John Brown and North Elba, Part 2

John Brown

We left John Brown set on removing from Ohio to North Elba, New York. There he would teach those black Americans, many former slaves, who took Gerritt Smith’s offer of free land how to farm in the cold, rugged Adirondacks. Thus order would emerge from disorder and Brown would create a community that modeled the America he hoped for, where black and white Americans lived together in harmony and relative equality. Before Brown could do all that, he needed to close out his wool business. Tinkering with prices moved 37,000 pounds of top-grade material, but that still left north of two hundred thousand pounds and tens of thousands of dollars of debt to clear.

Brown decided that the wool manufactures conspired to dominate the market, so he would try shipping his wool to England. He shrugged off news that the English exported wool to the United States, where it sold for less than domestic product despite the tariff. The Englishmen didn’t grade wool like John Brown did. Brown made his plans for export and relocation in the same month, April of 1848. His youngest daughter also caught sick that month and died in his arms. Another daughter reported that Brown “broke down completely and sobbed like a child” when she was buried.

Life had to go on. May found the Browns renting a farm in North Elba until Brown could build his own. Setting things in order consumed June, during the course of which Brown hired black laborers and tried to work out property lines in the unsurveyed mountains. Once, lost travelers happened on his farm. Brown fed them, housed them for the night, and scandalized them by sharing a table with black men and calling them Mister. In July, he left the farm in his daughter’s charge and set off to see to the wool.

Brown arrived in London in August, where he learned he could not sell his wool until September. He tried France and freed himself of only five bales. Brussels, with a side trip to see the Waterloo battlefield, and Hamburg did no better. In desperation, he tried Leeds and got the same result. Finally he sold the lot at a considerable loss. Brown blamed prejudice against Americans in a letter to his business partner, but insisted that he had at least done something to advance American commerce in Europe.

He probably believed that, but the facts do not bear Brown out. A Massachusetts woolens manufacturer offered Brown sixty cents a pound before he exported the wool. The same man bought the same wool back over from England at fifty-two cents a pound, including the costs of shipping and the tariff. The debacle added $40,000 in losses to the more than $50,000 of debt the business already owed. Depressed, facing his second bankruptcy, Brown traveled Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia trying to explain himself and settle up with his suppliers. Many of them opted to sue instead.

Brown turned to dreams of getting rich quickly by establishing a vineyard, but that vision would keep him from North Elba. His mind also turned to the politics of late 1850, which slavery dominated.

The State of the Union in 1855: The Crimean War Recruitment Controversy

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce told the 34th Congress that the United Kingdom had broken faith with the United States in Central America and now imposed its will upon the nation by recruiting for the Crimean War on American soil and without permission. We had laws specifically against such things in the name of preserving American neutrality. Furthermore, Pierce avowed, those laws comported well with established nineteenth century practice. As such, when news came that the United Kingdom would seek foreign enlistments

Nothing on the face of the act or in its public history indicated that the British Government proposed to attempt recruitment in the United States, nor did it ever give intimation of such intention to this Government.

Yet the British came anyway. While they didn’t set up a recruiting office in Times Square, they did have agents go about finding people and sending them along to Halifax for proper enlistment. This “was going on extensively, with little or no disguise.” The men so engaged soon found themselves under arrest for their lawbreaking and Pierce’s administration protested through diplomatic channels.

Thereupon it became known, by the admission of the British Government itself, that the attempt to draw recruits from this country originated with it, or at least had its approval and sanction; but it also appeared that the public agents engaged in it [had] “stringent instructions” not to violate the municipal law of the United States.

That might sound nice on paper, but how do you keep within the law while doing the specific thing it forbids? Pierce might cave to the Slave Power for a few stern words from his fellow Democrats, but he had no such respect for British shenanigans. They could promise whatever they liked, but if they recruited at all then they must either have broken the law or found some shady legal excuse to violate its spirit whilst respecting its letter.

And it got worse:

the matter acquired additional importance by the recruitments in the United States not being discontinued, and the disclosure of the fact that they were prosecuted upon a systematic plan devised by official authority; that recruiting rendezvous had been opened in our principal cities, and depots for the reception of recruits established on our frontier, and the whole business conducted under the supervision and by the regular cooperation of British officers, civil and military, some in the North American Provinces [Canada] and some in the United States.

