The State of the Union in 1855: Filibustering

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce


Franklin Pierce’s third annual message progressed from bland assurances that all went well to a set of real grievances against the United Kingdom. Relations with the world’s great superpower, with whom the United States had twice fought wars, understandably take pride of place. Only after updating Congress on them did Pierce address tension with other powers. He didn’t care for Denmark’s insistence that the United States pay a toll to pass through Danish waters and trade in the Baltic. Some matter with the French consul at San Francisco had come to a satisfactory resolution, as had a dispute with Greece over seizure of American property.

Then Pierce turned south of the border once again:

With Spain peaceful relations are still maintained, and some progress has been made in securing the redress of wrongs complained of by this Government. Spain has not only disavowed and disapproved the conduct of the officers who illegally seized and detained the steamer Black Warrior at Havan, but has also paid the sum claimed as indemnity for the loss thereby inflicted on citizens of the United States.

That did made for good news on both sides of the Atlantic. The Black Warrior controversy threatened briefly to spark a war, with Pierce making dire threats. That the whole thing came out of the Spanish governor’s desire to warn off American filibusters, most notably Mississippi’s ex-governor John A. Quitman, gave the situation an ironic twist. In other Cuban news, Pierce happily related that the Spanish would pay an indemnity for prematurely cutting off duty free access to the island’s ports back in the 1840s. He expected Madrid would soon gave satisfaction on the matter of another steamer, the El Dorado, as well. All in all, Pierce saw the Cuban situation as one of improvement. That must have frustrated the filibusters to no end.

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

Speaking of filibusters, 1855 brought with it William Walker’s Nicaraguan expedition. Pierce didn’t mention the Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny by name, but anybody who followed the news could figure out who he meant. After a homily about respecting the sanctity of neighboring republics, the sort of thing that General Pierce observed most studiously during the Mexican War, President Pierce took aim at their instability:

obstacles have arisen in some of them from their own insufficient power to check lawless irruptions, which in effect throws most of the task on the United States. Thus it is that the distracted internal condition of the State of Nicaragua has made it incumbent on me to appeal to the good faith of our citizens to abstain from unlawful intervention in its affairs and to adopt preventative measures to the same end, which on a similar occasion had the best results in reassuring the peace of the Mexican States of Sonora and Lower California.

William Walker and a few hundred men marched into Baja California and claimed it as the Republic of Lower California in 1853. Shortly thereafter, without setting foot within it, Walker annexed Sonora to his republic and renamed the country after it. The Mexican army objected and chased Walker back over the border. A San Fransico jury took eight minutes to acquit him on charges of levying an illegal war against Mexico. He had, after all, only levied an illegal war against Mexico. Walker had gone to Nicaragua, at the invitation of one of the parties to its civil war, back in May of 1855. By the end of the year he had effective control of the country. Prominent filibusters who had operated in Baja California and Sonora, then moved on to Nicaragua made for a fairly small demographic.

Reading Pierce one likewise sees that, while he avowed American responsibility for keeping order and friendly relations, his “best results” ended with an acquitted filibuster happy to have another go and justified filibustering in general on the grounds of foreign lawlessness. He cast the United States as a good neighbor of the sort that might just see you overwhelmed by your real estate portfolio and help out by relieving you of vast swaths of land. Don’t we all want friends who see us in need and don’t wait around until we collapse in desperation before pitching in to help?

Remember the Black Warrior?

Marqués de la Pezuela, Captain-General of Cuba

Marqués de la Pezuela, Captain-General of Cuba

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

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

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

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

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

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

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

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

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

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

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

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

The Third Black Warrior

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Senate debate on the final version of the KansasNebraska Act began on Monday, January 30, 1854. Emotions ran high in Missouri over visions of a free Nebraska furthering the state’s free soil encirclement and giving abolitionists a base perilously close to the state’s main black belt from which to steal away her slaves. The rest of the South did not get quite so worked up about that, but the political establishment did make nigh universal common cause with the Missouri slave power. The Missouri Compromise insulted them all, implying that they did not deserve a place in the nation’s future because slavery so tainted them.

