Caribbean Delusions

In antebellum Southerners’ most exotic fantasy, proslavery expansionists would land several dozen or several hundred American freedom fighters on Central or South American shores. The tropical targets would include the New World’s two largest slaveholding nations beyond the United States (Cuba and Brazil) plus the nations rimming the Caribbean Sea (Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and New Granada). The freedom fighters would alert submerged natives to rise up against tyrants. The conquering rebels would then add perfect land for slavery to an expanded Union.

If that plot sounds too wild even for an extravagant southern romance, much of it would entice President John F. Kennedy in 1961. A century before Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba, southern soldiers of fortune achieved a dozen and more Caribbean landings. The impulse behind these escapades exploded disproportionately from racy New Orleans, itself engaged in a perpetual dance of life and death with the nourishing, punishing Gulf of Mexico waters. The resulting Caribbean carnival cast bizarre light on a Southland once again divided, this time along unfamiliar fault lines.

– 1 –

The most prominent early seeker of American Manifest Destiny, Caribbean style, drew his support not from New Orleans, not even from the South, but from the most cosmopolitan Yankee city. John L. O’Sullivan, a New York newspaper editor and Democratic Party publicist, had an Irish name, two American parents, a European education, and a Cuban brother-in-law. In 1851, the effusive New Yorker furnished the ship Cleopatra with guns and several hundred Hungarian and German revolutionaries, to sail to Cuba and seize the island. After federal authorities instead seized the Cleopatra, O’Sullivan charmed his jury, dotted with Democratic Party expansionists, into freeing him. As O’Sullivan summed up the nonsectional Manifest Destiny that enabled a Yankee jury to release a New Yorker who schemed for a slaveholding empire, we want “more, more, more!” until “the whole boundless continent is ours.”1



Yet most Northerners had long since decided that a democratic Manifest Destiny must not mean more, more, more land for undemocratic slavery. No more slaveholder expansion, answered the New Orleans Commercial Bulletin, “is almost as senseless as ‘No More Sun.’ …The Negro in a hot clime, where white men can with difficulty labor in the broiling sun, is an agricultural and commercial necessity.” So too, Robert Barnwell Rhett urged Northerners to “colonize the colder regions, where the white man can labor advantageously.…We, with the African, will possess the rest.” Or as Virginia’s John Randolph Tucker exclaimed, “When I see the Queen of the Antilles” and “the rich clime of the Amazon valley awaiting the labor of the African under the direction of the intelligent Southerner,” I see “a nobler destiny for the South… than awaits any other people.” No Yankee “shall dictate terms … to such a people.”2

President James Buchanan wished neither North nor South to dictate terms of boundless national acquisitions. This Border Northerner, aspiring to keep Americans above and below Pennsylvania in the same Union, favored American expansion in all directions. As for “the destiny of our race to…flow South,” President Buchanan told Congress, “nothing can eventually arrest its progress.”3

Buchanan had furthered American flow southward as James K. Polk’s secretary of state in Texas annexation and Mexican War times. Subsequently, as Franklin Pierce’s minister to England, Buchanan joined two other American ambassadors in the 1854 Ostend (Belgium) Conference. The trio issued an Ostend Manifesto, calling on the United States to buy Cuba. If Spain would not sell, and if “Cuba in the possession of Spain seriously endanger[s] our internal peace and the existence of our cherished Union,” declared the Ostend Manifesto, “every law, human and divine,” would justify us “in wresting it from Spain.”4

President Franklin Pierce favored the purchase but not the threats. Pierce remembered that the Mexican War had aroused Northerners against a war for slaveholders’ land. A war with Spain for Cuba’s enslaved terrain invited a congressional refusal to appropriate funds. Moreover, an American military takeover of an enslaved island guaranteed a new Wilmot Proviso, reaffirming that new terrain in freedom’s nation must be free soil.

The one American territorial acquisition to the south in the 1850s, the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, demonstrated the continued northern repugnance for slaveholder empire. The Gadsden Purchase swallowed only a sliver of Mexico, now part of southern Arizona and New Mexico. Although the fragment could be peacefully acquired, largely for railroad development, the North blocked the purchase until land for slaveholders had been whittled down. The Gadsden Treaty finally squeaked through the Senate only because Southerners reluctantly agreed to reduce the terrain purchased. After his circumscribed Gadsden Purchase, Pierce restricted his quest for Cuba to futile attempts at yet another purchase.

James Buchanan repeated the futility. In 1859, Congress balked at funding even exploratory negotiations for Cuba, much less a purchase. Furthermore, neither Spain nor Cuba would negotiate, much less sell. Imagine the Yankee ambassador to Madrid, scoffed Alexander Stephens, “walking up to the door of the Palace and knocking as a peddler, asking to see the Queen, and upon her coming out, saying in real Yankee style, ‘Madame, have you any Islands for sale today?’”5 Since Yankee presidents could find neither Caribbean sellers nor any northern tolerance for a war for a slaveholder empire, only private adventurers could secure American Manifest Destiny, southern style.

– 2 –

Contemporaries called the adventurers “filibusterers.” The word “filibusterer” then connoted not a congressional minority that talked a bill to death but a freebooter who shunned diplomatic talk. The most prominent filibusterers were Narciso López, who organized several private armies to sail toward Cuba in 1849–51; Mississippi’s John Quitman, who picked up López’s Cuban mantle in 1854–55; Tennessee’s William Walker, who briefly captured Nicaragua and legalized slavery there in 1856–57; and George Bickley, the Texas commander of the “Knights of the Golden Circle,” who schemed to sic his knights on Mexico in 1860 and instead turned his paramilitary society loose on Texas unionists.6

None of these buccaneers hailed from the southern filibuster mecca, New Orleans. López disembarked from New York. Walker’s first expedition sailed from San Francisco. All the Caribbean pirates received cash and recruits from these Yankee cities and from sundry southern urban areas. But New Orleans, and especially its merchant community, provided a disproportionate share of these buccaneers’ money, recruits, publicity, spirit, and rationale. A visit to Sin City thus offered the best chance to savor the flavor of filibustering’s indelicate allure—and to understand why more puritanical southern warriors preferred more refined tastes.7

Antebellum New Orleans could be challenging to reach, unless one sped down the Mississippi River. Americans customarily located their port towns on the spot where transportation routes from the interior met ocean routes to the world. New Orleans sprawled over the southernmost point where Mississippi River vessels could land goods from the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi river valleys. But this locale, presiding over a great bend in the river (hence the name Crescent City), was still almost a hundred miles above the Gulf. Below the water’s curve, where the river turned shallow and meandering, captains of Mississippi’s steamboats dared not risk the downstream current. Nor could the Atlantic’s sailing brigs profitably depend on the upstream winds.