All of this came out when the recruiters went to trial. A few bad apples, one might shrug off. Irresponsible civilian contractors or private businessmen might slip beneath official notice. But the British had a whole, organized operation to move Americans through the United States and just over the border to train them as soldiers for a foreign war.

Nineteenth century Americans often have a chip on their shoulder about national sovereignty, particularly as relates to European powers and especially when the British come into it, but even when making allowances for that one struggles to see the whole business as anything less than a complete disregard of American self-determination. Britain had not embarked on a course to annex the United States back to its empire, but clearly didn’t take American laws and their jurisdiction seriously. In past decades, the United States had done a somewhat better job of restraining filibusters operating against Canada and such expeditions had never had the full backing of the state.

The State of the Union in 1855: A British Imposition

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce opened his third annual message with complaints that the British had violated the agreed-upon neutrality of Central America. The British claimed otherwise, insisting that they had only agreed to future neutrality and in no way prejudiced any of their current claims to the region. They might have made a better case had they not actively expanded their influence after signing the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, but come the turn of the decade London will finally scale back its involvement all the same. The perfidies of Albion reached further than Central America. At the same time as the United Kingdom disregarded neutrality and the sovereignty of independent states south of the border, it had done so right in the United States.

If you ask an American about the first modern war, you’ll probably hear about the Civil War. It involved technology on a new scale, with railroad and telegraph lines taking on both military significance and carrying news back inform a more engaged public. Ask a European about modern war and you’ll learn that the Crimean War did much the same in the mid-1850s, up to and including such Civil War innovations as ironclad ships.

By the time Pierce wrote his message, the Crimean War had gone on for more than a year. In the nineteenth century, the United States took a generally firm neutral stance toward European disputes. They had nothing to do with us and we wished nothing to do with them, most particularly their large and professional armies which could land nearly anywhere along the American coast and do as they liked in the face of our vast, sparsely defended frontiers. A relatively small European army had burned the White House in living memory. Pierce stated the American consensus when he declared that the United States expected foreign powers to keep their warfare to themselves and let Americans do as they liked:

Notwithstanding the existence of such hostilities, our citizens retained the individual right to continue all their accustomed pursuits, by land or by sea, at home or abroad, subject only to such restrictions in this relation as the laws of war, the usage of nations, or special treaties may impose; and it is our sovereign right that our territory and jurisdiction shall not be invaded by either of the belligerent parties for the transit of their armies, the operations of their fleets, the levy of troops for their service, the fitting out of cruisers by or against either, or any other act or incident of war. And these undeniable rights of neutrality, individual and national, the United States will under no circumstances surrender.

Neutrality did not require a Jeffersonian embargo, though. The United States permitted citizens to transport sell their wares to belligerents, including weaponry. Americans could even transport foreign soldiers. But you did such things at your own risk and, consequently, they did not implicate Washington. Many Americans had taken the risks and reaped the profits. None of that caused any problems that Pierce saw fit to mention. Nor had foreign armies transited American soil or foreign warships come unwanted into American waters. Americans had even managed not to help belligerent powers base privateers or fit out military vessels in domestic ports, something the nation couldn’t claim at all when it came to filibusters.

The rub came when the British recruited on American soil. American neutrality law forbade mustering expeditions to go join foreign wars just as it did outfitting warships for them:

they provide not less absolutely that no person shall, within the territory or jurisdiction of the United States, enlist or enter himself, or hire or retain another person to enlist or enter himself, or to go beyond the limits or jurisdiction of the United States with intent to be enlisted or entered, in the service of any foreign state, either as a soldier or as a marine or seaman on board of any vessel of war, letter of marque, or privateer. And these enactments are also in strict conformity with the law of nations, which declares that no state has the right to raise troops for land or sea service in another state without its consent, and that, whether forbidden by the municipal law or not, the very attempt to do it without such consent is an attack on the national sovereignty.

