The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire: 1854-1861. By Robert E. May. (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1989.)
Robert E. May’s The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire contributes a great deal to American history by delving into its periphery. By investigating America’s expansionist impulse in the Caribbean, May sheds new light on the sectional crisis that enveloped the United States during the nineteenth century. American expansion throughout the entire Western Hemisphere was dogma for the Manifest Destiny generation. Northerners and Southerners could agree that their spread throughout the land was ordained. Only when a future Caribbean empire became mired in the larger debate on slavery did the issue take on a truly sectional caste.
May’s central figures in this narrative are the filibuster’s, men who would raise private funds and private armies to invade foreign territory. Many of these men became heroes to a generation bent on expanding their nation’s borders and thorns in the sides of American statesmen trying to maintain peaceful relations with their European counterparts. The filibusters themselves did not concern themselves with international relations but rather the power and riches they could garner by invading other nations. To fuel their expeditions, they pursued any means possible to gain support and this led them to the South and slavery.
The Southern economy was dependent on slavery and the institution relied on ever increasing amounts of cheap, available land to sustain it. For Southerners, the Caribbean and Central America would be a gem that would sustain their way of life and their political influence in Washington by providing ample territory for slavery to expand. This forced the issue of Caribbean expansion to become divided along sectional lines. Prior to the 1850’s, a person’s position on expansion was often dictated by ideological leanings with Whigs generally opposing it and Democrats supporting it. However, during the 1850’s northerners overwhelmingly opposed it and there was staunch support throughout the south although May notes some exceptions to this rule.
Only after secession and the onset of the Civil War did the southern expansionist’s dreams fade away. With all the resources of the Confederacy focused on fighting the Union, there was little financial support for filibusters. Furthermore, the hopes of gaining support in Europe led southerners to set aside their Caribbean aspirations. The conclusion of the Civil War had settled the issue of slavery in the United States leaving Central and South America less alluring than it had been before. As the once-again United States recovered from the conflict, expansion southward seemed a thing of the past.
May’s monograph is well researched and well written. He does a spectacular of piecing together the complicated political machinations surrounding territorial expansion and provides insight into the period’s politics. He brings to light a fact that historians often forget: America’s borders were not always the same. By doing so, he places political debates and policy decisions within a broader context and thereby improves historian’s knowledge of the period. Although a more explicit explanation of the Caribbean’s role in the secession crisis would have been preferred, this book stands as an important contribution to the field.
Robert E. May The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire 1854-1861 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.Original edition, 1973)
In the wake of the Mexican War, American expansionist urges reached their zenith. Southerners, in particular, urged the annexation of Cuba and other Caribbean possessions to expand the institution of American slavery into the Caribbean and even South America. May argues that before 1850, expansionist tendencies generally followed the political parties; Whigs, both northern and southern, opposed expansion, while most Democrats favored the idea. However, events did not crystallize until the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. This legislation ensured that the expansion of slavery would cause national headaches for years to come. Only after 1854 then did Southerners launch a concerted effort to expand slavery into Central American and even annex Cuba as a slave state.
During this period directly following the Mexican War, Manifest Destiny became “Sectional Destiny,” with Southerners leading the fight for increased Caribbean possessions. May points out that it is remarkable that Cuba did not become a U.S. possession during these years; almost every president elected during this time period favored annexation and three attempted to outright buy the island from Spain. Furthermore, the Spanish gave Southerners the pretext they wanted in February, 1854 when the American steamer Black Hawk entered Havana Harbor with nine hundred bales of cotton on board. Spanish authorities seized the vessel on the pretext that it had not complied with harbor regulations. President Pierce could have used this as a pretext for war, or he could have endorsed the gathering filibustering expedition of John A. Quitman of Mississippi to seize the island.
John Quitman led the Cuba movement of 1854-55 to wrest the island from Spain. In 1850 Quitman felt the South should secede, but short of that, he viewed the annexation of Cuba as the next best thing to strengthen states rights in the Union. Quitman’s planned expedition elicited a great deal of excitement among Southerners; almost all the prominent Texans of the time, including John S. Ford, Hugh McLeod, John Marshall, James P. Henderson and Hiram Waller all endorsed the plan, as did U.S. Senator from Mississippi Jefferson Davis and President Pierce. Despite this early support, the tenor of national politics soon turned against Quitman, and his former allies, including Davis and Pierce, began to turn on him because of the lack of support for the movement anywhere outside the Deep South, and the growing and powerful antislavery movement in the North. Some of Quitman’s followers began to pull out, and when Quitman actually set a date for invasion (March, 1855) the Pierce Administration stepped in decisively to stop him. Instead, American diplomats gathered as Ostend, Belgium issued the Ostend Manifesto, advocating that the United States should go to war with Spain if the Spanish refused to sell Cuba to the U.S. However, the extremely public nature of the manifesto hurt the cause so much that Pierce made only feeble attempts to purchase Cuba from then on. For all intents and purposes, the purchase of Cuba had become so sectionalized that politically it was now nearly impossible to acquire the island.