So to reach New Orleans from the Gulf (and thus from the Atlantic world), the mighty two- or three-masted ocean brigs had to be rendered powerless. At Pilottown down on the Gulf, their sailors had to roll up the sails, hail a tugboat, and trail behind the ugly sea steamer up toward New Orleans. Alternatively, one-masted schooners or small ocean steamers could sail from Mobile, Alabama, through a series of lakes to Lake Pontchartrain, six miles above New Orleans. From the lake, still smaller crafts could crawl through the primitive Old or New Basin canals to New Orleans. But most passengers had to board the Smoky Mary railroad or ride a stagecoach over the Shell Road toward the city.

Tropical vistas compensated for tardy arrivals. Thick groves of orange trees dominated some spots between the lake and New Orleans. Oaks, cottonwoods, and cypresses, drooping with eerie Spanish moss or voluptuous wild vines, often blotted out the sky. But fetid pools of inky water, recalling the deadly jungle around Charleston, mixed a black speck of peril into nature’s brighter colors.

Once safely landed in New Orleans, the upriver end of the levee first captured attention. There, belching steamboats and packed flatboats regurgitated their cotton, sugar, and grains. There, blacks and Irishmen struggled to haul bales and hogsheads to warehouses in time for the next vessel to disgorge the next riches.

Downriver from this chaos, dozens of sailless ocean brigs lined the silent end of the levee. There, lifeless hulls awaited their turn to be jammed with exports and towed back to sea, where their sails would be blown back into full might. The informed knew that these ghosts would eventually connect New Orleans to far-off ports. To the uninformed, however, the spooky masts looked like dead trees, barring Mississippi River produce from Atlantic Ocean consumers.

New Orleans advertised more mortal disasters. Human bodies decayed not in invisible graves but in towering mausoleums aboveground. This bestdrained urban spot on the lowest Mississippi remained below sea level, too swampy to protect a corpse. The living often remained equally naked of protection. Even if no surging waters filled New Orleans’s soup-bowl-like terrain, a visitor too easily became a victim. Fires often blazed out of control. Thugs often roamed over streets strewn with garbage. At night, when faking one way and then diving under the mosquito netting, ahead of the (we now know) yellow-fever-bearing mosquitoes, antebellum visitors (unknowingly) dodged to live another day.

The intersection of gayest life with gravest danger gave New Orleans its decadent frenzy. The most famous uproar transpired at Mardi Gras on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent. Crowds of drunken revelers packed the streets, as carnival parades inched toward alcoholic balls. Yet Mardi Gras offered a misleading guide to New Orleans. That celebration came only once a year. Street revelers celebrated every day, including the Lord’s Day. New Orleans sensualists paused only briefly on Sunday mornings, to attend churches and hear sin berated. Then sinners hustled toward either the ancient French Quarter or the new American business sector across Canal Street.

The French Quarter (or Vieux Carré) featured a maze of narrow streets, with stucco houses colored in many hues. Many residences displayed a mixture of Spanish and French tastes and exquisite wrought-iron lacy balconies. In contrast, the American sector’s short, squat commercial houses bore a sterile sameness, with only an occasional canopy out front.

In either sector, frolic abounded. Slaves in gay turbans shimmied to the beat of congo drums. Sailors in bright costumes eyed fetching quadroons. Natives and tourists could savor the prizefights or the cockfights outside the St. Louis Hotel. Alternatively, open doors beckoned the rowdy off the street, here to gamble, there to whore, everywhere to drink and dance and shoot billiards and roll tenpins.

New Orleans led the South in refined pleasures too. At the Opera House, 150 soldiers sometimes jammed the stage. On a given weekday (or Sunday!), one could catch Edwin Booth playing Shakespeare at the St. Charles, or the piano concert at Odd Fellows Hall, or Jenny Lind singing at the New American Theater. Or one could take dancing lessons from French masters, or watch racehorses skim over the Metairie track, or gape at the six-legged calves and the world’s fattest man amidst clowns and elephants at the circus. What city offered more ways to violate the Sabbath?

That question disturbed many southern tourists. The potentially distressed came to New Orleans to see if it was awful. They exclaimed that it was worse. While Georgia’s Thomas R. R. Cobb warned Benjamin Palmer’s New Orleans Sunday school class that they must resist the “Sodom of our land,” martial music blared from the streets, drowning out the naysayer. As Cobb struggled to capture someone’s attention, restive youths stared out the window at lads flying kites and at placards announcing a balloon ascension. These “natives,” exclaimed Alabama’s C. C. Clay, Jr., “are the most unchristian, ungodly, devilish, pleasure-seeking people I have ever seen.”8

To southern conservatives, the most ungodly aspect of Sin City was not the sinning on the Lord’s Day but the desecration of the southern social essence—that society must be a hierarchy, with all sexes, classes, and races fastened in their proper place in proper households. Blacks were supposed to be enslaved. But in New Orleans, 45 percent of blacks were free. Foreign immigrants were supposed to be almost nonexistent. But in the Crescent City, immigrants outnumbered slaves five to one. Irishmen alone outnumbered free and enslaved blacks, taken together.

The Old South’s blacks were supposed to monopolize menial labor. But in New Orleans, lower-class whites bottomed out blacks for grunt work. Blacks and whites were not supposed to intermingle sexually. But in Sin City, quadroons were social belles and mulattoes rich tycoons. Whites and blacks were supposed to live in families. But in the Crescent City, much of the population was transient, and many a white enjoyed not a wife but a “placée” (a mulatto or quadroon mistress, for whom he had legally assumed financial responsibility). New Orleans aficionados thought nothing of the spectacle when a married rich man fell to his death from the third floor—of a whorehouse on Sunday.9

Crescent City folk became temporary equals in more places than bed. In reception halls of the gigantic (1000 guests each) St. Louis (French Quarter) and St. Charles (American sector) Hotels, millionaires played cards familiarly with plebeians who cared to gamble. In raucous coffeehouses, with mirrors on all four sides and everyone sharing tables with anyone, all glances in all directions connected with strangers.

The promiscuous conglomeration of what other Southerners called opposites dominated New Orleans’s most famous place, Jackson Square. Buildings lined three sides of this jewel of the French Quarter. Only the square’s southern side, facing the river, was wide open. Opposite the river, on Jackson Square’s northern side, the towering St. Louis Cathedral predominated. Here Creoles, Arcadians, Cajuns, Irishmen, free blacks, slaves, planters, men, women, children—seemingly everyone—kneeled together in what looked to other Southerners very much like promiscuous prayer. As if to contain the disorder, stone government buildings guarded each side of the cathedral.

