A Letter from Charles Francis Adams, Part 2

Charles Francis Adams



Charles Francis Adams, like Charles Sumner, joined the Free Soil party at its formation. He and Sumner became friends during their mutual estrangement from the Whig Party. That friendship came just when Sumner alienated many of his previous social circle and won ostracism from much of Boston high society for his increasingly outspoken antislavery politics. Now Sumner stood poised for election to the Senate, but dissenters in the Free Soil-Democracy coalition put forward Adams’ name in his place. They reasoned that in a few years their party might achieve unaided dominance of Massachusetts politics and damned the coalition for its corrupting potential. Better to either let the Senate seat remain vacant until their triumphant solo victory or align with the Whigs and elect a solid antislavery man. Sumner’s infamous devotion to the issue made him solid enough for most, but he had readily quit the Whigs where Adams maintained connections within his old party. As such, Adams made the ideal candidate for men already set on a Whig antislavery coalition for much the same reasons that made Sumner ideal for a Democratic one.

Adams agreed, declaring that John Palfrey’s proposal completely won him over. The dictates of conscience and duty aligned for it sufficiently to draw him out of his brief political retirement. Indeed, as he wrote to the Boston Atlas,

the questions of casuistry presented to the Free Soil party are in my mind so wholly clear as to admit no difference of opinion in the determination of them among honest men.

Every decent Free Soil man should threat about the Democracy using and abusing their movement. They should all fear that the Democrats they agreed to prefer for statewide office might turn on them and serve the nation’s more proslavery party. That said,

I have as much confidence in the purity of purpose of the party which which I act, as I ever had; and though I may not agree with the majority in the use of means to attain an end, yet I fully belive [sic] the end we mean to reach is one and the same-the preponderance of the principles of Freedom in the National policy.

Robert Winthrop (Whig-MA)

To this point, Adams has sounded entirely in Palfrey’s vein. He spends most of the length of his letter endorsing his fellow’s program and motives. One could read it as Adams accepting the presumptive nomination. He then acknowledged the appeal of an antislavery Senator of Sumner’s stripe, calling his friend “one of our ablest and most honest and most inflexible advocates.” Adams felt a “temptation” to overlook all Palfrey’s worries. So he did:

Most especially should I be reconciled to every thing short of a dissolution of the party into old line democracy, if it could ring the political knell of one, whose loose private and wavering public career has done more, in my humble judgment, to shake the principles and unsettle the highest policy of puritan New England, than that of any man known to its history.

In short, Adams would like to take a place in the Senate and use his power their to defeat slavery. He worried about the Democrats turning on his party. But he trusted Sumner’s convictions and he believed the risks of coalition worth the gain of deposing such a pliable tool of the slave power as Robert Winthrop.

A Letter from Charles Francis Adams, Part 1

Charles Francis Adams

Readers of The Liberator for January 17, 1851 could turn immediately from John Palfrey’s argument against maintaining the Free Soil-Democratic coalition in Massachusetts to a letter from another prominent Free Soiler, Charles Francis Adams. Palfrey endorsed Stephen Phillips for governor on his proposed ticket, but left the nomination for senator open to an unspecified party man. Most of Palfrey’s and The Liberator’s readers could probably guess he had Adams in mind. According to Charles Sumner’s biographer, David Donald, Adams thought he had a fair chance at becoming a Senator with Free Soil and Whig votes as well. If any missed the implication, then William Lloyd Garrison printed a letter from Adams immediately following Palfrey’s circular.

Adams opened by playing innocent. Nineteenth century politicians should not look hungry for office, but rather approach it when summoned out of a sense of duty. The son and grandson of presidents protested that no one should even care about “the private opinions of a retired individual”. But since the editors of the Boston Atlas, from which Garrison copied the piece, put his name out there Adams felt he ought to set the record straight. Playing disinterested statesman to the hilt, he declared

In all the trials to which individuals in any way connected with the Free Soil movement have been subjected during the years that I have had any share in them, it has been a rule laid down by me for the regulation of my own conduct, never voluntarily to place myself in them, excepting when called upon by my sense of public duty.

Adams didn’t want to take part in politics, except when he did. It had cost him “friends with whom I had for several years cordially acted” when he opposed Robert Winthrop’s bid for Congress back in 1846. Given Winthrop now stood much as he had then, as a conservative Whig, raising that memory had particular resonance even apart from placing Adams in the founding struggles of Massachusetts Free Soil. He then progressed through his opposition to Zachary Taylor for the presidency in 1848, when the Conscience Whigs broke with the state and national party. Seeing Taylor

unattended with a single pledge to sustain the policy of freedom […] I consented to be driven from the associations, from which, I had consulted my own feelings and the natural resentment which rough treatment occasions, I should have parted some time before. And just so has it been of late.

