A Detour Through Mexico, Part One

Mexico in 1850

Mexico in 1850

The Southern route of the great Pacific railroad for national security, personal profit, and a side of world domination died with the fall of Rusk’s bill. That largely mooted the value of the one territory that the expansionists in Franklin Pierce’s administration both lusted after and managed to gain.

The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo set the United States-Mexico border at the Rio Grande, then a straight line west followed by a brief north-south line that intersected the Gila River. Then it ran with the river until it ran into the Colorado where another straight line went to the Pacific. By way of El Paso, a railroad from New Orleans could have, until Cass, Douglas, Shields, and Geyer made buying land out of a state for the route impossible, easily reached San Diego. Down that railway could run commerce, settlers, and slaves to a new California cotton kingdom.

Or so dreamed South Carolina railroad promoter James Gadsden. Like many Pierce appointees, Gadsden had impeccable Southern credentials. He supported the secession movement after the Armistice. But if he could not have the South out of the Union over a free California, why not enslave California? The southern section of the state had fewer Americans so a large movement of Southerners and their slaves might help facilitate California’s division. Gadsden concocted a scheme to colonize 1,200 Carolinians and Floridians and at least a few thousand slaves in the new state. California proved less than eager, but Gadsden, like many Southerners, did not give up his ambition to redress the defeats of 1850.

Senator Henry S. Foote (D-MS)

Senator Henry S. Foote (D-MS)

Pierce came into office and saw fit to snub Southern unionists, even those of his own party like Howell Cobb and Henry S. Foote, despite what they considered their heroic, not to mention successful, efforts to save the Union. Instead he gave the War Department to Jefferson Davis, who had lately taken up Calhoun’s place as the standard-bearer for the radical South. To offset Davis and his radicalism, Pierce picked Massachusetts’ Caleb Cushing for Attorney-General. People who knew Cushing from his Massachusetts days saw him as a completely unprincipled Slave Power lackey. They had a point, as he went around writing about how the nation had to crush antislavery politics. His supporters warned him that he would never take a seat in the Cabinet except by slipping in as a surprise.  When the war finally came, he offered his services to Massachusetts, which refused them on the grounds of his suspect loyalty.

Albert Gallatin Brown (D-MS)

Albert Gallatin Brown (D-MS)

Gadsden’s radicalism fit right in. He learned of his appointment as minister to Mexico from Davis, who had not yet seen fit to inform Secretary of State William Marcy. That also fit with the general practice. Davis and Cushing made most of the decisions not just about internal matters in their Departments, but about national policy. Pierce could moderate a Cabinet meeting, but not control his own administration.

Pierce, or rather Davis using Pierce’s name, sent Gadsden to Mexico to fulfill his own, Davis’, and the South’s territorial ambitions. If they could not steal some more of the nation’s neighbor to the South, they would buy more. Davis’ fellow Mississippian Albert Gallatin Brown wanted Cuba, of course, but McPherson quotes his Southern ambitions as fairly typical:

I want Tamaulipas, Potosi, and one or two other Mexican States; I want them all for the same reason-for the planting and spreading of slavery.

The railroad proved the perfect excuse to bring those dreams into reality.

Brown on Walker, Part Two

Albert Gallatin Brown (D-MS)

Albert Gallatin Brown (D-MS)

Not content to dispute William Walker’s arrest on the grounds that he broke no law, Mississippi’s Albert Gallatin Brown continued on to blast Paulding for violating Nicaraguan sovereignty, acknowledging and dismissing the fact that he did so at the request of that country, which saw his actions as no violation at all:

It is no excuse, to me, to say that Nicaragua does not complain. That suggestion opens up a wide field for investigation. I might reply that Walker has been invited to that country to take part in a civil war, that the party with whom he acted had triumphed, that he was lawfully elected President of the Republic of Nicaragua, that his Government de facto had been recognized by the United States; and that, by the interference of another naval officer, he had been brought out of the country. True, it was said then that it was a matter of grace to him. How that was, I am not now going to inquire. But he was claiming to be the rightful President of the Republic of Nicaragua. Patriotic men -not lawless and piratical, as is now charged, but patriotic men- in the southern and southwestern States, in the western and northern states, said: “We will join you, and go and help you snatch back again the rights which have been lawlessly taken from you.” I might go into all that, and show that Walker, the recognized de facto President of Nicaragua, was but pursuing, as he had a legal right to do, the recovery of that which had been lawlessly taken from him when he was thus arrested.