Down the eastern and western ends of Jackson Square, two long buildings, erected in the 1850s, reestablished unruly mixtures. The buildings, dubbed Madame Pontalba’s Apartments after their planner, contained apartments for domestic escape from commercial life, but only on their second floors. Downstairs, the most raucous commercial life in the South exploded from the retail stores onto the streets.

In the center of Jackson Square earthy life, a statute of Andrew Jackson commanded the eye. The hero shone atop a rearing horse, balanced precariously on its rear legs, facing the untamed West and oblivious to lovers embracing below. The whole Jackson Square scene, positioned to look toward the untamable Gulf and exuding relaxed attitudes toward sex, race, class, and liquor, seemed more a Caribbean oasis than anything southern.

Jackson’s statue presided over a world mad for Yankee-style consumption. Even the urban high culture of opera and concert was all about consuming. New Orleans led the South in staging spectacles to pay money to experience. But the Crescent City lagged way behind Charleston and other southern centers in producing creative prose or art or colleges. So much money to be spent required fortunes to be made. New Orleans enjoyed a glorious boom in the 1850s. Its population leapt 45 percent in the decade, trailing only Baltimore in the South. The Gulf mecca surpassed the next ten most populated Middle and Lower South urban centers, put together.

Yet despite booming growth, commercial leaders gloomed that the city’s economy was poised as precariously as Jackson and his horse. New Orleans titans misunderstood why their boom was fragile. The business community feared that New York, with its new railroads to the West, would soon monopolize the trade of the Upper Mississippi. The worse problem, however, as would be clear by Reconstruction times, was that the connection to the Gulf via towed ocean brigs would soon end, as mounting sandbars turned the river shallower and larger ocean vessels, requiring deeper channels, multiplied. Those antebellum sailless masts, creating an illusion of impassible barriers between city and sea, became not so illusory after all.

But in the 1850s, mercantile leaders, thinking their predicament centered on railroad competition up north, plotted solutions down in the Gulf. Yankees could have the Ohio Valley’s trade. New Orleans would seize the Caribbean’s commerce. If those Latin nations in and around the Gulf were not quite hierarchically southern, well, neither was half-Caribbean New Orleans. It seemed altogether natural to annex South and Central American New Orleans–style cultures to create New York–style profits—except to those dismissive puritans from other Souths, who found Sin City an antiparadise, even an anti-South.10

– 3 –

New Orleans publicists for Caribbean filibusterers celebrated all the southern arguments for an empire to the south. The Crescent City’s newspapers urged that the South needed more U.S. senators and representatives, that slaveholders must not be squeezed inside a circle of hostile neighbors, and that a tropical kingdom for the South perfectly served Americans’ Manifest Destiny to spread (white men’s) democracy. But New Orleans publicists added their special rationale, generating their special filibustering spirit.

The New Orleans Commercial Bulletin called “the ‘natural advantages’ of New Orleans” insufficient. God made the Mississippi River to drain commerce to our city. But man’s artifice, the Yankees’ railroads, now run from every city on the Atlantic coast to western trading centers on our “great artery,” drawing off our “lifeblood commerce.”

“New Orleans,” added that city’s Delta, “has approached the crisis of her destiny.” Our city, proclaimed the Courier, must not become a pathetic metropolis of a “limited and circumscribed” southland. Instead, “the epic march of American nationality” southward must make New Orleans “the great commercial focus for Mexico, Central America, and the western states of South America.” Then “the wealth, population, commerce, and importance of this great emporium of the South will be quadrupled.”11

This main New Orleans case for Caribbean expansion exuded classic urban imperialism. More markets, more trade, more ships, more dominance over a commercial orbit—all this urban boosterism hardly epitomized what most rural planters desired. New Orleans was a sport in the southern world, and so was its mercantile community’s infatuation with Gulf imperialism.

The impulse that propelled poor young adventurers to sign up for filibustering excitement also recalled the New Orleans spirit. The followers who sailed with López and Walker (and who pined to sail with Quitman) had as little determination to seize fresh land to farm with slaves as did the city tycoons who financed and publicized their attempted piracies. Filibustering offered the most intoxicating carnival to young urban bloods who ached for exotic flings, before settling down to anything practical.12

Beyond New Orleans, southern rage for filibustering most infected the Crescent City’s commercial tributaries on the Gulf and lower Mississippi. Mobile, Alabama, and Galveston, Texas, both on the Gulf, as well as Natchez and Memphis, both on the lower Mississippi, joined New Orleans in showering a disproportionate share of rhetoric, cash, and soldiers on Caribbean freebooters. The strip of heavily slaveholding western Tennessee, running from Memphis east to Nashville, also supplied uncommon quantities of adventurers, including William Walker (and Andrew Jackson, who arguably initiated the southwestern filibustering enthusiasm).

But east and north of western Tennessee, and in much of Dixie to the west and south, too, filibustering seemed more like forbidden than nourishing fruit. True, multiple annexations of tropical areas could give Southerners additional senators and representatives. Gulf acquisitions, however, could suck off more southern power than the new land added, economically, morally, or politically.

Economically, sugar lands in a U.S. Caribbean extension could damage the titans of New Orleans’s own hinterland, the fabulously successful Louisiana sugar planters. No other American capitalists prospered so outlandishly in the 1850s, thanks not least to a federal protective tariff. That tax on imported sugar protected Louisiana producers from more tropical areas such as Cuba, where more sugar could be cultivated less expensively. If Cuba entered the Union, her sweet staple, no longer taxed as a foreign import, could sweep away the Louisiana sugar land’s exquisite white-columned Greek mansions like a Mississippi River flood. The potential “injury to our sugar culture,” lamented the New Orleans Delta, turned “the minds of many of our planters” toward “gloomy apprehensions.”13

Morally no less than economically, southerly annexations could make Southerners gloomy. Slaveholders congratulated themselves on maintaining a hierarchical world, with whites and blacks supposedly frozen in their assigned places. But the allegedly semibarbarous Caribbean world, like New Orleans, abounded with freed blacks and racially mixed couples. Many Southerners found the Gulf apples of New Orleans folks’ eyes as rotten as Sin City itself. “Let us,” intoned Jefferson Davis, “remain unmixed.” We must not, warned John Bell, add “twelve million … perfectly imbecile” Mexican and Central American citizens.14

While many Southerners feared that Caribbean mongrels would poison hierarchical liberty, still more slaveholders worried that tropical acquisitions would emancipate the Upper South. With the exception of Cuba and Brazil, potential Caribbean targets of southern annexation had scant slave populations. To realize their (high) potential to become the Slave South’s tropical bastions, annexed countries such as Nicaragua and Mexico would need to draw slaves from somewhere. Most likely, the bondsmen would drain from the less tropical Border and Middle Souths. An accelerated slave drain southward might net the slavocracy counterproductive political arithmetic, with some slave states gained and more lost.

