The State of the Union in 1855: A History of Aggressions

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

We left Franklin Pierce declaring that everything in the United States had gone perfectly well until those dirty abolitionists stirred up sectional discord by breaking faith with the constitutional compact. They had responsibilities to return slaves who dared steal themselves. They organized to disrupt slavery in the South. They replaced sectional comity with meddling impositions. Had such a thing happened between two nations, they would have already come to blows. By contrast, the South behaved in an exemplary fashion, its traditional constitutional scruples intact.

In putting the entire burden of sectional strife on the North, Pierce knew he went against many of his fellow Yankees. They could point to sectional aggression from the slave states going back down the entire history of the Republic. Having chosen antislavery Americans as his debating partners, Pierce took them on all down the line:

the States which either promote or tolerate attacks on the rights of persons and of property in other States, to disguise their own injustice, pretend or imagine, and constantly aver, that they, whose constitutional rights are thus systematically assailed, are themselves the aggressors. At the present time this imputed aggression, resting, as it does, only in the vague declamatory charges of political agitators, resolves itself into misapprehension, or misinterpretation, of the principles and facts of the political organization of the new Territories of the United States.

The president wouldn’t quite say that antislavery Americans lied their way through politics, any more than he would call out William Walker by name, but he made his meaning clear. To prove the point, he turned to “the voice of history.” All the way back to the Northwest Ordinance, Pierce averred, the South had yielded to the North. Virginia gave up “that vast territory,” now five of the larger states, to freedom. That a large territory south of the Ohio river remained enslaved did not enter into it. Nor did the conflicting claims of various other Connecticut and Massachusetts, decidedly not southern states, deserve consideration. This would have come as a surprise to the people of Connecticut, who maintained their ownership of a section of modern Ohio until 1800. Neither of the two northern states claimed the whole of the future Northwest Territory, but together their claims covered a large portion of it. If Virginia yielded up her territory, then they did no less.

Pierce then moved to Louisiana, insisting that the entire nation gained from it. The abolitionists needed only look at a map to see that the Louisiana Purchase narrowed down to almost nothing on its southern end, but widened dramatically as one steamed up the Mississippi. Furthermore, securing New Orleans ensured the commercial health of the Northwest. Thomas Jefferson bought the land for that express purpose. Pierce has a point here, but even he acknowledges that in terms of development, the Purchase skewed heavily southern.

No map could save the acquisition of Florida; you can’t get much more southern than the Sunshine State. Pierce justified it as a land swap. The United States surrendered claims to territory west of the Mississippi in exchange for it. In doing so, the Union secured its coastal commerce and security. Both sections won, even if Florida clearly would do no other than join the South.

This brought events up to the Missouri Controversy, which Pierce cast as more antislavery imperialism. The Northwest Ordinance had prohibited slavery, but it did not apply to the Louisiana Purchase. According to Pierce, the letter of the law permitted slavery west of the Mississippi all the way up to Canada. The North would not accept that and “the zeal of social propagandism” demanded concessions from the poor South. As such, the slave states nobly accepted a new slavery ban extending to states that did not then yet exist in exchange for retaining slavery in Missouri and Arkansas. The free states received that sacrifice on their behalf

with angry and resentful condemnation and complaint, because it did not concede all which they had exactingly demanded.

On paper, the North might look like a sore winner back in the 1820s. While the section lost Missouri, it gained almost the whole remainder of the Louisiana Purchase. But that additional territory failed to rush into the Union. Lands so empty,and so long remaining empty, of white settlement amounted to a meager victory indeed. Pierce rightly noted that antislavery Americans took the Missouri Compromise as a defeat. This all made for some deep irony when free soilers a generation so cherished the settlement, but they had that same generation to live with it and faced more radical proslavery advances than their fathers had. In 1819-20, the slave power demanded slavery remain where it already existed. In the 1850s, it spread slavery to places where the law had banned the institution.

Donald Trump has a past

Klan for AmericansGentle Readers, by now you must all know about Donald Trump and the Ku Klux Klan. Trump, frontrunner for the Republican party’s presidential nomination, has the endorsement of the nation’s most famous Klansman, David Duke. Duke infamously ran for Governor of Louisiana back in the early Nineties. Had only whites voted, he would have won. The Grand Wizard joins a veritable klavern of white supremacists on Team Trump. Many politicians court that kind of endorsement, if not necessarily as many words, but few appreciate having the fact noticed. The United States magically ended racism in 2008, 1965, 1865, or some other past date. Failing that, racism didn’t really hurt anyone, or racists’ victims had it coming. White innocence runs from cradle to someone else’s grave. Sunday last, CNN confronted Trump about the endorsement.