Brown dismissed the entire case against filibustering. Filibustering did not break the law, so long as the filibusters took even the slightest precautions. Filibustering did not count as piracy, and so Paulding could not claim the customary universal jurisdiction over Walker and his men. The Nicaraguans could not forgive Paulding’s transgression of their territory, as Walker constituted the only authority capable of that. Furthermore, Walker’s expedition only sought to restore the power wrongly taken from him by force. That Walker gained the same power by force hardly mattered.

To finish off, Brown inverted the case against filibustering on the grounds of keeping the peace:

If it is right to invade Nicaragua, which is a weak state, it is right to invade New Granada. How shall we appear before the world, on the one side, in bringing New Granada only one year ago down into the very dust to indemnify us for an assault made by a lawless mob against American citizens passing over that isthmus, and on the other, excusing or justifying the invasion of Nicaragua committed by this armed force? If it is right to invade New Granada, it is right to invade Brazil. There is hardly a nation or State south of the United States that is self-sustaining, much less one that can resist a serious invasion by the people of the United States, or by such emigrants as might arm themselves and go abroad for that purpose.

If it is right for us to invade these States, or suffer our citizens to do so, then it is right for the States which join us to invade us also.

To stop a filibuster amounted to the same as permitting him. Tolerating a filibuster boiled down to endorsing it. Making the Caribbean safe from filibusters meant filibustering the lot and we should expect invasions in return. Those lines must have strained even a veteran politician’s capacity for mental gymnastics. But ultimately, whatever road he took to reach it, Brown came to the conclusion that filibusters ought to operate with every feature of impunity save the name and a few empty fig leaves.

Brown for Walker, Part One

Albert Gallatin Brown (D-MS)

Albert Gallatin Brown (D-MS)

I began with Jefferson Davis for the obvious reasons, but Davis, like Buchanan, did not throw in whole hog with the filibusters. He opposed Paulding’s arrest of Walker, but like Buchanan and Stephen Douglas preferred to legally buy new territory or seize it in a proper war rather than trusting to highwaymen on a geographic scale. Davis’s fellow Mississippian, Albert Gallatin Brown, did not have quite the same set of scruples. He rose after Davis to stake out a more extreme position:

If Walker has fitted out an expedition against Nicaragua, or any other country at peace with the United States, he has violated the law; but if he has girt his arms about him and voluntarily gone aboard a ship going to the coast of Nicaragua, avowing to all the world that he was going there to wage war against the Government, I hold he had the right to do so. In that there is no fitting out of an expedition. I hold it to be my right under the law, to-day, to take my musket upon my shoulder, go and tell the President and his Secretary of War, his district attorneys and his marshals, everywhere, that I mean, thus accoutered, to go and take part against Nicaragua, and they have no power to arrest me. If one has the right to go, two, three, four, five, or even five hundred have the right in the same manner, each going upon his individual account.


if you had a law to punish the intention to fit out an expedition beyond the limits of the Union, you might get hold of Walker -for that is all that he has done. He has gathered his material in New York, New Orleans, and Mobile, and perhaps other points; he has taken them man by man beyond the limits of the Union, and there fitted out his expedition, and gone to Nicaragua. In that, there has been no violation of law, because there is nothing in the law to punish the intention to fit out an expedition, if the expedition was fitted out beyond the Union.

With that formulation, one would have to work fairly hard to violate the Neutrality Act. Senator Brown couldn’t find it in himself to say where the line lay. Where did emigration end and fitting out an expedition begin? Davis at least hinted that a sufficiently large number of men might trip the law, even if that number had exceed that of most Army commands of the time. Brown countenanced at least as many as five hundred declaring that they would go abroad to filibuster and leaving together. Davis at least feigned ignorance; Brown embraced their purpose as their sacred right as American citizens.

Brown had a point too. While he and Davis certainly argued from political expediency, in the nineteenth century virtually no nation had any kind of permanent border controls to keep its populace in. Those largely developed during the First World War. If an American wanted to leave, gun in hand, he or she could do just that. The Texans had, after all. So had the Mormons. Once one crossed the border, one slipped the yoke of the nation’s laws. If nothing else, the filibusters sat comfortably within the American tradition of cavalier attitudes about the sovereignty of other countries and other people. The Cherokee could tell us that just as well as the Mexicans could and requiring Americans to abide by the same neutrality as their government certainly smells a bit like conscripting them, something which the nation had never done except in the Fugitive Slave Act.