John Palfrey

In other words, Adams didn’t leave Whiggery. Whiggery left Adams, and that in a particularly unkind way. His old affections kept him with the party for too long, he saw with the benefit of hindsight. Now duty moved Adams again:

My sterling and respected friend, John G. Palfrey, took a different view of his duty, and presented his reasoning to me in a manner in which I could not, neither did I seek to avoid an opinion. It commanded my assent, and I bowed to the ascendancy of moral truth, recognizing in this as in preceding cases, the force that principle of conscience in judging political questions, for which it has been the pleasure of those opposed to us to make us a bye-word and a reproach.

Adams didn’t want any part of political advancement. But his good friend Palfrey had such a strong argument that it dragged the retiree, who hadn’t held an office since his Massachusetts State Senate term ended in 1845, back into politics. A skeptical observer might note that Charles Adams also found duty dragged him into serving as Martin Van Buren’s running mate on the Free Soil ticket in 1848. Adams had certainly left public office, but his retirement from politics looks to have lasted about a year.


John G. Palfrey’s Case Against Coalition, Part 2

John Palfrey


John Palfrey wrote a circular letter to the Free Soil members of the incoming Massachusetts legislature urging them to abandon plans to coalition with the Bay State’s Democrats. Together they may have won at the polls, but to continue joined with the party of southern radicalism risked seeing their coalition partners fall into line with the national party. For that matter, Whigs like Palfrey had quit their old party for supporting a slaveholder. They could hardly reject Zachary Taylor as a slaveholder and then accept George Boutwell, who willingly shared a party with John C. Calhoun and James K. Polk. Staying pure might even help them in the upcoming elections, but if they must coalition then their old Whig friends would prove far more reliable partners.

Giving up the coalition risked things that the Free Soilers considered justly won, though. The Democrats didn’t care as much about the open Senate seat and agreed to accept whoever the free soil men nominated…or so they said. Governor Boutwell would take his seat first and minds might change after the Party of Jackson got what they wanted. To prove the point, he need only look at another schemer against Charles Sumner’s election:

It seems to be understood that a prominent member of the party, Mr. Cushing, would actively oppose the scheme; and it would undoubtedly be opposed, with the utmost vigor, with influences brought to bear on individuals, both through the present patronage of the government, dispensed by Mr. Webster, and through the expected patronage of the government of Mr. Cass. Is it very unlikely that one-half of the arrangement would remain unexecuted?

Caught between Caleb Cushing and Lewis Cass, both Democrats, and Daniel Webster’s wing of Whiggery, the free soilers might not get the seat at all. If the Massachusetts legislature couldn’t muster a majority for a candidate, the Bay State would go without a senator until they did. That may sound far-fetched, but difficulties of that sort ultimately convinced the state legislatures to ratify the Seventeenth Amendment, stripping them of their senator-appointing power. If some coalition could muster that majority, the seat might go to some compromiser of Webster’s stripe or a pliant Democrat. Either outcome would serve the cause of slavery.

Looking at that possibility, Palfrey thought the Free Soil party had no chance to get both a governor and a senator they could live with by going along with the coalition plan. Instead, they should strike for both offices:

I would vote for Mr. Phillips for Governor, and some Free Soiler for Senator. I think there si a fair prospect that you would eventually choose Mr. Phillips without any bargain, and with the help of the votes from other parties-such is the high estimation in which he is held. And that would be a great triumph.

Worse case, Palfrey expected the senate seat to remain open rather than go to an enemy of freedom. That would only endure until the next General Court session, by which point he hoped for a solid majority:

Old parties seem designed to be much loosened during the coming year; and we should go before the people with clean hands, occupying blameless and lofty ground, and with a claim to their confidence founded on having shown by our steadfastness that we really value our principles, and meant all that we had said.

Just to make it clear to everyone that Palfrey’s “some Free Soiler” did not look back at him in the mirror, he disclaimed any aspiration to the Senate for himself. He came before them as a disinterested public man, ready to support anybody of sound principles. Those principles did not include cooperating with the Democracy, which ruled Charles Sumner and his three backbones right out.

