitman from fear of prosecution and let him go take the island. The filibuster could neatly slip through the web of international entanglements. He and his private band had an open invitation from Cuban exiles and, despite their close ties to the administration did not serve it in any official role. Pierce could have told the world that he had no responsibility for the actions of independent Americans abroad. If the then-independent Cuba wanted to join the Union, that matter concerned only the United States and Cuba. If the British and French might object, and they had before, they would confine themselves to rhetorical complaints while their war with Russia raged and find the island securely in American hands before they had the ships and men free to contest it.

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

With all the stars so aligned, how on Earth did Cuba not fall right into American hands? The press had cooled on Cuba since the heady days of January, but wars would sell papers. James K. Polk engineered a profoundly controversial war with Mexico and enough of the nation fell in line, even if dealing with the spoils of his war gravely strained the Union. Antislavery men objected then, as they did now. If they had more of a movement behind them, Pierce had proved able to deploy Democratic party discipline and patronage against them over Kansas-Nebraska and that crisis touched far more deeply on the domestic concerns of the white North than a tropical island with its future already decided.

Yet American forces did not set foot uninvited and unwelcome on Cuba until June, 1898. What happened? We don’t know for sure, but already in April Marcy sent Soulé new instructions to try buying Cuba rather than waiting for Quitman to steal it. By that point, the Kansas-Nebraska Act had cleared the Senate but still faced the harder battle in the House. If the South could all unite behind securing Missouri’s slavery on its exposed western side, it might not have the same will to defend filibusters who wanted to bring in not just new slave territory, but territory largely spoken for and which could depress the value of American slaves and compete with its higher yields under the protection of American tariffs. Furthermore, filibustering had a whiff of disrepute about it. Would Quitman prove a loyal American or would he decide that he preferred to make himself king of Cuba?

William L. Marcy

William L. Marcy

If Cuba’s overthrow did result in a war with, Spain if not with Great Britain or France, the United States would need a competent navy to wage that war. In the spring of 1854, the United States Navy had exactly one top of the line warship. That ship stood ready for any eventuality…in East Asian waters. It found itself there as part of Commodore Perry’s force that convinced the Japanese, at gunpoint, to open their ports. It would be no help in any Caribbean war and, unlike in 1898, Washington lacked even the means to swiftly dispatch orders for it to attack the Spanish Philippines.

With all of these concerns, the fact that Caleb Cushing and Jefferson Davis often dominated Pierce did not quite hold in the face of a divided Cabinet. Cushing wanted Cuba badly, to the point of war, but Pierce’s Secretary of State, William L. Marcy, did not. With the Kansas-Nebraska fight still raging, Pierce reserved his political capital for the domestic struggle. Soulé got his new instructions and Pierce sent out a proclamation avowing that he would zealously enforce the Neutrality Laws against any ambitious filibusters. Absent the domestic battle over slavery in Kansas, his decision might very plausibly have gone the other way.

The British Plot Against America, Part Four

John Slidell

John Slidell (D-LA)

Parts 1, 2, 3

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

The nation needed a fun little war to distract itself from the brewing war at home over the future of slavery in Kansas. Why not beat up the Spanish and steal their Cuba? The Spanish had it coming for throwing in with the British and French on some strange emancipation scheme that would monstrously murder all the whites on the island and set up some kind of rogue state under British protection from which they would undermine slavery in the American South and so breed another race war there. Best let John A. Quitman go take the island for everyone’s good.