But if Missouri had a degree of defensive panic running through 1854 over Kansas, then the rest of the South had the same over Cuba. The new Spanish governor-general proposed to free Cuba’s slaves, arm them, and disarm whites. Those free slaves would then kill white Americans who came to steal the island away and make it into a slave state, probably after a brief period of independence. That revolution could spread. The Marques de la Pezuela’s black warriors might inspire a second group of black warriors to rise up on their home plantations and work a bloody revolution that could only end with the slave states racially purged, one way or the other. The Spanish reactionary struck at the slaveholder’s deepest, most profound fear, a psychological raw nerve that never quite went silent.

Someone had to do something to save themselves, their families, their fortunes, and their property. Fortunately they had on hand former Mississippi governor John A. Quitman’s filibustering expedition and the approval of the Pierce Cabinet for the same. Franklin Pierce, or Jefferson Davis and Caleb Cushing, wanted Cuba anyway and the time seemed ripe to spirit it away. Better still, Great Britain and sometimes France had made noises in the past about guaranteeing Spanish possession of the island. Now they had their attention drawn to Russia’s war against the Ottoman Empire, which erupted in October of 1853 and which they would enter in March, 1854.

James Dunwoody Bulloch

James Dunwoody Bulloch

Quitman just needed a good excuse to give his expedition further respectability. On February 28, as the Senate debated Nebraska’s future, the Marques de la Pezuela gave him his casus belli in the form of a third black warrior. This Black Warrior, a steamer of the New York and Alabama Steamship Company, touched at Havana on her way from Mobile to New York. She had a load of cotton, but as it would stay in the hold her master, ex-Navy man James Dunwoody Bulloch, declared only his ballast in Havana when the Spanish authorities demanded a manifest. Ships touching customarily did that, by longstanding agreement.

When Bulloch followed the custom, as expected, the Spanish seized his ship for its technical violation of their laws. The Marques de la Pezuela flexed his muscles and showed Spanish resolve to the filibustering and annexation happy Americans. He then escalated matters by refusing to deal with the local American consul on the issue.

Washington thus simultaneously found itself with a domestic crisis over Kansas and Nebraska and a foreign crisis over Cuba.

Better to Steal Cuba than Buy It


Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Through his addresses and various appointments, as well as his instructions to his minister to Spain, Franklin Pierce indicated that he wanted Cuba. He did not, if he could help it, want to pay for Cuba. The latter suited the Spanish just fine, as they did not want to sell it. Pierce appears, per Basil Rauch’s The American Interest in Cuba, 1848-1855, to have had a policy of stealing the island. To accomplish this theft, he had in mind John A. Quitman’s then-gathering filibustering expedition. This remarkable policy did not, of course, exist in writing. Pierce did not announce to the world in so many words that the United States would knock Spain over the head and rifle through its pockets for loose real estate.

So how do we know? Aside from Pierre Soulé’s change in behavior towards the Cuban junta in New York, Quitman’s own behavior provides strong circumstantial evidence. A veteran  of the Mexican War and the 1850 secession conspiracy, Quitman had offers from the junta going back some time. He always found reason to refuse them. First, Quitman could not steal Cuba because he would soon steal Mississippi out of the Union. Then he needed to defend himself against charges resulting from his fundraising and recruitment efforts for past efforts against Cuba. But in 1853, he had all of that behind him. It came at the cost of his governorship, which had to sting for a man who once declared that he would raise the Mississippi militia against any attempt to seize him.

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Quitman still played hard to get, demanding the support of all Cuban exile groups and numerous powers that would make him dictator of Cuba should he prevail. Even his friends called him an incredible egotist, but aside from the powers, and generous compensation that Quitman said he would use to establish a military college in Havana, Quitman had one other condition. The effort should “not compromit [his] own character and reputation.”

