Front Door to Cuba

The Cuba Movement

(An excerpt from THE SOUTHERN DREAM OF A CARIBBEAN EMPIRE, 1854-1861, by Robert E. May, Louisiana State University Press)
Chapter Three - Part One of Two

Pierce took a significant step toward a diplomatic strategy for Cuba, on the day after he signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, when he issued a proclamation warning that the government would prosecute illegal expeditions. It is unclear whether this was Pierce's own decision, or whether it was prompted by Jefferson Davis. Davis and Quitman were rivals in Mississippi politics, and Davis might have had personal motives for intervening against the filibuster. Davis also felt that Albert Gallatin Brown, an ally of Quitman, had pushed him out of Mississippi politics.


Even before the administration reached a final decision on a Cuba policy, charges filled the air that Davis would be responsible for a forthcoming administration attack on the filibuster movement. While Quitman's agent in Washington confided that Davis was a "bitter" and "unmanly opponent," intent only on destroying Quitman's reputation, the Natchez Daily Courier publicly uttered the same thoughts. In June, 1854, the secretary of war was told that such charges were widespread and that his position in the Deep South would be injured unless he gave evidence that Cuba was to be taken and "fully appreciated the importance of the measure to the South."

Whether or not Davis was culpable, Quitman supporters had good reason to complain that the federal position against filibustering was hardening; for Secretary of State Marcy quickly acted to enforce Pierce's proclamation. Apparently feeling that the administration would provoke anger in the South if it took a vigorous stand against Quitman, Marcy first attempted to persuade Quitman to defer his invasion plans. He urged Slidell to telegraph New Orleans (where Quitman's movement was centered) that the administration was taking "immediate' measures in respect to Cuba. But Slidell refused. Marcy then acted forcefully. He contacted the United States district attorney in New Orleans, and soon Quitman and five supporters were facing a United States circuit court. Although a sympathetic grand jury failed to find evidence of an invasion plot, Judge John Campbell braved New Orleans profilibuster sentiment by compelling Quitman and two associates-Thrasher and A. L. Saunders-to post bonds of $3,000 as a pledge that they would not disobey the neutrality laws for the next nine months.

Although Quitman continued recruiting and planning his expedition, thus violating the spirit of Campbell's order, he soon felt the sting of this ruling. Instead of hoping that their actions would attract government support, filibusters now knew that they were running afoul of the law. Many had felt that at the least a neutral administration was necessary for success. Suddenly their hopes vanished. Quitman received reports from Jackson, Mississippi, that people were in a "fog" about the expedition and that many had "abandoned all care of any thing being done." And, from Austin, John Ford reported: "The arrests in New Orleans had a very bad effect here." But Quitman could compensate for manpower losses. A. L. Saunders, who had gone to Kentucky after Judge Campbell's decision, reported that he could muster one thousand men in Kentucky alone. Quitman constantly received letters from men anxious to join, and he only wanted three or four thousand men for the invasion force.

Financial difficulties plagued Quitman to a far greater degree. "The want of money is the obstacle in the way of prompt and quick action," he explained to a Georgia supporter. "If you or any of our friends in Georgia can aid us in this, it will be more acceptable than in any other way." Quitman had particular problems trying to finance transports for the invasion army. To overcome his problems, he required that each enlistee for the expedition pay fifty dollars plus transportation to the nearest seaport. But the money was not forthcoming in the amount required. Governor John Winston of Alabama reported in June, 1854, that he had found, after a journey in the "country," that lack of funds held back many who would like to support the cause; and the situation had not cleared up a half year later when John Thrasher wrote from Port Gibson, Mississippi, that he had "great difficulty" in getting "even the friends of the cause to promise any thing towards it; and still greater difficulty in getting them to come forward, & fulfill the promise."