The Donald claimed the birthright of every white American and declared that he knew nothing about David Duke or the Ku Klux Klan. The CNN anchor pressed him first on white supremacist groups in general. Trump pleaded ignorance. Even when narrowed down to the Klan, who Trump mentions by name, he dodged the question. I mention this because Trump later complained that he couldn’t hear the anchor. He did very well at naming names for a guy who couldn’t make out the other half of the conversation. In the course of all that, he claimed he needed to research the groups.

Let’s play the sucker for a moment and pretend that Donald Trump needs an education about the Ku Klux Klan. Back in 1872, the Congress published a thirteen-volume report on the work of the Klan and its allies. I must confess that I have not read all, nor even a fair portion of it. I didn’t know it existed until Joshua Rothman tweeted about it. In the course of writing this post, I’ll read more of the report than anybody in the Trump campaign ever will. Should you like to join me in this distinction, you’ve made it if you can get through the title.

After the usual preliminaries, the committee got down to business:

The proceedings and debates in Congress show that, whatever other causes were assigned for disorders in the late insurrectionary States, the execution of the laws and the security of life and property were alleged to be most seriously threatened by the existence and acts of organized bands of armed and disguised men, known as Ku-Klux.

CNN meant the descendants of these people, Donald. One might ask from whence such bands came. The committee found, based on testimony from officers of the United States military

that secret organizations were formed in the insurrectionary States soon after the close of the war, hostile to, and intended to embarrass the Government of the United States and of the States in proper administration of the affairs of the country.

George H. Thomas, son of Virginian planters disowned for his Unionism.

George H. Thomas

The witnesses here included George Gordon Meade and George Thomas, generals both. Thomas, if we believe the traditional story about Robert Lee, had the superpower of political alignment independent of his native state. Some white Virginians could think for themselves after all. Who knew?

Having lost their war to save slavery, the secret organizations latched on to other grievances. According to Nathan Bedford Forrest,

There was a great deal of insecurity felt by the southern people. […] The negroes were holding night meetings; were going about; were becoming very insolent; and the southern people all over the State were very much alarmed. […] Ladies were ravished by some of these negroes

The wanton, roving rapist of minority extraction ought to sound familiar. If he has ever left the American mind fully, I don’t know it. He had a starring turn just last summer:

You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go

Dylann Roof said those words just before he opened fire at the African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof committed his murders, assassinations really, on June 17. On June 16, the day before Roof walked into that church, Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign. He had to run, you understand, because America had problems he could fix. Among those problems:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

Trump can, and belatedly did, disavow the Klan. You don’t do these things right in the moment, or the Klan might think you mean them.  Should Trump really want to disavow the Klan and its allied white supremacists, he must begin with something far harder than statements to the media. He must commence with looking in the mirror and denouncing himself. I doubt that Trump would have a formal affiliation to a white power group, or that he would admit to one if he did. He probably doesn’t pay them dues. -He doesn’t even pay into his own charity these days.- But it scarcely takes a sartorial fondness for bedsheets and conical headgear to make you the Klan candidate. Trump, for all his pretense to the contrary, has what it really takes.

The Klan knows it. I don’t know how many Americans have voted for Donald Trump yet, but I doubt they’re all fools. They know the score. We ought to consider that before congratulating ourselves on the waning of white supremacy. Neither law of nature nor moral arc of history, however long, ensures that it will continue to wane. It may have a comeback in mind, as it has before. Trump might not win the nomination, though that seems unlikely now. He might lose in November. Win or lose, his supporters will not courteously evaporate. If any had forgotten, Donald Trump reminded a generation of politicians and aspirant politicians that you could ride brutish white supremacy to fame and considerable success. They will not soon forget. Expect them for as long as people who imagine themselves white understand that they can steal blood and treasure from people they deem black. They’ve won elections on that platform before, and not just in the nineteenth century.

Thomas Fleming’s First Dead End: Compensated Emancipation

Thomas Fleming, a historian and novelist, has produced a remarkable essay. Therein, he presents two ways to rid the nation of slavery without a war: compensated emancipation and diffusion of slaveholding. We can’t rerun history and do things differently to know that for sure, but Fleming points to real historical circumstances where both solutions put an end to slavery. The essay covers several topics that each deserve their own post for full consideration, as they reference common pro-Confederate tropes and for reasons of length and clarity. Kansas coverage will resume in a few days.

LincolnAccording to Fleming:

The first solution came from Abraham Lincoln. It was the solution that the British used to free a million slaves in the West Indies in the 1830s – compensated emancipation. Not once but twice Lincoln offered the South millions of dollars if they would agree to gradually free their slaves over the next 40 or 50 years.


Why not just buy all the slaves? It worked for the British. Surely it could work for the United States. On the face of it, this seems like a perfectly reasonable argument. When examined in more detail, it proves far less plausible. The millions of slaves living in the United states amounted to not millions of dollars invested in human property, but billions:

In 1805 there were just over one million slaves worth about $300 million; fifty-five years later there were four million slaves worth close to $3 billion.

