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.

Advertisements

The British Plot Against America, Part Four

John Slidell

John Slidell (D-LA)

Parts 1, 2, 3

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

The nation needed a fun little war to distract itself from the brewing war at home over the future of slavery in Kansas. Why not beat up the Spanish and steal their Cuba? The Spanish had it coming for throwing in with the British and French on some strange emancipation scheme that would monstrously murder all the whites on the island and set up some kind of rogue state under British protection from which they would undermine slavery in the American South and so breed another race war there. Best let John A. Quitman go take the island for everyone’s good.

Slidell meant it all, just as the New Orleans legislature had. It dovetailed well with their longstanding admiration of filibustering, but the recent British involvement with Soulé’s duel in Madrid and proclamations in Havana supporting bringing in more “apprentices” who could in time buy their freedom, or just have it given, 1854 looked very much like the critical time. The Black Warrior affair underlined the necessity. If Spain wanted to flex its muscles and harass American shipping, that provided both a casus belli and demonstrated that the United States must act before Spanish strength grew. Otherwise, the deluge:

With these, as I think, conclusive evidences of the intentions of Great Britain and France, intentions which, if realized, will soon, after scenes of blood and horror from every one not blinded by fanaticism must instinctively recoil, convert this fair island into a second Hayti, what course have we to pursue? Shall we remain passive spectators until the fatal blow has been struck, or shall we at once put ourselves in an attitude to repel and avert it. I counsel neither negotiation nor remonstrance on this subject; we have the remedy in our own hands; it is the that indicated in the resolution which I have submitted. Arm the President with the simple power to unfetter the limbs of our people, and the Government will have no occasion to put forth the energies of the nation; individual enterprise and liberality will as once furnish the men and the materiel that will enable the native population of Cuba to shake off the yoke of their trans-Atlantic tyrants.

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Slidell called on the Senate to remember that they had faced down British meddling before:

We have already had some experience of the emptiness of these menaces of interposition; they tended rather to precipitate than to retard the acquisition of Texas, and will, if persisted in, produce the same effect now. I repeat, I would deprecate any movement not invited by the uprising of the people of Cuba, but if they be driven to it by the conviction that they are doomed by their jailors to the horrors of servile war, then, I say, hands off: the people will not, cannot be prevented from giving them aid more substantial than their prayers. They will not permit a Black empire under a British Protectorate, the key of the Gulf of Mexico, nominally independent, but for every purpose of annoyance and aggression, a British dependency to be established in sight of our own shores.

Back in Texas annexation times, Sam Houston played a complicated double-bluff of seeking a British protectorate that would require abolition in order to spur the annexation movement. If fears of a British takeover of Texas scared Americans into overcoming their divisions to annex the republic, everything worked out. If they did not, and he could get some kind of British protectorate, that would secure his infant nation against Mexico and the United States both at the expense of ending slavery. Houston, perhaps alone of antebellum Southern politicians of his generation, would have taken that outcome too.

Americans have never turned up their noses at territorial expansion, except when they trimmed down the Gadsden Purchase earlier that year. That transaction had none of the imperatives behind it that impelled Cuban annexation and even if it had represented the one time the Senate had refused to take land offered to it free and clear. Surely the stars aligned for a Texas-style rebellion, intervention, and annexation scheme. The popularity of expansion would sweep aside the inevitable griping over one more slave state and national jubilation at victory would soften the blows struck over Kansas. Everyone, except the Spanish and their slaves, would win.

Pierre Soulé and the Queens of Spain

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

The Soulés, more Pierre than Nelvil, burned plenty of bridges in Madrid. Demonstrating that you will shoot someone for something someone else said tends to do that. Even sympathetic American newspapers looked a bit askance at the elder Soulé’s judgment. What if business of state came up and he had to deal with the Marquis de Turgot, or some friend of his? Who would Soulé shoot next? The Pierce administration opted not to recall him at once, but did have a replacement in mind in the likely event that Soulé would do something else.

Soulé himself didn’t think matters had really gotten out of hand. He insisted that the French had plotted against him in all of this. Now that he shot the Marquis de Turgot through the knee, they should know to stop. But even if that did not suffice, and Soulé had alienated most of the court at Madrid, he wrote back to Marcy in Washington that

these, my troubles and trials, have, by no means injured my position here, but, on the contrary, have gathered around me the whole Democracy of Madrid and elicited from both Queens, who hate cordially the French Emperor, and like but little his representative at this court, manifestations from which I am authorized to infer that I have lost no favor with them on account of the same.