Judge Campbell's action had its greatest impact in the realm of finances. Filibustering was a highly speculative investment to begin with, and the government's position persuaded many that Quitman's bonds were a poor risk. One supporter remarked to Quitman: "I cannot promise positively to raise any funds on the sale of Cuban bonds. I find great difficulty in inspiring confidence." And Quitman was inundated with letters from every recruiting front in the South stating that his bonds were not selling.

Compounding Quitman's problems were fissures within his movement. In particular his relationship with the Cuban Junta was unstable. A faction of the Junta, headed by the antislavery Cuban Domingo de Goicuría, broke with Quitman and particularly impaired his Georgia organization. The general's disputes with Cuban exiles troubled him far more than the unfavorable publicity in some southern newspapers, and even in expansionist sheets. Such newspapers often asserted that while war or diplomacy provided honorable means for expansion, filibustering was immoral and underhanded.

A low point was reached in late 1854. Quitman's followers were asking for their money back, leaving the movement, and complaining that they were going broke while they waited, jobless, for the invasion to begin. Quitman thought of abandoning the whole enterprise; but he gamely persisted, trying to circumvent the neutrality proclamation by planning an expedition that would have neither arms nor officers until after it left United States waters. He received rifles, cash, and the loan of a steamer from New York shipping magnate George Law and promises of a substantial number of recruits from the Texas Rangers. At a small country store at Bayou Boeuf, Louisiana, he purchased a considerable amount of supplies, including $1,300 worth of tobacco, whiskey, brandy, and gin "for the boys" -undoubtedly necessities for the sort of men who enrolled in such expeditions. Potential soldiers were converging on New Orleans and outlaying plantations by early 1855.

Quitman planned to invade Cuba by the first week of March, 1855. This time the administration interfered decisively. In a Washington conference, Pierce persuaded Quitman that such an expedition would be a catastrophe. The new captain general of Cuba, José G. de la Concha, had sent proof of the island's invulnerability to attack. Concha also seemed to be more willing to protect the slave system on the island than Pezuela had been. This may have been the decisive point for Quitman, given his sensitivity to the emancipation question. In addition, Quitman had promised many of his followers that the expedition would coincide with a Cuban uprising; but Concha's precautions made such a rebellion unlikely. And Albert Gallatin Brown had failed to get the Senate to repeal the neutrality laws in March. Wanting to avoid López's fate, convinced of Pierce's unalterable opposition, and reassured on the slavery question, Quitman formally resigned from the Junta on April 30. Quitman's future involvement with filibustering would be vicarious. He would become a staunch spokesman for other filibusters from the congressional seat to which he was elected later in 1855.

Pierce had opposed the filibusters at least partly because of his confidence in diplomacy as the means to acquire Cuba; and he had acted on his March statement to Congress that he would use diplomacy long before Quitman's enterprise dissolved. Congress, however, proved reluctant to cooperate with the president. On August 1, 1854, Pierce requested a $10 million appropriation from Congress to support a proposed three-man commission that would proceed to Madrid and attempt to persuade Spain to sell Cuba. Pierce refused to specify how the appropriation would be used; and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, entrusted with the request, recommended on August 3, 1854, that the matter be postponed until the December session of congress. The committee suggested that Congress "leave the question with the President"-a suggestion that the Senate accepted. Jefferson Davis later used Congress' refusal to participate as a rationalization for the administration's failure to acquire the island. A number of newspapers agreed with him.

Now that Congress' hesitancy to commit itself was clear, Pierce and Marcy realized that any progress toward acquiring Cuba would have to come from the European diplomatic corps. Less than two weeks after the Senate committee's negative report, Marcy sent fresh instructions to Soulé suggesting that much could be done in London and Paris. He suggested that Soulé arrange a private conference with Ministers Buchanan and Mason to discuss the situation. If a workable plan could be arranged, England would not "interpose" to prevent a Cuba cession.

