Annexing Cuba: Liberty, Security, Slavery

I believe that the institution of slavery is not only right and proper, but the natural and normal condition of the superior and inferior races, when in contact.… That the preservation of the institution of slavery in Cuba … is essential to the safety of our own system.… That it is consistent with the designs of Providence, and our right and duty, not to restrain but to encourage the white Caucasian race to carry humanity, civilization and progress to the rich and fertile countries south of us, which, now in the occupation of inferior and mixed races, be undeveloped and useless.


During the early 1850s Mississippi Governor John A. Quitman raised a private army for the purpose of invading Cuba and offering it to the United States. His primary reason was to preserve slavery on the island (ruled, at the time, by Spain) and thereby add an additional slave state to the Union.2

Quitman’s involvement commenced in 1850, when he was introduced to Narciso López, leader of a group of Cuban revolutionaries. López and his followers were wealthy landowners and merchants who turned against Spain when a key element of their wealth—slavery—was threatened by changes in colonial policy.

John A. Quitman (1798-1858) (photo credit 30.1)

Spain, greatly weakened by the loss of nearly its entire empire, was seeking to ally itself with the nation whose empire was most rapidly growing: England. England, for its part, was seeking to undermine the nation whose borders were most rapidly growing: the United States. By allying with Spain, England could establish a naval presence in Cuba, thereby dominating the intersection of commerce between the Gulf of Mexico and the sea.

The United States, needless to say, was well aware of these moves. Two years before Quitman met López, Senator Lewis Cass stated, “Doubts have been expressed here as to the designs of England upon Cuba.… It has been repeatedly said that she has demanded the island, either in absolute conveyance, or as a mortgage for the payment of the debts due to her people.” Cass avoided domestic controversy by not mentioning another aspect of England’s maneuver. If England could get Spain to end slavery in Cuba, the island would become a beacon to American slaves—if nothing else, as a haven of escape; possibly, as encouragement to revolt. No matter how it played out, emancipation in Cuba might well derail the American express.3

Governor Quitman knew the impact it would have on his and all other slave states if Cuba came under British domination. Still, when approached by López in 1850, he did not accept the offer of command. Having risen to the rank of major general in the Mexican War, the governor recognized both the political and the military risks. So too had Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, other distinguished veterans of the Mexican War, both of whom had already rejected López’s offer.

Narciso López (1797-1851) (photo credit 30.2)

While Quitman did not accept the offer, neither did he completely reject it. Rather, he cited his current commitments as governor. In addition he told López that he could only come to his aid after a revolution had commenced under Cuban leaders. This stipulation reflected Quitman’s concern about violating the Neutrality Act of 1818, which prohibited any person “within the territory or jurisdiction of the United States … to set on foot, or provide or prepare the means for any military expedition or enterprise to be carried on from then against the territory or dominions of any foreign prince or state or any other colony, district, or people with whom the United States are at peace.”

López was indeed on the verge of launching the revolution Quitman stipulated. Or something similar—because Cuban forces were hard to come by (nearly half the island’s young men being slaves, disinclined to fight for slavery), he had been recruiting Americans to fight for Cuban independence from Spain. The same month when he met Governor Quitman, Washington’s Daily National Intelligencer reported, “[An] invasion of Cuba is contemplated. This new expedition we are told is to rendez-vous somewhere in the island of Haiti, under Gen. Lopez, and attempt a landing at some port on the south side of Cuba.… Our information from Havana is that the government there has been made aware of every movement.” Two months later, the Cuban revolution began. A correspondent for the Missouri Courier ably covered the historic event:

The expedition … landed at Cardenas on the 19th [of May 1850], lost some in landing … entered the town, [and] attacked the jail, supposing it to be the barracks. The jail was guarded by 15 men who stood the fire well.… After this, some soldiers went to the Governor’s house.… The house was well defended.… The invading troops, having lost time in getting off their wounded and procuring fuel for the steamer, Creole, which was to return for reinforcements, became disheartened and insisted on going to Key West. They were closely pursued by the Spanish war steamer Pizarro but happily escaped.

The invaders were home in time for dinner.

Confirming Quitman’s legal concern, López was arrested for violating the Neutrality Act. But he had become so popular with Americans as a “freedom fighter” that, after three hung juries in the trial of a coconspirator, the government opted not to pursue the case. The fact that politics had trumped the law on this issue was not lost on Governor Quitman.