The British had eight hundred thousand slaves to free and did so, ultimately, at the cost of twenty million pounds sterling. The United states had nearly four million who, together, beat the combined value of all the nation’s railroads and factories. Only the land itself, all the American portion of the continent, might have held greater cash value. The money to pay for the nation’s slaves at anything like fair market value would have taken appropriations on par with the cost of waging the war itself, something that no Congress confronted with anything less than an insurrection on the scale of the Civil War would have contemplated. Furthermore, the cooperation of the South would be essential to any compensation scheme. The Southern caucus would have to both allow its loyalists in the North to defect on the issue and then come over themselves, at least in significant numbers, to pass any bill that would buy up the nation’s slaves. This would almost surely mean forcing enslavers to sell their human property at a loss, as well as foreclosing the major avenue for economic and social advancement for the section’s poorer whites.

The white South proved unwilling to do any such thing both in the 1860s and every other time the subject came under serious consideration, whether the nation could raise the cash or not. When Ohio proposed compensation and colonization in 1824 with the eventual concurrence of eight other states, including Delaware in a rare departure from slaveholder solidarity, six of the slave states rejected the proposal emphatically. South Carolina’s legislature declared

the people of this state will adhere to a system, descended to them from their ancestors, and now inseparably connected with their social and political existence.

Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama concurred, so this amounts to more than an episode of South Carolina extremism. States so committed would hardly dispatch senators or elect representatives who would happily comply with any emancipation scheme, even the most gradual and mild. Nor could one expect their constituents to cooperate happily with it if they did. That commitment proved no less weaker in 1862. In Delaware’s case, it had actually deepened. Only the tremendous strains put on marginal slavery regimes by the war itself induced Missouri and Maryland to accept emancipation, and without compensation, prior to the Thirteenth Amendment.

The British managed compensated emancipation, but the United States did not manage a slavery regime under the same circumstances as the British Empire did. People of both nations enjoyed reaping the profits of slavery, but Britain kept slavery at arm’s length. One could not legally hold slaves within the United Kingdom, only in its colonies. A slave who set foot in Britain became that moment free, a fact long understood by the English courts. Those colonies, as Americans ought to know very well, did not enjoy full, equal rights, representation, or sovereignty with the mother country. Parliament had the full power to legislate on a colony’s behalf, regardless of the objections of any local assembly that might exist. Whites in Jamaica or Barbados might oppose emancipation, even with compensation, but their presence didn’t come with built-in senators and representatives to fight on their behalf. A proslavery lobby did exist, and delayed the progress of freedom significantly, but it had to operate in a free Britain and compete against industrial interests significantly more developed than those in the United States.

Politically, emancipation thus came more easily to Britain. It did so socially and intellectually as well. Proslavery writing stresses the intimacy of the American way of bondage. They called slavery a domestic institution and meant it not just in a general sense that they practiced it locally, but also much more intimately. Enslaved women received cruel tutelage on that point. The enslaved lived with the enslaver. Well-off southern whites grew up with enslaved companions. The enslaved cooked their meals. They slept in the enslavers’ rooms to remain available to the their every whim, no matter the hour and without delay. An enslaver might harbor fears for the institution’s future, but it permeated every moment of his or her life. By contrast, most British enslavers came to the colonies to establish a slave labor camp and get rich enough to hand management over permanently to an overseer. He would then go home, never intending to remain in perpetuity among the enslaved.

Parliamentary debates over emancipation conspicuously lack the kind of arguments about black inferiority which pervaded American discussion of slavery. Though Britain certainly had its share of white supremacists, their ideas did not lay the bedrock upon which one could launch a defense of slavery like proslavery writers did to a unique extent in the United States. Living among the enslaved, seeing them tortured, torturing them yourself, and yet also pretending that you governed them in a kind and fatherly manner required both a level of ideological commitment and personal delusion probably only sustainable to a large scale in the exceptional milieu of eighteenth and nineteenth century America.

This leaves us at the end of a road not taken. For compensated emancipation to have worked in the United States would have required a very different United States. To arrive at such a polity would have required transformations that one must expect the white South to fight bitterly, just as it fought bitterly against the different transformations that finally did end American slavery. Even should those cultural changes have taken place, the nation would then have confronted the still formidable practical obstacles to emancipation.

I departed from Fleming’s text to consider a common claim in neo-Confederate circles, but fairness demands that I also acknowledge he knows full well that the South refused compensation. The usual suspects don’t even get that far, instead preferring the notion that Lincoln and the Republicans really didn’t care about slavery. The few who do just barely better will insist that the antislavery movement instead refused to even consider compensation. That the South rejected it doesn’t enter into things, as that would admit that the South understood slavery as its paramount concern and waged a war on its behalf. Once one admits that, one must either don the white hood proudly or find a different cause.

