A Greytown Narrative, Part Two

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Solon Borland (D-AR)

On May 16, 1854, Solon Borland came to Greytown. He arrived via an Accessory Transit Company steamer under the command of a Captain Smith. Smith had a longstanding dislike of a black pilot who once worked for the Company. When Smith saw Antonio’s boat out on the river that day, he apparently decided to ram and sink it with his larger vessel. Antonio saw Smith coming and called out that should Smith ram him, he would shoot Smith. Smith rammed Antonio anyway, failing to sink his boat. When the passengers came on deck to find out what transpired, Smith told them that he’d lost control of his rudder. Just a little fender bender. Smith got his vessel underway again and left it all behind him.

Solon Borland gave Smith a talking to. Would he let a black man speak to him like that? Why didn’t he shoot Antonio? By the time Borland convinced Smith that his white manhood and honor hung in the balance, Smith’s steamer had gone half a mile or more down the river. Smith turned it around and went back, going below to get his rifle while the vessel went upstream. He came out and found Antonio, took aim, and shot him dead. Then the vessel resumed its prior course for Greytown.

The Greytown authorities soon involved themselves. A coroner’s jury, attended by United States commercial agent Joseph Fabens, agreed that Antonio died not at the hands of the mysterious Nicaragua Bullet Tree but rather at the hands of another person. Acting doubtless on the testimony of many of Antonio’s employees on hand when the shooting occurred, they pinned the blame on Smith. The constabulary duly went off and presented themselves at Smith’s ship. Smith, feeling some remorse at having been browbeaten into murder, seems to have intended to cooperate until Solon Borland once again inserted himself. He drew up a rifle or pistol, accounts differ as to which, and threatened to shoot any members of the Greytown constabulary who set foot on deck. Borland declared his credentials as the American minister to Central America and called on his fellow passengers to help him.

The Mosquito Coast (via Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast
(via Wikipedia)

They did not leap to the task, but Greytown’s officers of the law exhibited the common allergy to bullets and opted not to risk Borland’s aim. They left without Smith. Borland took himself to the home of Joseph Fabens. Word got around Greytown that Borland had Smith with him and an angry mob gathered outside Fabens’ house. Borland came downstairs and ranted at the mob for a while, denouncing them as, among other things, the scum of Hell. Someone threw a bottle and hit Borland in the face. Greytown’s mayor arrived, denounced the mob, apologized to Borland, and offered a reward for the capture of the man who threw the bottle.

If we believe a man who saw Borland the next day, the bottle might have hurt his pride. Fabens, however, told it that the bottle cut open Borland’s head. He went out to the American ships at anchor in the harbor seeking guns, ammunition, and men all of ten minutes after the confrontation with the mob. What did Fabens want those men and arms for?

Mr. Borland had been seriously injured by a parcel of rebels and pirates, and niggers in the town, and appealed to them as Americans, if they would suffer their Minister to be insulted, and called for volunteers to go and burn the town.

William L. Marcy

William L. Marcy

Fabens got together eleven men for his planned arson, but word had gotten back to Greytown. Possessing a strong aversion to having their homes and businesses burned to the ground, the people refused to let him and his band come ashore. They would permit Fabens alone, but not his gang. Nobody besieged or detained Borland at the Commercial Agency, but he apparently considered himself under arrest because of all this. Somewhere along the way, Borland also hired on a guard for American property in Greytown at the State Department’s expense. Borland left town the next day.

Fabens wrote to William L. Marcy, the Secretary of State, about how Greytown had set itself against the Transit Company, stolen its property, and generally made itself a nuisance. Only on May 30th did Fabens elect to write Marcy about what happened with Borland. Borland’s own letter explaining himself bears the same date.

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A Greytown Narrative, Part One

The Mosquito Coast (via Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast
(via Wikipedia)

The time has more than come for a step back to organize what I’ve culled from Horace Greeley’s reprints of the documents about Greytown, Solon Borland, and the Accessory Transit Company. The documents, and thus my posts, have wandered back and forth through time, disagreed with one another, and addressed far more concerns than I expected when I took on the project. Today I aim to fit it all into a general narrative as best I can.

Greytown began, barring Indian settlements at the same spot, as San Juan del Norte, at the mouth of the San Juan river. Though technically a Spanish possession, then part of the United Provinces of Central America, and then part of Nicaragua, the entire eastern coast of modern Nicaragua and Honduras rarely felt the firm hand of national government. At various points in the past, the British had facilitated immigration from Jamaica to settle friendly sorts in the hinterlands, with an eye to how the whole area sat astride the best route for a canal across Central America and how it would best serve British interests to keep it out of the grasping hands of the United States.