Isabelle II, Queen of Spain

Isabelle II, Queen of Spain

Isabella II of Spain turned 24 in 1854. Her mother, the Queen Mother Maria Christina, had served as her regent for years before.  The latter owned much of the Cuba in her own right and her opposition would certainly make any effort to buy the island much more difficult. But the Queen Mother appeared amenable to sale if it could wipe away some of Spain’s debt and avoid Spanish-American conflict.

As unreliable and self-serving as Soulé’s words sound, he might have actually had the right of it. On February 25, the Queen and King Consort threw a concert and paid Soulé considerable attention. That continued soon after when the Queen Mother invited him to a ball. The diplomatic establishment in general noticed, so Soulé had not just given in to a fancy. Maybe they really did hate Louis Napoleon. Rumors flew around that Spain would settle its debts in part by selling off Cuba to the United States. If the Spanish came to Soulé with an offer, he would hardly proclaim his hands tied and walk away.

Probably with that in mind, Soulé called on the Queen often and said so little about what went on between the two of them that Marcy wrote Buchanan in London to get more information. The Spanish court noticed as well and some wondered what exactly the American minister, aged 53, and the Isabelle II, thirty years his junior, did behind closed doors. It later came out that Soulé had behaved himself. I imagine that stunned quite a few observers more than proof of an affair might have.  Rather than keeping romantic company, Soulé had suggested that Spain accept a loan from the US against Cuban revenues with the island as collateral. And by the way, would Spain care to sell off the town of Melilla on the north African coast? Not everyone took these revelations seriously, but the Marquis de Turgot did.

Pierre Soulé, disgraced duelist, might just have his moment in the sun after all. Ultimately Isabelle II would make the decision, even if the rest of the court thought him a dangerous lunatic.

The Dueling Soulés, Part Two

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Back in part one, Pierre Soulé’s son Nelvil challenged the Duke of Alba to a duel to defend his mother’s honor. They swung heavy swords at each other for half an hour and then called it good, promising to burn all the letters the affair generated and put it behind them. 

The insult came on November 15, 1853. Shortly thereafter Nelvil’s father, the American minister to Spain, came down sick with a fever, sore throat, and possibly pneumonia. Pierre Soulé remained in bed from November 18 until the 30th and did not consider himself fully recovered for another week. Once he had recovered, Soulé hit on the idea of getting satisfaction himself.

For the elder Soulé the insult might have burned more than for his son. Nelvil grew up in the United States. Pierre Soulé had suffered firsthand the cruelties of European reactionaries. If his son had claimed the right to pursue the Duke of Alba over the matter, then Soulé could instead go after the Marquis de Turgot. The latter had antagonized Soulé on the grounds of his low birth and youthful revolutionary politics, and he had hosted the party. Surely he had some responsibility for ensuring his guests behaved. On December 14, the day of his son’s duel with the Duke, Secretary Perry of the American legation delivered Soulé’s demand for an apology or a fight. Perry also served as Nelvil’s second against the Duke, making for an eventful day.

Turgot sneered that he answered such demands with a pistol and pre-duel negotiations began. His seconds asked Soulé to withdraw the challenge because, after all, Turgot had not insulted his wife. If Soulé had to shoot someone, he ought to shoot the Duke of Alba. Soulé refused to back down. He believed, as he told Marcy when giving an account of himself, that Napoleon III planned the entire insulting affair in order to discredit Soulé and spread hostility to the United States in Spain. Thus the two men met, after having to duck out quickly to dodge the police. They each shot once, missing, but on the second round Soulé’s shot hit the Marquis de Turgot above and to the side of his right knee.

Soulé gave the usual apologies. Napoleon appointed Turgot Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor for his trouble. Oddly enough, this did not really resolve things between the two men and make them best of friends. While Soulé could write to Marcy that the whole business came from Paris and that Turgot acted on Louis Napoleon’s orders, but nobody else believed it. The Spanish court broadly sympathized with Nelvil, but Pierre? Ettinger quotes the opinion of a the Boston-born wife of a prominent Englishman then visiting Madrid, Ellen Twistleton:

It was a piece of bad temper on Soulé’s part, for which the unfortunate host pays by being lamed for life after a long illness. It makes me cross, every time I think of it, that such a blackguardly thing should have been done by our representative.