Samuel R. Walker on Southern Constitutionalism

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

This post draws from Samuel R. Walker’s filibustering advocacy in DeBow’s Review (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), but the passage says at least as much about constitutional thought in the late antebellum South as about filibustering. The simple, popular narrative has Southerners united by an intense localism and a set of shared propositions about the nature of the Union. These include the voluntary nature of the Union, the resting of ultimate sovereignty in state legislatures and conventions, the supremacy of local state law over federal enactments, and a constellation of other ideas variously summed up as nullification, states rights, and ultimately secession. 

Those ideas really did exist in the minds of period Southerners, but they did not live there alone. Nor did they, as one sometimes hears, equally dominate the minds of Northerners. Conflicts over the nature of the state and freedom dominate American history, not happy consensus. That remains true even if one restricts consideration of what Americans thought to what white male Americans thought, as virtually everyone then did. Some Southerners and some Northerners believed those things. Others believed other things.

To whatever degree the antebellum South’s leaders believed the ideology ascribed to them, they spent most of the period acting in almost completely the opposite way. Unless it came to preserving slavery in the face of national movements against it, Southerners searched in vain for a situation where they could happily prefer to let states do as they would. This only makes sense, as the South consistently dominated the federal government and so usually had a de facto veto power on federal policy. Any fair reading of the decade before the Civil War testifies to that. If anything, Southern power in Washington reached a remarkable apex in the 1850s. Had secession not intervened, the Southern-dominated Supreme Court probably would have handed down a second Dred Scott-style ruling which would have eliminated the power of Northern states to forbid slavery within their bounds within a few years.

They knew all of that. The doctrinaire states rights ideology probably did not command a majority of the Southern ruling class until after the war. Even during the Secession Winter, the decisions of many states came contingently and as near things indeed. The Upper South stayed out of the rebellion until Sumter, but even South Carolina’s decision came in part thanks to a railroad opening and running its maiden voyage full of Savannah businessmen into Charleston at just the right time. Those businessmen assured the South’s most doctrinaire radicals that if they bolted the Union, Georgia would surely follow. Complaints about the timidity of moderates enervating the counter-revolution fill the writings of fire-eaters and their more sober but still radical counterparts within the Southern mainstream.

Walker gives us something quite like that:

It was a prevailing feeling when our Colonies had, by their united efforts, achieved their independence, that they should lose their recollection of their former separate positions as individual States in the greatness of the result achieved by their Union. This idea was a natural one: we and our fathers have been educated in it, and we seem to view our federal as a centralized government, rather than a federation of independent States, linked together by a league, offensive and defensive, with a common purpose of free government; a common interest in commercial prosperity; a common protection in war, and advancement in peace. A more enlightened view is beginning to prevail and extend among the people, as its necessity increases, and the philosophy of our system is properly considered.

John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Secretary of State, Senator, and the generation's leading secession and slavery booster.

John C. Calhoun

Here we have the complete opposite of the popular narrative. Walker testifies to a nationalist mindset often overlooked in quick glances at the antebellum era. Reading between the lines just a little, he even tells us that nationalist thought generally prevailed and that ideas about states rights, nullification, and all the rest developed as a reaction against the North’s great population growth and increasingly vocal antislavery movement. Its necessity, to safeguard slavery, had increased in the minds of the slaveholding white South. But even in 1854, the ideology had not prevailed. Louisiana, fan of filibustering and home of DeBow’s Review, in particular had a nationalist bent despite its location in otherwise more radical Lower South.

Old Calhoun might have invented a Southern consensus and rooted it back in the foggy mists of the revolution as the official ideology of everyone, but each time he called on the South to join it he found no shortage of uninterested Southerners. Sometimes, as when it came to the Pacific railroad and the Missouri Compromise, he declined to even join himself.

From the Pens of Filibusters, Part Seven

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

From the Pens of Filibusters: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Samuel R. Walker’s promotion of John A. Quitman’s filibustering against Cuba came around at last to the subject always lingering in the margins of his piece. I’ve nudged it back in often enough on my own and Walker has raised the issues a few times himself, but four pages in he finally tackles slavery in detail. He begins by asking the reader, in the pattern of past concerns, to consider Cuba’s future “lastly, and chiefly, as a Southern question.”

we will know that a feeling is rife at the North antagonistic to the institution of slavery-a feeling which is extending amongst many even of their men of education and liberal feelings. They make the same error which has lain at the bottom of this false philanthropy since its beginning (for slavery is much the older of the two); and this error lies in regarding the negro as a white man-in speaking of him and arguing of him thus. This is their chiefest error, and the germ of all their fanaticism.