Slidell meant it all, just as the New Orleans legislature had. It dovetailed well with their longstanding admiration of filibustering, but the recent British involvement with Soulé’s duel in Madrid and proclamations in Havana supporting bringing in more “apprentices” who could in time buy their freedom, or just have it given, 1854 looked very much like the critical time. The Black Warrior affair underlined the necessity. If Spain wanted to flex its muscles and harass American shipping, that provided both a casus belli and demonstrated that the United States must act before Spanish strength grew. Otherwise, the deluge:

With these, as I think, conclusive evidences of the intentions of Great Britain and France, intentions which, if realized, will soon, after scenes of blood and horror from every one not blinded by fanaticism must instinctively recoil, convert this fair island into a second Hayti, what course have we to pursue? Shall we remain passive spectators until the fatal blow has been struck, or shall we at once put ourselves in an attitude to repel and avert it. I counsel neither negotiation nor remonstrance on this subject; we have the remedy in our own hands; it is the that indicated in the resolution which I have submitted. Arm the President with the simple power to unfetter the limbs of our people, and the Government will have no occasion to put forth the energies of the nation; individual enterprise and liberality will as once furnish the men and the materiel that will enable the native population of Cuba to shake off the yoke of their trans-Atlantic tyrants.

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Slidell called on the Senate to remember that they had faced down British meddling before:

We have already had some experience of the emptiness of these menaces of interposition; they tended rather to precipitate than to retard the acquisition of Texas, and will, if persisted in, produce the same effect now. I repeat, I would deprecate any movement not invited by the uprising of the people of Cuba, but if they be driven to it by the conviction that they are doomed by their jailors to the horrors of servile war, then, I say, hands off: the people will not, cannot be prevented from giving them aid more substantial than their prayers. They will not permit a Black empire under a British Protectorate, the key of the Gulf of Mexico, nominally independent, but for every purpose of annoyance and aggression, a British dependency to be established in sight of our own shores.

Back in Texas annexation times, Sam Houston played a complicated double-bluff of seeking a British protectorate that would require abolition in order to spur the annexation movement. If fears of a British takeover of Texas scared Americans into overcoming their divisions to annex the republic, everything worked out. If they did not, and he could get some kind of British protectorate, that would secure his infant nation against Mexico and the United States both at the expense of ending slavery. Houston, perhaps alone of antebellum Southern politicians of his generation, would have taken that outcome too.

Americans have never turned up their noses at territorial expansion, except when they trimmed down the Gadsden Purchase earlier that year. That transaction had none of the imperatives behind it that impelled Cuban annexation and even if it had represented the one time the Senate had refused to take land offered to it free and clear. Surely the stars aligned for a Texas-style rebellion, intervention, and annexation scheme. The popularity of expansion would sweep aside the inevitable griping over one more slave state and national jubilation at victory would soften the blows struck over Kansas. Everyone, except the Spanish and their slaves, would win.

The British Plot Against America, Part Three

John Slidell

John Slidell (D-LA)

Parts 1, 2

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

John Slidell presented the Senate with the facts: Everyone knew that England saw abolition as a national priority. England clearly connived with France to preserve Cuba in Spanish hands. England clearly put pressure on Spain to emancipate Cuba’s slaves as a way to grease the wheels to further protection. Furthermore, the participation of British ambassador Lord Hodwen on the opposing side in a duel against American minister Pierre Soulé in Madrid strongly suggested that the plot had moved into a new phase. Before, the United Kingdom had confined itself to diplomatic overtures. Now, riding high on its new alliance with France, what else could conniving minds in London have ready to hatch? Slidell thought a race war on the way to some sham republic led by freedmen who would serve British imperial interests. The Louisiana legislature unanimously called Cuban emancipation only possible with the extinction there of the white race. To prevent that humanitarian catastrophe, Slidell and Louisiana asked that the Congress suspend the Neutrality Laws and let John A. Quitman and his filibusters descend on the island.

The supposed British plot, however, did require the Spanish signing on. They owned and ran Cuba, after all. There too, Slidell had his facts in order. The Spanish colonial officials had declared themselves for it. Captain-General Pezuela came into office on December 8, 1853, and on the 28th the heavily censored Cuban papers opined on the need for a new labor system:

It being understood that what we have in view is to make a transition from labor that is entirely compulsory to the organization of labor under the system of complete freedom which prevails in other countries, it is necessary, prudent, and just that we shall conciliate as far as possible the exigencies of both extremes. The contract system, which establishes for a fixed period, a reciprocal servitude and a reciprocal mastership, is the only possible solution of so delicate a problem.

