From the Pens of Filibusters, Part Six

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From the Pens of Filibusters, Part Five

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

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

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

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

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

John Slidell

John Slidell

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

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

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

From the Pens of Filibusters, Part Three

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

From the Pens of Filibusters: parts 1, 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Pens of Filibusters, Part Two

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

From the Pens of Filibusters: part 1

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

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

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

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

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

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

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

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

That ruled out taking the Cuba by conventional war.

From the Pens of Filibusters, Part One

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

In all I’ve written about Cuba filibusters, I think that I’ve repeatedly characterized their motivations, but never actually dug down and quoted the men themselves on what they saw in the island. Partly that’s from my not having access to their papers, or even reliable access to period newspapers, but I do have fairly good access to DeBow’s Review, thanks to Google and the University of Michigan. Longtime readers might remember the Review from my series on the diseases of slaves, as invented by Samuel A. Cartwright.

In the mid-nineteenth century, James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow published one of the South’s notable periodicals. When he opened his pages to you, your words found large audiences. In November of 1854, after Pierce had given up on filibustering and the same month that Marcy dressed down Soulé in the wake of the electoral catastrophe that Nebraska worked on the Democracy, DeBow opened those pages to Samuel R. Walker.

Who? Not the Walker from Lower California or Nicaragua. Quitman did have that Walker, William, on his side briefly. He also had a Robert Walker, James K. Polk’s Secretary of the Treasury, offering him money. Samuel R. Walker had been with Quitman for a while. He went to Washington in July, after Pierce’s anti-filibuster proclamation, to sound out the administration and received word from Jefferson Davis and Pierce himself that if Quitman went to Cuba, the United States would not cut him loose and see the filibusters rot in Spanish prisons. After that, in September, Walker sailed to Cuba and found a local revolutionary for Quitman to build connections with. But things had turned against the filibusters by November and Walker’s article, Cuba and the South, has a bit of last-ditch pleading about it.

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

That said, Walker, identified by the editors as “an intelligent Citizen of New-Orleans” who “expresses the views of a large part of the Cuban sympathizers”, opened with a bang:

Believing from my heart that the question of Cuban independence is one of momentous import to the people of this Union-the most important in result to the world-and to the South, a question freighted with the issue of life and death, and willing to contribute in directing to this subject the attention of gentlemen of our own State, and those sister States linked to us by a common destiny, you will, I am sure, pardon me that I have chosen this mode of communication.

The scales have at last fallen from the eyes of our citizens as to the scenes being enacted near us, and we begin to regard with serious attention the measures which threaten disaster to our own land, and endanger that interest which is to us, in this portion of the Union, a vital one. We behold how the insidious action of England and France, having in view the emancipation of the slaves in Cuba, has at last, by an outstanding pressure, impossible to be resisted by the weak and enervate government of Spain, forced her to the bold and destructive measures which are now being consummated.

John Slidell

John Slidell

Spain can’t hold up for slavery, guys. England and France are leaning on her. John Slidell told the Senate that (parts 1234) and now Samuel Walker would tell everyone. We live in momentous times and the eyes of the world rest upon us. Will the Union, the world’s greatest hope, endure or will Spain’s Cuban emancipation snuff the torch of liberty? Not merely the destiny of Cuba, or even that of the slaveholding states, hangs on the issue. Rather instead, the future of mankind hangs in the balance.

When period sources go on like this, one must always wonder a bit about their sincerity. That said, given the great personal horror that emancipation presented, they really did fear that freedom meant four million Nat Turners set free to rape, pillage, and burn across the entire South. Their fortunes, their lives, the lives of their loved ones, all would die in the fires of emancipation. Possibly worse, the freedmen might rise up and reduce the former masters to slavery. Anybody would want to avoid that future and might take drastic steps to do so. We know their fears didn’t come to pass, but they did not.

The intensely parochial idea that the world’s future rested on the United States should make us roll our eyes. It certainly did for plenty of people then, mostly in Europe. But as much as the lurid visions of slave revolt animated nineteenth century slaveholders, so too did a great many nineteenth century Americans in both sections really believe that they lived in the last, best hope for humanity in a world filled with tyrants.

A Diplomatic Offensive on Cuba

 

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Filibuster and former governor of Mississippi John A. Quitman missed whatever window he had to snatch Cuba away from Spain. The administration that once shook his hand and wished him well turned on him. The Spanish reinforced the island. He lacked the men, ships, and weapons to go when the prime chance came. That brings the story to the end of 1854, but neglects a few relevant points on the diplomatic front. When Marcy went word along for Soulé to work on buying Cuba, he probably did not have high hopes. Any diplomatic effort involving Pierre Soulé probably did not deserve the description. Even aside that, the Spanish did not really want to sell.