The War of 1812 had not come again. The British asked for men, rather than abducted them. But they had gone beyond stopping ships on the high seas and instead recruited right on American soil. This might not make for a second burned White House, but agents of a foreign government recruiting for one of their wars within the United States clearly ran afoul of the neutrality laws. To permit them would, like indulging filibusters, encourage other powers to understand the United States as a willing co-belligerent. Such a state of affairs could easily draw the United States into battles not of its choosing. Permitting it to go unchallenged would surrender control of American foreign policy to the United Kingdom, a situation befitting a colony or a protectorate but not a nation which deemed itself independent and sovereign.

The State of the Union in 1855: More Central American Trouble

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

We left Franklin Pierce inveighing against the British in his third annual message. The Young Hickory of the Granite Hills complained that perfidious Albion had agreed to renounce all claims to control of Central America in exchange for the United States doing the same. This would ensure that neither power had to worry about the other using a future canal to their detriment. But then the British persisted in their protectorate over the Mosquito Coast and expanded their recognized influence over Belize at the expense of Honduras by colonizing the Bay Islands. London had agreed to do exactly the opposite of this in the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850.

Or had it? Franklin Pierce called on the Great Britain to do the right thing and withdraw completely from everywhere save Belize. The British thought otherwise:

the British Government has at length replied, affirming that the operation of the treaty is prospective only and did not require Great Britain to abandon or contract any possessions held by her in Central America at the date of its conclusion.

According to London, the British empire only committed in 1850 to develop no new claims or interests in the area. What Britain had, it would retain. You can read the treaty that way without twisting yourself in too many knots. The text makes frequent reference to a future canal and how the parties will not obtain or maintain dominance over it. But nor does it include language that only brought the neutrality and renunciation provisions into operation when someone built a canal and the text often looks as much to present circumstances as to the future. Even if one granted Belize and the Mosquito Coast as properly untouched by the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, that still left Britain’s new colony on the Bay Islands as a positive advance of British influence.

The Mosquito Coast (via Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast
(via Wikipedia)

Pierce, understandably, didn’t buy what London tried to sell. To him, and to posterity in general, the British position simply assumed prior rights held, up to and including the expansion of British power in Central America until such time as someone built a canal. Then the United States would just have to trust Britain to do as promised. This would make for a hard sell between nations with uneasy relations today, let alone the tense Anglo-American accord that prevailed in the nineteenth century. Pierce told Congress that he hoped for a peaceful solution still, but he saw

reason to apprehend that with Great Britain in actual occupation of the disputed territories, and the treaty therefore practically null so far as regards our rights, this international difficulty can not long remain undetermined without involving in serious danger the friendly relations which it is the interest as well as the duty of both countries to cherish and preserve. It will afford me sincere gratification if future efforts shall result in the success anticipated heretofore with more confidence than the aspect of the case permits me now to ascertain.

Pierce would love it if everything worked out, but he didn’t like the odds. Posterity, for once, vindicated him. The British wouldn’t renounce their interests, outside a Belize expanded well beyond American understandings of its borders, until the end of the decade.

 

The State of the Union in 1855: Central American Trouble

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Fed up with the House’s inability to organize itself, Franklin Pierce issued his annual message on the very last day of the year. Custom dictated he wait for the Congress to have its affairs in order, but the Constitution required him to report on the state of the Union every year. Pierce’s message dealt with a wide variety of topics beyond the Kansas question, so it offers an occasion to catch up on the other things happening in 1855.

Pierce claimed that foreign relations proceeded amicably, except where they did otherwise. He opened with the dispute over Central America which informed the destruction of Greytown, in modern Nicaragua, the year previous. (Nobody died and they soon rebuilt.) Per the terms of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, the United States and the United Kingdom mutually renounced dominion over Central America. In a time before the Pacific Railroad, the United States had a keen interest in ensuring that the easier path between its new conquests on the Pacific coast and the old Union remain free from foreign domination. Mutual renunciation of imperial designs and guarantees of the region’s neutrality meant that neither power would dominate a future canal across it. If neither side exactly won, then they didn’t quite lose either.