William L. Marcy

William L. Marcy, Secretary of State

While the usual American hotheads thought Soulé entirely in the right, if for no reason other than his nationality, he made the other prominent ministers in Europe look bad by association, adding still more to the difficulties that a generally anti-American spirit combined with Marcy’s orders on official dress had caused. They got no help from how the European press went wild with inaccurate accounts of the business. Kinder reporters simply called the entire Madrid diplomatic corps mad. The American press split, with some delighted that It certainly didn’t help matters that the Soulé’s had taken haughty Europeans down a peg. Other papers demanded Soulé’s recall.

Marcy got the correct story from a friend of his then in Paris, which had Soulé destroying his own effectiveness in Madrid. The duel got Soulé ostracized by the Spanish court, which from then on invited him only to official business where protocol demanded it. He might get it in his head to shoot someone else, after all. Who next? The Queen?

Ettinger has Marcy’s answer when called to comment on the affair:

we are here too far removed from the theatre where the events occurred, and too ignorant of the many causes which could have created it, to form a decided opinion on the subject; what we can do is to regret sincerely that it happened.

In other words, Washington would not recall Soulé but regarded the whole affair as an embarrassment. The Cabinet would not fire him, but if Soulé did them all a favor and resigned they had their eyes on James Gadsden, fresh off his Mexican success, to replace him.

Burying the Bill

A contemporary map of the territories. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

A contemporary map of the territories. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

Whatever Sam Houston (123456), John Bell (123456789), Salmon P. Chase (1,2345678910), Charles Sumner, or William Seward said against it, the KansasNebraska bill passed the Senate. Usually when slavery stepped into the limelight, getting bills through the Senate took more doing so one might think that Stephen Douglas had smooth sailing from the vote on the morning of March 4 over to Franklin Pierce’s desk. But the repeal of the Missouri Compromise turned the law from one that first proposed to open up land for new free states into a bill that opened land for new slave states. southern opposition, so powerful in the Senate, had successfully transformed a clean and relatively uncontroversial bill into the proslavery cause of the moment. Southern senators, save for Bell and Houston, lined up to vote for the valentine they wrote themselves.

That same dynamic worked the other way in the House, with its northern majority. The same passions that drove the Senate debate played out here. Salmon P. Chase’s Appeal of the Independent Democrats had the signatures of representatives on it and those men, if signing only for themselves, expressed broad fears in doing so. Fears about the slavepower, with its undue influence on national events thanks to the Senate and the 3/5 Compromise, combined smoothly with the fact that Douglas persisted in claiming that the nation abandoned the Missouri Compromise in 1850. The North as a whole had never done any such thing. Stephen Douglas himself knew that it hadn’t, but kept up the story. That could only make him look more suspect of secret plans. What really went on when Douglas went to F Street? Or to the White House? With the benefit of distance, we can see that Douglas engaged in relatively ordinary political horse trading but at the time and with the nation’s future very much in doubt, he had to look like an Accomplished Architect of Ruin.

The United States after the Kansas-Nebraska Act. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

The United States after the Kansas-Nebraska Act. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

And this from a Congress the North seated on a status quo platform? What happened to the finality of the Compromise acts? With northerners already chafing under the Fugitive Slave Act and the ways it forced them to compromise their democratic institutions in the name of slavery, they now had to accept yet more? While asked to swallow all of this, the North also had to deal with the spectacle of repeated attempts to steal Cuba (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), Nicaragua (1, 2, 3), and James Gadsden’s expedition to buy enough land from Mexico for still more slave states (1, 2, 3). If Kansas went for slavery, then with it and Missouri as a firewall New Mexico and Utah would soon adopt the institution. Gadsden’s newly purchased land would inevitably become a new slave state or states. From North of the Ohio river and the Mason-Dixon line, it looked very much like the South had commenced an open campaign to pack the Congress with slave states, undo the hard-fought status quo, and abolish free soil. If they took Kansas and Nebraska, why not Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, or Indiana?

If the South declared war on freedom, the North would fight. Northerners by and large had accepted a nation half free and half slave. Only a hated minority of abolitionists proposed uprooting slavery in states where it already existed. Now southern men would not give them the same courtesy. Few northern men would stand for that. They would not lightly sell their future or surrender their freedom to a band of slaveholding aristocrats, who would degrade their labor by putting it in competition with slave labor.

The northern majority in the House knew that.  On March 21, 1854, the House referred the Senate’s bill to committee. Normally it would go to the Committee on Territories, but the House referred it to the Committee of the Whole and buried it under a pile of other bills in the hope that it would never come to a vote. Maybe they could ride this all out.