But maybe the United States could lean on Spain a little. The holders of Spanish bonds would want their money back eventually. The United States could, perhaps, find those bond holders and get them to make noise about repayment. That could come coupled with an American proposal to open its treasury for Spain’s debts in exchange for the island’s independence. What happened after independence, who could say? The Spanish and the Great Powers would no longer be concerned directly, or so one could imagine, and so if Cuba somehow fell into Florida’s back pocket who could object?

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

While the odds might seem long, and we know how things did turn out, as late as August Pierce appeared to think he still had a chance of getting the island. On the first of the month, Pierce answered a resolution of the Senate asking how relations with Spain had progressed since his message to the House back on March 15. Pierce recapped the situation then: Cuba sat astride American shipping and its piratical officials insulted the national flag and honor with impunity. That could not stand. How did things look now? More of the same, but Pierce did have some startling new information that he could not possibly have known in March:

Meanwhile information, not only reliable in its nature, but of an official character, was received to the effect that preparation was making within the limits of the United States by private individuals under military organization for a descent upon the island of Cuba with a view to wrest that colony from the dominion of Spain.

He just now found out? Not likely, unless Franklin Pierce somehow missed the major activities of his Cabinet toward Cuba the previous summer. But things had changed a bit since then as the administration shifted to a less lawless policy:

International comity, the obligations of treaties, and the express provisions of law alike required, in my judgment, that all the constitutional power of the Executive should be exerted to prevent the consummation of such a violation of positive law and of that good faith on which mainly the amicable relations of neighboring nations must depend. In conformity with these convictions of public duty, a proclamation was issued to warn all persons not to participate in the contemplated enterprise and to invoke the interposition in this behalf of the proper officers of the Government. No provocation whatever can justify private expeditions of hostility against a country at peace with the United States. The power to declare war is vested by the Constitution in Congress, and the experience of our past history leaves no room to doubt that the wisdom of this arrangement of constitutional power will continue to be verified whenever the national interest and honor shall demand a resort to ultimate measures of redress. Pending negotiations by the Executive, and before the action of Congress, individuals could not be permitted to embarrass the operations of the one and usurp the powers of the other of these depositaries of the functions of Government.

Pierce concluded that he had nothing to add to his request for special powers with regard to Cuba. He still wanted them. At the time, the administration floated sending a special commission to Spain to negotiate over Cuba’s future. Such a commission would imply that the administration repudiated Soulé, who had until then been the point man for American ambition toward Cuba. Such mixed messages would do little to help the effort. Nor did the failure of Slidell’s motion to suspend the Neutrality Acts. Congress declined to give Pierce those special powers he aspired to.

By mid-August, Pierce seems to have had enough. The Nebraska storm continued to grow. A North enraged over losing the Great Plains would take a new slave state in the form of Cuba as yet another insult and act of treachery. They voted for Pierce to have peace and sectional comity. Now he leaned so far South it must have looked like he wore the Gulf of Mexico like a hat. Expansion might have been a winning strategy for James K. Polk. Nobody wanted to give back the Mexican Cession. But the poisoned fruit of Manifest Destiny had become all too clear in the years since. Hadn’t Pierce done enough already to ruin his party north of the Mason-Dixon line?

Stopping Quitman

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

The word went out to Madrid that Franklin Pierce intended a go at buying Cuba, but the United States reserved the possibility of taking the island through some other means involving men with guns. At the start of June, Pierce himself issued a proclamation against filibustering. John A. Quitman, the Cuba filibuster who Pierce surely had in mind, largely ignored it. Having to post a bond against his obedience to the Neutrality Acts only made him reschedule. Some men associated with him ran guns to Cuba, got caught, and the new Captain-General made a lethal example of their leader. But Quitman had piles on piles of men, guns, and ships. A preliminary loss did not mean permanent defeat.

Except that Quitman did not, except in his dreams, have anything like the million dollars, eighty-five thousand guns, ninety cannon, or fifty thousand men. His predilection for delay cost him the most ideal opportunity to strike, but his actual force never matched the hype. He really could have used more men. We know this because the Cuban Junta in New York eventually decided that he had taken them for a ride and as the filibustering effort descended into infighting, published a report on what happened in the New York papers. Allen Nevins summarizes it:

the deluded Cuban patriots and their friends had spent more than $330,000 without anything to show for it but bafflement and scandal. The press had talked of an enthusiastic leadership, of coffers with a million or more, of an army of fifty thousand; but the truth was that the great enterprise had never enlisted more than 2.500 men, that it could not arrange to transport even that many to Cuba, and that it was constantly crippled by internal quarreling.