Some famous southern appeals for expansion prayed for just that abolitionizing consequence. In the 1840s, Mississippi’s Robert Walker had praised Texas as the safety valve for blacks to flow out of the United States. In the early 1850s, Virginia’s Matthew F. Maury hoped that Brazil’s Amazon Valley would draw slaves from the American republic. Maury, a renowned naval officer and oceanographer, cheered that American slaves’ development of Brazil’s “howling wilderness” would be “the achievement … of the nineteenth century.” The triumph would enrich America’s commerce and end her slavery and race problems. Brazil would become “the safety valve of this Union.”15

The oceanographer’s beloved cousin, Mary Blackford of Lynchburg, Virginia, blasted Maury for waxing rhapsodic over transferring slavery, the “greatest of all human wrongs,” to a spot where the sin could be better perpetuated. “You call the plan you propose a ‘Safety Valve,’” scoffed cousin Mary. “When was it safety to do wrong?”16

Maury answered that already enslaved Brazil, once inside the United States, would commit fewer wrongs against humanity. United States laws that barred the overseas slave trade would spare Africans from Brazil’s cursedly open trade. Nor would a U.S. slave state of Brazil enslave an additional U.S. black. Instead, my plan will “relieve our blessed Virginia of the curse.” When “the plague comes, my first duty is to get my own family rid of it.” America’s first duty required ridding its current terrain of blacks and thus of “the horrors of that war of races” that is “almost upon us. … I may be wrong,” conceded this troubled expansionist. “I may be doing a very wicked thing by preaching up Amazonia, but I am, dear cousin, as firm in my conviction of right as you are. … May God help us both.”17

Frank Blair, Jr., the South’s most politically successful emancipationist, further publicized Caribbean expansion as a southern antislavery weapon. Blair, arch enemy of Davy Atchison and a sometimes congressman from St. Louis, gave a notorious public lecture in Boston in 1858, published as The Destiny of the Races. As Blair explained beforehand to his prominent Maryland father, a fellow detester of the Slave Power, he would illuminate the easy way to rally nonslaveholders to make America lily-white. “I will take the ground boldly” that the federal government, by acquiring tropical land, will “secure the ultimate emancipation of every negro, … because the free white laborers of the South will recognize that the slaves should no longer be allowed to compete with them.”18

In Boston, Blair explained that racist nonslaveholders, “aroused by the fact that they have been injured by the competition of slave labor,” would vote for “emancipation when they know that” the blessed reform “includes [free blacks’] removal.” If Central American acquisitions furthered easy removal, the borderland majority would demand deportation of the least tropical South’s slaves. Later, the slave drain downward would make the most tropical South lily-white. Thus would America’s southward expansion secure “the inevitable destiny of the races to resume their true zones on this continent.”19

In Maryland and Delaware, prominent southern newspapers often seconded Blair’s prophecy, while removing the liberator’s class-war threats. Caribbean expansion would indeed whiten and free the Upper South, not because nonslaveholders would vote for lower-class interests but because migrating slaveholders would seek upper-class profits. That very depopulating prospect made some of slavery’s champions chary about Caribbean expansion. The South might have been fortunate to lose California in 1850, conceded the Richmond Enquirer, for probably the most northern “slaveholding states would at once have transferred the bulk of their slave property to the gold fields of California.” So golden California would have extinguished “slavery in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri and Arkansas. In other words, the South would have gained two senators and lost fourteen.”

The Gulf states’ demand for Upper South slaves, continued the Enquirer, “has already proved a serious drain” to our slave population. If the lush Caribbean augmented the drain, what would be the eventual “political status of Maryland, of Virginia, of the Carolinas, of Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas—even of the Gulf States themselves?” As the Jackson Semi-Weekly Mississippian concluded, slave-exporting states must never “be permitted or induced to rid themselves entirely of slaves.”20

– 4 –

The most startling reluctance to charge ahead with Caribbean expansion occurred amidst those precipitous chargers, the South Carolinians. Some South Carolina disunionists favored Caribbean expansionism. Laurence Keitt and Robert Barnwell Rhett, for example, advocated southern Manifest Destiny with New Orleans fervor.21 South Carolina hotheads, however, usually remained cool on Caribbean adventuring, particularly as the Civil War approached.22 Partly, the disapproval reflected disunionist strategy. Most South Carolina leaders had given up on Union, especially after the Lecompton fiasco. The Democratic Party’s Caribbean expansionism fostered false hopes (so South Carolinians thought) for slavery’s salvation inside the Union.

More often, the scoffing at Caribbean hopes reflected the state’s peculiar identity, isolating South Carolinians from the southern and especially New Orleans crowd, whether the issue was breaking up the Union or breaking out over the Gulf. No other southern area so clung to everything preciously old or so opposed everything suspiciously new. Many South Carolina squires wanted to stay home, perfect eighteenth-century hierarchy, and consolidate the most English culture in the New World. They lamented that instead, midnineteenth-century South Carolinians, white and black, left by the ten thousands for new adventures and raw cultures on nouveau frontiers. Cuba and Central America, with their supposedly loose sexual/racial mores and mongrel populations, would allegedly become the most disgusting southern area yet—and the most enticing to entrepreneurs grown tired of wrestling with South Carolina’s tired soil. Better to frown down loose New Orleans, avoid promiscuous Cuba, restrain degenerative adventurers, and lead the South backward toward a properly conservative republic.

The very look of Charleston frowned on New Orleans. These two most memorable southern cities both decorated their stucco houses in every color of the rainbow. But Charlestonians lavished ironwork on gates and fences, keeping commoners outside rich men’s private spaces. New Orleans residents displayed equally sumptuous ironwork on balconies above the streets, where titans could cheer the intoxicating life down on the avenues.



Austere, genteel Charleston (above), looking more than half a continent removed from earthy, energetic New Orleans (below). Courtesy of the I. N. Phelps Stokes Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations (New Orleans) and the South Carolina Historical Society (Charleston).

