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.

Remember the Black Warrior?

Marqués de la Pezuela, Captain-General of Cuba

Marqués de la Pezuela, Captain-General of Cuba

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

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

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

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

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

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

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

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

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

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

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

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

The Third Black Warrior

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

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

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

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

James Dunwoody Bulloch

James Dunwoody Bulloch

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

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

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

Better to Steal Cuba than Buy It


Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

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

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

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

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

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

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

Caleb Cushing

Caleb Cushing

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

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

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

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

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Six

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Five

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Four

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas-Nebraska: Shattering the Democracy

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

The dream that Kansas-Nebraska would give the Union some tough love that restored its strength rested on the proposition that northern voters, most especially northern Democrats, cared very little about slavery. If the North, most especially the Northwest, had decent portions of men like Stephen Douglas, they could combine with men like Jesse D. Bright, Indiana’s slaveholding senator, to revitalize the Democracy and restore its position as a true bisectional party and thus, they hoped, confirm its position as the natural party of American governance. The new final settlement on slavery and the territories, unlike the old final settlement, would retire slavery from the national consciousness. Abolitionist and fire-eater alike could go fume in the corner while sensible, moderate, compromise-minded adults ran the nation.

This meant a very small word, if, had to carry a very large burden. If Stephen Douglas had taken the North’s temperature correctly, if slavery really did not pan out in Kansas, if no new provocation for either section arose, if proslavery men could take yes for an answer, then they could have the sectional comity of the 1840s back again. It worked once before. Henry Clay got the northern votes he needed for the Missouri Compromise in part from enslaved Illinois.

If only the men of 1854 lived in the same world as the men of 1820. The world had changed. Railroads realigned Northwestern commerce toward Chicago and away from New Orleans. Texas, then Mexico and Wilmot, CalhounNashville, the Fugitive Slave Act, the secession conspiracy, the Georgia Platform, fugitive slave rescues, and all the rest shined a spotlight on slavery. Neither section consented to playing by the old rules.  Old times would not come again.

The Democrats held the majority in both chambers of Congress in 1854. The fact that a majority of the House voted to bury Kansas-Nebraska speaks volumes. Douglas’ own party would not unite behind him. Instead the Democracy split at least three ways. Some Democrats, more than Douglas or anybody else supporting the bill counted on, increasingly disliked slavery and especially loathed its expansion.  Still others, in the South, supported Kansas-Nebraska for the Missouri Compromise repeal but fiercely loathed popular sovereignty. If the people could decide, they could after all decide against slavery. Douglas himself said so often. The Northwestern Democrats who did accept Kansas-Nebraska often loved popular sovereignty but loathed the Missouri Compromise repeal.  Thus even the coalition in support of the bill split diametrically: the repeal that made the bill so appealing to Southern men made it a bitter pill to swallow for Northern men who supported it on grounds that Southern men could barely tolerate.

Those divisions existed already, but Kansas-Nebraska threw them in sharp relief. Whatever hopes Douglas and other Democrats had for revitalizing their party came up hard against deep divisions that their strategy could only deepen further. Stephen Douglas might passionately believe in popular sovereignty and not mind slavery either way, but he may have been the only man in the party who did.

Competing Cultures and Competing Futures

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Sam Houston (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and John Bell (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) had their say. So did Stephen Douglas (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and Salmon P. Chase (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). The Senate voted in the early morning of Saturday, March 4, after listening to Douglas’ final five and a half hour speech. Houston and Bell joined Chase, Seward, Sumner, and a divided North against a virtually unified South that carried the bill 37-14. I’ve touched on why the bill evoked such passions before, but it warrants a bit more unpacking.

In a functioning political system, people divide themselves and vote based on different value structures and priorities. Over time these tend to cohere into ideologies. To some degree certain values entail, or at least combine naturally with, other values. Others do not naturally match, but as one grows accustomed to sharing a side the combination appears more natural through habit. As social animals, we must accept that this will happen. The longer differences endure and the more hard-fought they become, the stronger partisan identity becomes.