The ex-governor had an American reputation he did not want dragged through the mud. Filibusters often got called pirates, lawless and dangerous rogues who transgressed against the laws of nations and made themselves the enemies of all men. What changed his mind and prompted Quitman to finally take the junta’s offer in late summer, 1853? He had most of the previous indications already in hand before then, from Pierce’s appointments to word from his friend and the new consul at Havana that he should move quickly.

The decisive moment seems to have come in July, 1853, while the administration drew up Soulé’s instructions anticipating the end of Spanish control of Cuba. Quitman, who had friends in the Cabinet, passed through Washington about the same time. According to his biographer and friend, John F. Claiborne, Quitman told “distinguished persons” there about his plans. He got back not just their best wishes, but assurance that the administration would not enforce the Neutrality Laws against him. Between Quitman’s personal friendships, his presence in Washington at the right time, and his acceptance of the junta’s offer soon after, it looks very much like he got word direct from the horse’s mouth.

Caleb Cushing

Caleb Cushing

The horse may have been Franklin Pierce himself, but could just as easily have been his friend Caleb Cushing and Jefferson Davis. The difference might not have mattered. Davis had the power to induce Pierce to sign on to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and told James Gadsden of his mission to Mexico before the Secretary of State found out. He and Cushing appear to have had the real deciding power. Certainly William H. Marcy, that Secretary of State, doubted that he controlled American foreign policy.

Davis, Cushing, and maybe Pierce, had the power to commit the administration and ensure that Quitman would face no legal troubles. He just had to detach Cuba from Spain, set up a new sovereign government, and then petition for its annexation. It worked for Texas.

The case lacks any smoking gun, but I concur with the competent historians that Quitman probably had deliberate, explicit personal guarantees from the Pierce Cabinet. His own and Soulé’s decisions in July and August of 1853 point to such assurances existing. Furthermore, they square very neatly with both the junta’s anti-purchase position and the administration’s expansionist platform. On the balance, whoever made the decisions in the Pierce administration preferred that Quitman’s expedition steal Cuba from the Spanish with an eye toward its Texas-style annexation afterward.

All of which left Quitman and his army poised to strike Cuba as soon as the right moment came. In 1854, it did.

Quitman, Soulé, and Cuba

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Stephen Douglas, the F Street Mess, Phillip Phillips, and Archibald Dixon spent January of 1854 making each other’s lives unpleasantly interesting, before rounding out the month with a Sunday visit to the White House where they and Jefferson Davis twisted Franklin Pierce’s arm until he cried “repeal the Missouri Compromise!” Pierce and his Cabinet by and large did not want the Kansas-Nebraska Act. When they got a feel for the shape of the final bill, they tried to get Douglas to drop the matter and let the courts sort out slavery on the Great Plains. Only after F Street refused that remedy and Davis, Douglas, and the F Streeters cornered Pierce without any of his advisers save Davis himself present did Pierce yield.

Franklin Pierce really wanted Cuba and another slice of Mexico. To get some context for that, one has to look back into 1853. Pierce said as much, if not quite naming names, in his inaugural in March of that year. -That inaugural came just days after Stephen Douglas’ eleventh hour attempt to get a free soil Nebraska bill through the 33rd Congress.

Pierce appointed a motley collection of secessionists, the old Polk crew, and diehard expansionists to various posts up to and including the Cabinet. All of this by itself indicates a very strong interest in acquiring further territory, but with regard to Cuba in particular Pierce appears to have had an explicit policy to steal the island. Only if theft failed would Pierce try to buy the Cuba as Polk had.

I first encountered the steal first policy by implication in reading McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. Potter’s The Impending Crisis made it more explicit and credited Basil Rauch with pushing back the murk surrounding the Pierce administration’s inner workings to prove the case in his The American Interest in Cuba, 1848-1855. Since I last wrote about the subject, I’ve read Rauch’s book.

