Southerners Weigh in on Brooks

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

In following the aftermath of Charles Sumner’s caning by Preston Brooks, we have largely focused on northerners. As those posts went up, I searched for Southern defenses of Brooks. Andrew Butler made a speech on his behalf, but as a directly interested party he makes a poor substitute for a sectional response. His kinsman caned Sumner on his behalf. Robert Toombs’ after the fact approval and John Slidell’s obvious indifference speak better to a sectional attitude.

To them we could add James Mason. Preston Brooks’ constituents planned to throw him a celebratory dinner to express “their complete indorsement of his Congressional course”. The authors didn’t necessarily mean for politicians to accept their invitations. Rather they wrote to get back a public letter on a subject. Mason obliged, his letter appearing in the fifth volume of Sumner’s Works:

He [Brooks] has shown himself alike able and prompt to sustain the rights and interests of his constituents in debate and by vote, or to vindicate in a different mode, and under circumstances of painful duty, the honor of his friend. I would gladly, therefore, unite with you were it in my power, in the testimonial proposed by his generous constituents

For the same occasion, Brooks’ supporter back home invited the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis. He wrote back

It would give me much pleasure, on any occasion, to meet you, fellow-citizens of the Fourth District of South Carolina; and the gratification would be materially heightened by the opportunity to witness their approbation of a Representative whom I hold in such high regard and esteem. […] I have only to express to you my sympathy with the feeling which prompts the sons of Carolina to welcome the return of a brother who has been the subject of vilification, misrepresentation, and persecution, because he resented a libellous assault upon the reputation of their mother.

Clearly, Brooks had many Senatorial friends and admirers. They include some of the most powerful men in the nation, who could easily have ignored invitations from his constituents or responded without speaking to the substance of their invitation. The editorial notes in Sumner’s Works waste no time pointing out that Toombs, Slidell, Mason, and of course Davis spent the first half of the 1860s in the Confederate government.

The editors also found a less Southern man, geographically if not politically, to say a few kind words for Brooks. Then running for president, James Buchanan attended a college graduation in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. One of the students gave an anti-Brooks speech to enthusiastic applause. The student sat down next to Buchanan, who corrected him loudly enough for the whole room to hear:

My young friend, you look upon the dark side of the picture. Mr. Sumner’s speech was the most vulgar tirade of abuse ever delivered in a deliberative body.

James Buchanan

The student protested. Surely the Old Public Functionary didn’t approve of what happened? Buchanan answered:

Mr. Brooks was inconsiderate, but that Senator Butler was a mild man.

The next President of the United States didn’t go all the way out and say Sumner had it coming, but he tried. Dismissing a dangerous attack on a sitting Senator as “inconsiderate” and expressing his sympathy for Butler spoke volumes. It also fit neatly with Buchanan’s long career of being thoroughly inclined to do a solid for any proslavery man who happened along.


“I could not believe that a thing like this was possible.” Caning Charles Sumner, 15

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

The Caning, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

The House report on the caning

We left Charles Sumner with two scalp wounds which went to the bone and various other cuts and bruises. Dr. Cornelius Boyle, summoned to the Capitol, stitched him up in the Senate antechamber in hopes that swift treatment would prevent infection. David Donald claims that Henry Wilson returned to the Senate, hearing of the attack, and escorted Sumner home. Wilson’s own testimony doesn’t mention that, nor does his statement to the Senate the day after. I haven’t found any confirmation in Donald’s citations. The House Report has a James Bluffington, of the House, arrive in the antechamber in time to see Sumner’s wounds stitched up and see him home. Bluffington

went home with Mr. Sumner, and saw his head dressed. I got him a clean shirt, and helped to put it on. The doctor ordered all from the room except myself and said that such was the condition of Mr. Sumner it was absolutely necessary that he should be kept quiet, for he could not tell the extent of the injuries at that time.

Bluffington’s account puts the doctor with them, so Wilson might also have come along and not warranted a mention because he didn’t do much at the boarding house. Or Donald may have confused the two men, as Bluffington occupies essentially the role he casts Wilson in as Sumner’s escort. Wilson ends his own testimony with recognizing Brooks and the two men exchanging nods as the Senator left the chamber, before the attack. If he had a larger role, it stands to reason it would have come up.