The next major filibustering expedition in the Caribbean came in 1856 when the native Tennessean William Walker raised an army and actually conquered and occupied Nicaragua for a short time. Despite this success, Walker did not gain any favor with the United States government, particularly U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua John H. Wheeler. At first, President Pierce endorsed Walker’s government and proclamation of himself as President of Nicaragua, but events soon spun out of control for the new “president.” Other Central American countries, including Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and San Salvador conspired to overthrow Walker. At the same time, an anti-filibustering sentiment swept over Washington and reversed Pierce’s position in the issue. The United States joined the allied Central Americans to ouster Walker, and on May 1, 1857 the erstwhile president of Nicaragua surrendered to a U.S. ship.
Throughout the 1850s Southerners, especially Texans, advocated the annexation of Mexican territory as well. It seemed to them a logical outgrowth of the Manifest Destiny that had already added half of Mexico’s national territory to the U.S. in 1848. President James Buchanan especially pushed hard on a protectorate treaty, known as the Lane Treaty that reached the Senate for a vote in 1860. Of course, the treaty failed because of the opposition by the Republican Party, but Buchanan’s commitment to annexation did not end with Mexico.
In 1859 Buchanan authorized $30 million to purchase Cuba from Spain. Senator James Slidell of Louisiana sponsored the bill in the senate, and even though the bill went down to defeat in a highly charged political atmosphere, it illustrates the fact that James Buchanan aspired to every bit as much territorial acquisition as had President James K. Polk, the quintessential expansionist.
This expansionist tendency is not to say that some Southerners did not oppose expansion, because many, primarily South Carolinians, did just that. James Henry Hammond, John C. Calhoun and others opposed annexation on the grounds that it obscured other, more pressing matters of Southern rights within the Union. Calhoun also opposed the acquisition of Mexico because along with it would come millions of Mexicans.
Although May admits that secession in 1860-61 did not emanate solely from dashed dreams of a Caribbean empire, it would be a mistake to dismiss the Southern version of Manifest Destiny as completely unrelated. He claims that expansionist rhetoric held a subordinate position in the language of disunion because Southerners were trying desperately to justify secession on Constitutional grounds to the North and Europe. The secessionist call for a tropical empire was the culmination of the sectionalization of Manifest Destiny following the Mexican War. After secession, the Confederacy was obviously ill-equipped to carry out these Caribbean dreams, and “As dream and reality met, the South’s grandiose vision dissolved in the blood of war.” (pp. 244)
John R. Lundberg
Texas Christian UniversityThe Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854-1861. By Robert E. May. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002. Pp. xi + 304. Foreword, preface, acknowledgments, afterword, footnotes, bibliography, index. ISBN 0-8130-2512-5. $24.95, paper. )
The 1850s were boom years for the Southern United States.
Powered by slave labor,
the South’s agricultural economy was at its peak in the years leading up to 1861. While times were good for many Southern planters, there was also an uneasy fear shared by these planters that the handwriting was on the wall for the Old South. Unless slavery could expand into new states and territories, the existing slave states would be hemmed in and surrounded by free states, and slavery would be finished (not right away perhaps, but eventually over time). The only way to preserve slavery was through territorial expansion.
Equally important was the concern among Southern States that they were rapidly becoming a minority position in the political affairs of the United States. Much of the country’s new population growth was occurring in the North, where immigrants preferred the climate and absence of slavery. With more people settling in the North this translated into increased Northern/Free State representation in the House of Representatives, tilting the balance of power northward.
Another contentious issue was the admission of new states into the Union. Not only was the South concerned about whether the prospective state would be Free or Slave, they were also worried about what would happen to that state’s two seats in the U.S. Senate. If more Free States came in at the expense of Slave, the South would end up with a minority voice in the Senate as well. At first the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, with the possible expansion of slavery into Kansas, held much promise for Southerners. However four years later, after much violence and strife, Kansas would be admitted to the Union as a Free State.
During the 1850s the political balance of power in the House and Senate had not completely shifted, but it was coming soon and Southern States could see this clearly. Hence much of the decade can be seen as a series of almost desperate attempts by the South to expand slavery both westward and especially southward to the tropics (the climate and agricultural conditions being more favorable there than the arid American West). The three main areas where the South focused its attention on were Cuba, Central America and Mexico. In these expansion attempts the South came close on several occasions, but was never able to achieve their objective.