In 1854, John A. Quitman, former governor of Mississippi and former secession conspirator, had just beat the rap for breaking the Neutrality Laws. Those laws forbade such things as trying to steal other countries’ property on the plausible grounds that the United States should not host or facilitate private military campaigns against foreign nations with no state of war existed with them. Quitman had a career in ruins, but big dreams. He could take Cuba. He could forge a tropical empire by adding Mexico to it. Rauch quotes one of his friends on Quitman’s character:

He was one of the most bigoted egotists I ever met, and all his life eaten up with ambition.

Cuban exiles had wooed Quitman to lead an expedition for years. Why not go for it? Shortly after Pierce took office in March of 1853, Quitman signed on with the Cuban junta in New York. The same junta wrote Pierce damning any attempt to buy the island. Cubans would not be property to buy or sell, but a free and independent people jealous of their liberties and unwilling to trade away the blood of their many martyrs for another imperial master.

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

But if Cuba got its freedom and, in a word, United with a certain federation of States, that might do very well. It worked for Texas, after all. Pierce received the junta’s letter shortly before one of the few expansion-shy members of his Cabinet, Secretary of State William H. Marcy, drew up instructions for new minister to Spain Pierre Soulé. Those instructions included the administration’s hope that Cuba would soon “release itself or be released” from Spanish control. Soulé should, in light of that, behave himself and not make noises toward annexing the island. Quitman’s expedition certainly proposed to release Cuba from Spain, and the language used fit period descriptions of Texas-style independence-to-annexation plans. Supporting this, Rauch notes that Soulé remained aloof from the junta and other Cuba exiles in New York before he received his instructions, but warmed to them considerably after.

Quitman could take Pierce’s inaugural and his appointments as signs of the administration’s support, even if he didn’t have the inside word like Soulé. He also probably felt that Pierce owed him from back in the campaign, when the Whigs accused Pierce of cowardice in the Mexican War. Pierce served under Quitman then and Quitman stepped up to defend his honor. More than that, Quitman counted Cuba enthusiast Caleb Cushing, now Attorney General, and Jefferson Davis, now Secretary of War, personal friends.

In what Quitman had to take as a further signal, Pierce appointed his friend Alexander M. Clayton the American consul at Havana. Clayton knew of Quitman’s plans and wrote to the ex-governor from the steamer taking him to Cuba about how he anticipated a crisis that would bring about independence “after the fashion of Texas”. Then Cuba could come into the Union by treaty or remain Quitman’s private empire. But Quitman best hurry, lest the Yankees beat them to the punch and turn Cuba into another California.

But could have Quitman read too much into the placement of his friends and other expansionists in high places? Pierce negotiated to buy land from Mexico (parts 1, 2, 3) rather than endorsing a private seizure of it. Maybe he would go the other way still with Cuba? The junta’s adulation of Soulé argued that Pierce heeded their wishes against buying Cuba. Why would they applaud him otherwise? Events over the summer of 1853 argued for it, but did Pierce really have Quitman’s back? Indications and appointments do not necessarily a policy make.

Stealing Cuba Revisited

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Back in the spring, I promised that I would return to the matter of American filibusters trying to steal Cuba (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and pieces of Mexico from their legal owners at a later date. With the main story of the Kansas-Nebraska Act essentially told, that time has come. The climaxes of both played out largely in 1854. The filibustering efforts and opening the Indian Country to white settlement and slavery happened in tandem. Each influenced the course of the other in ways one can easily miss in the subject-oriented narrative of one or the other. Ultimately, the South traded a possible sure thing of new slave states in the Caribbean for a chancier prospect on the Kansas plains, though they lacked the hindsight we enjoy to tell them so at the time.