Sumner seems to have regained more command of his faculties around an hour after reaching the boarding house. Recollections from years later, after Sumner’s death, have him “lying on his bed” and remarking

I could not believe that a thing like this was possible.

Henry Wilson (R-MA)

One must suspect such accounts of hagiography. Sumner had become a kind of national hero and it would flatter his memory, as the recollections do, to portray him as completely above recriminations. For him to transcend his caning makes him a greater hero still. Some of that probably plays into it, but Sumner brushed off serious warnings of danger to himself only days before the caning and his statement fits neatly with that.

Sumner did not grow up in a political culture where slights required violent answers, but rather one that stressed self-mastery. He spent his early life in a relatively respectable Massachusetts family surrounded by people of similar mind. Henry Wilson, who grew up in more modest circumstances, lacked that luxury and might have acquired a keener sense for when physical danger loomed. For his own part, Sumner had engaged in strong antislavery rhetoric before and people feared for his safety. He dismissed those fears and an attack had never come. Everything in his past experience suggested that one would not this time. Brooks proved Wilson right, but we only know that after the fact.

“Cut to the bone-cut under, as it were, and very ragged” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 14

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

The Caning: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

The House report on the caning

We left Charles Sumner with John Slidell, who pulled back from him when they both came to a doorway. Slidell explained his apparent indifference as actual indifference a while after. Sumner had more immediate concerns. He lay on a sofa in the Senate anteroom, where Dr. Cornelius Boyle found him

bleeding very copiously, and with a great deal of blood upon his clothes. The blood went all over my shirt in dressing his wounds. His friends thought I ought not to dress his wounds there, but take him to his residence. I differed, and stated my reason, that if I dressed his wounds at once and at that place, they would heal by first intentions; and that if I did not, suppuration might take place.

Nineteenth century doctors believed many things we no longer do about the body, but concern for infection remains current. Best practices for sanitation, unfortunately for their patients, have come a long ways since. You could tell an accomplished surgeon of the era by his apron, turned black and stiff with dried blood. That doesn’t make them malevolent, though many doctors did resist adopting more modern methods that we know produce better outcomes. They did their best by the knowledge they had.

Boyle took stock of Sumner’s condition, discovering

There were marks of three wounds on the scalp, but only two that I dressed. One was a very slight wound, that required no special attention. One was two and a quarter inches long, cut to the bone-cut under, as it were, and very ragged. […] The other is not quite two inches long

I can’t imagine Sumner’s head must have felt. We know how profusely they bled, but it sounds like a flap of his scalp was just torn up. The committee pressed for the literally gory details and Boyle confirmed that both wounds “cut to the bone”.

I have the probe now in my pocket, from which the blood has not been washed [Instrument produced.] One was a cut to the depth of nearly an inch. It is only an eighth of an inch to the scale, but it was a cut in and down.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

The two cuts fell on the left side of the back of the head, apparently dealt when Sumner was still bent down or as he tried to flee, and “in front, about two inches from the median line.” Additionally, Sumner suffered bruising and less serious cuts. Boyle remarked that

There was one slight mark on the back of his head, but not severe enough to require dressing […] There were marks on the hands also, and a red mark down the face near the temple

It sounds like Sumner managed to block or deflect at least a few of Brooks’ thirty licks. It might well have saved his life. Boyle testified that a strike to the temple could have gone right through into the brain, or cut the artery there. Either could have killed. Brooks instead hit the thickest part of the skull. That in mind, Boyle said that “Such blows would not ordinarily produce death.”

“I did not think it necessary to express my sympathy” John Slidell Explains Himself, Part 2

John Slidell

The Caning: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

The House report on the caning

After his caning, Charles Sumner saw Senator John Slidell of Louisiana just once. Slidell saw Sumner twice. At the time of the attack, he sat in a room adjacent to the Senate speaking to Stephen Douglas and a few other men. A messenger rushed in with news that someone had laid into Sumner, which Slidell shrugged off as none of his business. A few minutes later, another person came through and told them that it had ended, Preston Brooks did the attacking, and Sumner suffered serious injury. That stirred Slidell to move. He came into the Senate to see Sumner bloodied on the floor, surrounded by others and in no state to mark a man who kept clear of his immediate surrounds. Slidell left the Senate after getting an account of what happened. He and Sumner met again in the doorway to a reception area, where Slidell declined to offer help and just got out of his way.