Marqués de la Pezuela, Captain-General of Cuba

Marqués de la Pezuela, Captain-General of Cuba

The new labor system involved importing apprentices to work the fields. Apprentices you could buy and sell who came in the holds of ships, stacked like so much firewood. Odd thing for Slidell to object to on its face, but remember that the Atlantic slave trade scandalized just about every American of the time. Furthermore, newly arrived apprentices could turn swiftly into the footsoldiers of an emancipating army, adding their numbers to Cuba’s longer-serving slaves. Horror of horrors, Spanish law even made it easy for those slaves to free themselves:

To cap the climax of usurpation and oppression, an order has been issued allowing all slaves to hire their time at eight dollars per month. The Spanish law has always favored the emancipation of the slave, and to enable him to acquire his liberty by a tariff that has been placed on his labor according to his convertible value, or the price paid for him. This was ten cents per day on every $100 value. Thus: a slave worth $500,  by paying his master fifty cents per day, or fifteen dollars per month, could apply the balance of his earnings to the accumulation of a fund for the purchase of his liberty. Six hundred dollars is the minimum price of a healthys lave, so that the master, by being reduced from a monthly compensation of eighteen dollars to eight dollars is deprived, by the stroke of a pen, of more than half his revenue.

With a built-in compensated emancipation, which had to arouse fears of similar schemes in the United States, all those incoming slaves could turn into freedpeople in just a few years. Delaware and Kentucky refused compensated emancipation even during the Civil War. Resistance to emancipation ran bone-deep in the remaining slave states. Now the Spaniards would not just have a genocidal race war in Cuba when they emancipated, they would do it with a technique preferred by antislavery moderates up to and including that obscure nobody elected president in 1860. To men like Slidell, it sounded all too much like picking their pockets to fund their extermination.

Worse still, this did not come off as a policy of circumstance, but rather as the next logical step in Spanish policy:

It is a matter of notoriety that the Spanish officials there have repeatedly and openly declared that, in the event of the insurrection of the Creole population, they would not only emancipate the slaves, but arm them against their masters; but, until very lately, nothing had been done towards the realization of this threat, and utterance had not been given to it in any official form. The Creoles of the white race are the great slave proprietors, and whatever may be said to the contrary, are, with entire unanimity, opposed to the Spanish domination, and desire, either by revolution and subsequent annexation, or by purchase, to enter into our Confederacy.

There you have it, senators: the Cubans want us to come and rescue them from racial Armageddon. Spanish policy has written us the invitation. For America, for the white race, for the greater expansion of slavery, untie Quitman’s hands and let him go.

The British Plot Against America, Part Two

John Slidell

John Slidell (D-LA)

Part One.

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

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.

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

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.

The British Plot Against America, Part One

John Slidell

John Slidell (D-LA)

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Senator John Slidell of Louisiana had his orders from the state legislature to press for suspending the Neutrality Acts. Those orders largely agreed with his own reasons, presented to the Senate on May 1, 1854. That said, he took pains to both establish his independent reasoning and separate himself, if only rhetorically, from the Cuba panic sweeping the South in response to the Marqués de la Pezuela’s Africanization program. In particular, Slidell feared that the British and French colluded with the Spanish to turn the island into another Haiti, fomenting some kind of race war to purge it of whites and so turn it into a black-ruled, British-dominated protectorate which would then stand poised to snuff out the flame of liberty and light of the world, American democracy.

But Slidell began by declaring himself not moved by the general panic. He, he told the Senate, did not go for hysterics:

Some months since, Mr. President, I was as skeptical as any one on this floor could be about the existence of any concerted plan to Africanize Cuba. I use the world, not for the reason that it has become fashionable, but because it plainly conveys, to my mind, at least, without periphrasis, the complex ideas of emancipation, confiscation, pillage, murder, devastation, and barbarism. Past experience has led me to be surprised at nothing that England might attempt to prevent the possession of this magnificent island by her great commercial rival, a rival destined to be, in a very few years, if, in fact, she be not already, in that respect, her recognized superior. Still, I could not bring myself to believe that Spain, with all her pride and obstinacy, would prefer the destruction of a flourishing colony, peopled by her own sons, to the prospect of its transfer, at some future, perhaps distant day, by honorable and peaceful negotiation, to a friendly nation, for a price that would extricate her finances from that gulf of seemingly hopeless bankruptcy in which they have been so long plunged.