Again, Charleston’s most important public space was the Battery, that outermost tip of the city jutting into the Atlantic, out of sight of ship landings and stores and churches and any but the most lavish houses. Here, declining nonentrepreneurs could gaze toward their imagined (and no longer existent) ideal, stable old eighteenth-century England. New Orleans’s wildly different most important public space was Jackson Square, that block of land surrounded by middle-class apartments and hawking shops and government buildings and a cathedral and the din of the levee. Here booming capitalists could gaze toward their cherished hope, raucous Gulf connections.

New Orleans parlors, stuffed with black, heavy Prudent Mallard furniture only yesterday ornately carved, were a world away from Charleston drawing rooms, dotted with brown, delicately carved English Georgian furniture, fifty years or more ancient. So too, nothing published in New Orleans sounded anything like Leonides Spratt’s reactionary daily, the Charleston Standard. In issue after issue, Spratt broadcast the ideal of standing still. “The strength gained to the institution on the frontier,” exclaimed one of Spratt’s favorite correspondents, “is lost upon the seaboard. Our districts are becoming depopulated. … If we are to fight the great and inevitable contest for slavery upon our present numbers, I want them more compressed. We become weaker by expansion.”23

John C. Calhoun a decade previously, when opposing the annexation of all of Mexico, had anticipated this foreboding about spreading slavery into polyglot areas. “More than half of the Mexicans are Indians,” he had winced, “and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. I protest against such a union as that!” James Gadsden, South Carolina’s author of the federal purchase of a slim bit of Mexico, echoed Calhoun’s misgivings when protesting against acquiring another inch: “You could not place a more irritating [cancer] on the Body Politic of our Federation than the annexation of Mexico—we have trouble enough with 3 millions of Africans.” Or as South Carolina’s favorite relic, old Francis Sumter asked, with Cuba annexed, what were we to do with the island’s 200,000 free Negroes? “It is not by bread alone that man liveth. We want some stability in our institutions.”24

The South Carolina case for a stabilizing disunion—and against a destabilizing territorial expansion—echoed in Lewis Ayer’s 1855 oration at Whippy Swamp. From that lowcountry platform where so many South Carolina defiances of Yankee-style modernity commenced, Ayer pronounced “a fig” on Northerners, whose “civilization differs so entirely from our own.” Any Union-based remedy for defeating northern tyranny resembles “a whitelivered surgeon, who continued to apply simple lotions to the gangrene wound,” when only “the amputating knife could save life.”

The annexation of Cuba, continued Ayer, would be a fetid lotion. Cuban sugar lands and climate, four times more productive than the Louisiana sugar-growing milieu, would force sugar planters on the fertile lower Mississippi to switch to cotton, driving our own cotton cultivators on our “thin lands … from the business.” Furthermore, Cuban tobacco growers, with their superior quality and super abundant yield, would render Upper South tobacco planters obsolete. “Are you ready to give up Virginia, Kentucky, and perhaps Tennessee too, for Cuba? Would that strengthen slavery in the South?” In truth, answered this South Carolina reactionary, the Manifest Destiny chimera has “depraved … our true men.”25

Gulf expansionists answered that superior American Caucasians would end the depravity of Central American mongrels and free blacks. Sometimes New Orleans modernists even called overly raw Central American hustling a good trade for overly refined Virginia sneers. But New Orleans expansionists’ contempt for South Carolina’s negations overwhelmed their distaste for Upper South naysayers. During the 1850s, South Carolina secessionists and New Orleans imperialists periodically staged memorable newspaper wars. The warfare demonstrated that divisions between the oldest and newest Lower Souths could be as vicious as between the most northern and most southern Souths.

The newspaper war reached its peak in 1856, when the New Orleans Delta outdid Charles Sumner in heaping insults on poor Andrew P. Butler. Butler had warned the U.S. Senate against “intermeddling adventurers,” alias New Orleans–based filibusterers. The Delta shot back that Butler was thankfully “one of a few straggling remnants of the ancient regime.” It will “be a glad day for the South, and for the century, when the last leaf flutters in the autumnal wind upon that withered and sapless tree.” South Carolina’s withered extremists had trailed on Texas annexation, trailed on Kansas, trailed on Cuba, and now trailed in the holy fight for “the tropicalization of commerce in … Central America.” Where “other Southern States were active, practical,” and full of “healthy manhood and vigorous chivalry,” South Carolina “wrapped itself in the solicitude of its own abstractions.”

Witness Andrew Butler, a worthy specimen of these “few dozing pundits,” whose “principal political stock in trade appears to be respectability—intense respectability—petrified respectability.” To South Carolina’s petrified old fogies, New Orleans merchants screamed: Wake up, stop obsessing on disunion, and start working to expand southern territory and markets. Then you will charge ahead with the modern South that you can not lead backward.26

This time no Preston Brooks could answer insults aimed at Andrew Butler. Most South Carolina radicals were proud to be petrified fogies, proud of their eighteenth-century respectability, proud to be against the hustle and bustle of America’s gross capitalistic expansionism. Their antiexpansionism, together with their suspicion that Caribbean adventuring would damage and deplete the older South, underlines important points about the southern road to disunion. Instead of needing fresh land, southwestern planter capitalists already had too much land to cultivate in the 1850s. The economic roots of Caribbean expansionism flourished elsewhere, particularly rankly among the South’s most classic capitalists, those New Orleans merchants with the imperialistic dream that gained Caribbean markets would offset lost upper Mississippi markets. Meanwhile, opposition to Gulf expansionism waxed particularly strongly among those old-fashioned South Carolinians, fearful that new fresh land would depopulate tired old acres.

Nor had Kansas adventurism centered on quests for new acres to cultivate with slaves, not with fresh land abundant in the more tropical Southwest, not with border ruffians’ most pressing concern being saving Missouri for slaveholders. Nor would secession become any frenzied movement of southern planters for virgin land to cultivate. The most important secessionists, the South Carolinians, usually thought that nouveau territorial expansionism would weaken their proudly antique state. The most important territorial expansionists, the New Orleans mercantile entrepreneurs, usually thought that Union would strengthen their ultramodern commercial adventuring. Unfortunately for the filibusterers, such New Orleans mercantile sentiments had too restricted a geographical base in so agrarian a civilization, with its geographic center far from the Gulf.