American interest in acquiring Cuba went far back in the young nation’s history. It had a tropical climate well-suited to growing Southern cash crops. A decrepit, backwards, reactionary empire held it. Its authorities both allowed slavery and the African slave trade. If Cuba came into the Union, it could hardly come in as anything but a new, populous slave state.

Franklin Pierce came into the White House promising

the policy of my Administration will not be controlled by any timid forebodings of evil from expansion. Indeed, it is not to be disguised that our attitude as a nation and our position on the globe render the acquisition of certain possessions not within our jurisdiction eminently important for our protection, if not in the future essential for the preservation of the rights of commerce and the peace of the world.

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

The Spanish took it seriously. They already had reason to look across warily at the United States and its sticky-fingered ways with other nations’ property. It had just stolen half of Mexico four years before. American-based filibusters had campaigned against the island as recently as a few years before and even then John A. Quitman’s expedition of thousands gathered. Now the new guy, who brought in most of the old Polk crowd that committed Grand Theft Real Estate, as much as went out and told them that he used maps of the Western Hemisphere as a shopping list. To add insult to injury, Pierce sent Pierre Soulé to represented the United States in Madrid hot on the heels of the latter’s eulogizing Cuban filibuster Narciso López.

The Spanish dispatched the Marques de la Pezuela to serve as governor-general of Cuba, with an eye to scaring off American adventurers. He came in with decrees to vigorously suppress the slave trade, proposing to free all slaves brought to the island after 1835 (this accounted for a majority), promoting interracial marriage, and arming a free black militia while forbidding whites from bearing arms. This did not quite have the desired effect, as the Spanish reactionary inspired a tremendous panic across the South. Spain would arm black slaves and former slaves to shoot free white men who came to take its island. That would give their own slaves ideas and soon the entire South would fall into a racial bloodbath that could only end with one race exterminating the other.

Complicating things further, many in the South believed that Spanish policy came from British minds. The British had made noises about protecting Spain’s possession of Cuba before and everyone knew that the Royal Navy policed the seas against the slave trade. The British Empire had emancipated its own colonies, so dangerously close to the United States. Why, the British had even connived to establish a protectorate over the Texas Republic in exchange for emancipation. Where the Union Jack flew, abolitionists ruled.

In early 1854, just as the Kansas-Nebraska Act mutated into a radical proslavery version that inflamed the North, the slightest spark might ignite a new war of conquest on the model of James K. Polk’s campaign against Mexico.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Six

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5. Full text.)

By confronting Stephen Douglas with the words of a moderate politician disinterested in slavery who avowed the sacred permanence of the Missouri Compromise, both reinforced his own argument for the same position and forced the Little Giant to face his own speech. One need not be an antislavery ideologue, like Salmon P. Chase, William Seward, or Lincoln himself might come across. In Douglas’ mind, and the minds of his supporters, those men might all share the same flesh. But Douglas himself? Surely not! The Little Giant might fancy himself a great statesman, with some reason, and see a president in the mirror every morning, but never an antislavery fanatic.

But Lincoln did dig up a quote from 1849. Douglas always said that things changed in 1850. Before that, he accepted the Missouri Compromise as the best the nation could do. As Douglas now told it, he always preferred popular sovereignty. The Little Giant further insisted that the antislavery sorts fouled up the whole business, necessitating the change in policy.

All of this, Lincoln knew. When the Mexican War erupted, then-President Polk asked Congress for an appropriation to negotiate the peace treaty:

A bill was duly got up, for the purpose, and was progressing swimmingly, in the House of Representatives, when a member by the name of David Wilmot, a democrat from Pennsylvania, moved as an amendment “Provided that in any territory thus acquired, there shall never be slavery.”

This is the origin of the far-famed “Wilmot Proviso.” It created a great flutter; but stuck like wax, was voted into the bill, and the bill passed with it through the House. The Senate, however, adjourned without final action on it and so both the appropriation and proviso were lost, for a time.