Marqués de la Pezuela, Captain-General of Cuba

Marqués de la Pezuela, Captain-General of Cuba

The perfidious redcoats strike again. While the odor of nationalistic paranoia hangs thick about the words, Slidell did have some actual evidence. Back in 1852, Britain and France jointly proposed to the United States that all three commit to a convention where each renounced any intention to seize Cuba for themselves and guarantee its continued possession by Spain. The United States refused to sign on for that. But where did that idea come from?

The British hatched it. Slidell quoted a letter from the Foreign Secretary to Lord Howden, his man in Madrid, on the whys and wherefores of the policy:

the slaves in Cuba form a large portion, and by no means an unimportant one, of the people of Cuba, and that any steps taken to provide for their emancipation would, therefore, as far as the black population is concerned, be quite in unison with the recommendation made by her Majesty’s Government, that measures should be adopted for contenting the people of Cuba, with a view to secure the connection between that island and the Spanish Crown; and it must be evident that if the negro population of Cuba were rendered free, that fact would create a most powerful element of resistance to any scheme for annexing Cuba to the United States, where slavery still exists.

With regard to the bearing which negro emancipation would have on the interests of the white proprietors, it may safely be affirmed that free labor costs less than slave labor; and it is indisputable that a free and contented peasantry are safer neighbors for the wealthy classes above them than ill-treated and resentful slaves.

Lord Howden subsequently wrote back to the next Foreign Secretary, who came into office shortly thereafter, expressing Spain’s interest in the tripartite convention abjuring Cuban annexation. The Spanish ambassador in London then wrote back:

Her Catholic Majesty desires that, should the Government of the United States not adhere to the declaration respecting the island of Cuba, intrusted to the British and French Representatives at Washington, England and France would declare on their side, that they will never allow any other Power, whether European or American, at any time to possess itself of the Island of Cuba, either by cession, alienation, conquest, or insurrection of the same. Any such declaration made by the two Powers collectively would answer the intention put forward on a former occasion by the United States, never to allow a European Power to possess itself of Cuba. It would, moreover, be in consonance with the idea which, according to the information received by Her Catholic Majesty’s Government, at present prevails with the French and British Representatives, to whose care the negotiations now pending at Washington have been intrusted. 

In other words, if and when the Americans say no, Spain would really like it if France and Britain committed themselves anyway. They could excuse doing so on the grounds that the Americans had a policy of denying Cuba to any European power and so produce through another means the same ends as the tripartite convention would have established. Once the Americans did say no, the British gave a parting shot on the matter in 1853:

while fully admitting the right of the United States to reject the proposal made by Lord Malmesbury and M. de Turgot, Great Britain must at once resume her entire liberty, and upon any occasion that may call for it be free to act either single or in conjunction with other Powers as to her may seem fit.

All bad old Europe seemed to have thrown in with the evil redcoats. Where’s George Washington when you need him?

Resolutions from Louisiana

John Slidell

John Slidell (D-LA)

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Senator John Slidell, the Louisiana Democrat, stood up in the Senate on May 1, 1854, and proposed giving Franklin Pierce the power to suspend the Neutrality Acts. That would, naturally, remove the final legal encumbrance to John A. Quitman’s filibustering expedition. He could go steal Cuba right then and there, free and clear of any concern about a second trial for breaking those laws. Slidell’s resolution came on the tail end of the Black Warrior affair, but to Slidell a single ship taken and then returned counted at most as a symptom of the larger problem. Slidell rose to oppose the Marqués de la Pezuela’s Africanization program on Cuba.