Marcy and Pierce probably suggested a conference because Buchanan and Soule had not been corresponding with each other. Although the ministers differed on details, they had remarkably similar ideas as to how Cuba could be purchased. For some time they had been convinced that financial intrigue would secure Cuba. In addition, Marcy was sensitive to complaints from both Buchanan and Mason that they were not posted on the progress of the negotiations at Madrid for Cuba. With their hands tied in Washington by Congress' refusal to endorse the administration's commission recommendation and with the administration in no position politically to declare war on Spain, Pierce and Marcy were finally responding to their ministers' proposals, which had been reaching the State Department for some time. Ironically, the belated concession pleased neither Buchanan nor Mason, and each protested being forced into the conference. Mason expected it to be a waste of time, and Buchanan insisted to Pierce that treasury funds for Belmont's use with the holders of Spanish bonds would prove far more effective.

Marcy's instructions led to the incredible Ostend Manifesto. Instead of meeting in secret, the three ministers, and some other members of the American diplomatic corps, convened at Ostend, Belgium, amid much excitement and publicity from the European press. After deliberations at Ostend and Aix La Chapelle, they produced a document, dated October 18, that became known as the Ostend Manifesto. It was actually a dispatch, signed by the three ministers, which strongly implied that the United States should go to war for Cuba if Spain refused to sell it. Pierce and Marcy had abandoned the idea of war months earlier, and Marcy had clearly stated this in a June letter to Soulé. But the instructions for the conference had been so vague, and so many of Marcy's letters to Soulé since the Black Warrior incident had been bellicose, that the ministers misread the administration's intent.

The Ostend Manifesto presented a number of reasons why Cuba should be purchased: suppression of the African slave trade, commercial advantages to both nations (Spain could build railroads from the cession money), outrages on the rights of American citizens and on the flag of the United States, and the advantage of obtaining an island so situated as to be a threat to national security. But instead of outlining a feasible financial scheme, as Marcy had expected, the manifesto stated that if Spain would not sell Cuba, it might be necessary to resort to the law of "self-preservation": if "Cuba, in the possession of Spin seriously endanger[s] our internal peace and the existence of our cherished Union… then, by every law, human and divine, we shall be justified in wresting it from Spain." Soulé sent a letter with the manifesto reiterating the ministers' hopes for peace, yet adding that if the attempt to acquire Cuba were to "bring upon us the calamity of a war, let it be now, while the great powers of this continent are engaged in that stupendous struggle which cannot but engage all their strength and tax all their energies as long as it lasts, and may before it ends, convulse them all."

The document met rough going in Washington. Pierce and Marcy were willing to countenance virtually anything the European ministers would do on their own initiative to facilitate acquisition, and they had placed this responsibility on the ministers to avoid the very use of force the manifesto advocated. Thus, a strategy that implied conquest was unacceptable. The administration's dilemma was complicated by the criticism that the conference had received in Europe, and United States congressmen demanded that all correspondence relating to the conference be made public. The administration had been badly defeated in the fall election and was in no position to press for an expansionist program that had been impaired, even before the elections, by sectional antagonisms. In fact, Pierce and Marcy were so embarrassed by the conference's results that when their documents were sent to Congress in March, 1855, the letter in which Marcy had suggested to Soulé that the United States might have to "detach" Cuba from Spain was missing.

After receiving the manifesto, Marcy complained to Mason and Assistant Secretary of State A. Dudley Mann (who had been deeply involved in the preliminaries to the conference while in Europe) about the publicity. On November 13 he pointedly told Soulé that he did not interpret the ministers' dispatch as advocating the seizure of Cuba, and he instructed Soulé to refrain from further attempts at purchase of the island. The minister was to concentrate on moderately pressing outstanding Black Warrior claims. The implicit repudiation was too much for the hot-tempered Soulé, who soon resigned. Soulé, however, was expendable. His duel over a point of honor with the French ambassador to Spain soon after he reached the country had long since impaired his diplomatic usefulness, and recent involvement in Spanish revolutionary politics had destroyed what was left of his credibility with the Spanish government.