– 5 –

The qualms about the Caribbean (and about New Orleans) fed qualms about the illegality of filibustering. Before U.S. filibusterers could replace foreign regimes, they had to defy their own nation’s Neutrality Laws. Back when the new American government had striven to be neutral in Europe’s Napoleonic Wars, Congress had passed these laws. The edicts required private individuals to be as neutral as their government. American citizens could not join foreign wars, civil conflicts, or revolutions when the United States remained at peace with the combatants. Federal officials could seize suspected filibusterers before they sailed from America. If convicted, suspects could be fined up to $3000 and jailed for up to three years.

In the presecession years, the northern presidents who presided over national laws enforced these edicts enthusiastically. Both Pierce and Buchanan sought legal purchases in the Caribbean as zealously as they repressed illegal freebooting from the United States. That even-handed attitude toward expansionism, they believed, best ensured sectional peace. Intolerance for lawbreakers also best preserved a nation worth saving.

Those immune to Gulf fever agreed. Jefferson Davis, for example, expected the United States to control the entire hemisphere “in the remote future.” Yet he noted that we had always “obtained territory …fairly, honorably, and peaceably.” We must be able to “invite the world to scrutinize our example of representative liberty.” Likewise, the Aberdeen (Mississippi) Sunny South demanded that “annexation” be consistent “with a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.”27

The South’s conception of decent national law made the filibusterers’ plight more difficult than the secessionists’. In both cases, the southern majority called extremism inexpedient. But since southern state’s rights orthodoxy gave a southern state convention absolute sovereignty, the sovereignty’s secession edict would bring other states to the rescue, if the federal government coerced a seceded state. After legitimate federal enforcement of legitimate neutrality laws, in contrast, filibustering captives enjoyed scant southern rescuers. Because President Buchanan, according to the Directory, could not hand ultimatums to Kansas’s sovereign Lecompton Convention, the president could not preclude the Lecompton Constitution. But since the president could imprison pirates, according to the South’s understanding of the law, he could repress Caribbean adventurers.

The president’s empowerment became obvious, even the one time that Southerners censored Buchanan for jailing a filibusterer. The Neutrality Laws authorized federal coercion only while a filibusterer remained on U.S. soil or on contiguous ocean areas. In November 1857, William Walker, having slipped out of Mobile and landed his freebooters in Nicaragua, thought he had evaded federal neutrality laws. But U.S. Navy Commodore Hiram Paulding landed in Nicaragua and hauled the freebooters back to America for trial.

President James Buchanan conceded that the arrest on foreign soil was a “grave error.” But Buchanan also praised both the Neutrality Laws and Paulding’s patriotism. The commodore, after all, had “relieved” the Nicaraguan government from “dreaded invasion.”

Lower and Middle South newspapers pounced on Buchanan’s qualified apology. Then southern congressmen voted 52–20 in favor of censoring the administration for Paulding’s illegal capture of Walker on Nicaraguan soil. But the twenty southern votes for the Buchanan administration’s illegal seizure contrasted with the merely six southern votes against the Lecompton Constitution. With 28 percent of southern congressmen favoring even lawless jailing of lawless pirates, Buchanan’s several other lawful arrests of buccaneers inspired most Southerners’ silent acceptance. Thus did the South pile further difficulties on filibustering extremists.28

– 6 –

The Neutrality Laws most deterred John Quitman, the most proslavery of the filibusterers, not least because this native Yankee brought the most pragmatic caution to his southern adventure. Quitman saw scant chance for Caribbean triumph unless he landed a private army of thousands in Cuba. Yet such a massive troop deployment invited federal detection before the soldiers of fortune left U.S. soil.

In contrast, Narciso López’s and William Walker’s willingness to gamble with smaller bands of invaders allowed them to slip away from the Neutrality Laws’ enforcers more easily. Thus Caribbean firing squads, not U.S. judges and presidents, usually presided over their debacles. True, federal officials stopped Narciso López in 1849, before his private armies could pounce on Cuba. But the fiery López tried again in 1850 and yet again in 1851, both times eluding American detention and suffering defeat on Cuban terrain.29

López expected that freedom-loving Cubans would rise up against Spanish tyranny the moment some 400 American freedom fighters stepped off the boats. Instead, overwhelming numbers of Spanish soldiers massed, routing López twice and executing him in 1851. As one New Orleans wit summed up such disasters, “I hope we shall send no more missionaries” to the oppressed Cubans, bearing “kettle drums and French horns, to sing to them, in plaintive accents under their drowsy palm-trees,

Won’t you come out tonight,


you come out tonight,

Won’t you come out tonight,

And fight by the light of the moon?”30

Just as López only once experienced a northern president’s enforcement of the Neutrality Laws, so his was only imperfectly a southern crusade. The buccaneer hailed from Venezuela, married a Cuban, and spoke no English. López also little emphasized saving slavery in Cuba, as befit an expedition that raised some of its funds in New York and many of its troops in Ohio.

William Walker, briefly president of Nicaragua in the mid-1850s, can be more easily seen as a planters’ partisan and the Neutrality Laws’ victim. This native Nashvillian and (sometimes) resident of New Orleans articulated (on occasion) a brilliant slaveholder case for Caribbean expansion. Sounding just like a western Missouri slaveholder, worried that free soil Kansas would imprison the state on a third side, Walker told Georgia planters that the Nicaraguan question involves “whether you will permit yourselves to be hemmed in on the south, as you are already on the north and west.” The South must not remain “quiet and idle, while impassable barriers” closed up “the only side left open.”31

Compared to López, the more southern Walker also suffered the Neutrality Laws more famously, thanks to Hiram Paulding. The U.S. Navy, however, collared Walker only that once, just as it did López. Neither capture discouraged either filibusterer. In Walker’s most triumphant escape from the Neutrality Laws, he sailed from New Orleans to Nicaragua in 1855 with all of fifty-seven compatriots. But where López, with eight times more soldiers, had crashed against a consolidated Cuban regime, Walker swept through an unconsolidated Nicaragua, torn apart in civil war. By the end of the year, America’s “Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny” controlled Nicaragua militarily. In mid-1856, Walker won the Nicaraguan presidential election. By then, some 1200 Americans had joined the conqueror, 600 of them in Walker’s army.

They were not enough. Walker swiftly generated enemies after he seized the presidency. In November 1856, his various foes—Costa Ricans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, El Salvadorians, and especially the New York merchant prince Cornelius Vanderbilt—had him on the run. On May 1, 1857, he sailed back to America. The Paulding affair followed six months later. Death by firing squad in Honduras came in another fifteen months.

