The Whigs Break: Electing Charles Sumner, Part 4

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3

In early February, 1851, things did not look good for Charles Sumner’s Senate bid. Caleb Cushing’s Democratic Indomitables refused to vote for their coalition’s candidate. The Whigs remained immobile for Robert Winthrop. Together those facts left the Free Soil party without a majority in the Massachusetts House. The others could not agree on a candidate, but appeared to have a growing consensus on Anybody But Sumner as the Free Soil nominee began to lose votes.

Looking at his whip count, which Sumner followed closely, he offered to give it up on February 22. Sumner’s offer, like his professed and strictly correct disinterest, had to lack sincerity. He knew as well as the other members of his party that the only candidate aside him that the Free Soilers may united on, Stephen Phillips, would command far fewer Democratic votes. Absent some kind of guarantee that the Democrats or the Whigs would back another person, the party had Sumner or no one. The stalemate wore on into April.

Accusations of corruption flew both ways. Free Soilers pointed to the Whigs’ fund to support their men through anti-Sumner votes in the extended legislative session. Whigs answered back that the coalition bought pro-Sumner votes with the promise of two million from Massachusetts coffers for a railroad. It appears that neither side had it quite right. Whigs did pay for trains to get their members to Boston and support them in the city, as well as gin up anticoalition town meetings, but they did so in such an open manner and with small enough sums that Sumner’s biographer thinks they fell short of genuine bribery. The Whigs and Indomitables who made the railroad charge both agreed in private that it had no basis in fact.

All in all, the Whigs argued from the basis that the coalition had no common interests but the Senate seat. The Free Soilers and Democrats did not feel obligated to agree. The Massachusetts Democracy wanted major reforms to the state’s government which would, incidentally, reduce the strength of Whiggery. Sumner’s election meant far less to them than state politics, which they demonstrated with their indifference to him in subsequent ballots. Free Soilers often, despite Sumner, Adams, and others hailing from Conscience Whiggery, had Democratic antecedents or inclinations. Concerned with the national question and not all that fussed about state affairs going in a Democratic direction, they could concede state offices without great difficulty. Furthermore, Massachusetts Whigs and Democrats alike shared a loathing of slavery. Coalitions have endured for less.

Caleb Cushing

As April wore on, the main body of the coalition began to look ahead to the close of the legislature. They only had a few weeks left and so far had nothing to show for it. No major bills, none of the Democrats reforms, and no Senator had come from their votes. The voters would remember that unkindly in November. During a three week hiatus between votes, the Free Soilers took to the stump in town meetings and passed pro-Sumner resolutions. From New York, Thurlow Weed bent ears about how his Whigs had secured an antislavery senator with Democratic votes. At the same time, Daniel Webster decided Robert Winthrop should give way to a more thoroughgoing Compromise of 1850 man who would support the Fugitive Slave Act. Given all that, the Indomitables may not crack but Whiggery could. On April 23, the twenty-first ballot gave Sumner 195 votes. He had his majority.

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Indomitables, Editorials, and Whig Money: Electing Charles Sumner, Part 3

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2

Factional struggles within the Free Soil party over the acceptability of coalition with the Democrats and threats without from both the Democracy and Whigs of Massachusetts put Charles Sumner’s election to the Senate in considerable jeopardy. With withdrawal of his chief rival for the spot among Free Soil men, Charles Francis Adams, did not quiet the discontent with the coalition. Most who objected to it preferred to join up with the regular Whigs, their original party, regardless and they might have the votes with their plurality to replace the Democrats.

Through all the politicking, Sumner himself maintained a statesman’s distance. He claimed that others put his name forward without his leave, endorsing instead Adams or Stephen Phillips. Both of those worthies had the distinction of serving in public office before, where Sumner’s life to date involved a middling law practice, a frustrated academic career, and political activism that had cost him the latter and damaged the former by making him a virtual pariah in Boston society. Adams rejecting the spot didn’t change much, at least for public consumption. Sumner refused to openly lobby for the seat, even when Democrats and Free Soilers asked him directly. He told everyone that he would not as much as cross the room to get the job.

The Massachusetts House met on January 14, 1851 and voted for their senator. Sumner fell five votes shy courtesy of Democratic defections. Four more ballots over two days did not shake them loose. The coalition’s architect, Henry Wilson fumed. Sumner put on a chipper face and went about his life. The state Senate turned out in Sumner’s favor, which gave him genuine cause to smile. He still needed the House, but now he had something in his favor. The House promptly let him down on five subsequent ballots, with the Whigs sticking to Winthrop. The Free Soilers remained unanimous for Sumner, but the Democracy proved Palfrey’s fears reasonable again courtesy of Caleb Cushing’s Indomitables. Rather than choosing their own candidate, they scattered their votes and hoped to play kingmaker to a Never Sumner candidate.

