Did Pierce Intend to Shut Quitman Down?

 

 

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Marcy’s new instructions to Pierre Soulé told him to try buying Cuba. The Spanish, however, would probably not sell. In that case, the fiery French revolutionary should turn toward doing what he could to see Cuba achieve its independence. One can read that as the end of the Pierce administration’s policy if first attempting to steal the island, but in light of Marcy’s intended Plan B still involving some kind of theft, the difference seems more in terms of how much political cover the administration wanted while pursuing the same ends than a real departure from past strategy. Certainly Soulé got up to more adventures in Spain to that end, just as he had before.

In writing about those, I dropped the other thread from Friday. Pierce and others cast John A. Quitman as the Carmen Sandiego in this drama. He and his thousands would sweep into Cuba, knock some Spaniards over the heads, and slip the island into a back pocket before legging it back to the United States. But the day after the Kansas-Nebraska Act cleared his desk, Pierce issued a proclamation declaring his intent to zealously enforce the Neutrality Acts against all comers. That meant trouble for Quitman. Past filibusters found themselves caught by the US Navy and hauled back to port to face prosecution. Quitman himself beat the rap in such a prosecution once before only because the jury in filibuster-happy New Orleans refused to convict the guilty.

This could not have come at a worse time. Pierce’s agent, sent to Cuba to investigate the Africanization program, had just come back with news that the Captain-General really meant to follow through. Emboldened by his success in the Black Warrior affair, he seemed bent on what the agent considered a bloody race war. The South could scarcely summon up more panic than it then had over Cuba, with visions of Nat Turners murdering them in their beds. John Slidell’s proposal to spend those encumbering Neutrality Acts came to Quitman with news that the administration had his back. Quitman pronounced himself all but ready, waiting just until he had three thousand men, some extra cash, and an armed steamer. He had a man working on getting the steamer. What happened?

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Maybe Pierce imagined that Quitman and his filibustering would only hasten the Africanization program along. Maybe he decided that he had sacrificed enough of his party’s support in the North over Kansas and the South should take the win with satisfaction rather than demanding a second. But Basil Rauch points out in The American Interest in Cuba, 1848-1855 that Pierce’s proclamation lacked the fire of past declarations from his Whig predecessors. Pierce had a habit of making commitments that he then did not follow through on, even if he did mean what he wrote. Could this be one of those?

One of Quitman’s confidants, concerned about the apparent split between filibuster and president, wrote to Jefferson Davis, Pierce’s Secretary of War and sometime power behind the throne. Did he really want to risk the wrath of the Southern Democracy? That letter prompted a meeting between Davis, Slidell, James Mason (of Fugitive Slave Act fame), and Stephen Douglas where they leaned on Pierce until he agreed to tell Marcy to send along to the District Attorney in New Orleans news that the administration would act soon and swiftly on Cuba. Pierce had it all tied up and did not need Quitman’s freelance help, thanks.

Quitman did not get wind of all of that and attributed his subsequent woes to an overzealous judge that made him and two other filibuster principals post a bond on their good behavior with regard to the Neutrality Acts for nine months. But even that did not stop Quitman. The federal marshal who briefly took him into custody over the matter also attended a feast in Quitman’s honor and offered the toast. Reading this as, at most, a sign that the Cabinet split over him Quitman resolved to keep on preparing while he waited out his bond. The administration’s public clamp down only raised his stock, with Northern Mexico and future Nicaragua filibuster William Walker signing on and the Memphis Whig reporting that Quitman had a million dollars in the bank, twelve ships, eighty-five thousand guns, ninety cannon, and as many as fifty thousand men. Read those numbers with some skepticism; the entire United States peacetime army didn’t amount to fifty thousand.

Hyperbole or no, the most Quitman seems to have done is postpone his expedition until the spring of 1855. Men associated with him went to Cuba in October of 1854 with a shipment of arms to help a revolutionary group already present. Sweeping in to aid a domestic revolution had long been Quitman’s preferred excuse. But the Spanish caught on, caught the men, and the Captain-General who replaced the Marqués de la Pezuela executed their leader.

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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.