At least for hardcore abolitionists, Walker had the right of it. I don’t know that the white North at large reached that point in the 1850s or 1860s. I don’t know that we have reached it now, though we are far closer. But Walker’s words tell us more about the minds of slaveholders and their racial consciousness. White must enslave black as black as they could not and could never be anything like white. The whole justification of the system, aside naked self-interest, rested on the division of humanity into a superior and an inferior race. The conception of race that Walker trades in here has been with us so long that it takes some effort to remember that it grew up in Virginia’s tobacco fields over a few generations in the seventeenth century. Before then, black men who came to the colony as slaves could serve out indentures, however involuntarily entered into, come out free, own slaves themselves, successfully sue whites in court, and generally seem to have enjoyed as much equality as any white man. Their grandchildren could do no such thing.

But I digress. Back to Walker and Cuba:

Although I believe the Union will endure so long as it is the interest of both sections of our country to be united, yet this fatal idea festers like a cancer at its heart, and may eat it up. The safety of the South is to be found only in the extension of its peculiar institutions, and the security of the Union in the safety of the South-towards the equator. The great beauty of our system of government is in its power of expansion. An hundred States may be governed under such a system as well as a few.

Walker draw out a key point here. While the security of slavery in the South concerns him greatly, he ultimately sees slavery as only safe if it can go out of the South and into new lands, a sort of Greater South reaching down toward the equator. The South cannot, per Walker, endure as a minority section in an increasingly unfriendly Union. It must grow out and take back the reverses inflicted on it in 1820, by reserving the Great Plains to freedom, and 1850, by giving California over to the same. The section needs a kind of defensive offensiveness to match the growing numbers and power of the North or the North must encircle and smother it bit by bit.

What better place to grow than Cuba?

New fields for a restless and enterprising population will demand all the energy and labor of the land; and in the blessings and in the returns of an unlimited commerce, the superfluous sympathies of our Northern brethren would be absorbed. Thus would the bonds of interest be drawn closer together between the North and the South, and their union be the more thoroughly cemented. With Cuba, an island seven hundred miles long, and capable of sustaining such an increased population, assimilated to our own in their government, what a splendid prospect of commercial eminence opens to the South! What wealth will float upon our waters! What a bright gem will she, “the Queen of the Antilles,” be in the coronet of the South, and how proudly will she wear it!

The profits and patriotic joys of expansion will enrich the South and leave enough for the discontented Yankees to forget all about antislavery politics. What could go wrong? Here, like on the fields of Kansas and later in the Dred Scott decision, Southern triumph and slavery’s advance would ultimately work to defuse the entire explosive controversy and bring the Union back together.

From the Pens of Filibusters, Part Six

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

From the Pens of Filibusters: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Samuel R. Walker advertised Quitman’s filibustering expedition against Spanish Cuba by appeals to patriotism, to religion, to the missionary spirit of the American people, and to their wish for domestic tranquility in a healthy Union. He came around at last to another hallowed American folkway: making money. Taking Cuba would surely enrich the filibusters. The Cuban Junta promised Quitman millions and a plantation. The invaders would surely find a few propertied loyalists to dispossess and share that booty amongst themselves. But even for those who did not go or invest in the effort themselves, profits beckoned.

Look at it as a commercial question, and the necessity of a change in the political condition of the Island of Cuba appeals with an irresistible power to the mercantile mind of this country, and to that of the commercial world. See how our commerce is harassed by an island so governed, guarding the mouth of the mightiest river in the world, whose shores are bordered by the rich States of the West, and bearing on its bosom their untold wealth-this land governed by a jealous, unfriendly, and pusillanimous power, whose only aim seems to be, to embarrass all intercourse with us-tampering with our national honor, just so far as they may believe their weakness will be their protection-vaunting with the boldness of a braggart, and trembling with the trepidation of a coward-driving, by high and excessive duties, all our products from her markets, when the articles we produce are those they most need-our citizens are insulted even as the Creoles themselves! How long would England or France endure a condition of things like this? How long would they have suffered such an incubus to have existed at the outlet of even their petty rivers, weighing down their commercial advancement, and not have removed the cause?

Walker knew how to play his audience, most especially commercially minded and filibuster friendly New Orleans merchants. But even when appealing to their self-interest he takes care to dress it up in patriotic language. The Spanish insulted the national honor by interfering with the shipping routes. The British and French would not stand for such insulting customs shenanigans. Patriotism and profit ran close together.

Taking Cuba would remove all those burdens to trade. But if sweet reason and a handy carrot could not woo supporters unaided, Walker had a stick too:

Let Cuba be Africanized, and then with another San Domingo [Haiti] blocking the mouth of the Mississippi, all we can do by internal improvements will help us little. Our seas will be divested of ships, and those white-winged birds of commerce will fly to other oceans, or furl their pinions, and droop upon our waters.