This latest casualty not of Yankee presidents but of Latin executioners was only occasionally more proslavery than López. William Walker preferred free soil California, his most common American residence in the 1850s, to enslaved New Orleans, where he restively spent the late 1840s. The “Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny” never held slaves, never farmed, never married, never owned land, never settled in any profession, never stayed in any community.32

This anti-type Southerner also looked like an antitype filibusterer. Walker was short, slight, and emaciated, with hands as tiny as a girl’s and face as freckled as a boy’s. His famous grayish eye had almost an idiot’s stare. His long, thin lips, usually sealed shut, occasionally barely parted to emit a drawling southern monotone. One bored visitor, trying to get a rise out of this brawling tyrant, congratulated Walker on his great acquisitions in Central America. “Yeeeees,” whispered the “Man of Destiny,” “but-----I-----intend-----to-----have-----it----all-----before-----I-----have-----done.” Southern audiences often wondered if this dreamy reclusive would ever have another acre. As one Walker partisan lamented after the hero whispered his plea for support, “He came, he saw, and he got—nothing.”33

The shy dreamer, always wrapped (even on the battlefield) in an enormous preacher’s frock coat, never preached a proslavery syllable in his conquered land or legalized Nicaraguan slavery until his hold on the country had slipped, a year after he seized power. His speeches down south on proslavery Caribbean adventuring came only after his support in New York and San Francisco capitalistic circles had dried up. He first based his filibustering operations in San Francisco, not New Orleans. His first soldiers were failed gold dusters, not enterprising slaveholders. His Nicaraguan army ultimately enrolled as many foreign-born as southern-born troops and more northern-born soldiers. His men were scarcely ever slaveholders, rarely farmers, usually the poor young sports in the cities where capitalistic merchants financed his flings in Nicaragua. When this strange general swore at his enemies, he could sound as fanatical as John Brown of Harpers Ferry fame. But as fanatical on slavery as was John Brown and equally the victim of U.S. capture?! No way, answered most Southerners, who generally considered this curiosity some species from another civilization.

– 7 –

John Quitman, unlike López and Walker, truly was a proslavery partisan and a victim of the Neutrality Laws. Where William Walker wandered from Nashville to Philadelphia to New Orleans to San Francisco during a decade on the move, Quitman migrated from New York to Natchez and stayed there. Where Walker wandered from practicing the law to medicine to journalism to filibustering (and never was a slaveholder), Quitman augmented his lawyer’s income with plantations and eventually over 300 slaves. Where Walker never married, Quitman remained wedded to his Mississippi belle, provider of his first plantation. Where Walker was a minor and quasi-antislavery politician in California, Quitman was governor of Mississippi and an early secessionist. Where Walker disdained drinking, gambling, and even talking, Quitman boisterously talked and enthusiastically partied. Where the wispy Walker was less visible than his great frock coat, the imposing Quitman was six feet tall, with flowing curly hair, sweeping mustache, and fancy waistcoats bulging over great girth.34

Monmouth, Quitman’s famous house in Natchez, epitomized the Mississippi filibusterer’s masculine power. To Monmouth’s federal brick front, Quitman attached Natchez’s prescribed decoration, one of those two-storied white Greek porticoes, emboldened with white columns. But almost uniquely in Natchez, Quitman made Monmouth’s columns square, not round. Again almost uniquely in Natchez, Quitman eschewed the lacy decorations that usually softened Georgian bulk. Utterly masculine Monmouth signified that a male colossus here reigned.35

Quitman’s male charisma came connected to this native Northerner’s southern ferocity, a zealotry that exceeded all but a very few native Southerners’. The passion to stop at nothing that would save his adopted paradise made him the South’s pivotal secessionist in 1850 and its supreme filibusterer in the mid-1850s. His death in the late 1850s left the ensuing colorful tale of the Southern Confederacy a little paler than it would otherwise have been.

Like all the extremists who ultimately made a revolution, Quitman considered southern moderation the barrier to destiny. He saw southern national party politicians as keepers of slaveholders’ prison. In their hunger for national party patronage, politicos dumbed down awareness of the South’s dangerous problems and taught the folk to cherish compromised solutions. Like Yancey and all the other ultras, whether they operated inside or outside a national party, Quitman meant to find the issue that would remove the blinders from falsely educated eyes.

Yet what made this charismatic educator so unforgettable was less his success at teaching Southerners to be ultras than his capacity to stay simultaneously northern—to remain a very shrewd and practical operator—even in his highest southern flights. No other southern extremist charged ahead so recklessly—or reconsidered so cautiously. Before his Cuban adventure, this Mississippi governor advocated disunion, in response to the Compromise of 1850. In his typical buccaneering spirit, the governor told South Carolina secessionists to back off for a moment. Then he would lead Mississippi out of the Union first. Skittish South Carolinians gladly obliged. But Quitman, after reconsidering, saw that his pledge had come too soon. So momentum was lost, secession folded, and the chagrined fire-eater learned never to move again until he had the firepower to triumph.36 By accepting that lesson, Quitman showed he was no Walker, no López, just a shrewd ex-Yankee who sought to make practicality a hallmark of the southern extremist.

The annexation of Cuba, Quitman believed in 1853–55, offered the practical issue to goad moderates toward extremism. The Mississippian considered President Franklin Pierce an unusually dangerous moderate. The president sought to buy enslaved Cuba, thus mollifying the Southerners, even though purchase was impossible—an impossibility that mollified the Northerners.



The severe, masculine lines of John Quitman’s Monmouth (above), and especially its blocked columns, contrasting with the lilting, soft lines of Dunleith (below), and especially its circular columns that spread over all four sides of the mansion. The two Natchez gems, both now hotels, brought the Southwest’s Greek revival style to climax—a culmination a century removed from Charleston’s late eighteenth-century Georgian climax, the Miles Brewton House (see p. 358). Courtesy of the Library of Congress (both Natchez images).