Americans had lived together in a nation half free and half slave for decades. Even back in the colonial era, the colonies that practiced slavery on a larger scale developed differently from those which did not. The line dividing them came largely as a result of historical accidents. Englishmen who came to the Chesapeake more often arrived with dreams of getting rich quick and sailing for home than did Englishmen who settled New England. The latter wanted to go away from England and stay away from England so they could achieve a high degree of religious freedom for their religions and hitherto undreamed degrees of religious persecution for everyone else. Those generalizations don’t tell us everything, but they did impact the development of the colonies and up into the revolutionary era, the colonies remained substantially separated from one another so cultural cross-pollination took place on only a limited scale. Most had stronger ties with the mother country than with other parts of British North America.

New England, as every American child learns in history class, did not have great land suited to intensive cultivation. Nor did its climate suite the big cash crops of the colonial era, most famously tobacco. The geography and climate dictated smaller-scale farming for subsistence. While the Puritans would not have minded striking it rich in the slightest, they came over to found communities of like-minded men and women. To some degree, that naturally inclined them to form towns with fields around. It would be hard to police the religious conformity of a widely scattered populace, after all.

Down South, something very different went on. While they did have towns, from Jamestown onward, early Virginia in particular suffered from every man thinking himself a natural lord and none a natural subordinate. They had better land and better climate for cash crops, but ran short of people on the ground willing to work it for them. Even the most motivated single person or small family can only work so much farmland before hitting the limits of their energy and ability. They had all this land and not enough people. To solve the problem, they imported their fellow English subjects as indentured servants. While economic bad times ruled back in England, plenty signed on. When the economy turned around, indentures sounded like a terrible idea and fewer people took the bait. Into the gap, the Chesapeake brought stolen Africans.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

One could call the rest history and stop there, but it went deeper than that. In New England, decisions often happened at the town meeting. Most everyone of the right religion and sex had a vote and thus the community decided, invested in that decision, and saw it enacted. A natural idea of themselves as a body politic, a commonwealth or res publica (from which we get republic) developed. This did not happen to the same degree down on the Chesapeake tidewater. There, town did not run into town, but rather plantation into plantation. Virginians even called their towns “plantations”.

A plantation did amount to a small community when it got big enough, but a decidedly private one. The planter owned the land and if you lived there, you worked for him. Maybe you rented some of his land to work. Maybe you lived adjacent on a much smaller plot and relied on the local planter to help you market your crop, with an eye towards maybe marrying one of his daughters and moving up in the world. If the roads washed out in a storm or a bridge needed repair, getting it fixed often meant not petitioning the distant government but rather going to the local government equivalent: the planter. Convince him that the problem needed fixing and he would open up his deep pockets and make it so.

That colonial pattern did not hold in all places or at all times, and certainly did not spread unmodified into the west, but it laid down deep cultural roots that successive waves of white Americans carried with them when they moved west. On that, both sections agreed. If one did not like one’s situation back east, one should save up, most west, and set up a farm. They differed on whether that meant moving west to become, or become a client of, a local planter or if it meant setting out to become the first members of something like a new town meeting, but in either case one went west for one’s future. After all, the land back east already had white owners. It also had the kind of social stratification which, in theory, the west would not have as nobody had lived there long enough to entrench their wealth and privilege.

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

Why not go west? A white, male nineteenth century American could have a big house, or just a prosperous farm in his future. There he would have no master save himself and make his own fate. Even if he did not strike it big, he could still strike it better than he could in the east where the old American dream became less attainable by the year.

The sections agreed on going west, but not on what west to go to. Would it be a private west of plantations and planters, with life centered around big houses and their social and economic clients or would it be a west of little commonwealths centered on towns? The nation settled things in 1820 by splitting the west in two, but Texasthe Mexican War, David Wilmot, California, and Stephen Douglas reopened the issue. By 1854 the sections had contended for their share of the American west for six years. It highlighted their differences and animated white America’s passions far more than it had in the past. Each section had the American Way. Why couldn’t the other section see that and adopt it? Or accept its equal share of the American future? Why couldn’t the other section play by the agreed upon rules?

The sections had very different views of America which probably no one could reconcile. The only solution that lasted any length of time required not speaking of those differences. By the middle 1850s, nobody could stay silent any longer. How did one make peace between the Atchisons, Calhouns, Chases, and Sewards of the nation? They wanted opposite things. Someone had to win and someone had to lose.