Americans wanted their empire to expand in a glorious display of Manifest Destiny, from Atlantic to Pacific, and possibly southward into the Caribbean, but many did not want that expansion to include slavery. It was this chronic failure to acquire new territory for slavery, attempts frequently blocked by Northern anti-slavery politicians, which led to the South’s conclusion it would be better off seceding. Under a Southern nation, slavery could expand without Northern interference.
Southern Dream chronologically details these various attempts by the South in the 1850s to expand into a Southern-Caribbean Empire. Author Robert May “tells the story of Southern imperialists who sought to create abroad a civilization that was under fire at home.” (p. xi) “A tropical slave empire would protect white Southerners from Northern aggression. It would offer an escape valve from the limits of continental expansion imposed by the South’s Northern enemies.” (p. ix) U.S. Senator Albert Brown of Mississippi succinctly summed up his advocacy of expansion into foreign lands: “I want them…for the planting or spreading of slavery.” (p.9)
There is a whole Southern philosophy intertwined with these expansion efforts that is both naïve and surreal. A racist and condescending superiority frequently enveloped their imperialist arguments. Southerners felt it their duty to lift up these inferior dark-skinned masses of the tropics, “people incapable of self-rule”, who were “ignorant, bigoted and miserable”, according to one 1856 newspaper. “America should regenerate her neighbors”, neighbors such as the Mexicans, who were “cowardly, treacherous greasers…utterly incapable of framing a government and maintaining a nationality…their republic an abortion.” (p.4-5)
The Southern Caribbean perspective fared no better. “These miserable republics, peopled by a degraded half race of humanity, …disintegrating communities and decaying races…. will yet bow to the rule of the Anglo American …With swelling hearts and suppressed impatience they await our coming and with joyous shouts of Welcome, Welcome will they receive us…. Our westward development…must turn southward, where decaying nations and races invite our coming.” (p. 6)
The best candidate for Southern expansion efforts was the island of Cuba, a Spanish possession, which already had slavery. Strong-arm tactics by America, including the offer of $100 million dollars by President James Polk, failed to coerce Spain into selling Cuba. When Cuba could not be purchased, several U.S. based filibustering expeditions were organized to take the island by force. The first attempt, organized by Narciso Lopez near New Orleans in 1849, ended in failure two years later in August 1851. As was often the case in these filibustering expeditions, expected local sympathy failed to materialize after the invasion and the filibusters were promptly captured and executed. However, another replacement for Lopez quickly came forward. Mexican War General and Mississippi Governor John Quitman attempted to raise an expedition to take Cuba in 1854. The United States government intervened. Under the Neutrality Act of 1818, private military expeditions were prohibited from assembling on American soil.
American efforts to acquire Cuba appear almost comical in their recounting. The U.S. government firmly clamped down on any filibustering expeditions to Cuba, such as Quitman’s, lest these actions alienate Spain from possibly selling their possession. Yet American actions virtually insured that Spain would never sell. The Ostend Manifesto, written in 1854 by the U.S. ministers to France, England and Spain, suggested taking Cuba by force if Spain refused to sell. This clumsy and heavy-handed document virtually ensured the Spanish would rebuff all American attempts to purchase Cuba from 1854-1861.
With Cuba looking increasingly untenable, Southern imperialists were forced to look elsewhere. Central America was the next stop, in this case Nicaragua. Again filibustering was to be the method of acquisition. In this case the attempt initially succeeded. William Walker and his force left San Francisco in May 1855 and within six months had seized power in Nicaragua. In 1856 Walker attempted to attract colonists and Southern support for his invasion by legalizing slavery in Nicaragua, extending an offer to “gentlemen from the Southern States, wishing to emigrate to this country with their slaves are invited to come.” (p. 108) Walker had taken Nicaragua “in the name of the white race and now offers it to you and your slaves at a time when you have not a friend on the face of this earth.” (p. 108) However Walker really didn’t care about slavery and his rhetoric was simply a ploy to get more settlers to help solidify his position. At the end of the day, the only thing William Walker cared about was William Walker. By May 1857 Walker had lost power in Nicaragua and was forced to return to the United States. Never one to accept defeat, Walker immediately tried to arrange several successive filibustering expeditions, but all of them failed and by 1858 William Walker and dreams of Nicaragua were finished.
