On the Choice of Real Estate

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

I have the sense that I’ve pushed the notion that the South chose Kansas over Cuba to the point that a reader could take it too literally. While the choices of various Southern leaders, and Franklin Pierce, certainly brought about that outcome in the end it  bears repeating that the choice here did not amount to the same thing as going to a store and picking one or the other off the rack. At no point did Jefferson Davis, by the grace of Calhoun King of the South, or anybody else have before them the explicit decision and power to take one place or the other for the benefit of American slavery.

To the degree that antebellum Southerners did make conscious choices that led to having a chance for slavery in Kansas but precluded stealing Cuba, they made those decisions together only because the Kansas crisis and the Cuba crisis happened largely at the same time. The best opening for Quitman’s filibusters came in the wake of the Black Warrior Affair and the Africanization panic (parts 1, 2, 3, 4). The seizure of the ship in particular gave them some cover against Northern objections, something Franklin Pierce surely understood when he strongly implied that he would start a war over it in his message to the House in March of 1854.

But that same month, the Kansas-Nebraska Act made it through the Senate after a seventeen hour marathon session that went all through a Friday night and into Saturday morning. The bill hit the House, where it would have the harder fight, just as the Cuba crisis really blew up. Confronted with both questions, both deeply entwined with slavery and thus deeply perilous, the Pierce administration seems to have walked back its steal first Cuba policy. We know that Pierce switched to trying to buy Cuba from the new instructions to Soulé in Madrid, but how much success he expected from those negotiations we can’t know.

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

That amounts to something like a deliberate choice, but if someone in the Pierce Cabinet made that choice explicitly, that person did so at a late date. All through the spring and summer, as Kansas-Nebraska debates raged in the House, as the Anthony Burns affair (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) sprung up, as the bill finally passed, and as the reaction set in in the North, Pierce seems to have maintained a course directed toward getting Cuba somehow. As late as early August, he repeated his saber-rattling message to the House. Only in November, after the Democracy took its electoral beating does Soulé receive his dressing down and the Ostend Manifesto went public, does Washington appear to completely give up the idea of a Cuban annexation. The costly Kansas controversy appears to have forced the administration to yield on the dream of a Caribbean empire.

Thus Samuel R. Walker’s eleventh hour plea for support in the pages of DeBow’s Review really did come at the last possible moment. Later that winter, Pierce had Quitman down to Washington and laid out for him just how thoroughly the Spanish had reinforced the island. By that time, the Democracy had bigger problems than an emancipated, Africanized Cuba. It had Know-Nothings and Republicans to face.

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