After Ostend, the Pierce administration made only feeble attempts to purchase Cuba, and all but abandoned the idea of financial intrigue. In a dispatch to Perry in April, 1855, Marcy noted the need to protect American commerce in the West Indies, but said nothing of further negotiations for Cuba. Marcy's instructions to Soulé's replacement, Augustus C. Dodge, described American acquisition of Cuba as "inevitable," but mentioned a recent vote of the Spanish Cortes against a sale and asserted that the United States must respect its decision. Dodge received instructions to try to resolve technical problems such as the captain general's lack of authority to negotiate infringements on American commerce and the need to prevent emancipation of the slaves in Cuba. A later letter (May 12, 1855) suggested that Dodge negotiate for Cuba, but was moderate in tone. Nothing came of these instructions. Dodge informed Marcy in July, 1855, that all parties in Spain opposed the sale of Cuba. Their "false pride" would cause them to refuse "any price." In the spring of 1855 the administration briefly flirted with the possibility of using a new incident involving an American ship as a means to pressure Spain to cede Cuba. A Spanish warship had stopped the El Dorado off the Cuban coast and then searched her for filibusters. The administration sent the American Home Squadron to the Cuban coast, but subsequently backed off from a Black Warrior type confrontation with Spain. Pierce, like Quitman, had abandoned pursuit of the "Pearl of the Antilles."

Quitman and Pierce's failure to acquire Cuba in 1854-1855 had important political implications. The abortive attempts heightened the sectional controversy and significantly affected the public careers of a number of leading Americans, including President Pierce, James Buchanan, Pierre Soulé, and, to a lesser extent, Jefferson Davis.

The wily James Buchanan benefited from his involvement. He demonstrated that he stood with the South on the need for Cuba; but unlike Soulé, he had not tarnished his image. Many southern leaders detected his influence in the Ostend Manifesto. Slidell congratulated Buchanan on the document, saying: "I have read with great pleasure your Ostend Manifesto. I say yours, for I think it carries internal evidence of its being the product of your sound judgment and practiced pen." Buchanan's expansionism aided his capture of the next Democratic presidential nomination, and in his 1856 campaign he capitalized on his reputation by running on a platform calling for American "ascendancy in the Gulf of Mexico." Southern expansionists responded to this appeal and endorsed Buchanan partly because of his Cuba position. The Montgomery Advertiser, for instance, termed Cuba necessary to the "tranquility" of the South and stated that the "position assumed by MR. BUCHANAN in the Ostend Manifesto, in regard to the acquisition of Cuba, ought certainly to decide every Southern man to cast his vote cheerfully for him."

Pierre Soulé, however, had left for Spain as the darling of many southern expansionists and had returned discredited. Expansionists asserted, with some justification, that Soulé's various blunders had ruined an excellent chance to obtain the island. A Texas newspaper charged that Soulé had sabotaged his mission even before he left the United States, when he publicly announced that he planned to acquire Cuba. Given the Spanish public's known opposition, Soulé should not have drawn attention to his objective; and when he did, he should have been immediately requested to resign. Instead, the country had to suffer his "disrespectful, pompous and incautious" activities in Europe, which only further undermined Pierce's intentions.

Secretary of War Jefferson Davis escaped lasting political damage, but he was obliged to counter southern charges that he had been responsible for the prosecution of Quitman and that he opposed the annexation of Cuba. Mississippi Governor John J. McRae told J.F.H. Claiborne that Davis had expressed a desire to acquire Cuba. "He says that the Administration has done all that was in its power to acquire the Island, and thinks it would have been done, if Congress had sustained the President." Even now, "no efforts" would be "left unspaired [sic]" to take Cuba. McRae probably intended the information to reach Quitman, for Quitman was connected with Claiborne. That Davis felt it imperative to make such a reassurance is indicative of the strong feeling for Cuba in the South. The issue would come up again in a few years later, and this time Davis would make his pro-Cuba sentiments much more evident.