As he explained to the Senate a week later:

I am not particularly fond of scenes of any sort. I have no associations or relations of any kind with Mr. Sumner; I have not spoken to him for two years. I did not think it necessary to express my sympathy, or make any advances towards him. If I had continued, I should have crossed his path, and interrupted his progress to a sofa; he was evidently faint and weak. I very naturally turned in another direction; and instead of passing through the ante-room, entered the Senate chamber

Slidell gave a remarkable and complex account of himself in those few words. He admitted that he didn’t care for Sumner, had nothing to do with him, and didn’t view the news of his attack as something worth so much as interrupting a conversation over. Even once he has the full story and could see Sumner’s injuries, he exudes indifference. At the same time, his second encounter with Sumner brings a strictly practical explanation. They met in a doorway and he didn’t want to slow Sumner’s path to the couch. Sumner’s two word account of Slidell, that he retreated, implies that Slidell exhibited pure indifference to his plight. The Louisianan objected on the grounds that he had nothing but indifference toward Sumner, but for a slightly different reason. He and Sumner blocked the door for each other. Slidell made sure that the Senate understood that he didn’t care before explaining his retreat as a simple impasse of the kind everyone has. It wouldn’t do for people, Senators or otherwise, to think he exhibited any deference to a gravely wounded colleague.

The Senator concluded with a few additional notes:

whatever may have been his [Sumner’s] intentions, or the intentions of those who have prompted this course of examination, it is calculated to deceive the public and make a false impression on popular opinion. I believe that to be the object.

Just what false impression Slidell had in mind for the House Committee, he made clear a few sentences later. He understood their work, and Sumner’s testimony, as part of a plot to implicate himself and other proslavery men in Brooks’ attack. He had not conspired with the South Carolinian, thank you. Nor would he suffer the House to think he had and air their wild claims to the nation unanswered. The House report made no such claims.

“Without any particular emotion” John Slidell Explains Himself, Part 1

John Slidell

The Caning: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

The House report on the caning

We left Charles Sumner moving into the Senate lobby, covered in his own blood and supported by Edwin Morgan. There they came upon John Slidell (D-LA), who Sumner later testified “retreated” rather than offer aid, ask about his health, or even express idle dismay at a fellow senator’s state. Slidell didn’t care for how Sumner reported that at all, so he got up on the Senate on May 27 to offer an explanation for himself.

After the Senate adjourned on the day of the caning, Slidell went out into the antechamber. He saw Stephen Douglas in conversation with a few others, all sitting together. Slidell asked if he could join them and they obliged. A few minutes went by, during which Slidell believed them alone in the room, then a messenger of the Senate rushed in “rushed in, apparently in great trepidation” and told them that someone had commenced beating Senator Sumner.

We heard this remark without any particular emotion; for my own part, I confess I felt none. I am not disposed to participate in broils of any kind. I remained very quietly in my seat; the other gentlemen did the same; we did not move.

Word came a few minute after that Brooks, his name entering into it for the first time, left Sumner “very badly beaten” and the fight had ended. This changed things for Slidell. He previously thought the fight an incidental one. Now he “felt a little more interest” but remained disinclined to involve himself. He started for the Senate chamber with a mind to reaching his desk

A crowd surrounded the second chair on the other side of the lobby, and I was told that Mr. Sumner was there extended in a state of insensibility, prostrate on the floor. I did not endeavor to approach him; I did not see him; I suppose there were twenty or thirty persons around him.

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

All the witnesses assume a frustrating familiarity with the layout of the Senate and surrounding rooms, but Slidell offers more help than most. He places the lobby within the Senate chamber, but different from the anteroom he and Douglas occupied. From the lobby, you could still follow floor proceedings. It appears that Slidell first saw Sumner before he moved far and Sumner missed him. Slidell asked and got a brief explanation of what happened and went back to the anteroom to resume his conversation.