As a successful politician from the Lower South’s filibustering hotbed, Slidell had to look favorable on filibusters anyway and might have proposed suspending the Neutrality Acts regardless, but in this case he also acted under what he understood as instructions from his state. He just didn’t quite have them yet. Slidell had news that the Louisiana legislature had unanimously approved joint resolutions on Cuba back on March 16, but he did not then have a reliable copy of them.

I have since been in the daily expectation of receiving official notice of them; but from neglect to forward a copy, or from some irregularity of the mail, they have not yet reached the delegation in an authentic form. I have a copy which I believe to be correct, but do not feel at liberty to present it formally, as I am advised that it would not be in conformity with the usage of the Senate to do so.

Marqués de la Pezuela, Captain-General of Cuba

Marqués de la Pezuela, Captain-General of Cuba

A copy did come and the Congressional Globe (33rd Congress, page 1021) includes this remarkable document in full. Slidell, as a man elected by the Louisiana legislature and responsible to it, had every reason to take the resolutions as orders:

Be it resolved, That we view with alarm the recent and avowed change that has taken place in the policy of the Spanish Government in Cuba, the manifest tendency and result of which must be the abolition of slavery and the destruction of the white race in that country.

Resolved, That we believe such an event will have a most pernicious effect upon the same institution and interests in these States; that it will destroy the social and political existence of that island; that it will materially affect the natural law of American progress by precluding forever the admission of Cuba into this Union; that it will create in our immediate vicinity, and almost within sight of our own shores, a government administered by an inferior and barbarous African race, under the immediate influence of European interests and ideas, and adverse to the pure American influence which should predominate on this continent and its adjacent islands; that it will menace the security of the outlets of all our southern and southwestern rivers and harbors of the Gulf of Mexico, of the American Mediterranean, of the new great highways of commerce through those seas and across the Isthmus of America; and that it will materially endanger the intercourse between our Atlantic and Pacific States.

Resolved, That we approve of the sentiments expressed in the inaugural message of General Pierce, relative to the extension of our limits and the prevention of the establishment of prejudicial influences around our southern border, and of those laid down by his Excellency Governor Hébert in his late annual message.

Resolved, That we deem the time has arrived when the American people and the Federal Government should take a great and active interest in the proceedings of Spain and other European Powers in Cuba, in order to prevent the establishment of measures and institutions prejudicial to our own safety and welfare.

The resolutions speak for themselves.

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.

Cuban Concessions

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

On the advice of Britain and France, Spain took a somewhat conciliatory tone toward Pierre Soulé’s threats of war. They needed more information from Cuba. Soulé didn’t buy that, as the Cuban post had long since passed the date of the Black Warrior’s seizure. If he would let them, for now, slip out from under his forty-eight hour ultimatum, Soulé would not let Madrid slip out of the issue entirely. He wanted satisfaction officially and to get Cuba out of the deal unofficially, by war or threat of war.

In mid-April, as far as the Spanish could tell, it looked a bit like Soulé had Washington on board for that war. On the thirteenth, he reiterated his demands and pressed for an indemnity and the sacking of the colonial officials connected to the ship’s seizure “before it was too late.” At the very least, that had to mean that Washington would suspend the Neutrality Act and give free rein to filibusters like John A. Quitman, the administration’s apparent darling, right?

Soulé got back that Spain expected better treatment from the United States. They had every right to insist on getting accurate information from Cuba. Soulé answered on the twentieth with a laundry list of offenses against Americans that Spain had done nothing about, and concluded:

that good faith which alone can impart a moral sanction to the purposes of men, as well as nations, is to be sought after in their deeds rather than their assertions, and is found not infrequently to fall short of its promises in the hands of those who are loudest in its praises.

This persistence finally brought the immediate question into focus for the Spanish: Did Pierre Soulé act on instructions from Washington, or had he gone off on his own? They learned from the British, via discussions with American minister John Y. Mason in Paris, that Soulé probably exceeded his instructions.

Lord Howden, the British ambassador in Madrid, went to Soulé himself to feel things out. The owners had the ship back, Pierre, why all the fireworks over it? Soulé insisted that a great public question remained that transcended the private matter of the Black Warrior’s seizure:

the time had come for a great and generous nation to be no longer bullied and baffled by a small and contemptible one […] he would have 300,000 dollars and that General Pezuela and his satellites should be dismissed.

