Trading Cuba for Kansas

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and revisited.

Back when I returned to the subject of Cuba filibustering, I said that I wanted to explore just how the South chose the questionable prospect of slavery expanded into Kansas over the sure thing of slavery in Cuba. I don’t think that I ever came out and said how that choice happened. This seems like a good moment to go back and unpack the narrative a bit.

Essentially, expansionist-minded Southerners had two opportunities to spread slavery in 1854 and 1855. They could bring the institution to Kansas, or they could bring Cuba with the institution to the Union. Each place had its attractions. If Cuba came into the Union, it must come in as a slave state. It already had slavery, so no one could complain about losing territory promised over to free soil. Even an eleventh hour emancipation poison pill from the departing Spanish could easily be reversed. Unlike the American Southwest, Cuba came thick with slaves and so no one could reasonably call it an undeclared region.

All in all, Cuban slavery looked very secure. The Spanish might threaten, cause panics, and inspire resolutions against the Neutrality Acts and conspiracy theories about British involvement (parts 1, 2, 3, 4), but a swift conquest would moot those fears. A fleeting emancipation could easily end with slavery reinstated. Geography would keep slave-stealing abolitionists away and offer self-stealing slaves fewer places to run. If the John A. Quitman and his filibusters could achieve a swift conquest, especially if aided by local revolts, it seems very reasonable to conclude that slavery would persist without disturbance on the island.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

If Quitman could win his game of Grand Theft Island, the Union might not instantly accept Cuba. The Cubans might not instantly accept the Union. But the example of Texas, always on their minds, argued that if Cuba could maintain some kind of de facto independence long enough then somehow, annexation would come. While Texas came in at the price of a war and amid great controversy, nobody proposed giving it back. The imperialistic, missionary attitudes of nineteenth century Americans, convinced that progress expanded with the nation’s borders, could easily ensure that. Would Franklin Pierce, Jefferson Davis, Caleb Cushing, and Stephen Douglas really refuse Cuba offered up on a silver platter?

But much hangs on that little word ‘if’. If Quitman could take Cuba, if a revolt erupted that he could sail to aid, if he could sail, if he had the ships and men, if the law did not intervene, then all of this might come to pass. Kansas did not have slavery. Bringing it there would involve a fight. But no one save Indians would question the right of Americans to the land.

The Kansas question revolved not on whether expansionists could prevail against a foreign power and then smoothly consolidate their gains into the Union, but rather on whether they could prevail against other Americans. With Kansas adjacent to the Missouri black belt, drained by the same river, and slavery-friendly Missourians possessing a geographic leg up on the competition, that must have looked like the better gamble. Even if Southerners largely understood Kansas as a Missourian issue which they, as fellow slaveholders, had a duty to advance that still left them united in a way that filibustering did not. Lawless filibusters might come off as lovable rogues and high-spirited patriots in Louisiana, but many sections of the South looked on them less charitably than on legitimate, honorable military conquest or lawful purchase of more land (parts 1, 2, 3) from Mexico.

Looking back, we can say that the South made the wrong choice. We know that the North’s fury over being sold out did not abate but instead fueled the foundation of a new, avowedly antislavery party. We know that party nearly won the presidency in 1856 and did in 1860. We know that the KansasNebraska Act brought Abraham Lincoln back into politics. They did not. With the two options before them, Kansas could very reasonably look like the safer bet. The South had dared Northern outrage, won, and endured the backlash over the fugitive slave act. Slavery in Kansas might ensure its spread, with time, to Utah and New Mexico. With a gloss of popular sovereignty, especially if freedom prevailed north of Kansas, they could reasonably have thought that everything would blow over.

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