Slidell crossed paths with Sumner “in the door-way of the reception-room, leaning on two persons whom I did not recognize. His face was covered with blood.”

“Soaked with blood” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 13

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 12

The House report on the caning

Everything vanished into a haze of pain and confusion for Charles Sumner when Preston Brooks started raining down blows from his gutta-percha cane. The Senator had no memory from the first blow until “several minutes” later, when he found himself on the floor. Edmund Morgan kept him from falling hard on it, but couldn’t stop his descent entirely. Ambrose Murray held Preston Brooks back. John Crittenden, Robert Toombs, and Stephen Douglas stood nearby. Crittenden took Brooks’ cane from him.

They stood over a Sumner

lying down, resting partly upon one of the desks that had been turned over, seeming very much stunned, and covered with blood.

That blood soaked into Morgan’s “coat and shirt-sleeves” to saturation. A week later, Morgan informed an outraged crowd of five thousand in New York City that when he caught Sumner, he beheld a man

laid senseless as a corpse for several minutes his head bleeding copiously from the frightful wounds and the blood saturating his clothes.

Sumner himself reported being “unaware of the blood on my clothes” until he returned to his room. There he discovered

The shirt around the neck and collar was soaked with blood. The waistcoat had many marks of blood upon it; also the trowsers. The broadcloth coat was covered with blood on the shoulders so thickly that the blood had soaked through the cloth even through the padding, and appeared on the inside; there was a great deal of blood on the back of the coat and its sides.

Morgan further told the New York meeting of bystander senators, “complacently looking on, without the least intention of assisting.” The crowd demanded naming and shaming, so Morgan obliged with Toombs, to groans, and Douglas, to cries of “Shame.” By this point Morgan must have known Sumner’s testimony and we can’t take his account of Toombs and Douglas standing by as entirely independent, but he likely had a closer vantage to Sumner’s than anybody in the chamber and both Senators place themselves in the room at the time.

John Slidell

When those several minutes passed and Sumner regained consciousness. He asked for his hat, which set off a brief search, and that someone see to the documents on his desk. Then, with Morgan’s help, Sumner staggered into the anteroom of the Senate. Douglas and others occupied that room just before the caning began, including Louisiana Senator John Slidell, who Sumner noticed. Sumner said that Slidell “retreated.”

Sumner doesn’t give a clue to his state of mind with regard to Slidell in his terse reference, but Slidell could read between the lines. Faced with a fellow senator just brutalized and bloodied, erect only with the support of another man, the Louisianan gave the whole affair a big shrug and went on with his day. That kind of indifference looks like approval. Morgan and company may have had Sumner physically in hand, but Slidell could have said something. It would have cost him nothing to express sympathy or inquire after Sumner’s health. Simple human decency might prompt at least formulaic phrases for anyone so clearly hurt. Slidell stood silent.



The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection, Part Six

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection: parts 123, 4, 5

The destruction of Greytown scandalized much of the North. The Democracy’s paper liked it not much better than Horace Greeley did. Solon Borland did not do himself any favors through his involvement. Furthermore, the British took it as an outrage at a time when tensions between the United Kingdom and United States already stood at a high point over Central America and had the additional aggravation of American ambitions toward Cuba. George N. Hollins would have struggled to find a worse time to improve on his instructions by burning the place.

Matters all came to a head in late summer of 1854, roughly simultaneous with Franklin Pierce making his last-ditch attempt to work around Pierre Soulé and his dubious escapades in Spain to secure Cuba for the United States and the betterment of slavery. If he could not take Cuba with John A. Quitman’s filibusters then Pierce would settle for buying it. But nobody in Europe and of a sound mind wanted to deal with a maniac like Soulé. Thus Pierce sought Congress’ leave to send a special delegation to negotiate for Cuba’s sale.

John Slidell

John Slidell

What does this have to do with Nicaragua? Alongside Pierce’s special commission for Cuba, Louisiana’s John Slidell, on behalf of the Louisiana legislature, continued to push for granting Pierce the special power to set aside the Neutrality Acts and unleash any filibusters who cared to go to Cuba in retaliation for the brief seizure of the Black Warrior, which had also prompted Soulé to a wildcat ultimatum over in Madrid and to stop the threat of an Africanized Cuba which would imperil the white South through the good example it might give to the South’s slaves.