Amos Adams Lawrence

The Free Soil party lobbied George Boutwell for an endorsement, which he did not give, and published glowing editorials about Sumner’s qualifications and character. Massachusetts Whiggery, established a fund to support their members during the legislative session tied up with the election. Amos Lawrence, later namesake of Lawrence, Kansas, contributed heavily and claimed that the money went to humanitarian consideration rather than to buy loyalty. The long session would personally cost the legislators, so they deserved some kind of compensation for the damage done to their personal finances. Of course by helping them stay in session longer, Lawrence and the others blunted any financial incentive to defect and settle. Funny how that worked out.

Voting paused after January 24, resuming almost two weeks later on February 2. Sumner fell two votes short. A week of more ballots followed and Sumner lost ground, coming up nine votes short. With his stock falling, someone else would soon come forward and a dark horse senator would go to Washington in his stead. Sumner kept up the pose of aloofness, which even coalition foe John Palfrey considered admirably correct, while following the matter with intense interest.

Electing Charles Sumner, Part 2

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

The Free Soil-Democratic coalition beat the Whigs and carried the day in the Massachusetts elections of late 1850, but the Whigs still had a plurality. That made the coalition especially vulnerable to defectors twice over considering that their alignment did not amount to a full fusion, but only agreement on specific candidates for the state legislature and agreement to decide jointly on nominations thereafter. Conservatives Whigs based around Boston associated with Daniel Webster favored Robert Winthrop’s election and wooed the coalition’s governor toward their camp, persuading him not to endorse Charles Sumner for the Senate. A rump group of conservative Democrats led by Caleb Cushing bolted the coalition to stop Sumner’s election, aiming ultimately to make themselves spoilers and kingmakers.

That accounts for the Democrats in the coalition and the Whigs outside it, but one would imagine that free soilers demonstrated greater unity behind Sumner. As one of their own, he must command some loyalty beyond that of established politicians. In public, they largely kept together. In private, the free soil party too had its factions. Many former Democrats could look on Sumner as something like a kindred spirit, but still prefer Marcus Morton, the antislavery ex-governor of the state. They complained that ex-Whig fixers worked to keep them from positions of power and took Sumner’s nomination as proof. He may have leanings toward the Democracy, but the Democrats had in Morton an actual party man from way back to favor.

On the other side of the divide within the party, Conscience Whigs who had battled the Democracy for a generation did not sit easily in coalition with it. They had kept the faith for ages and now Sumner, a relatively young man, would advance ahead of them to a prize that would count for little. One antislavery vote would only “be crushed under an overwhelming proslavery majority,” as David Donald quotes the editor of a new paper the party aimed to start at the first of the year in his two-volume biography of Sumner, from which I derive most of this struggle. It would do them better to keep themselves pure, concede the Senate seat, and come back with a stronger majority some other day.

Charles Francis Adams

That argument cost the Commonwealth, its incoming editor his job. The party set John G. Palfrey aside in favor of more dependable types, but not without cost to the Free Soilers. Charles Francis Adams, the son and grandson of presidents, thought with the support of the regular Whigs and Palfrey-style dissenters, he might himself become a senator. Nor could many doubt the antislavery credentials of an Adams after John Quincy’s eight year crusade against the gag rule or dream of his son as an upstart. The confidential letter Palfrey wrote to the legislature against the coalition and Adams’ letter abandoning his own quiet quest for the senate in favor of Sumner appeared side by side in the January 17, 1851 edition of The Liberator. They will bear closer examination, starting tomorrow.

 

Electing Charles Sumner, Part 1

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

 

With the elections of 1850, the Free Soil-Democrat coalition took control of Massachusetts. That coalition did not amount to a full fusion movement, but rather the local Democracy and Free Soil elements jointly agreeing on individual candidates while remaining independent. Massachusetts still returned a Whig plurality, but the Democrats and Free Soilers together outnumbered them. With victory in hand, the real horse trading began. The Free Soilers agreed to back the Democrat’s man for governor, George S. Boutwell, as well as the lieutenant governor and various officers in the legislature. The Democracy could also place their own man to finish the rump of Daniel Webster’s last Senate term. The Free Soilers claimed the state senate presidency and the full term for the United States Senate beginning on March 4, 1851. The leadership of both groups hashed out the settlement and presented it to their caucuses, who agreed. On January 7, the Free Soilers nominated Charles Sumner to go to Washington by a vote of 84-1. The Democrats concurred, with only six opposing.