But the war went on. Polk asked again. Congress went to work again. The proviso came up again. The bill died again. A new Congress came in December, 1847, and Lincoln himself

was in the lower House that term. The “Wilmot Proviso” or the principle of it, was constantly coming up in some shape or other, and I think I may venture to say I voted for it at least forty times; during the short term I was there. The Senate, however, held it in check, and it never became law.

In due course Nicholas Trist negotiated a proviso-free treaty handing over to the United States the vast Southwest. The Mexican Cession ran right west of the Louisiana Purchase. Why not draw the Missouri Compromise line out to the Pacific? Douglas thought that a great idea at the time:

On Judge Douglas’ motion a bill, or provision of a bill, passed the Senate to so extend the Missouri line. The Proviso men in the House, including myself, voted it down, because by implication, it gave up the Southern part to slavery, while we were bent on having it all free.

That point really does cut both ways. The South would not tolerate a Mexican Cession all free. Antislavery men would not tolerate a Mexican Cession all slave. This left the issue in doubt as the 1840s wound down. Did principle or precedent require either side to accept extending the Missouri line? Perhaps, both other principles came into play as well. If one saw slavery as right, why should it suffer any special restrictions? If one saw it as wrong, why should any new territory be reserved for it at the expense of freedom?

On paper, the sacred pact applied only to the Louisiana Purchase. The provision, which Douglas favored at the time, that extended the line across Texas contained within it the tacit admission that the line did not extend on its own across Texas. Each new parcel of land, at least in principle, opened the question anew. If both antislavery and proslavery men departed from established precedent, they did so in accord with a separate precedent that each territory needed its own slavery settlement.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Five

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4. Full text.)

In tracing the history of slavery restrictions up through the annexation of Texas in 1845, nine years before he spoke at Peoria, Lincoln told the story of how the Congress had banned the institution from various territories without controversy. But that story only goes so far on its own. Calhoun could have come out of his grave and told him that each and every one of those restrictions harmed the South and spat on southern rights. The South agreed to them, but erred in doing so. Others still living would go just as far, perhaps even farther.

Anybody can manufacture a historical consensus by ignoring its dissenters, a practice almost always in fashion in American politics. Certain sorts of people, who agree with the speaker, always represent real America. The others want un-American things. If you follow contemporary politics for very long, you’ll recognize the argument. Much the same thing played out with the Know-Nothings, who proclaimed real America Protestant and un-Irish. Their opponents could and did say the same sort of things about them. Abolitionists and antislavery men told the same story about the Slave Power. Southerners told it about abolitionists.

But one can mitigate against that kind of argument and Lincoln had one of the best. He quoted a prominent politician on the Missouri Compromise’s success and greatness:

The Missouri Compromise had been in practical operation for about a quarter fo a century, and had received the sanction and approbation of men of all parties in every section of the Union. It had allayed all sectional jealousies and irritations growing out of this vexed question, and harmonized and tranquilized the whole country. It had given to Henry Clay, as its prominent champion, the proud sobriquet of “Great Pacificator” and by that title and for that service, his political friends had repeatedly appealed to the people to rally under his standard, as a presidential candidate, as the man who had exhibited the patriotism and the power to suppress, an unholy and treasonable agitation, and preserve the Union. He was not aware that any man or any party from any section of the Union, had ever urged as an objection to Mr. Clay, that he was the great champion of the Missouri Compromise. On the contrary, the effort was made by the opponents of Mr. Clay, to prove that he was not entitled to the exclusive merit of that great patriotic measure, and that the honor was equally due to others as well as to him, for securing its adoption-that it had its origins in the hearts of all patriotic men, who desire to preserve and perpetuate the blessings of our glorious Union-an origin akin that of the constitution of the United States, conceived in the same spirit of fraternal affection, and calculated to remove forever, the only danger, which had seemed to threaten, at some distant day, to sever the social bond of union. All the evidences of public opinion at that day, seemed to indicate that this Compromise had been canonized in the hearts of the American people, as a sacred thing which no ruthless hand would ever be reckless enough to disturb.