How did this have to look? On every front it seemed that someone in the Democracy, whether working directly with the White House or not, had some kind of scheme afoot for territorial expansion in the name of slavery. If the United States no longer respected Britain’s protectorate over the Mosquito Coast, then what did that say about its guarantee that Cuba would remain Spanish? Especially with eyes in Europe turning increasingly to the Crimean War. Maybe a filibuster could get away with it now and come off with a fait accompli that the British would protest only with a diplomatic note. The destruction of Greytown, from a certain perspective, could appear as a trial balloon completely aside from the outrage it would provoke all on its own.

In other times that might have all gone by without too much comment, but Americans had a much more adverse experience with the Democracy’s expansionism in 1854 than they had in the years previous. The Democracy had just sold the Great Plains, and with them the white north’s future, to the Slave Power. Now the Slave Power demanded still more? The antislavery movement might take a page from the South’s book and refuse to vote for the admission of new states from the territory that the Kansas-Nebraska Act gave over to slavery. To people already fearing that their way of life, free from slavery and free from blacks, would soon end this had to come across as salt on the wound.

All of this comes together, Greytown with Kansas-Nebraska with Anthony Burns (parts 123456) with Cuba and with the filibusters into an image of a nation gone mad. It had to look like a brewing disaster for the Democracy. Elections in the fall would provide just that. Even the most diehard expansionists in the Congress might have hesitated to add more fuel to the fire. So Slidell’s proposal to suspend the Neutrality Acts and Pierce’s to send a special commission to buy Cuba both failed, casualties of the storm Stephen Douglas sowed on that fateful carriage ride with Archibald Dixon.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection, Part Two

The Mosquito Coast (via Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast
(via Wikipedia). Greytown sat at the mouth of the San Juan river.

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection: part 1

The United States and the United Kingdom both had intense and conflicting interests in Central America, particularly in Nicaragua where a route down the San Juan river, across Lake Nicaragua, and only a few miles by stagecoach connected the Caribbean and Pacific and thus the American East and Gulf Coasts with the West Coast. That route served the same purposes, with all the same strategic implications, as the Panama Canal would in later decades.  Anglo-American relations in the middle of the nineteenth century ran generally cool, with occasional bouts of paranoid hostility on the part of the Americans. 

But when the United States did not swallow Mexico whole  in 1848, British fears eased somewhat. Overheated rhetoric aside, the Americans did not particularly relish the prospect of war with the United Kingdom. The British felt much the same way about the United States. Thus, as responsible nations do, both parties sat down and negotiated a treaty to settle matters to their mutual satisfaction. The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 provided that:

neither the one nor the other will ever obtain or maintain for itself any exclusive control over the said ship canal; agreeing that neither will ever erect or maintain any fortifications commanding the same or in the vicinity thereof, or occupy, or fortify, or colonize, or assume or exercise any dominion over Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Mosquito coast, or any part of Central America; nor will either make use of any protection which either affords or may afford, or any alliance which either teas or may have, to or with any State or people, for the purpose of erecting or maintaining any such fortifications, or of occupying, fortifying, or colonizing Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Mosquito coast, or any part of Central America, or of assuming or exercising dominion over the same

Both nations saw a canal in Nicaragua’s future and agreed not to seize control of it, either directly or by conniving in with local governments to the same end. The United States had long wanted a neutral canal and the British had little reason to object, since a neutral canal would suit their shipping just fine. But just to make sure, the treaty also provided

Vessels of the United States or Great Britain traversing the said canal shall, in case of war between the contracting parties, be exempted from blockade, detention, or capture by either of the belligerents; and this provision shall extend to such a distance from the two ends of the said canal as may hereafter be found expedient to establish.

Secretary of State John M. Clayton

Secretary of State John M. Clayton

Further guarantees went out that neither nation would try to seize the canal, or any operations engaged in constructing one. They would support ports at either end. They intended the treaty as a statement of general principles as well as one specific to the Nicaragua route. They agreed to encourage other nations to sign on to similar guarantees and promised to give them the same privileges that American and British shipping would enjoy.