So long as both nations held up their end of the deal, that all worked fine. Per Pierce, the British had not. They had a colony in the area, Belize, but the understanding at the time of ratification held that the treaty didn’t involve it. The United Kingdom had previous rights to the area, though Pierce construed those rights as strictly economic. The British could “cut mahogany or dyewoods […] with the positive exclusion of all domain or sovereignty.”

London had done rather more than that:

It, however, became apparent at an early date after entering upon the discharge of my present functions that Great Britain still continued in the exercise or assertion of large authority in all that part of Central America commonly called the Mosquito Coast, and covering the entire length of the State of Nicaragua and a part of Costa Rica; that she regarded the Balize as her absolute domain and was gradually extending its limits at the expense of the State of Honduras, and, that she had formally colonized a considerable insular group known as the Bay Islands, and belonging of right to that State.

Pierce didn’t imagine any of this. The United Kingdom did maintain a protectorate over the Mosquito Coast. For a time, it even occupied Greytown at the eastern terminus of the trans-isthmus route across Nicaragua. Nor did the Court of St. James care to pretend otherwise. Instead, the British argued that they had prior rights to the Mosquito Coast based on treaties with the local Indians. Pierce found the claim preposterous, declaring that “by the public law of Europe and America no possible act of such Indians or their predecessors could confer on Great Britain any political rights.” Only American powers could treat with Indians, and then only so long as they felt like it. Maybe if Britain had cut a deal with the Spanish that would count; the word of a white power to another white power had to mean something. But Indians? Even the British could not muster sufficiently unamerican a character as to treat with them as the equals of whites.

The Bay Islands? Those belonged to Honduras and the British had there “as distinctly colonial governments as those of Jamaica or Canada.” Once more, one can’t argue with Pierce on the facts. The British really had set up a proper colony on the islands. This flew in the face of the nation’s mutually-agreed renunciations all of five years prior. What part of no colonies and no occupation had London failed to understand? That the United Kingdom had chosen to act in such a way and broke faith with the clear provisions of the treaty suggested that it aimed for a revision of the status quo in Central America very much to its favor, and to the detriment of the United States.

The Economist’s Proslavery History and Ideology #economistbookreviews

BaptistweetI don’t mean to give the blog over to this particular controversy, Gentle Readers, but once again over the past few days new information has come to light that deserves sharing. This runs very long as I would prefer to deal with it all on one day rather than continue working over the same material for several posts in a row that come in lieu of further posts on Kansas matters.

I mentioned in my second post on the matter that the Economist also panned Greg Grandin’s book on the slave trade in terms very similar to those used to condemn Edward Baptist’s book more recently. The review of Grandin’s work remains on The Economist’s website, unencumbered by any apology or retraction. I drew from this that, at least when it comes to book reviews, The Economist adopts an apologetically white supremacist position. I don’t know how else to explain the recurring complaint that works discussing historical misdeeds perpetrated on blacks by whites, the magazine’s go-to complaint is that we only hear about how white people did horrible things to black people.

Grandin agrees:

Slavery might not be black or white, but bravery and morality apparently are: whites possess those qualities, a possession that merits historical consideration; blacks don’t, at least according to The Economist.

He makes another point worth noting. I had neither the time nor the access to troll through The Economist’s archives looking for reviews similar to that of Grandin’s and Baptist’s books. Grandin found others who had, going all the way back to 1860:

a pattern is detected, one reaching back much further than the review of my book. In the 1860s,The Economist stood nearly alone among liberal opinion in Britain in supporting the Confederacy against the Union, all in the name of access to cheap Southern “Blood Cotton” (ironically, the title of the Baptist review) and fear of higher tariffs if the North triumphed. “The Economist was unusual,” writes an historian of English public opinion at the time; “Other journals still regarded slavery as a greater evil than restrictive trade practices.”

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

This fact, which Grandin cites to Duncan Andrew Campbell’s English Public Opinion and the American Civil War, reaches well beyond my education in such matters. I knew that the Confederacy expected that the British mills’ hunger for cotton would prompt intervention and secure their independence, but I also knew that the British intellectual class had, by 1860, a general abhorrence of slavery. They may not have uniformly agreed that the Union could prevail in the war, but actively helping a nation conceived in slavery and dedicated to the proposition that some men are born slaves and others masters? That went beyond the pale…except in the pages of The Economist, which weighed the sins of increased tariffs against those of slavery and declared the tariffs the greater of the two evils.