The failure of negotiations probably hurt President Pierce the most. Quitman and his many sympathizers throughout the South blamed their ineffectuality on the president's obstruction, thereby minimizing their own deficiencies. AS John Thrasher put it, the "energetic action of the administration against us, together with some other causes," blocked the expedition and forced Quitman to resign. John Henderson publicly raised strict constructionist objections to Pierce's action, stating that the United States Constitution mentioned nothing about presidential authority to issue neutrality proclamations. An Arkansas newspaper protested the government's prosecution of Quitman in New Orleans on the grounds that the Mississippian was a "lawyer" and "gentleman" and obviously was telling the truth when he claimed that he had violated no law. Southerners who felt the Black Warrior affair justified war expressed similar disappointment when Pierce let the crisis recede. Albert Gallatin Brown summed up the feeling of many southern expansionists when he described Pierce as lacking "backbone."

The frequent charge of insensitivity to southern needs especially impaired Pierce's political standing in the South. Quitman and his followers felt that the president's emphasis on diplomacy proved how unwilling he was to recognize the danger of emancipation, which they felt would be carried out if Spain agreed to a cession, and could only be stopped by means of an invasion. The filibusters and the administration were not speaking in the same language, and Quitman could find no way to bridge the gap. Samuel Walker wrote from Washington in this vein: "I tell you the administration trembles before filibusterism-the word spoken in their office puts them on nettle, but they still pretend twill be bought. The friends say but for us in N.O. it would have been bought. I told them it was the worst thing for the South, & the very thing we did not desire-that we would make her independent in spite of the administration." Quitman said Pierce had given the country a "humbug administration," that the president had ignored a "conspiracy" which existed "between several of the powers of Europe-England, France & Spain to cripple American commerce and American progress by Africanizing Cuba," and that abolition threatened the slave system of the fourteen southern states from which the whole country benefited. According to Quitman, the president's opposition to filibustering revealed that he had surrendered to "antislavery elements." Alexander Stephens charged that Pierce's Cuba policy proved he was trying to court the North. Similar barbs were aimed at William Marcy for his central role in the purchase scheme and its failure. Differences over Cuba endangered the North-South coalition holding the national Democratic party together.

If extreme southern expansionists were troubled by Pierce's actions, they were appalled by the new Republican party's position on Cuba. From the filibuster standpoint, Pierce might have been misinformed, but at least he intended to acquire Cuba, presumably as a slave state. Republicans not only opposed the annexation of Cuba, but spelled out that their opposition was based on their commitment to prevent the addition of any new slave states. Even after the Cuba crisis of 1854-1855 subsided, Republicans kept alarming the country about a southern plot to annex Cuba as a slave state, and frequently cited the Ostend Manifesto as their main evidence. Representative Edward Wade, for instance, talked of the document in these bitter terms: "Goat it wolf-fashion, O slave Democracy, and take Cuba; it will be needed in a little while as medicine for a Union sick of too much freedom and too little slavery." To Henry Wilson the manifesto was a slave plot "that disgraced the diplomacy of the country." When Abraham Lincoln ran for president in 1860, his platform opposed the Ostend Manifesto as a "highwayman's plea" worthy only of "shame and dishonor."

Although acquisition of Cuba remained an official goal of the national government, by the mid-1850s the debate over Cuba had become sectionalized. This would become even more apparent in 1859, when James Buchanan would make a renewed bid for Cuba and would ask Congress for funds. Southerners had come increasingly to feel a special concern for acquiring the island, and many southern expansionists had concluded that northerners were either hostile to the goal of a slave Cuba in the union, or did not understand how profoundly southern security depended on acquisition of the island with slavery intact. At the same time that such feelings were developing, events in Nicaragua and Mexico were embroiling those countries in the controversy over the expansion of slavery southward.

Part One of Two

Race in Cuba

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