The Whigs promptly erupted at the outrageous trading of offices, on the grounds of keeping politics pure and free from interested men and, incidentally, because they lost. Daniel Webster blamed the failure at the polls on his replacement in the Senate, Robert Winthrop. Winthrop refused to endorse the Fugitive Slave Act and that torpedoed Whiggery’s chances by making him look like a crazy abolitionist. He should have gone all-in on the entire Compromise of 1850. Godlike Dan, Secretary of State for Millard Fillmore, set to purging Sumner men from the civil service and aimed to lead his Boston Whigs into a new organization. Webster had wished for a party all to himself for probably as long as he had considered himself a Whig of any kind and the fraught times must have seemed ripe enough for another go. His supporters set about wooing the new governor, who had positioned himself as a pro-Compromise man in his inaugural.

Daniel Webster (Whig-MA)

Not every Massachusetts Whig, present or former, bought what Webster tried selling. Far more of them believed Black Dan’s course an excellent way to lose elections and remained open to some kind of alignment with ex-Whigs in the Free Soil movement. They had Charles Francis Adams in mind for the Senate. On the other side of the aisle, the Democracy cared more for breaking Whig dominance than advancing Sumner’s career. But since the senate seat meant less to them than action at the state level, and Sumner had worked well with Democrats before, most found him acceptable.

Caleb Cushing

A minority led by Caleb Cushing felt otherwise and kept strategic silence during the office trading, right up through Boutwell’s election. Then he led them out to make their own caucus against Sumner, the “Indomitables.” More than thirty strong, they had enough votes to swing the senate election against either Winthrop, Webster’s man again, or Sumner. Cushing hoped to defeat both and make himself a senator in the name of conservative Whiggery. Failing that, he turned to Edward Everett. Mainly, however, Cushing put pressure on the coalition Democracy with help from Lewis Cass and other party luminaries. That, Webster’s wooing, or both moved Boutwell to disclaim any interest in Sumner’s election, pawning the matter off on the legislature.

The Governor’s Land Deals, Part Three

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

If Andrew Reeder did not dazzle or intimidate with his trash talk, or persuade with the striking whiteness of the men from whom he wanted to buy his land, then he still proposed to pay more for it than George Manypenny had for lands he bought on behalf of the United States. What would the Indian Commissioner say to that?

At the close of his letter, the Reeder finally came around to a difficult point. While he praised the men he dealt with as sharp businessmen, either white or close enough to it, he had still gotten a really good price on land that stood to increase in value. If not for that, he wouldn’t have bothered. The Governor had no intention of using all that land himself. He and his partners threw in to buy it so they could resell it at a profit. This did not make the deal inherently corrupt, but also did not help make it appear entirely fair.

Reeder had an answer for that:

That these lands could have been sold for a little more had they been hawked about in the market, efforts made to get purchases, and the sale delayed till the country filled up, is very probable; but that proves nothing, and is common to all contracts.

The prices were more than we intended to give-more than had ever been offered before, although it was generally known that the vendors were anxious to sell-were fixed by the owners themselves, after consultation with each other and their friends, and were all that nay man could afford to give at that time to make it a desirable investment. Three of the vendors, being white men, could have preempted quite as good land at $1.25 per acre, and intend, on consummation of those arguments to do so. No approach to fraud, deceit or misrepresentation was practiced upon them. The contracts were to have no effect, nor any possession taken, till ratified by the government, and the purchase-money was to be paid in cash when the deeds were made.

Caleb Cushing

Caleb Cushing

This all sounds just fine. Maybe Reeder stretched the truth, maybe he simply lied. But it seems hard to deny that the men he contracted with knew the facts as well as he did. Anybody in Kansas could anticipate the value of land increasing. It sounds like they intended to use the sale to finance new claims of their own, which they then might settle or resell themselves a few years down the road.

Washington did not find Reeder’s preliminary arguments entirely persuasive. As mentioned before, a letter came to him while still in Washington back in mid-June demanding a better explanation. The Attorney-General, Caleb Cushing sent a similar note to Reeder’s business partners a day later. On arrival in Kansas, Reeder would have to give a better account of himself.

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.

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.