To draw a straight line from the work of long-dead editors to their modern descendants asks too much of this data alone. That kind of generalization requires much more than two reviews in the past year and one position taken in 1860. Someone doing that with American politics would come to the conclusion that the party that nominated a black man for the presidency in 2008 must have had a secret white supremacist agenda, which also informed its support, except for the Southern whites, of the Civil Rights Movement. That would stretch counter-intuitive conclusions well over into absurdity.

The men who took the first position died long ago. One can fairly say that, then and now, The Economist took a proslavery, white supremacist stance. In between, other editors could have taken other positions. However, it appears that The Economist’s recent dalliance with white supremacy goes back further than just this year, as Grandin notes:

Since the Baptist review appeared, only to be quickly withdrawn, other historians, such as Mark Healey, have dug up reviews with similar problems. The Economist seems committed to making sure that white people aren’t taken for total villains and darker-skinned folks held accountable for their share of world’s inequities. It also seems dedicated to make sure the economic system created by slavery is denied its parentage, and on insisting that the miseries that continue to be produced by neoliberal capitalism can only be cured by more neoliberal capitalism. A few years ago, for instance, the magazine upbraided the Laurent Dubois, in his book on the history of Haiti, for, you guessed it, dismissing cultural explanations for the country’s poverty and focusing instead on structural issues. Haitians need to be held responsible for “their society’s underdevelopment,” and the best way to end their misery is to stop clinging to substance production and accommodate themselves to “specialised wage labour for a global market.”

This tellingly reverses the magazine’s complaint about Baptist’s work:

Mr Baptist, an historian at Cornell University, is not being especially contentious when he says that America owed much of its early growth to the foreign exchange, cheaper raw materials and expanding markets provided by a slave-produced commodity. But he overstates his case when he dismisses “the traditional explanations” for America’s success: its individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

The Economist welcomes cultural explanations when they reflect well on or exonerate white people, but rejects them when they do not. Furthermore, reference to “culture” here carries with it an especially damning judgment. One comes off with the impression, certainly intended, that Haitians are just lazy, no good, backwards-looking primitives in need of enlightenment. Thank goodness they have a white person in London (apparently the ones in Paris did not suffice) around to set them straight. Perhaps we should take charge of them and subject them to the discipline they need so they’ll stop being retrograde layabouts. Have I paraphrased The Economist today or a Southern writer defending slavery in the 1850s? I don’t aspire to crudity here, but they have made fundamentally the same argument. Take it from Samuel Cartwright, author of Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race:

Even if they did not prefer slavery, tranquility, and sensual enjoyment, to liberty, yet their organization of mind is such, that if they had their liberty, they have not the industry, the moral virtue, the courage and vigilance to maintain it, but would relapse into barbarism, or into slavery as they have done in Hayti.

The Economist would not openly cite racial inferiority under the color of science as Cartwright did, but the declarations of cultural degeneracy which it prefers run to the same point and leave one questioning how it is that Haitians supposedly came to such a set of bad cultural habits. The magazine’s silence on the matter proves eloquent. It rules out anything whites could have done, after all.

The generous blogfather, who inspired this whole enterprise, forwarded me an article from over at The Jacobin where The Economist receives critical attention from a student of economics. Ellora Derenoncourt studies the subject at Harvard, where she works on her doctorate. As such I take her as a competent authority to comment on the history of her field. She’s also familiar with the book that the magazine cites as the example Baptist ought have followed, Hugh Thomas’ The Slave Trade.

The section in which Thomas dismisses the evidentiary potential of slaves’ accounts concludes as follows: “Like slaves in antiquity, African slaves suffered but the character of their distress may be more easily conveyed by novelists such as Mérimée than chronicled by a historian. Perhaps though, the dignity, patience, and gaiety of the African in the New World is the best of all memorials.”