The British had seized part of the Mosquito Coast in 1848, but once the Americans contented themselves with only half of Mexico, they pulled back. The UK claimed a vague protectorate over the Mosquito Coast and its Miskito Indians, but in reality the port at the Caribbean terminus of the Nicaragua route, Greytown, governed itself. That status quo suited the Americans and their interpretation of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty well enough.

The British took a turn at the expansionist role by establishing a crown colony over some islands in the Bay of Honduras in 1852. This aggravated prior disagreement over the Mosquito Coast protectorate. The Americans thought the treaty required the British to withdraw entirely and at once. The British read it as requiring withdraw if and when someone started building a canal and regardless of that viewed the Bay Islands as an extension of Belize. The United States accepted the British claim to Belize, as British Honduras, after all. Here London at least pushed against the status quo and the United States found itself defending more or less the existing order. The aggressor over Cuba became the defender on the other side of the Caribbean.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection, Part One

John Slidell

John Slidell

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

In revisiting the Cuba filibusters, I dropped one thread of the narrative that I should pick back up. Back in May of 1854, Louisiana’s John Slidell stood in the Senate and presented a resolution that the Congress should give Franklin Pierce the power to set aside the Neutrality Acts and generally tell John A. Quitman to go on his merry way. He did so in support of a like resolution by the state legislature that appointed him and on the grounds that the British had a conspiracy (parts 1, 2, 3, 4) with the Spanish to Africanize the island and turn Cuba into a base from which to harass American shipping and foment servile insurrection in the South. Slidell’s resolution did not win the approval of the Congress, even after Pierce asked for extraordinary powers relating to Cuba later on in August.

All of this leaves unanswered why Congress did not grant Pierce those powers. The same Congress assented to at least a reduced form of the Gadsden Purchase (parts 1, 2, 3) so it did not have a dogmatic opposition to territorial expansion. Pierce ran on an expansionist platform and promised more land in his inaugural address. Everybody in 1852 expected the Democracy to pick up where it left off in 1848 and continue painting the map red, white, and blue. Certainly the Kansas-Nebraska backlash complicated those efforts, but at least some Northerners would happily sign on to more American territory still. Most everyone believed that the United States had some kind of natural destiny to dominate the continent.

Cornelius Vanderbilt

Cornelius Vanderbilt

What happened? Nicaragua happened. As gentle readers might recall (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), few people wrote home from Nicaragua to comment on its remarkable stability and strong government. Internal divisions and rugged terrain did it no favors on those fronts. Yet Nicaragua sat astride a quick route across the Central American isthmus and thus drew the intense interest of major commercial powers like the United States and the United Kingdom keen on skipping the long haul around South America to reach the Pacific. A steamer line already ran down Nicaragua’s San Juan river to Lake Nicaragua and from there wagons and stagecoaches took goods and people the few miles to the Pacific coast. Cornelius Vanderbilt set up a steamer route between New York and the Pacific using Nicaragua to get people to California for the gold rush and his Accessory Transit Company continued to operate that route.

The United States thus had an obvious interest in Nicaragua. The United Kingdom had ill-defined claims to various parts of Central America, including British Honduras (now Belize) and the adjacent Mosquito Coast (now the Caribbean coast of Honduras and Nicaragua). Those claims overlapped with both the Nicaraguan isthmus route and the oft-proposed canal to make a direct sea connection to the Pacific. The Americans very much did not want the British to dominate an eventual canal through their control of its eastern terminus, a prospect made still more dreadful by various bouts of anglophobia in the American political class.

That anglophobia had some informing it. The British had moved into the Mosquito Coast when it looked like the United States might take larger sections of Mexico than it in fact did. The British guarantees to Spain over Cuba fit in here too, as did British efforts to deny the United States a naval base in the modern Dominican Republic, British efforts to preserve Hawaiian independence, British protests over a commercial convention with Ecuador, and real and perceived past efforts to establish some kind of protectorate over Texas. It looked very much like Albion intended to contain the United States and deny it its geographic, racial, political, and religious destiny.

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.