Giddings for Peace, Part Two

Joshua Giddings (Free Soil-OH)

Joshua Giddings (Free Soil-OH)

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Giddings for Peace: part 1

On March 16, 1854, Joshua Giddings, the Ohio Free Soiler and lately member of the Opposition coalition on his way to becoming a Republican, rose to pour some cold water on all the outrage over Spain’s seizure of the Black Warrior for technically violating its revenue laws. He began with the simple points that Spain had every right under its laws to seize the ship. Everybody admitted that omitting four to five hundred bales of cotton from her manifest broke the law. Spain treated the ship no differently than it had treated ships flying the Union Jack or other flags. Furthermore, the United States had done the same thing with British ships. One in New York got taken on the same grounds as the Black Warrior before this whole business erupted and just since the Congress convened another port authorities had seized another in Boston. Yet the United Kingdom did not threaten war.

Franklin Pierce, by contrast, acted like a man unusually bent on stirring up a war. To do so he broke with established precedent. When a house of Congress requested information or documents from the president, they got it with a brief note saying that these papers belonged to this request. Pierce gave Congress sixteen such notes in March of 1854. You can read the lot online here. With the exception of one where Pierce explains why he has not referred a treaty to the Senate, only the Black Warrior message goes beyond simple, utilitarian prose.

Giddings noticed. He quoted the first paragraph, calling it “full and complete.”

It is to this extent, in accordance with the universal practice of this Government, from its earliest period down to the present day. And here let me say that this is the first instance in the history of Executive communications to this House, so far as my recollection extends, where a President has traveled out of the record and undertaken to obtrude his opinions on this House, or dictate to this representative body the course which they should pursue under such circumstances.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Pierce just can’t help himself. He feels the need to turn routine communications into pressure on the Congress to gin up a war. Does a responsible head of state act that way? Even in a time when many saw war as a welcome expression of national vigor, this put the thumb on the scale a bit. Worse still:

As yet we have not heard from the Spanish Government. We know not what justification they will urge. Nor has the President thought proper to wait for any excuse or justification

You can almost imagine Giddings imagining Pierce foaming at the mouth. Whatever Spain would say couldn’t matter. Damn it all; he wanted his war and he wanted it now. He’d show the ghost of old James K. Polk, dead 103 days after leaving office, how to gin up a crisis, make war, and come away with pockets full of someone else’s land. Either Pierce himself would or the expansionists like Davis and Cushing, who held the reins in his Cabinet, would do it in his name.

The nation ended up liking the Mexican War just fine despite largely sectional tension over starting it. No one could have planned on the Marqués de la Pezuela seizing a ship at just this moment, but why let the crisis go to waste? The war enthusiasm could undermine the antislavery movement at a critical time. If the Kansas-Nebraska act failed then, maybe the South would settle for slavery in Cuba. If it passed, maybe the outrage would find itself badly exposed and tarred with accusations of disloyalty in a nation at war or being sore winners after the United States triumphed.

Giddings for Peace, Part One

Joshua Giddings (Free Soil-OH)

Joshua Giddings (Free Soil-OH)

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

In the middle of the KansasNebraska crisis, the United states now had a Cuba crisis. Riding a wave of outrage over the seizure of the Black Warrior on a legal technicality, but really as a show of strength by the new Spanish governor, the Pierce administration threatened war. If Madrid would not give Washington satisfaction, Pierce proposed to take it. He had his attorney-general, Cuba annexation fan Caleb Cushing, leaning on him to make a war of it. He had the Congress up in arms.

Or rather, Franklin Pierce had half the Congress up in arms about the Black Warrior, more or less. The same people alarmed by the Africanization of Cuba under the Marqués de la Pezuela now cried out for war, or at the very least giving filibusters like John A. Quitman a free hand. The men inflamed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, antislavery northerners, found they had not much more outrage in them over the seizure of the ship than their proslavery opposites had over the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Had the Pierce administration not brought both crises on itself, one could feel some sympathy. But Pierce’s policy, whether he chose it himself or had it selected by Jefferson Davis and Caleb Cushing in private, did a great deal to bring things to this point at home and in Cuba.

What outrage antislavery interests had about the Black Warrior affair revolved around the administration’s warlike attitude on the whole matter. On March 16, 1854, Joshua Giddings, signatory to the Appeal of the Independent Democrats despite being a Whig turned Free Soiler, rose in the House to voice his objections. He began with the obvious: the Spanish had every right to seize the ship for her violation of their revenue laws. The manifest declared only her ballast, but “she had four or five hundred bales of cotton on board.”

I would call the attention of the House and the country to the fact that it is precisely teh same case in all its bearings which was pursued by our authorities in regard to the British steamers of the Cunard line. They have, on more than one occasion, been seized for having goods on board in violation of our revenue laws. One was seized in New York precisely as the Black Warrior was seized. In Boston, since we convened here, another instance occurred. They were seized, and those goods not mentioned in the manifest were confiscated. No voice has come from Old England in remonstrance. She has not called on her Parliament to prepare for war. She expects her citizens hwo land in our ports to conform to the laws and to the revenue system which we have established.