John G. Palfrey’s Case Against Coalition, Part 1

John Palfrey

The election of 1850 left the Free Soil-Democrat coalition in control of the Massachusetts legislature. That gave them the power to name its senator and the respective caucuses decided to nominate Charles Sumner. That should make for smooth sailing, but the coalition had not negotiated a full fusion and remained full of men with prior party affiliations that made them uneasy in coalition with prior enemies. Furthermore, as experienced political hands they had a full range of personal grudges and ambitions. A Free Soiler named John Palfrey, a historian and Unitarian minister in addition to his political career, objected to Sumner and the coalition in a confidential circular letter to the incoming Free Soil members of Massachusetts’ General Court. His confidential letter appears in The Liberator for January 17, 1851.

Palfrey opens by explaining that he didn’t really mean to sneak around behind anyone’s back. They should read him as a fellow traveler with concerns, not trying to influence anybody or puff himself up. Then he got to it, arguing that nothing in the coalition agreement with the Democrats required Free Soilers to continue working in concert with them now that the election had come and gone. The parties had every right under that arrangement to set their own courses, however their consciences may dictate.

I know of no existing compact or understanding, to restrain the free action of either. The Post, the chief organ of the Democracy, disavows everything of the kind; and I understand that the language of most of the principal country papers of that party is the same.

In other words, even the Democrats didn’t think they had some kind of open-ended deal coalition deal. Therefore, Free Soil men should not feel “any obligation of good faith” to support Boutwell for the Governor’s post. They had in Stephen Phillips a Conscience Whig of eminent qualifications, “thoroughly sympathizing with them in the momentous objects of their party organization” who would do far better as a governor. Boutwell, as a Democrat, would feel pressure to align with his national party and turn proslavery on the coalition.

On the other hand,

The Whigs have in past times talked as well for freedom as ourselves. Some of them talk so still. We have said that the difference between us and them was, that they did not act up to their professions, because, by voting for pro-slavery men for high office, they directed their political actions against liberty. If the same way we cease to act up to our professions, will not the difference between them and us appear to the people to be done away? and shall we not lose the people’s confidence? and shall we not deserve to lose it?

A politician of any stripe could make a similar argument. Both modern parties have adherents, myself included, who complain about members in name only. Whigs like Palfrey had quit Whiggery when the party nominated Zachary Taylor for the presidency. To support Boutwell risked doing themselves just what they had damned the national party for.

Hale vs. Pierce: Scheduling the Civil War

John Hale

John Hale

John Hale, New Hampshire’s free soil senator, castigated Franklin Pierce. That Scourge of God and vulgar demagogue, he told the Senate, impugned the good character of men of such exalted station that the President proved unworthy to tie their shoes. They had stood for a free Kansas, with fair elections. They had avowed the president’s supposed convictions and declared for the Kansans to set the territory’s course. Franklin Pierce had done all in his power to ensure every decision about Kansas’ future fell to armed mobs from Missouri.

Hale made no apology for the harsh words. He would

be restrained by no consideration from speaking what I believe to be the truth.

Lest anybody thought Hale had something nastier to say. The Senator took being called an enemy of the Constitution seriously indeed. Hale also thought the charge absurd, but an absurd charge can still offend. If Pierce wanted to pick a fight over Kansas, then Hale stood ready. He could not imagine a better cause, at least in early 1856. 

In declaring that the battle might begin then and there, on the floor of the Senate, Hale needed only look forward to the most likely of events. Nineteenth century Americans organized territories with the expectation that they would soon seek admission to the Union as states. The free state movement already had a plan to try it. The proslavery side soon would do the same. Thus:

If, by the illegal violence of the men who have gone over into Kansas, and undertaken to establish slavery there, they shall come here and ask for admission into the Union with a slave constitution, and Kansas will be rejected, the President tells us that is the most favorable aspect in which the question can be presented. That will be the issue, and, if it be decided against slavery, we are threatened with civil war.

Hale might sound overheated to us, but the admission of a new state had brought the nation into crisis twice in living memory. His formula of a slave state rejected by Congress recalls the Missouri Controversy, but we could just as easily point to California seeking admission as a free state. The two greatest sectional clashes of the antebellum era to date both began on the same road.

All this bellicosity required disclaimers. Hale didn’t want people to think him a fanatic. He didn’t welcome a civil war, though he confessed that at times he wished one would come to get it all over with. Should the war finally erupt, Hale anticipated it would have one good effect:

it would learn those men who are constantly talking about the dissolution of the Union a lesson which neither they, nor their children’s children, would ever forget.

They learned two lessons, in fact. The nation would not stand for rebellion and would put one down with great force. It would also let them have nearly everything short of slavery if they continued the war by other means for long enough.

Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor

Of course, Franklin Pierce would not make the best wartime president; he made for a nearly catastrophic peacetime president. Better, Hale thought, to wait:

If the attempt at disunion were made wish such a man as General Jackson, or General Taylor in the Presidential chair, and it were repressed promptly, as it would be, people would say “Oh, it was his great military power, his reputation, his popularity which did it.” God knows they could not say it of this President.

The gallery rang with laughter.


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.

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.

The Dixon Amendment

Robert Morse Taliaferro Hunter (D-VA)

Robert Morse Taliaferro Hunter (D-VA)

Representative Phillip Phillips, a Democrat from Alabama, went to F Street to voice his objections to Stephen Douglas’ not quite complete repeal of the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery in the future Nebraska Territory. He spoke with Robert Hunter of Virginia, David Rice Atchison’s F Street housemate. Hunter in turn went to Atchison, who arranged a meeting with Douglas. That did not make Phillips any less opposed to Douglas’ soft repeal, but the men shared a party and he opted to work inside the party system to get what he wanted.

Over in the Senate, Kentucky Whig Archibald Dixon had no such scruples. Quite the opposite, he wanted fireworks to help prove to the South that Whiggery could be as safe for slavery as the Democracy. A discreet meeting that secured his objectives behind closed doors would not make for much of a campaign speech. The night of January 15, 1854, Dixon told his wife to fetch pen and paper and take dictation. Dixon would beat the Southern Democracy at its own game, exceeding F Street’s ambitions and daring them to go against him. Then he and his embattled fellow Whigs could go home with such a remarkable proslavery triumph that their disgruntled constituents would flock back to their banner.

The next day, Monday the 16th, Dixon went public that amendment:

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

Sec. 22. And be it further enacted, That so much of the 8th section of an act approved March 6, 1820, entitled “An act to authorize the people of the Missouri Territory to form a constitution and State government, and for the admission of such State into the Union on an equal footing with the original States, and to prohibit slavery in certain Territories” as declares “That in all that territory ceded by France to the United States, under the name of Louisiana, which lies north of 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude, slavery and involuntary servitude, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the parties shall have been duly convicted, shall be forever prohibited,” shall not be so construed as to apply to the Territory contemplated by this act, or to any other Territory of the United states; but that the citizens of the several States or Territories shall be at liberty to take and hold their slaves within any of the Territories of the United States, or of the states to be formed therefrom, as if the said act, entitled as aforesaid, and approved as aforesaid, had never been passed.

That bears a little unpacking. Essentially the amendment says that the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery is null and void not just in the future Kansas and Nebraska, but in the whole of the Louisiana purchase land from the northern border of modern Oklahoma all the way north to Canada and west to the Rockies, except for the portions of it already organized as free states. Then Dixon went one further and stretched the repeal everywhere a state government did not already exist, if a bit more ambiguously. That could leave slaveholders free to take their human property into the free soil of Oregon Territory, Washington Territory, and Minnesota Territory just as much as it permitted them to take slaves and slavery across the Missouri River.

John C. Breckinridge, then in the House but later a Vice-President, Senator, and the Lower South’s choice for President in 1860, wondered why no one had thought of such a thing before. His fellow Southern Democrats realized the danger if the Whigs really could pull off this kind of proslavery triumph. What could they dot, stand against it and let the Whigs do to them what they had done to the Whigs? No one wanted to go back to sharing much of the South instead of dominating it and might, if the Whigs could press the advantage, end up all but dead in the section. The proslavery caucus made the best they could of it by flocking to support the Dixon amendment. Clerical errors would satisfy them no longer.

Southern Moderates go Ultra

Phillip Phillips (D-AL)

Phillip Phillips (D-AL)

David Rice Atchison and the F Street Mess let Stephen Douglas partially off the hook. He didn’t get away with selling them an empty promise, but they would pretend along with him that they repealed the Missouri Compromise and let slavery into the Nebraska territory back in 1850. That gave Missouri slaveholders an opening to rush in, throw together a quick vote to institute slavery, and steal Nebraska away from the free soil hordes threatening to encircle the state. With F Street appeased, and victory so near less than a year before on far less congenial grounds, Douglas had to imagine the bill would sail through the Senate and House and arrive safely on Franklin Pierce’s desk for the expected signature. The Little Giant had the far right Senate patriarchs on his side. A few far left abolitionists could not kill the bill and most of the more moderate left wanted the railroad that it would facilitate. The North would howl a bit, but if it got over the Fugitive Slave Act then it could get over this.