The political landscape shifted further in this direction when López launched another invasion of Cuba the following year. On August 12, 1851, he successfully landed and entered the interior of the island with, according to his records, 400 troops—forty-nine of whom were Cubans. The following morning, Spanish soldiers in the vicinity attacked a contingent of López’s recruits. But the recruits not only repelled the Spaniards, they pursued them—right into a much larger force of Spanish soldiers. That same morning, other recruits, with whom López himself was based, were also attacked by a Spanish division. Many managed to retreat with López into the mountains, but they were left nearly depleted of supplies and weaponry. By August 16 those still alive were either captured or, like López, surrendered.4

Once again, the fate of Cuba fired up Americans. Though López had failed, he remained a hero in the United States—front-page news in the September 8, 1851, Boston Daily Atlas:

General Lopez was condemned to be garroted on Monday, the 1st of September … at the entrance of the [Havana] harbor, directly opposite the Moro [old Spanish castle]. There were on the ground at the time 5,000 troops, 3,000 infantry, and 1,000 cavalry, and about 8,000 citizens.… Lopez was brought forward and ascended a platform, about fifteen feet high, on which was the chair of execution.… His last words were, “I die for my beloved Cuba.” He then took his seat, the machine was adjusted, and at one turn of the screw his head dropped forward.

Because most Americans believed public execution was barbaric, wresting Cuba from Spain was now elevated to an even loftier plane. The death of Narciso López also left only one credible commander at that time: John A. Quitman.

The political landscape shifted further in Quitman’s favor when Franklin Pierce was elected president in 1852. Pierce made plain from the outset his expansionist views. “The policy of my Administration will not be controlled by any timid forebodings of evil from expansion,” he stated in his inaugural address. “Indeed, it is not to be disguised that our attitude as a nation and our position on the globe render the acquisition of certain possessions not within our jurisdiction eminently important for our protection.”

Four months later, Quitman agreed to organize an invasion of Cuba. His efforts took him to New York, where he sought funds from business interests connected to cotton, tobacco, and other Southern products. He then headed to Washington to secure the private political support needed for his venture. There he met not only with influential Southern politicians but also with Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, whose backing, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, would be vital to the annexation of Cuba. The meeting went well, as Quitman likely expected, since Douglas’s views on Cuban annexation were well known:

Whenever the people of Cuba shall show themselves worthy of freedom by asserting and maintaining their independence and establishing republican institutions, my heart, my sympathies, my prayers, are with them for the accomplishment of the object.… When that independence shall have been established, if it shall become necessary to their interest or safety to apply as Texas did for annexation, I shall be ready to do by them as we did by Texas, and receive them into the Union.5

In Cuba, meanwhile, Spain sought to preempt American designs by issuing a number of decrees regarding slavery and race. One freed those slaves illegally imported from the United States. Another established a procedure enabling slaves to purchase their freedom. A third allowed Cubans of any color to join the militia. And a fourth legalized interracial marriage. Journalists in the United States referred to these decrees as the “Africanization” of Cuba.

With Quitman recruiting troops, stockpiling armaments, and raising funds through the issuance of Cuban bonds bearing his signature as “Commander-in-Chief,” the Senate took up consideration of a proposal to suspend the Neutrality Act. The legislation was sent to the Foreign Relations Committee, but Quitman’s quest suddenly became an uphill effort when Senator Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Because Douglas’s bill would end federal regulation of where slavery could and could not exist, the annexation of Cuba became embroiled in rumors that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was part of a grand Southern conspiracy. Senator Thomas Hart Benton brought those rumors out in the open:

I must now … look out for [the bill’s] real object—the particular purpose for which it was manufactured, and the grand movement of which it is to be the basis. First, the mission of Mr. Gadsden to Santa Anna. It must have been conceived about the time that this bill was. Fifty million dollars for as much Mexican territory on our southern border as would make five or six states.… Secondly, the mission of [Ambassador] Soulé to Madrid—also a grand movement in itself … two hundred and fifty million dollars for Cuba.… I only call attention to them as probable indexes to this grand movement … and my own belief [that] this Nebraska bill is only an entering wedge to future enterprises—a thing manufactured for a particular purpose—a stepping stone to a grand movement which is to develop itself in this country of ours.