Accepting the status quo did not mean getting more of the status quo in return. Who knew what the Spanish would do next, with the British and French plotting (1, 2, 3, 4) with them? They might go ahead with their terrifying program to free the slaves anyway, and turn the present state of uncertainty and harassment into a far more active campaign of obstructing trade. Inaction might mean not just accepting the present circumstances, but rather inviting far worse calamities. Americans must wake up. They had profits to lose as well as to gain. By taking Cuba, they could eliminate the risk of loss and ensure the gains.

From the Pens of Filibusters, Part Five

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

From the Pens of Filibusters: parts 1, 2, 3, 4

The readers of DeBow’s Review now had Samuel R. Walker’s explanation of the Cuban situation. To save American and Cuban slavery, and the Union, Cuba just had to come into American hands. Achieving that end without wrecking Cuban slavery along the way and thus making the whole exercise pointless meant waiting for a domestic revolt that filibusters like Walker’s boss, Mississippi’s ex-governor John A. Quitman, sweeping in to ensure the success of the revolt. Local Cuban revolutionary elements did exist and had risen before. Quitman did have an army poised and ready, more or less. Once the filibusters arrived they would naturally guide Cuba toward its destiny within the Union.

But they did have a problem: the Neutrality Acts made filibustering illegal. That put anybody who signed on with Quitman and Walker at risk of prosecution. Past filibustering expeditions had ended when the Navy arrived and seized their ships. Even then Quitman had a bond out pledging that he would not break the Neutrality Acts for some months. The taint of criminality might not deter a real soldier of fortune sort, but Quitman cared about his reputation and many potential financiers had similar concerns. A rootless adventurer had little to lose, but a successful expedition required the aid of men of property and substance as well. They would not lightly break such laws. Walker assured his readers that they would “scrupulously avoid any violation of the neutrality law” but continued to call it

a law which is a libel upon our free institutions-a similar law to which, we believe, is not found in the code of any other civilized nation. It is a mockery of our Constitution-an ovation from obsequious Republicanism to courtly Royalty. Kossuth and Mazzini may plan the liberation of their countrymen, and plot against oppressive governments in monarchical England, but in republican American it is criminal, and the suspected parties must be annoyed by the means of the government, squandered in shameful and ineffectual prosecutions.

John Slidell

John Slidell

What business did free America have in protecting the crusty old Spanish empire? Walker pledged obedience to the law even as he made the case for casting it aside, just as the state of Louisiana and John Slidell (1, 2, 3, 4) had suggested. Walker’s appeal captures much of the romantic, nationalistic idealism of antebellum America’s conception of itself:

View this question, if you will, in a national light. It is the first outpouring of American feeling from the great valley of the West, which must sweep before it the rotten and tottering fabrics of the absolutism of the Old World has set up in the New. It is the first crusade of the people against the divine right sacrilegiously claimed by imbecile king-craft. Our people do-the Government must sympathize with it. The existence of an island peopled by a race of intelligent men, so ready for the reception of, and so imbued with American ideas, with a social institution identified with that of all the Southern and South-western States, and this race ruled simply by the force of the bayonet, is, in this age, an anomaly to monstrous to be borne.

Walker transforms the filibuster into freedom’s missionary, not a pirate out for gain or a conquistador for glory but rather the light of the world, pushing away ancient darkness for a new birth of freedom and slavery. He would free Cuba’s slaveholders, teach them the true religion of the American national creed, and secure them in their rights, most especially those to human property, and everyone would live happily ever after. Truth, justice, and the American way must and would prevail.

From the Pens of Filibusters, Part Four

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

From the Pens of Filibusters: parts 1, 2, 3

In November of 1854, Samuel R. Walker, associate of Cuba filibuster John A. Quitman, told to the readers of DeBow’s Review that for the safety of the whites of Cuba, of the slaveholding whites of the American South, and for the safety of the Union, the world’s last best hope for liberty, the island must come into the Union. But it must come in with its slavery intact. A war would spoil that hope at once, as the Spanish would surely order emancipation and arm Cuba’s slaves to defend their freedom against Americans come ashore with chains in hand. Spain would never sell the island, but even if a miracle happened and it did the corrupt, hateful Spaniards might poison the feast for slavery on their way out by issuing emancipation decrees in advance of the date of sail. Thus, Cuba must come into the Union by the path paved by Texas: a domestic revolution with Americans coming to join the fray.