Pierce, for all his crying about how extraordinary and outrageous he found the seizure, had revenue officers under his supervision that did the same thing. Furthermore, Giddings pointed out that far from picking just on American ships, the Cuban authorities had treated British ships under the same system. He had it from the American consul at Havana, who learned the fact from his British counterpart and passed it on in the documents Pierce himself supplied to the House. If the vessels of other nations got seized for violations, why not American vessels also?

All of this had to smell a bit like Stephen Douglas’ line about how the nation repealed the Missouri Compromise back in 1850, to universal acclaim that no one noticed at the time.

Remember the Black Warrior?

Marqués de la Pezuela, Captain-General of Cuba

Marqués de la Pezuela, Captain-General of Cuba

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

A month into the Senate’s intense debate over the KansasNebraska Act, the Spanish governor of Cuba seized an American-owned steamer, the Black Warrior, which touched at Havana on its way from Mobile to New York. The port authorities seized the ship on the grounds of a technicality. She had a load of cotton but listed only ballast on the manifest. The Black Warrior had done just that many times before. Basil Rauch counts seventeen previous occasions in The American Interest in Cuba, 1848-1855. Other ships touched and moved on unmolested under the same convention. The Marqués de la Pezuela seized the ship to demonstrate his resolve and warn off John A. Quitman’s filibustering expedition. Spain would keep Cuba, whatever Quitman and the Pierce administration thought about it.

Washington, already embroiled in the Kansas-Nebraska crisis, found itself with a fresh Cuba crisis on its hands as well. This outrage came convenient for Cuban annexation enthusiasts, but we shouldn’t rush to immediately see it as entirely cynical. Nineteenth century revenue laws had many technicalities that port authorities could enforce as they willed to collect large fines. Allen Nevins reports that the United States itself had seized two British steamers at Boston in recent years and did not give them back until their owners paid a large bond. But Americans saw their courts as generally fair and not inclined to make examples of foreigners. They saw the Spanish courts, with some justice even independent of the circumstances, as capricious. Some kind of satisfaction certainly seemed in order.

The House of Representatives demanded that Pierce give them a full report of matters and he complied, forwarding documents related to the Black Warrior on March 15, 1854. To them he attached a message describing the business:

Those now transmitted relate exclusively to the seizure of the Black Warrior , and present so clear a case of wrong that it would be reasonable to expect full indemnity therefor as soon as this unjustifiable and offensive conduct shall be made known to Her Catholic Majesty’s Government; but similar expectations in other cases have not been realized.

The offending party is at our doors with large powers for aggression, but none, it is alleged, for reparation. The source of redress is in another hemisphere, and the answers to our just complaints made to the home Government are but the repetition of excuses rendered by inferior officials to their superiors in reply to representations of misconduct. The peculiar situation of the parties has undoubtedly much aggravated the annoyances and injuries which our citizens have suffered from the Cuban authorities, and Spain does not seem to appreciate to its full extent her responsibility for the conduct of these authorities. In giving very extraordinary powers to them she owes it to justice and to her friendly relations with this Government to guard with great vigilance against the exorbitant exercise of these powers, and in case of injuries to provide for prompt redress.

I have already taken measures to present to the Government of Spain the wanton injury of the Cuban authorities in the detention and seizure of the Black Warrior, and to demand immediate indemnity for the injury which has thereby resulted to our citizens.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

A clear case of wrong for which the United States should expect paid recompense…but Spain never seemed to pay up in past cases. It probably would not again. This left the United States with rogue, piratical officials standing astride its shipping lanes. But Pierce’s outrage went beyond demanding money from Madrid:

In view of the position of the island of Cuba, its proximity to our coast, the relations which it must ever bear to our commercial and other interests, it is vain to expect that a series of unfriendly acts infringing our commercial rights and the adoption of a policy threatening the honor and security of these States can long consist with peaceful relations.

In case the measures taken for amicable adjustment of our difficulties with Spain should, unfortunately, fail, I shall not hesitate to use the authority and means which Congress may grant to insure the observance of our just rights, to obtain redress for injuries received, and to vindicate the honor of our flag.

Forget Quitman’s private army, if Franklin Pierce did not receive satisfaction for insults to the flag, he would set aside peaceful relations in the name of national honor and security and try war. The same day as Pierce’s message, Secretary of State William H. Marcy dispatched an agent to Cuba to investigate de la Pezuela’s Africanization program. Behind the scenes, Caleb Cushing lobbied Pierce to make war sooner rather than later. The Spanish reactionary’s show of strength worked too well.