The Compromise stood sacred, canonized by people of all sections and parties. None would ever dare undo it. None would risk so much for so little, with such reckless disregard for the consequences. None would so ruthlessly it aside, indifferent to the powerful feelings in its favor. None except Stephen Douglas.

Who said so? Why, no one less than Stephen Douglas himself.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Four

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3. Full text.)

Lincoln established the basic facts of the Missouri Compromise and went on a tour of early regulation of slavery by the Congress, all the way back to the Confederation. But Lincoln had spoken for only two sections of the country: the Northwest where he stood and the Louisiana Purchase. The country had more land than that to exclude or include slavery on. In discussing that he reveals an interesting wrinkle in the nation’s territorial expansion:

Texas principally south of the line, and West of Arkansas; though originally within the purchase from France, had, in 1819, been traded off to Spain, in our treaty for the acquisition of Florida. It had thus become a part of Mexico. Mexico revolutionized and became independent of Spain. American citizens began settling rapidly, with their slaves in the southern part of Texas.

I had to read that a few times and do some checking before I fully understood it. Texas a part of the Louisiana Purchase? Not in my history textbook!

But at the time, the US claimed that it had bought at least large sections of Texas. Nobody making the claims knew where the Louisiana Purchase really ended. It began at the Mississippi River, but went off into blank sections of the map inhabited only by little-known Indians and, somewhere far off west, Spaniards. The French had not settled it anywhere in great numbers, except around New Orleans and St. Louis. Napoleon properly sold Thomas Jefferson the claim to the western half of the Mississippi watershed more than the land itself. That could, theoretically, include everything between the continental divide and the Gulf of Mexico. Spain had a competing claim in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, which went down from the Oregon Country all the way to the Viceroyalty of New Grenada at roughly the northern border of Panama.

The parting Lincoln refers to happened in the Adams-Onís Treaty. It settled several longstanding territorial disputes with Spain, which insisted until then that its possession of Florida ran all the way to the Mississippi and that when Jefferson bought Louisiana, he bought only the city itself and a narrow band of territory around the river. The initial American claim put Louisiana’s western border at the Rio Grande, halfway through modern New Mexico, but the United States eventually opted for the Sabine River, the modern line between Louisiana and Texas, but Spain insisted on the Arroyo Hondo, now the Calcasieu River. The disputed territory, which both sides informally agreed to treat as neutral, drew settlers, squatters, and various criminal interests that caused some problems for both countries.

The provisions of the Adams-Onis Treaty. (Via Wikipedia)

The provisions of the Adams-Onis Treaty. (Via Wikipedia)

Over in Florida, the United States had a similar problem. Spanish authority did not reach very far on the ground. This made Florida a haven for Indians that liked to raid across the border and runaway slaves who could happily vanish into the wilderness. Andrew Jackson took that as an excuse to move an army across the border to fight the Seminoles and seized some Spanish forts along the way. Washington refused to disavow his actions or recall him, which put Spain in quite a bind at a time when it needed money, faced rebellions in its Latin American possessions, and had just come out of the very damaging Napoleonic Wars. Better to come to the table and cut its losses in exchange for some cash. So the sticky-fingered Americans got Florida and the Sabine River boundary. Spain threw in its claims to the Oregon Country too. In exchange, the United States surrendered its nominal claims to Texas and agreed on a boundary that ceded some little-known land between the Arkansas and Red rivers west of 100° longitude to Spain.

Of course, Texas came back into the Union amid much controversy later on:

Soon they revolutionized against Mexico, and established an independent government of their own, adopting a constitution, with slavery, strongly resembling the constitutions of our slave states. By still another rapid move, Texas, claiming a boundary much further West, than when we parted with her in 1819, was brought back to the United States, and admitted into the Union as a slave state. There then was little or no settlement in the northern part of Texas, a considerable portion of which lay north of the Missouri line; and in the resolutions admitting her into the Union, the Missouri restriction was expressly extended westward across her territory. This was in 1845, only nine years ago.