Senator Benton’s fear

The “grand movement” that Benton suspected consisted of Cuba being annexed as a slave state, Kansas becoming a slave state, James Gadsden acquiring the regions of Mexico he sought, a slave state being created from the southern half of the New Mexico Territory, and a slave state being created from the southern half of California. Taken together, these possibilities would have made the slave-holding South indomitable. Such a movement had in fact been suggested by López in a letter to Governor Quitman the day after their initial meeting. López had linked the annexation of Cuba to a “union of the Southern States … [that] could never be broken.”

Despite Senator Benton’s misgivings, President Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and, the following day, sought to mitigate Northern anger by issuing a proclamation regarding Cuba:

Whereas information has been received that sundry persons, citizens of the United States and others residing therein, are engaged in organizing and fitting out a military expedition for the invasion of the island of Cuba; and

Whereas the said undertaking is contrary to the spirit and express stipulations of treaties between the United States and Spain, derogatory to the character of this nation, and in violation of the obvious duties and obligations of faithful and patriotic citizens.…

I do issue this proclamation to warn all persons that the General Government … will not fail to prosecute with due energy all those who … presume thus to disregard the laws of the land and our treaty obligations.

Privately, Pierce confided to Louisiana Senator John Slidell and others that he would not seek to enforce the Neutrality Act if Quitman’s expedition could be kept under wraps. But Quitman’s luck was running out. Eleven days after the presidential proclamation, the New York Express revealed that “many of the Northern members [of Congress], and several from the slaveholding states … are convinced that there is plan on foot to get Cuba—peaceable or otherwise.… The Administration, it is believed, will favor the scheme.” As rumors mounted in the press, Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell ordered that a grand jury be presented with charges against Quitman for violating the Neutrality Act. The grand jury, however, refused to issue an indictment for a crime not yet committed. Judge Campbell then sought to torpedo the commission of the crime by ordering that Quitman be held in prison until he had posted bond as assurance that he would not enter Cuba. The order triggered widespread condemnation as unconstitutional, given that Quitman had not been charged with any crime.

While his lawyers navigated the legal obstacle course, Quitman struggled with other obstacles. Many of his recruits and backers were now having second thoughts in the wake of the court’s actions. Seeking to bolster their commitment, he traveled again to Washington in April 1855, hoping he could somehow obtain a meeting with President Pierce. In a case of fact being stranger than fiction, a correspondent for the New York Herald witnessed the president and Quitman unexpectedly encountering each other on Pennsylvania Avenue. “During the past six weeks, [President Pierce] has been seen but once on the avenue,” the correspondent wrote. When Pierce next ventured out for a rare stroll, “in front of the Milkwood house he met General Quitman.… There was no chance to dodge, and they stood face to face.… With slight tremor in the voice, I heard him say, ‘General, why haven’t you been to see me? Call in the morning.’ ”

The following morning, Pierce shared with Quitman intelligence he had received regarding Spain’s military buildup in Cuba. Troop levels were being increased, fortifications upgraded, and its naval presence bolstered. With Quitman’s recruits and dollars dwindling, the bottom line was clear: he had no chance. Six weeks later, Quitman resigned as revolutionary Cuba’s commander in chief.

Though he gave up the title, he did not abandon the dream. Six months after resigning from the Cuban expedition, Quitman won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he sought further opportunities to pursue his agenda. The opportunity presented itself when William Walker, who had previously raised a private army that he unsuccessfully led into Mexico, raised another private army that he more successfully led into Nicaragua. Like Quitman’s venture, Walker’s acts violated the Neutrality Act. Upon Walker’s arrest, Congressman Quitman resumed his quest. “A resolution calling upon the President for information relative to the arrest of Gen. Walker … has passed the House by a large majority, and Gen. Quitman made an attempt to introduce his bill for the repeal of certain sections of the neutrality laws,” the New York Herald reported in January 1858.

Quitman’s efforts, however, were cut short. The following month, the press reported on a disease that only affected patrons of the National Hotel in Washington. In July the Charleston Mercury wrote, “The telegraph announces the decease of General Quitman.… [T]he intelligence is not a surprise; for, under the effects of the mysterious National Hotel disease, his vital powers have been slowly but surely failing.” The mysterious disease turned out to have resulted from backed-up sewage in the hotel’s basement, emitting toxic bacteria.

Though John A. Quitman failed to put Cuba on the U.S. map, he himself is on the map. His name is preserved in the towns of Quitman, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas.

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