But Douglas’ bill irritated others. Leaving the Missouri Compromise in place, if only on a technicality, sounded too much like leaving Mexican abolition in place in the Southwest. That technical, theoretical concession could swiftly turn into a real loss as it had with California. The Democrats’ Washington Sentinel, official printer for the Senate at a time when the job came with very lucrative patronage and thus went to party loyalists careful to keep with current orthodoxies, sounded the alarm on January 14. This new attack from the proslavery right came not from extremists, but more moderate Southerners less sanguine about the potential of a small group of slaveholders to filibuster and claim jump their way across the great plains. Phillip Phillips (D-AL), rose in the House to make that point and lobbied F Street for a full repeal of the Missouri Compromise.

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

The occupant of Henry Clay’s old seat, Kentucky’s Archibald Dixon, rose in the Senate on the same grounds. Far from a fire-eater, Dixon represented a species already endangered in 1854: the Southern Whig. The Texas and the Armistice had proved the Democracy far safer for slavery than Whiggery. Dixon wanted to get out ahead of the Democrats and revitalize his party while, of course, also securing his own political future. He argued that Clay’s first great compromise had laid an albatross on the nation by establishing the precedent for Congress deciding on slavery in the territories. The Armistice reversed that to the Union’s benefit and Dixon would go one step further and so banish slavery from the national discourse forever. The old order could come again.

In all of that, Dixon sat firmly in the tradition of nationally minded conservatives. Since the nation’s founding they preferred to defer solutions to a future generation and sweep unavoidable tensions under the rug. Men from Thomas Jefferson on down to Benton, Zachary Taylor, and Douglas himself had tried much the same but each compromise only provoked the backlash it aimed to avoid. Seward claimed, rather implausibly, after the fact that he put Dixon up to it in hopes of maneuvering the Democrats into damaging proslavery extremism and so provoking a potent pro-Compromise backlash. After going in a year from accepting the compromise of a generation to demanding its previously unthinkable overthrow, they hardly needed his help.

In earlier times, a Northern Whig of Seward’s stature might have gone the other way and dumped enough cold water on Dixon to save at least a scrap of the Missouri Compromise. A decade of anti-slavery politics had both alienated the two halves of Whiggery and made the Southern half too vulnerable for its Northern twin to moderate it any longer. Even if he wanted to, Seward couldn’t have restrained Dixon.

Stealing Cuba, Part Two

Narciso Lopez

Narciso López

James K. Polk’s plan to buy Cuba failed in the face of Spanish disinterest. Narciso López’s plan to steal the island away from Spain and then throw it under American protection, possibly with an eye to annexation, stalled out when Zachary Taylor got wind of it and sent the Navy to seize his ships.  But López refused to call it quits in September of 1849.

Realizing that most of his six hundred man army came from the southern United States, López decamped from his previous headquarters in New York City and set up shop in New Orleans where the local fire-eaters had long dreamed of making their city the center of a Caribbean empire for slavery. On the way there, López called on John A. Quitman, who we last met planning to break the Union.

The Armistice had yet to pass when the Cuban filibuster met the Mississippi governor. As a major general, Quitman led the assault on Mexico City and later served as its military governor. With just the right skill set, which had seen recent successful application, Quitman cut the perfect figure to lead López’s little army. López wanted him for the job and Quitman had at least some interest in it, but with the possible dissolution of the Union looming he didn’t want to leave someone else to take Mississippi out of the United States. He did, however, help López recruit and raise funds.

In May of 1850, López finally set sail from New Orleans amid much fanfare and with a wink and a nudge from the authorities. The expedition landed in northwest Cuba, where López seized the town of Cardenas and torched the governor’s mansion. López expected to spawn a popular uprising to take care of the rest. The revolutionaries stayed home and Spanish troops closed in. López and his army raced back to their ship and ingloriously fled to Key West just ahead of Spanish pursuit.

John A. Quitman, governor of Mississippi

John A. Quitman

Little things like failure and the prompt collapse of his force did not get in the way of the hero’s welcome the Deep South rolled out for López. Southern Senators agitated for Cuba in Washington. DeBow’s Review imagined an America with dominion over all Mexico, South America, and the West Indies. Unmoved, the Taylor administration indicted López, Quitman, and their confederates for breaking the Neutrality Act.

Caught up in secession fever, Quitman wrapped himself in the flag of states’ rights and told Washington he would call out the Mississippi militia to defend himself and, incidentally, Mississippi’s sovereignty. But as hopes for secession petered out, Quitman resigned the governorship on February 3, 1851 to defend himself. The prosecution went after another Mississippi planter first, but after three New Orleans trials resulted in three hung juries, Washington gave up and the filibusters and their supporters celebrated.