See, Douglas? Even at that late date, we drew the Missouri Compromise line all over again. We drew it that way even if it meant cutting off a bit of a state, though with the proviso that the line would only enter legal force in the event that parts of Texas got divided off into new states.

Drinking Mexican Poison

The Road to War: The Mexican War

The disputed territory. (Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday I mentioned Texas’ disputed boundary with Mexico. The Texan claim included half of modern New Mexico, the Oklahoma panhandle, a corner of Kansas, a long slice of Colorado, and even a small portion of Wyoming. The Texans never controlled half of it. Their only expedition to extend their authority over New Mexico suffered under Indian raids, got lost, and finally ended up in a Mexican jail.

Mexico considered the Texan claim preposterous, insisting instead on the Nueces River, and threatened war should the United States annex Texas. The US did so on December 29, 1845. James K. Polk, a slaveholder and the only president we know of who traded slaves from within the White House, did not wait for the paperwork.  He ordered Zachary Taylor to the Nueces with 3,500 men, close to half of the entire American army at the time. Taylor arrived there in October of 1845.

In November, Polk dispatched John Slidell to Mexico City in secret with an offer to buy California, New Mexico, and settle the border at the Rio Grande in exchange for forgiveness of debts owed to Americans from the Mexican War of Independence to the tune of $3 million (about $71 million today) and offer up $25 million to $30 million (almost $600 million to $713 million) in cash. The Mexicans refused.

John C. Frémont, explorer, provacateur, and future presidential candidate.

Meanwhile, over the winter of 1845-46 federally commissioned explorer John C. Frémont led an armed expedition into Upper California. Frémont insisted he only wanted supplies for a trip up into the Oregon Country.  He only entered Californian towns to find a home for his mother, Frémont maintained as he tried to spark an independence-to-annexation movement on the Texas model among local Americans. Smelling a rat, the Mexicans ordered him out. Frémont instead built a fort and ran up the American flag, prompting the local American consul, who was under orders to quietly support a California independence movement, to tell him how his actions undermined those efforts. Frémont left in March, but returned in June to help the Bear Flag Revolt.

Polk ordered Taylor’s army to the Rio Grande in early 1846, where they built a fort facing Matamoros and Taylor attempted negotiations. No one in Taylor’s army had sufficient Spanish and none of the Mexicans facing him had sufficient English, so they negotiated fruitlessly in French. As the standoff progressed, Mexican reinforcements arrived.

On the night of April 24-25, a cavalry detachment of seventy men, tasked to see if the Mexicans had crossed the Rio Grande northwest of the army’s position found out the hard way that two thousand had done just that. After a fight that went on through the night, they surrendered. On receiving the news, Taylor sent word back to Washington that hostilities had commenced. It arrived two weeks later.

With the breaking news in his hand, Polk reported to the Congress that Mexican soldiers invaded American territory and shed American blood. He asked for a declaration of war. On May 13, 1846, the House voted 174-14. The Senate followed 40-2 with fourteen abstaining, eight of those being Northerners. (One other was John C. Calhoun.)

Though popular nationally, the war did not enjoy universal acclaim. Skeptical, a freshman Congressman from Illinois called Polk’s justification “a half insane mumbling of a fever dream.” Lincoln introduced resolutions calling on him to specify the exact spot where Mexicans shed that blood. Of the disputed territory, Lincoln said, “That soil was not ours; and Congress did not annex or attempt to annex it.” Ralph Waldo Emerson agreed, “The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man swallows the arsenic; Mexico will poison us.”

But Lincoln and Emerson did not represent the majority. War fever swept the nation and, after some early victories, Congress turned to what to do with the vast territories the army would surely take from Mexico.