The British had good reason to worry, since the United States made off with half of Mexico in 1848 and briefly considered taking the whole nation. The smaller, unstable republics of Central America would find it difficult to resist American aggression and might even fall to private adventurers who would steal them with an eye toward annexation to the United States or to building their own little empires in the tropics. To deter American expansion, the British declared a protectorate over the Mosquito Coast, essentially the entire eastern coastline of modern Nicaragua and part of Honduras. They also seized San Juan del Norte, drove its previous inhabitants out, and renamed it Greytown. For around four years, the British Empire ruled the area more or less regularly as a colonial possession.

Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore

But Democrat James K. Polk gave way to Whig Zachary Taylor, who then died and put Millard Fillmore in the White House. Neither Whig had Polk’s appetite for land. Fillmore even cracked down on filibustering. The Whigs and the British reached an agreement to commit to a neutral route across Central America and future canal, laid out in the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850. With things apparently settling down and more neighborly Americans in office, the British withdrew from Greytown in 1852. The Greytown locals, a fairly international lot, established their own government with a proper constitution, elections, and the usual officials.

When Greytown convened to establish its government, the Accessory Transit Company took an interest. This American firm, founded by Cornelius Vanderbilt but lately under the control of schemers who seized it while he vacationed in Europe, ran steamer routes through Nicaragua to California and so had much invested in Greytown. Thus the company hauled all its employees in to vote and ensure the election of a friendly government. The Transit Company had rented a piece of land called Punta Arenas from the British. This land fell within the new Greytown government’s jurisdiction, which expected rent under the previous arrangement. The Transit Company declined to pay.

Cornelius Vanderbilt

Cornelius Vanderbilt

For a good six months, the Transit Company treated Greytown’s government as entirely legitimate. It sued and defended itself in Greytown courts. But the Transit Company really did not want to pay its rent and so decided after those first six months that the Greytown government had no legitimacy after all. Company policy dictated a policy of ignoring Greytown’s demands. At some point along the way, an illegal squatter set up a boarding house in Greytown that the Company began to lease for its employees.

Greytown could do little about Punta Arenas miles away, but had the boarding house right at hand. The owner had set it up illegally, after all. He didn’t own that land and had no right to its use. The Greytown authorities apparently confiscated the property and kicked the Transit Company boarders out.

The United States recognized Greytown’s government, after a fashion. Washington did not dispatch a consul or minister to handle its affairs, but the State Department did dispatch a commercial agent. That agent, Joseph Fabens, almost certainly worked for the Transit Company in addition to his official duties. Fabens sent a series of dispatches to Washington playing up how things had gone out of control and the Greytown government had it in for the Transit Company and Americans in general. Whatever Fabens’ superiors in Washington thought of those dispatches, the generated no dramatic orders or changes in policy.

All of this brings us to May of 1854, when Solon Borland came to Greytown. I’ll have much more to say about him and his doings in the next part.

Unleashing Quitman?

John Slidell

John Slidell (D-LA)

Pierre Soulé finally got an answer to his Black Warrior ultimatum on May 7, 1854. He accepted it even though the Spanish did not give him the satisfaction he wanted. That relieved the Spanish and puzzled the Madrid diplomatic community, as it had looked all through the affair like Soulé would settle for nothing less than cession of Cuba to the United States. He might, they thought and eventually knew, have exceeded his instructions but that only meant that the exiled French revolutionary turned slavery enthusiast pressed a bit harder than Pierce wanted for goals that Pierce himself endorsed.

Worse still, it looked very much like Franklin Pierce might back Soulé anyway. He shot a fellow diplomat and didn’t even get a reprimand. Pierce’s own message to the House back in March sounded a warlike note. No less an American authority than Edward Everett, until 1852 Millard Fillmore’s Secretary of State and hardly an antislavery man, wrote to James Buchanan in London that he could see the writing on the wall: Pierce wanted Cuba and intended to use the Black Warrior crisis to get it. Everett had no particular inside information. Pierce’s message to the House, and his appointment of Soulé to begin with, provided evidence. But he had one more telling piece of information to add on top and seal the deal.

John Slidell of Louisiana, once upon a time James K. Polk’s special envoy offering to settle the Texas border at the Rio Grande and buy what the administration would soon take by force of the American Southwest, rose in the Senate on May 1 and offered this resolution:

Resolved, That the Committee on Foreign Relations be requested to inquire into the expediency of authorizing the President of the United States, during any future recess of Congress, to suspend by proclamation, either wholly or partially, the operation of the act “in addition to an act ‘for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States,” approved the 20th of April, 1818;” and also of the act supplementary thereto, approved 10th of March, 1838; should, in his opinion, the public interests require such total or partial suspension; such suspension not to exceed the period of twelve months; and the causes which shall have induced the president to proclaim it to be communicated to Congress immediately on its first meeting thereafter.