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Quitman certainly dallied but, unlike a latter-day general notorious to Civil War aficionados, his case of the slows had ample justification. The filibusters could have done better, but so could their friends in high places. When Pierce issued his proclamation, John Slidell quite reasonably took it as a repudiation of his own initiative to set aside the Neutrality Acts and let Quitman loose. The Senate Foreign Relations committee had come quite close to recommending that Pierce have the power to suspend the laws as Slidell asked, only for the president to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He blamed Jefferson Davis for turning the administration against him and reached out to friends in Mississippi to investigate making Quitman one of the state’s senators in revenge and for the defense of Southern rights.

Senator Quitman remained a dream. Filibuster Quitman lived right then and there. The president persisted against the latter and finally put him out of commission for good. Quitman’s efforts, from a certain perspective, could make Spain less willing to sell Cuba. More pressingly, crackdowns on and reinforcement of the island made it a far harder prize to steal than in years previous. Quitman’s tiny army almost surely could not beat the Spanish now, and Pierce apparently gave Quitman proof of the new Spanish defenses in person sometime in the winter of 1854. Even if Soulé got lucky and started a revolution, or rode one to success, in Madrid the Spanish already had boots on the ground enough to stop Quitman despite any revolutionary chaos reigned in the mother country.

So did Pierce really intend to end Quitman’s efforts with his initial proclamation? Perhaps, but Quitman did not take that as decisive. The fact that he no longer had a realistic chance to take Cuba by force really sealed the deal. Whatever his intentions back at the start of June, 1854, his meeting with the filibuster in the winter accomplished the end.

Did Pierce Intend to Shut Quitman Down?

 

 

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Marcy’s new instructions to Pierre Soulé told him to try buying Cuba. The Spanish, however, would probably not sell. In that case, the fiery French revolutionary should turn toward doing what he could to see Cuba achieve its independence. One can read that as the end of the Pierce administration’s policy if first attempting to steal the island, but in light of Marcy’s intended Plan B still involving some kind of theft, the difference seems more in terms of how much political cover the administration wanted while pursuing the same ends than a real departure from past strategy. Certainly Soulé got up to more adventures in Spain to that end, just as he had before.

In writing about those, I dropped the other thread from Friday. Pierce and others cast John A. Quitman as the Carmen Sandiego in this drama. He and his thousands would sweep into Cuba, knock some Spaniards over the heads, and slip the island into a back pocket before legging it back to the United States. But the day after the Kansas-Nebraska Act cleared his desk, Pierce issued a proclamation declaring his intent to zealously enforce the Neutrality Acts against all comers. That meant trouble for Quitman. Past filibusters found themselves caught by the US Navy and hauled back to port to face prosecution. Quitman himself beat the rap in such a prosecution once before only because the jury in filibuster-happy New Orleans refused to convict the guilty.

This could not have come at a worse time. Pierce’s agent, sent to Cuba to investigate the Africanization program, had just come back with news that the Captain-General really meant to follow through. Emboldened by his success in the Black Warrior affair, he seemed bent on what the agent considered a bloody race war. The South could scarcely summon up more panic than it then had over Cuba, with visions of Nat Turners murdering them in their beds. John Slidell’s proposal to spend those encumbering Neutrality Acts came to Quitman with news that the administration had his back. Quitman pronounced himself all but ready, waiting just until he had three thousand men, some extra cash, and an armed steamer. He had a man working on getting the steamer. What happened?

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Maybe Pierce imagined that Quitman and his filibustering would only hasten the Africanization program along. Maybe he decided that he had sacrificed enough of his party’s support in the North over Kansas and the South should take the win with satisfaction rather than demanding a second. But Basil Rauch points out in The American Interest in Cuba, 1848-1855 that Pierce’s proclamation lacked the fire of past declarations from his Whig predecessors. Pierce had a habit of making commitments that he then did not follow through on, even if he did mean what he wrote. Could this be one of those?

One of Quitman’s confidants, concerned about the apparent split between filibuster and president, wrote to Jefferson Davis, Pierce’s Secretary of War and sometime power behind the throne. Did he really want to risk the wrath of the Southern Democracy? That letter prompted a meeting between Davis, Slidell, James Mason (of Fugitive Slave Act fame), and Stephen Douglas where they leaned on Pierce until he agreed to tell Marcy to send along to the District Attorney in New Orleans news that the administration would act soon and swiftly on Cuba. Pierce had it all tied up and did not need Quitman’s freelance help, thanks.

Quitman did not get wind of all of that and attributed his subsequent woes to an overzealous judge that made him and two other filibuster principals post a bond on their good behavior with regard to the Neutrality Acts for nine months. But even that did not stop Quitman. The federal marshal who briefly took him into custody over the matter also attended a feast in Quitman’s honor and offered the toast. Reading this as, at most, a sign that the Cabinet split over him Quitman resolved to keep on preparing while he waited out his bond. The administration’s public clamp down only raised his stock, with Northern Mexico and future Nicaragua filibuster William Walker signing on and the Memphis Whig reporting that Quitman had a million dollars in the bank, twelve ships, eighty-five thousand guns, ninety cannon, and as many as fifty thousand men. Read those numbers with some skepticism; the entire United States peacetime army didn’t amount to fifty thousand.