Everything worked out well, so who cares if a few former slaves with axes to grind talked about their whippings?

This comes down to a nice say of saying that we should dismiss slave narratives. Every source brings with it questions about how much we should take the author’s experience as representative rather than idiosyncratic, but when thousands of slave narratives agree on brutality, few dismiss them save for The Economist and Hugh Thomas.

This explicit paternalism towards slaves and their descendants is actually rare in Thomas’s book: the true stars in his account are the slave traders. They were the original “citizens of the world,” according to Thomas, their lives a rich source of fascination and wonder. He writes of a Florentine slave-trader: “[T]he career of this extraordinary individual is a reminder that Max Weber and R.H. Tawney were mistaken in thinking that international capitalists were the product of Protestant Northern Europe.” He then wistfully notes the lack of any extant portraits of the man.

Thomas’s account is no objective, systematic treatment of slavery (not a single table appears in all eight hundred pages of the book). A few pages of estimated statistics show up in various appendices with their sources unspecified. Rather, it is a lengthy series of impressions of the Atlantic slave trade from the traders’ — or perhaps more precisely, the market’s — point of view.

One could argue that Thomas aspired to write a history of the slave trade and so slave traders naturally draw his eye. So far as that goes, one has no room to object. But it seems he viewed the slaves themselves as something more on the class of objects, interesting only insofar as they facilitated his telling the stories of intrepid capitalists.

Derenoncourt continues

A special emphasis is placed on the ingenuity and salience of slave traders in European commerce, society, and politics at the time. Their extension of capital into international markets is lauded, while the consideration of the institutions that accompany the slave trade into the New World, namely the plantation system, remains an afterthought. That this makes his account “objective” relative to Baptist’s book, which includes thousands of slave testimonies, is symptomatic of a broader trope in economics that reflects not just current bias, but a certain kind of path dependence in the disciplinary consensus on the economics of slavery.

She traces this back to the 1970s, when Time on the Cross argued that we must set aside slave narratives as the data showed general good treatment. The position had numerous issues that immediately raise even my amateur historian’s hackles:

Based on the historical evidence of consumption levels, the authors suggest that slaves appeared to be better off than their free labor counterparts in the South. But the historical evidence the authors rely on is disturbingly sparse. Most of the data in the book come from a single cross section, the 1860 census, and the data on nutrition come from plantations only in the cotton belt.

Average daily food intake of slaves in 1860 is compared with the average daily food intake of the entire population in 1879; information about further controls or specifications are omitted in the body of the text. Data on whipping are taken from a single plantation, and, to generalize their argument about the exaggeration of maltreatment claims, the authors cite scripture (“Whipping of wives, for example, was even sanctified in some versions of the Scripture”). In other words, whipping cannot be so bad if everyone is experiencing it.

I would hope that any paper one tried to publish in a competent historical journal which generalized punishment data from a single plantation to the entire South would be laughed out of peer review. Even aside the blinkered approach to the data, one has the equally blinkered worldview that casts everyone as a perfect profit optimizer. Do you know anybody like that?

But beyond the sparseness of the research used in the book lies an even greater anachronism: the model of slaveowner optimization that underpins the theoretical framework of the book.

There are no considerations of power, or the utility from holding onto it. The narrowness of this theory is what produces a master’s “objectivity” that coincides with the efficient market outcome — slaves are capital assets, so higher productivity comes from investment, not brutality. Because this fits prevailing models, such a conclusion is considered objective, independent of the level of statistical rigor or quality of the evidence provided.

Slaveholders got far more out of owning slaves than just their labor, even if the theft of that labor lay at the heart of the enterprise. The satisfactions of power and status, sexual gratification, fear of revolt, and racial solidarity all form parts of the picture. People in the real world act on those impulses every time. One can cast that as optimization-oriented behavior, but they do not revolve primarily around the efficient acquisition of tangible property.