The crisis in Cuba, Quitman conceived in 1853–55, must destroy toleration for mollification—must annihilate the pols’ anesthetizing solution of waiting patiently for unattainable purchases. One word summed up Quitman’s sense of crisis at his supreme filibustering moment: Africanization. “Spain under advice from England has determined to Africanize Cuba,” he warned. One of his prime supporters, John S. Thrasher, privately explained why the warning added a sense of impersonal urgency to that prime personal motive for most filibusterers—a romantic knight’s lust for a quixotic escapade. Was not Cuba, Thrasher whispered, “the heart’s mecca to everyone whose soul burns with a single spark of nature’s fire? … What hills and vales! What picturesque men! What soul enhancing women!” And now what a crucial mission, to “save our brothers of the Island of Cuba from social death, under the iniquitous plottings of black European philanthropy.… The question is, shall the African or the American Caucassion rule in that lovely island.”37

As evidence that Africans might rule, the New Orleans Delta pointed to Cuba’s (Spain-appointed) new captain general, Juan M. de la Pezuela. Shortly after taking over his near dictatorial office in December 1853, Pezuela notified some slaves that they had been freed. Their crass owners had never informed these unfortunates. Pezuela also eased other slaves’ purchase of their freedom. He legalized racial intermarriage. He invited blacks into the military. He encouraged the importation of Africans who would be apprenticed for only two years and then freed. Were we disposed “to see a new Hayti, or even a new Jamaica, so near to our shores?” asked the Delta. With that question, southern precipitators once again called their fellows to a war to preserve a borderland, even if ninety miles of sea this time separated an edge of the South from a contaminating neighbor.38

Apprehension about this alleged Africanization led swiftly to Southwide urgency, even briefly consuming the usually antifilibustering Upper South. “When the barbaric passions of the African are let loose,” shuddered the Richmond Enquirer, “it will be too late to talk of the annexation of Cuba,” just as it became too late to move “against the insurgent negroes of San Domingo.” The Baltimore Republican wanted “no other negro kingdom—no second Haiti or San Domingo erected upon our borders.” As the New Orleans Courier explained, “With such a nursery of Abolitionists upon our southern border,” slaves “will be carried off every year, and thousands of desperadoes … will sow the seeds of servile insurrection throughout the South.”39

The Southwide shudder at a free black Cuba widened the New Orleans perspective that a Caribbean empire would bring a nourishing Gulf commerce. Racial hysteria also supplemented the hope that a new slave state of Cuba would give the South two more U.S. senators and more members still of the House of Representatives. Above all else, because of the looming specter of an abolitionizing captain general, the Caribbean issue at last pressed on the South’s sorest points. The central southern drives for territorial expansion had always started with horror visions of contiguous free soil enclaves, whether in a potentially English abolitionized republic of Texas or in a northern liberated territory of Kansas or now in a Spanish emancipated nation of Cuba.

Quitman’s impeccable proslavery message and credentials gave the Mississippian a southern organization far more sweeping than Walker’s or López’s. Quitman’s recruiters and money raisers fanned over the Gulf South and especially over New Orleans, supplementing the Cuba junta’s work in New York. Hard workers for Quitman included Lamars in Georgia, Davises in Mississippi, William Walker’s brother in Tennessee, James P. Henderson and Rip Ford in Texas, Duncan Kenner, John Slidell, and Pierre Soulé in Louisiana—a veritable who’s who of rich southwestern planters, governors, and U.S. senators (but not one a South Carolinian!). The enthusiasts raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and enlisted a thousand men.40

Then the federal government struck. In May 1854, President Franklin Pierce announced that be would “prosecute with due energy” any filibustering expedition. A month later, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Campbell, presiding over the U.S. Circuit Court in New Orleans, handed a grand jury very wide license to indict Quitman and followers for violating the Neutrality Laws. Giving speeches or raising funds, insisted the judge, was as indictable as stepping onto a Cuba-bound vessel. When the grand jury still could not justify indictments, Campbell became juror as well as judge. He insisted that Quitman put up a $3000 bond, to ensure that the filibusterer would suspend operations for nine months.41

Campbell exemplified how the South hurt the South when it came to filibustering. A native of Mobile, a center of filibustering second only to New Orleans, the judge had been an issuer of the so-called Dred Scott Decision, that prosouthern event second to none in the Buchanan years. But Campbell, much like Buchanan, stood for law and Union, not John Quitman’s highest priorities. The Alabama jurist winced at slavery because his sacred text, the law, did not sufficiently protect bondsmen. Campbell wished that state law would bar slaveholders from breaking up slave families and from putting up slaves as collateral for loans. John Quitman, so John Campbell thought, must not place imperious slaveholders still further beyond the law’s restraints.

By demanding a bond for good behavior, Campbell slowed Quitman’s momentum. Men now wondered if Quitman would ever leave America, much less conquer Cuba. Fundraising and troop raising almost stopped, as southern partisans questioned whether to risk their dollars, much less their lives, on Monmouth’s shackled master. Nor did risks seem as necessary after Spain replaced Captain General Pezuela with José G. de la Concha, a less committed “Africanizationist.” Nor did prospects seem auspicious after U.S. officials seized the New York Cuban junta’s ship in early 1855.

In one last grasp for hope, Quitman journeyed to Washington. There he sought to persuade President Pierce to suspend the Neutrality Laws. Pierce more persuasively handed Quitman some news about Cuban repressions awaiting freebooters. In April 1855, the most proslavery of filibusterers surrendered his command.

– 8 –

Quitman’s surrender to the practicalities signified that despite isothermics, a Caribbean empire had become an even more unreachable southern dream than an enslaved state of Kansas. Natchez’s favorite ex-Northerner saw that Caribbean purchase would never come off and that a López-like force of only 400 men would never conquer. Quitman also came to see that a filibusterer army of thousand(s) could never leave these shores, not in the face of a significant southern opposition that both discouraged recruitment and encouraged a northern president’s (and a southern judge’s) enforcement of the Neutrality Laws. If all the South had been New Orleans and had demanded no federal insistences to the filibusterers, as almost all the South had demanded no federal insistences to the Lecompton Convention, presidents might not have been so quick to enforce the Neutrality Laws. But all the South did not sympathize with Caribbean adventuring or filibustering illegalities (or New Orleans!), as John Campbell demonstrated.

For a few months, Walker’s Nicaragua invasion proved more invulnerable than Quitman’s and López’s projected Cuban incursions. But Nicaragua, like the rest of Central America, not only encouraged more filibusterer hopes than Cuba, because of its less consolidated regime, but also discouraged slaveholder hopes, because of its slaveless population. Where would the American slaves come from, even if some William Walker stabilized a proslavery government for more than a few months? Southwestern planters still saw little to recommend unstable Central America or shaky Kansas, compared to virgin Texas and Arkansas acres. As for Border South and South Carolina slaveholders, they shuddered at shaky regimes even more than did nouveau southwestern slaveholders. Moreover, would the South strengthen itself by depopulating these states?

That question, asked in the South ever more incessantly as Caribbean adventurers staggered toward their denouncement, showed that the South needed more than isothermically superior land to escape the Kansas futility. To expand over southerly acres without losing northerly hinterlands, the South needed more slaves—many more slaves. As that realization hardened amidst the latest (Caribbean) futility of the Buchanan years, the road to disunion took a revealing swerve.

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