Houston’s Dissent, Part Three

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston stood up for the Indians and the Missouri Compromise. That might make him sound like a Southern Salmon P. Chase, and both men came up in the Democratic party, but Houston owned slaves. He had a bleeding heart for Indians, in a nineteenth century kind of way, but slavery did not much bother him. Nor did its defense much excite him. Houston, an old school Jackson man, cared about the Union. To him, the Chases and Calhouns alike upset the Union’s peace and stained its bonds. They did so gratuitously, as the Union ensured both freedom and slavery, and perversely as if one side abandoned the settlements that served the Union well then the other would do so and throw the whole matter into question. For Houston, the sensible, conservative solution came from Henry Clay in 1820: maintain the Missouri Compromise peace and the Union would endure. Given how the 1850s progressed, he had a point.

But Houston had more than ideological loyalty to the Missouri Compromise. He saw himself as personally committed to it. He quoted one of his own letters, to Carolina-born California colonizer turned Mexican land buyer James Gadsden on the subject:

As a Texan, I could not consistently have voted otherwise. The compromise forms a part of the constitution of that State, and her Senators in Congress must be bound by it so long as it constitutes a portion of her organic law. Upon her citizens, her officers and agents, in whatever capacity they may be acting, it rests with paramount authority, which admits of no waiver or dispensation.

Houston raised one of the same points that Chase had. The joint resolution that annexed Texas, which the people of Texas ratified in a referendum, allowed slavery. But should Texas later have its territory divided, that portion north of the Missouri Compromise line would fall under its provisions and be allowed no slavery.

The Missouri compromise has been repeatedly recognized and acted upon by Congress as a solemn compact between the States; and as such, it has received the sanction of each individual member of the Confederacy. I consider that the vital interests of all the States, and especially of the South, are dependent, in a great degree, upon the preservation and sacred observance of that compact. Texas, in adopting the compromise line, in compliance with the imperative demand of the other States, as a part of the price of her admission, surrendered more than one third of her territory in latitudinal extent, her right to continue the institution of slavery. This sacrifice was exacted by the southern as well as by the northern States. The sacrifice was received at the hands of Texas, and among the solemn guarantees then made to her in behalf of the Union, to the full benefit of which she is now entitled, that of preserving the Missouri compromise is, in my humble judgment, not the least in value.

Houston’s italics.

Thomas Rusk (D-TX)

Thomas Rusk (D-TX)

Houston’s fellow Texan, Thomas Jefferson Rusk, felt no particular obligation to hew to the Missouri Compromise and voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Houston did. He called it a solemn compact, words differing little from Chase’s preferred sacred pledge. Like Chase, and everyone else in Congress and the nation at large at the time, Houston did not think that the Armistice measures repealed it.

I took my ground early upon the compromise bill of 1850. I am not behind any man in devotion to it. But, previous to its adoption, I had taken my position on the Missouri compromise, and I stand there established as firmly as I now stand upon the compromise of 1850. I am the only Senator upon this floor who voted “straight out,” as they say, for every measure of the final compromise, and then for the whole collectively. […] When I voted for that, I did not suppose that I was voting to repeal the Missouri compromise.

Only one other Senator shared Houston’s distinction and he had left the Senate in the interim. If anybody in the Senate stood for the Armistice, Sam Houston did. And now Stephen Douglas, who could not match his record, stood to lecture the Senate about how they had repealed the Missouri Compromise in those votes and never noticed it? Not likely! Houston came to much the same position that Chase did on the law, even if he arrived there from a very different place.

A Detour Through Mexico, Part Three

Mexico in 1850

Mexico in 1850

South Carolina railroad executive James Gadsden offered Antonio López de Santa Anna $50,000,000 ($1,359,509,422.48 in 2012 money) to buy Lower California and portions of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Chihuahua, and Sonora. The purchase would resolve the dispute over the Mesilla Valley, prime railroad land, open a route including that valley to stretch a railroad from New Orleans by way of El Paso to the Gulf of California. He presented his offer on September 25, 1853.

The purchase would give the South its preferred avenue to connect the West Coast to the rest of the nation and almost certainly additional slave states. The new railroad might even spur movement of slaveholders and their human property into California, strengthening the movement to divide the free state in two. The additional land might not just reverse the South’s 1850 loss of the Senate, but return a brief Southern majority. At the very least, the nation could for a time return to the old practice of admitting states in pairs, one slave and one free.