Hyperbole or no, the most Quitman seems to have done is postpone his expedition until the spring of 1855. Men associated with him went to Cuba in October of 1854 with a shipment of arms to help a revolutionary group already present. Sweeping in to aid a domestic revolution had long been Quitman’s preferred excuse. But the Spanish caught on, caught the men, and the Captain-General who replaced the Marqués de la Pezuela executed their leader.

The End of Cuban Adventures

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

The British Plot Against America: parts 1, 2, 3, 4

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

The conniving British, with their French allies, would turn Cuba into an emancipated hell from which they could interrupt American shipping and destabilize slavery in the South. They proved it with their involvement in Soulé’s duel. They showed it in their longstanding abolitionist foreign policy. They further demonstrated as much in their firm adherence to protecting Spain’s ownership of the island. Furthermore, they had tried the same scheme before with Texas. The Spanish, likewise, proved quite willing to let the British do it and embraced potential emancipation as one of their main weapons against American filibustering.

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

On the American side, a president who openly advocated for expansion sat in the White House. He had close dealings with filibuster John A. Quitman. He stacked his Cabinet with men who supported expansion at the expense of Mexico and Spain. He had just, via James Gadsden, cut a deal to get still more of Mexico added to the United States. He sent another devoted Cuba annexationist off to Madrid to represent the nation and connive to get the island. In every way, the administration seemed primed to make a move.

The Black Warrior affair gave Franklin Pierce his opening. The Louisiana legislature and John Slidell suggested a method: free Quitman from fear of prosecution and let him go take the island. The filibuster could neatly slip through the web of international entanglements. He and his private band had an open invitation from Cuban exiles and, despite their close ties to the administration did not serve it in any official role. Pierce could have told the world that he had no responsibility for the actions of independent Americans abroad. If the then-independent Cuba wanted to join the Union, that matter concerned only the United States and Cuba. If the British and French might object, and they had before, they would confine themselves to rhetorical complaints while their war with Russia raged and find the island securely in American hands before they had the ships and men free to contest it.

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

With all the stars so aligned, how on Earth did Cuba not fall right into American hands? The press had cooled on Cuba since the heady days of January, but wars would sell papers. James K. Polk engineered a profoundly controversial war with Mexico and enough of the nation fell in line, even if dealing with the spoils of his war gravely strained the Union. Antislavery men objected then, as they did now. If they had more of a movement behind them, Pierce had proved able to deploy Democratic party discipline and patronage against them over Kansas-Nebraska and that crisis touched far more deeply on the domestic concerns of the white North than a tropical island with its future already decided.

Yet American forces did not set foot uninvited and unwelcome on Cuba until June, 1898. What happened? We don’t know for sure, but already in April Marcy sent Soulé new instructions to try buying Cuba rather than waiting for Quitman to steal it. By that point, the Kansas-Nebraska Act had cleared the Senate but still faced the harder battle in the House. If the South could all unite behind securing Missouri’s slavery on its exposed western side, it might not have the same will to defend filibusters who wanted to bring in not just new slave territory, but territory largely spoken for and which could depress the value of American slaves and compete with its higher yields under the protection of American tariffs. Furthermore, filibustering had a whiff of disrepute about it. Would Quitman prove a loyal American or would he decide that he preferred to make himself king of Cuba?

William L. Marcy

William L. Marcy

If Cuba’s overthrow did result in a war with, Spain if not with Great Britain or France, the United States would need a competent navy to wage that war. In the spring of 1854, the United States Navy had exactly one top of the line warship. That ship stood ready for any eventuality…in East Asian waters. It found itself there as part of Commodore Perry’s force that convinced the Japanese, at gunpoint, to open their ports. It would be no help in any Caribbean war and, unlike in 1898, Washington lacked even the means to swiftly dispatch orders for it to attack the Spanish Philippines.

With all of these concerns, the fact that Caleb Cushing and Jefferson Davis often dominated Pierce did not quite hold in the face of a divided Cabinet. Cushing wanted Cuba badly, to the point of war, but Pierce’s Secretary of State, William L. Marcy, did not. With the Kansas-Nebraska fight still raging, Pierce reserved his political capital for the domestic struggle. Soulé got his new instructions and Pierce sent out a proclamation avowing that he would zealously enforce the Neutrality Laws against any ambitious filibusters. Absent the domestic battle over slavery in Kansas, his decision might very plausibly have gone the other way.

The British Plot Against America, Part Four

John Slidell

John Slidell (D-LA)

Parts 1, 2, 3

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

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

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

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

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

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

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

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

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