Emphasis in the original.

The latter demand, remember, Soulé invented himself. Marcy’s instructions asked for the cash and called it good. When the Secretary of State heard about all of this, he sent Soulé a private reprimand.

As April gave way to May, the British tried to arrange some kind of arbitration. They thought it would force Washington to either own up to trying to start a war or to denounce Soulé. This storm left the rest of the American diplomatic establishment out of the loop. From Mason in Paris and Buchanan in London, complaints went up to Marcy. Did the nation have a war policy they did not know about? Marcy shot back that he gave them all he had, but then told Buchanan and France’s ambassador to Washington that Soulé went off-script. 

On May 7, as Stephen Douglas got ready to dig the Kansas-Nebraska Act out from under the pile of other bills that the House buried it beneath, Soulé got a real answer from the Spanish. They insisted that, at last, they had accurate information. Spain would give back the fine the owners of the Black Warrior paid and promised a restoration of any seized property still in Spanish hands. Soulé called it a step in the right direction. His Spanish counterpart wondered if he had instructions on whether he should take yes for an answer.

Transparent Excuses for the Transparent Diplomat

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Pierre Soulé, the American minister in Madrid, went off script and constructed for himself a brand new crisis out of the Black Warrior affair. He delivered the Pierce administration’s demands to Spain just before Holy Week began, waited three days, and then replaced them with a new and more extensive set that came with a forty-eight hour ultimatum. Thus in mid-April, 1854, according to Pierre Soulé, the United States and Spain stood at the brink of war. Though certain elements in Washington very much wanted that war, Soulé had no instructions to grease the wheels for it. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had given others, and some of the same men, more war than they cared for already and it now rested under a pile of other bills in the House with antislavery and free soil men hoping it would die quietly where they buried it instead of turn into a time bomb.

When Soulé’s second note reached the Spanish foreign minister he admitted at once that he had yet circulated the first one. As Soulé knew very well, things tended to grind to a halt during Holy Week. The Spanish court knew very well that Soulé had quite the temper and might just shoot a random person for something someone else said, but a wildcat threat of war? Even Soulé had to have some limits. The Americans might send a less than ideal minister, but they wouldn’t send an out-and-out irresponsible, bellicose lunatic…right?

Taking the matter seriously, the Spanish Council of Ministers made an exception from the usual Holy Week festivities to discuss the matter. They also reached out to the British and French, who had made noises in the past about guaranteeing Spanish control over Cuba. In order to sweeten the deal in its favor, Spain promised them a fig leaf of reforming its laws on the slave trade. But those powers had their own problems much closer to home than Cuba. They had just joined in the Crimean War against Russia. They needed to invite a Russo-American alliance like they needed additional holes in their heads. The French passed along that their man in Washington rated the Cabinet less eager for war than Soulé, or even Pierce, let on. The British sided with Spain, but would not commit to armed intervention if war came. But both powers could still lend their weight to reaching a peaceful settlement. 

The Spanish correctly read this as an expression of sympathy combined with instructions to make concessions. They opted for the tactic that had worked so well in the past: delay. Late on April 11, the day of the ultimatum, they sent back a note they claimed dated to before that ultimatum and served as a response to Soulé’s first message. The note did not give anything asked. Instead it apologized, pleading that Madrid needed to get all the facts of the matter before any real reply could come.

Soulé saw through that, and Ettinger quotes him on it in The Mission to Spain of Pierre Soulé: 

Her Majesty’s Government cannot, on the eleventh day of April, plead want of authentic data in a case of wrong perpetrated at Havana as early as the twenty-eighth of February last, when, at the same time, an authorized announcement was made on the eighth instance, by the official gazette, that the government was in possession of despatches from the authorities at that place up to the tenth of March, and when it is known that letters have been received in Madrid more than three days since, with Havana dates up to the thirteenth of the same month.

If the Spanish wanted to make excuses, they needed better ones.