Santa Anna needed the money. The area suffered Indian raids from over the border that he could not do much about. The sparse population and lack of local Mexican authority made northwestern Mexico prime real estate for filibustering, which both William Walker and the French consul in San Francisco noted with intense interest. But Santa Anna already signed one treaty giving over large sections of his country to the United States. Mexicans, like most other people, did not welcome the dismembering of their nation. To a battlefield humiliation in the recent past, Gadsden asked Santa Anna to add a second defeat at the diplomat’s pen. Santa Anna refused to sell.

Seeing that Santa Anna needed the money, but would not surrender so much territory, Gadsden made a second offer. For $15,000,000, the United States would purchase just land south of the Gila River, between the Rio Grande and Colorado, including a port on the Gulf of California. Gadsden told Santa Anna that they lived in an age of adventure when bold men would surely stage secession movements in the Mexican north. A smart man would sell. And by the way, the United States does not support or condone the activities of William Walker or others…but these things do happen. Santa Anna reached out to the British to intervene. The Court of St. James demurred.

The Gadsden Purchase (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Gadsden Purchase (via Wikimedia Commons)

Very well, the United States could have land south of the Gila, up very close to but not including the shore of the Gulf of California. If the Americans wanted a railroad to end there, they could have their commerce run through a Mexican port. Santa Anna signed on December 30, 1853 and the treaty went to the White House, where the Cabinet debated it in January. They wanted considerably more land than Santa Anna would give, and the lack of a port must have especially stung, but finally sent it to the Senate.

The Constitution requires the Senate to ratify treaties by a 2/3 majority, thirty votes in 1854. The treaty got twenty-seven. For the first time in the body’s history, it refused to take land offered to it. Divisions that only hinted in 1848 when Trist overstayed his instructions and delivered less land than the expansionists wanted came to the fore. Antislavery senators wanted no land, seeing it as virgin frontiers for slavery. Intense lobbying by railroad interests further tainted the treaty.

Quite aside from refusing the land, the treaty marked a new blossoming of sectionalism. Though the railroad might touch on slavery indirectly, it previously stood apart as an issue in its own right. It did no longer. The Senate finally ratified a treaty that gave the United States nine thousand square miles less for five million less on April 25.

A Detour Through Mexico, Part Two

Mexico in 1850

Mexico in 1850

Just as Franklin Pierce came to power in Washington, Santa Anna came back into power in Mexico City. He needed money to reform the Mexican army, what with all the Americans who saw the border as nothing more than a suggestion or temptation to filibuster. After Texas, the Mexican War, and William Walker’s attempt to seize Lower California and Sonora, anybody could see the pattern. Americans would cross the border, theoretically leaving the United States behind, but then find a way to bring it to them. Further complicating matters, while the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo obligated the United States to prevent Indian raids across the border into Mexican territory, the US did very little to that end and insisted that the treaty required no more than the same effort that Mexico expended on the same problem. The US lacked men, money, and infrastructure to police the entire border. It also refused to compensate Mexicans for their losses due to its inability.

On top of all that, Mexico and the United States disagreed on where the border actually ran. The treaty commissioned a binational survey team to plot it all out, which they did. There the problems began. The treaty drew a line from El Paso, but that line went on an attached map more than twenty years out of date. The surveyors learned that El Paso, actually rested some distance to the southwest of the old man. Did the true line, which ran from eight miles north of El Paso, follow the map copy or the results of the survey? Mexico naturally preferred the map, which left it with more land. The United States preferred the survey for just the same reason. A few thousand square miles of desert and a few thousand people might not seem like a lot to have an international dispute over, but who took responsibility for keeping order there? What would happen if the Mexican army and United States army arrived at the same place to prosecute their claims? An engineered incident just like that started the Mexican War. The disputed land also included the Mesilla Valley, a relatively straight, flat piece of land perfect for a railroad.

New Mexico’s territorial governor tried to resolve the dispute on his own, proclaiming the land part of his domain. That exceeded Pierce’s tolerance and he replaced the governor with another. But he sent, or rather ratified Jefferson Davis’ sending, of James Gadsden to negotiate a new boundary settlement with an eye toward the Mesilla Valley and other land for a railroad to the Gulf of California. That other land included all of Lower California, which had also been in the instructions James K. Polk sent with Nicholas Trist after the Mexican War. To that Pierce added sections of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Chihuahua, and Sonora. The entire border would move southward, save for a small section that would still follow the Rio Grande in along west Texas, dramatically so in the case Lower California and at the Gulf of Mexico. In exchange for all that land, with its railroad route and known and suspected mineral assets, and concessions to build a canal or railroad over the isthmus of Tehuantepec, the United States would give Santa Anna $50,000,000, the equivalent of $1,359,509,422.48 in 2012.

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.