Derenoncourt identifies this as coming from a particularly ugly part of the field:

This reflects a current in economics that enjoys, for lack of a better word, trolling the basic ethical instincts of the rest of humanity. The series of tweets satirizing the Economist’s review hits closer to home than one might think. Questions in economics research such as, “What are the positive development implications of HIV?” or “What is the optimal level of genetic diversity for growth?” are reflections of this tendency. Combined with what Edward Baptist aptly terms the “free-market fundamentalist” worldview of the magazine, which is in many ways the popular face of the discipline, the field consequently selects for a particular kind of individual.

It would not do to draw from this that the profession has a sickness and one should discount it or publications named after its practitioners. But every field has its share of bad actors, considering all the practitioners share the normal human failings, and fields can develop orthodoxies deeply at odds with the very material they cite. A generation of historians thought slavery just as benevolent, and used many of the same arguments to prove it, as The Economist trotted out last week. Like Hugh Thomas, they ignored slave narratives but found the testimony and viewpoint of slaveholders objective and persuasive.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection, Part Six

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

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

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

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

John Slidell

John Slidell

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

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

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

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

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection, Part Five

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection: parts 123, 4

The events at Greytown scandalized the North. As Horace Greeley had it,

We cannot recall any other public question with regard to which there has been such unity of opinion. Journals habitually opposed on every other subject representing every shade of party feeling, every divergence of interest, and every antagonism of nationality concur to declare the destruction of San Juan a needless, unjustifiable, inhuman exercise of warlike force. Conservatives and radicals, Whigs and Democrats, Americans and Foreigners all agree in this one thing-all express the same horror and disgust. Indeed, among all the papers which have yet spoken, we know of but one, and that an obscure and scurrilous sheet in this City, which has attempted to find an excuse for the measure.

Even the Washington Union, which dutifully followed the Pierce administration’s official line, could come up only with a plea to suspend judgment until all the facts came out. Those facts included the official correspondence, which had both George N. Hollins’ account of himself and the orders that brought him to Greytown. His orders contained this provision:

It is, however, very much to be hoped that you can effect the purpose of your visit without resort to violence and destruction of property and loss of life.

George N. Hollins

George N. Hollins

Way to follow orders, George.

While one might expect that sending in the military could lead to violence, and it carries the implicit threat of force, the Cabinet had as much of a shock as anybody else. Careful, conservative William L. Marcy might have felt it the worst. He wrote to James Buchanan in London that

The occurrence at Greytown is an embarrassing affair. The place merited chastisement, but the severity of the one inflicted exceeded our expectations. The Government will, however, I think, stand by Capt. Hollins.

Will Great Britain interfere in the matter? If she does, her course will tend to bring Central American affairs to a crisis. I am glad your reply to Lord Clarendon was in before the news of the bombardment of Greytown was received at London.

Lord Clarendon served as the Foreign Minister at the time.

Buchanan wrote back at the end of August, getting right to the heart of the matter:

I am sorry, however, to be informed that the Government will, you think, stand by Captain Hollins. I have read every thing with care in regard to that affair, and with the strongest disposition to excuse or justify him for burning Greytown; -and I still hope that after more mature reflection the Government will not adopt the act.

The Old Public Functionary (They really called him that!) further told Marcy that he’d met an Indian prince the British had just given a handsome pension in exchange for his kingdom. The British let him know that they might have to do the same for the King of the Mosquito Coast. London did not, however, care for the fact that the United States and United Kingdom exchanged ratifications of a treaty over Canada in the wake of news of Greytown’s destruction. It gave the impression that

James Buchanan

James Buchanan

we have discovered the mode of dealing with the British-we went down to Greytown and smashed it, whereupon they became alarmed and gave us all we wanted.

Buchanan answered that he needed to talk with the Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, about the complicated Central American situation. Buchanan let on that he saw Aberdeen as more friendly to the United States. Lord Clarendon did not take the suggestion of going over his head, especially in this situation, well at all:

Lord Clarendon then seized me by the lapels of my coat and shook me, and said, “I am as good a friend of the United States as Lord Aberdeen, or any man in three Kingdoms.”

Even in a rougher age, one diplomat did not simply seize and shake another over light and trivial matters. Buchanan had not previously expected the British to take their protectorate over the Mosquito Coast seriously, but now he had reason to think otherwise.