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Slidell refers to the Neutrality Acts with such verbose circumlocution. Those laws forbade filibustering and had frustrated attempts at Cuba in the past. To put it in other words, Slidell wants the Foreign Relations committee to look into giving Pierce the power to loose John A. Quitman so he can go steal Cuba for the United States and for slavery. Slidell might not have known of Quitman’s concern for his image in taking up Cuban filibustering, but if the Congress authorized Pierce to suspend the Neutrality Acts, and Pierce did so, then Quitman could only have read it as an engraved invitation to move on Cuba then and there.

Even without intimate knowledge of Quitman’s motives, all of this had to look incredibly ominous in Madrid. The Spanish might not have had news of Slidell’s proposal when they answered Soulé, but it came as the logical continuance of Pierce’s stated policies and carried the endorsement of the Washington Union, the administration mouthpiece. Maybe the war within Washington over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, just about to come back before the House, would give way to a war over Cuba. Foreign wars have derailed domestic politics, and united fractious polities, often enough.

Giddings for Peace, Part Two

Joshua Giddings (Free Soil-OH)

Joshua Giddings (Free Soil-OH)

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Giddings for Peace: part 1

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

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

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

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

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

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

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

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

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

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.

Opposing Expansion in the South

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

With foreknowledge of the war to come, our attention naturally focuses on figures and ideas prominent in that later struggle. They did, after all, carry off a civil war that killed upwards of six hundred thousand people barely a decade after the Armistice. Naturally one tends to think of the ringleaders and prominent figures in the Confederacy as representatives of the South in the years prior. Likewise, one tends to think of the politics of the antebellum Southern radicals as the politics of the leading confederates as well. Political calculation, if nothing else, seems predestined to put filibusters, nullifiers, expansionists, and secession conspirators all together in the same bed. Whatever one’s personal opinions, one should not lightly frustrate the interests of a significant number of one’s constituents. One might pay that cost in elections lost.

But people in the past had all the complexities of people today. They did not owe fealty to some historian’s model of a Southern politician. Jefferson Davis would defend William Walker against Hiram Paulding, but William W. Freehling quotes his anti-filibustering bona fides in The Road to Disunion: Secessionists Triumphant:

Jefferson Davis, for example, expected the United States to control the entire hemisphere “in the remote future.” Yet he noted that we had always “obtained territory … fairly, honorably, and peaceably.” We must be able to “invite the world to scrutinize our example of representative liberty.” Likewise, the Aberdeen (Mississippi) Sunny South demanded “annexation” be consistent “with a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.

Little separates either of those positions, however tolerant of Walker, from Buchanan’s condemnation of filibustering. Davis might not have turned up his nose at a failed Walker, but the goal of filibustering always amounted to handing over a new land and then daring the mother country to refuse it. Would the United States really give back Cuba, Nicaragua, or another piece of Mexico when a filibuster handed it over? John Tyler and James Polk hardly did so.

Freehling goes on to note that Southern congressmen voted 52-20 to condemn Paulding’s arrest. New Orleans juries could look at the majority and imagine the section behind them when they acquitted the Quitmans and Walkers of the world, but those twenty votes in favor of the arrest amounted to 27.78% of their caucus. Some of the South stood with the filibusters and some did not.

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

Why? Some certainly had scruples about international law. Some had to fret over how uncontrolled filibusters could embroil the nation in dangerous conflicts, circumventing domestic politics just as they did foreign. But what if Walker kept Nicaragua and no one came? If no Southerners relocated, bringing slaves with them, how long would an American Nicaragua remain a slave state? Every state that had slavery and abolished it first had rather few slaves. A Nicaragua with only a tiny slave presence could come into the Union as another Delaware and soon abandon the South by transforming itself into another New Jersey. The Lower South worried endlessly that Delaware, Maryland, and even Kentucky and Missouri would jump ship for those reasons.

Adding an enslaved Nicaragua might give a temporary respite that foreshadowed greater calamities. The Border States and Upper South already sent a tide of slave exports down into the Lower South. Opening up a vast new land for slavery could mean a great acceleration of those exports, bringing those old slave states on the Chesapeake and Ohio past the tipping point where they emancipated. The outcome of a successful filibuster might not mean simply gaining one new slave state, it might mean instead gaining one new free state, or gaining one new slave state at the expense of losing as many as three or four.