Here Walker hit on a substantial difficulty. While Cuba and Texas both had the benefit of considerable distance from the central authority that possessed them, Texas had the benefit of a sparse population easily united and, thanks to only lines on a map and the Sabine river between them, a handy supply of American Southerners eager to insert themselves into a brewing revolution. With small numbers of the right sort of white person on hand, a flood of southerners could quickly turn any revolution into one very much of their own liking. Why, they even had Texans bent on revolution who hailed largely from the South and who revolted in part because the Mexican authorities tried to sever their commercial ties to their old homes.

Cuba, by contrast, had a Creole population. While some southerners saw them as essentially white, no small thing to nineteenth century Americans, they did not share a strong, common history or culture except insofar as both had extensive experience with plantation slavery. Would they really flow together like two drops of water with Americans rushing to their aid the moment the United States set aside the Neutrality Acts and gave Quitman and his filibusters national blessing? Certainly Quitman had Cuban exiles on his side, but his little army would come full of Americans. The Cubans actually on the island might not welcome them. While some might accept annexation, possibly with an American-dominated government during a brief independent interlude, to others that would only come down to another colonial power taking control.

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

Walker owned up to the difficulty. The Cubans wanted their independence, not a new set of masters. The filibusters knew that and would go anyway. Their patriotic spirit demanded it. A revolution without external help would surely fail. Thus, naturally, the native Cuban revolutionaries would welcome the filibusters with open arms. They had the same enemy. Perhaps later they would sort out the rest. The lure of freedom trumped all other concerns. Walker knew it did. After reporting a series of motions, protests, and the suppression of a secret society Walker got to the meat of Cuban revolutionary history:

They evinced it [their commitment to revolution] by an imperfect plan of revolution, which failed in 1848, and by the ill-fated expeditions of 1850 and 1851, when a band of our gallant countrymen were murdered under circumstances of so much ruthlessness and barbarity-whose blood cries out aloud from the ground, even now, for vengeance; when that gallant and ill-fated general who led them paid the forfeit of his daring with his life. But he has not died in vain. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Future generations of his enfranchised countrymen will revere him as a hero, and the dark-eyed daughters of his “beloved Cuba” will deck his grave, as a hallowed spot, with the fairest, freshest flowers, and his memory will live ever in the hearts of his countrymen.

They have evinced their desire to be free, in 1854, by their untiring efforts to direct public sentiment in this country to the matter of their condition and desires; by the accumulation of the means of war, in the midst of dangers actually incomprehensible to an American mind. They have done more than Poland, Hungary, or Italy; for they have shown a disposition to assist themselves in a practical, sensible manner, in accordance with the difficulties which surrounded them, and in the only manner in which success can be accomplished.

Fair enough, Cubans had risen up against Spanish rule without the help of invading Americans. Even then some revolutionary groups operated on the island. If past expeditions had gone off to their deaths, that did not mean that Cuba would never rise to aid a filibustering invasion. Completely aside slavery, the Spanish had given many Cubans reason to want out of their empire. Ill-timed and ill-fated expeditions did not have to continue forever. The broad strokes of the plan all seemed to fit together.

While we can’t take Walker as a disinterested party, he does have a few legitimate points and has grappled with the practical difficulties of revolution. Underneath all the nineteenth century romantic adventure and idealism, and the horrific proslavery pandering, one can see how filibustering could have worked out. If Cuba had more people than Texas, those people had a far more up close and personal experience of Spanish brutality than the Texans had with its Mexican counterpart. They had at least as much reason to revolt as a Texan did and more people could mean more revolutionaries on the ground to join up with incoming Americans.

From the Pens of Filibusters, Part Three

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

From the Pens of Filibusters: parts 1, 2

Samuel R. Walker, associate of Cuba filibuster John A. Quitman, took to the pages of DeBow’s Review in November of 1854 with a last-ditch effort to drum up support for taking the island from Spain. He began by emphasizing its importance to the Union and articulating a domino theory of emancipation: Should the slaves of Cuba receive their freedom, it would inflame the slaves of America to rebel. The South could not risk such a thing and to save itself from racial annihilation might have to break the Union. But taking Cuba by force would only ensure that Cuban emancipation proceeded. Thus the United States could not war upon Spain to seize the island, despite what Pierre Soulé and company thought in the Ostend Manifesto and Franklin Pierce briefly pondered.

Walker moved to the obvious second option. Couldn’t the United States buy Cuba?

The plan of acquiring Cuba by purchase, if not obnoxious to all the objections which attach to its acquisition by conquest, yet many of these, applicable in the latter case, apply with equal force in the former; with this insuperable objection on the part of the Southern States, that it would introduce into our Union a State burdened with such decrees as have been already ordained, as well as such as might be hereafter enacted by the existing government, respecting the status of the negro, between this and the date of purchase. All these the power purchasing would be compelled to maintain and to carry out. All of these are and would be at war with a proper administration of the domestic policy of the South.

Walker had a point. Any purchase deal would be negotiated in advance and take place on a scheduled date. One does not buy islands by going out to Islands-R-Us and picking one off the shelf on a whim. The Spanish could poison the deal after the fact with some kind of emancipation policy. Once freed, the former slaves would need re-enslaving and that struggle would probably involve great effort. It might erupt into an island-spanning slave revolt to inspire slaves across the water in the United States to join in. That struggle would also surely create a dramatic controversy in Washington. The South might prevail then, as it had before, but that victory could be another of the Pyrrhic kind which it spent the 1850s perfecting.

But really, purchase discussion amounted to a sophisticated way to accomplish nothing and feel otherwise:

This question, however, will never arise. Spain will never sell Cuba. It is not probable that her overweening pride will be drowned in her avarice, when so large a portion of the purchase money will go to her creditors, and not into the pockets of her corrupt administration.

This naturally brought Walker to the obvious conclusion for a filibuster:

If we get Cuba, we must get it in another way; and the road is open. Let but the United States Government hold off, and Cuba will free herself in a short time. So long as the government of Spain has to deal only with a domestic foe, she will be confident in her strength to quell the revolution, and will not, we may hope, discover her error, until too late to remedy it; but the attack of so powerful an adversary as the United States will, on the very first hostile demonstration, bring down the decree. If we acquire Cuba, we must acquire her as we acquired Texas.

From the Pens of Filibusters, Part Two

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

From the Pens of Filibusters: part 1

Samuel R. Walker, one of Cuba filibuster John A. Quitman’s associates, began his case for the expedition in the pages of the November, 1854 DeBow’s Review by laying out the stakes. The future of not just slavery and the white race in Cuba, but also slavery in the American South and thus its future in the Union hung in the balance. Without Cuban slavery secure, American slavery could never be secure. Without American slavery secure, the slave states could not remain in the Union. Without the Union, freedom’s lone hope in the world died. Most nineteenth century white Americans thought similar things about the Union. Most white Southerners thought the same things about slavery. Only the Cuban connection, and how Walker and Louisiana senator John Slidell drew Britain and France into the issue as scheming masterminds, presented substantial controversy within the South.

But Walker skipped over those controversies. “All admit the necessity of action” he began,

but it is as to what manner of action is best calculated to achieve the end in view, that is of the chiefest importance in this matter; and it is to this point that the Cubans, and the friends to the Cuban cause, would ask the attentive consideration of Congress, the Government and the people.

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

We all know the problem. We only need to find a solution for it. Fortunately, Samuel R. Walker set himself the task of reviewing possible solutions. Did he propose war, as Franklin Pierce had briefly threatened and Pierre Soulé had pursued on his own initiative? Surely not:

No true friend of Cuba will for a moment desire any hostile action at this time, on the part of the United States, towards Spain. It is the opinion of the Cubans, and of our most substantial and influential men here and elsewhere, favorable to this cause, that such a step would be destructive to every hope for the salvation of Cuba. The first gun fired by an American ship of war on the coast of that island, would be the signal for the sacrifice of all property of the Creoles, and all this accomplished by a single decree, which it is is as well known at Washington as here, the Captain-General is authorized at his discretion to promulgate. The United States, taking the island after the promulgation of such a decree, would hold but a worthless wreck. A crown robbed of its jewels, would be all that they would gain by such unfortunate action. Taking it too in such a condition, they could never again return the savage and brutal population to their servile state, for this, if no other reason, that the fanaticism of the North would rear the banner of civil war to prevent such a consummation. All the Compromise and Nebraska Bills in the world would not create such discussion and distraction. A contest would commence, which would end in the dismemberment of the Union.

Walker thought much better of the North than the evidence probably warrants. I don’t know that if the emancipation genie got out of the bottle in Cuba, the slaves could not be forced back into slavery. Emancipation could prove fleeting, a decree quickly issued and quickly repudiated. Furthermore, Cuba had slavery already and so might fit into northern minds as not a territory taken from them, as the Slave Power had purloined Nebraska, but rather as an established slave regime which antislavery men routinely made no direct efforts to threaten. Perhaps annexation would have driven more antislavery men over into abolition and raised the political stock of the antislavery movement in the North, as Nebraska did, but the two situations do not seem all that similar. Precious few Northerners grew up thinking that they had a future in Cuba some years down the road.

But as disrupted slave system would be very dangerous for the South. The expansionists wanted Cuba to make it a new slave state. If its native slaveholders fled or suffered dispossession, they could not ally with the slaveholding white South and help redress its reverses in Congress. Likewise without slavery on sound footing in Cuba, why would slaveholders move there when they had safer bets expanding in Arkansas and Texas? Such doubts kept them from Kansas far nearer to home.

That ruled out taking the Cuba by conventional war.