Since Central America no longer looked viable, Southern attention in 1858 turned to a third option, Mexico. Not satisfied with what some had considered the “Mexican War land grab” ten years prior, America was once again looking at its neighbor’s lands with covetous eyes. With Santa Anna out of the political picture and a weak government in Mexico City, the time to acquire additional land by purchase, or if necessary, by force, seemed ripe. John “Rip” Ford of Texas claimed that Mexico was “the South’s guarantee of future slavery expansion…the eyes of many a Southerner were longingly turned to Mexico’s cotton and sugar lands.” (p.137)
Another strong advocate of obtaining Mexico were the Knights of the Golden Circle, a clandestine Southern organization founded in 1855. The Knights wanted to acquire Mexico, believing this territory would give the South up to 25 new states, 50 new Senators and 60 or more Representatives in the House, “thus satisfying Southern desires for enough new slave states to achieve sectional equality with the North.” (p.150)
However, expansionist proposals involving Mexico, including several floated by President James Buchanan, were voted down in Congress in May 1860. Missouri Republican Edward Bates expressed his hope that “this was the last attempt by the administration to establish American dominion over the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.” (p. 161) Representative John Perry of Maine opined: “When the Southerners talk to us about the acquisition of Mexico, it means expansion and perpetuity of slavery.” (p.161)
With failures in Cuba, Central America and Mexico, the South in 1860 had run out of practical options for further expansion. Southerners now felt the only avenue open for acquiring new territory was separation from the Union. The election of Abraham Lincoln only reinforced this view held by many in the South, because of Lincoln’s opposition to a new compromise proposal that allowed slavery in new territories “hereafter acquired.” This compromise, floated by Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky on December 18, 1860, could not dislodge hardliners on both sides who, by this time, were firmly entrenched in their positions. Two days later, South Carolina seceded.
Author Robert May makes a compelling argument that while the failure to obtain a Caribbean empire was not the only reason why the South seceded, it was certainly one of the primary causes. May has crafted a very readable, entertaining and scholarly work that will appeal to anyone interested in the American Civil War and the decade preceding it.
The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854-1861. By Robert E. May. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, c.1989. Pp. ix, 304. $10.00, ISBN 0-8203-1136-7).
The turbulent political environment of the 1850s contains many historical venues that warrant scholarly probing, but often the South’s dream of a Caribbean empire fails to enter the discussion of pre-Civil War ideologies. Robert E. May’s The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire addresses the South’s persistent discussion of an empire south of its borders. May specializes in Southern History and has taught at Purdue University for the past 32 years. He authored an award winning biography about Mississippi governor, turned filibuster, John Quitman. May also edited The Union, the Confederacy, and the Atlantic Rim, which discusses Civil War diplomacy.
May begins by presenting an overview of the perceptions, hopes, and key players involved in the vision of southward advancement in the hopes of creating an empire. The focus of this study lies with the countries of Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua, primarily focusing on the latter two. May argues that the manifest destiny mindset of nineteenth-century expansionism turned into sectional destiny by the early 1850s. The author’s evidence base to support this thesis addresses the filibusters to Cuba and Nicaragua, the fear of slave emancipation in Cuba, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Spain’s waning empire presented an opportunity for the U.S. to seriously turn its attention toward the annexation of Cuba. Narciso López planned three invasions of Cuba. In 1849 López’s first attempt dissolved before it left for the island. The following year he successfully landed on the island but faced formidable Spanish opposition and was forced to retreat. During his last filibuster in 1851 López was captured and executed. The López filibusters marked the beginning of a planned invasion of Cuba every year until the outbreak of the Civil War. A new leader of the Cuba Movement emerged, John Quitman governor of Mississippi, hoping to succeed where López had failed.
Quitman, along with many other Southerners, believed that the South’s ability to acquire Cuba was an integral part of balancing the powers between the North; adding Cuba to the slaveholding South would balance the North’s acquisition of California as a free state. The Mississippian garnered the financial support and public interest within the South for his Cuba filibuster. Earnest planning continued, into 1854, but the Pierce administration began to waiver on the idea of going to war with Spain. Due to the growing antislavery clamor, the president publicly denounced any filibuster plans to Cuba. To further complicate the South’s quest for Cuba, the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 made Cuba more difficult to deal with. President Pierce had to “proceed gingerly” because the northern antislavery Democrats were furious over his support of the bill (60). Also the Ostend Manifesto, a pro-war with Spain dispatch, further complicated the Cuban Movement. By mid-1855 Quitman’s filibuster plans to Cuba were no longer viable. May argues that Quitman's and Pierce’s inability to acquire Cuba between 1854-1855 “heightened the sectional controversy” (73). Quitman accused president Pierce of placating the North and risking American commercial interests by allowing for the Africanization of Cuba. These divisive elements continued into Buchanan’s administration.
Next, May turns his attention to William Walker and his filibusters into Nicaragua. Walker’s successful 1855 adventure into the Central American country eventually led to his presidency of the country. Walker’s stature was short-lived.
Anglo-American tensions surfaced concerning the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (1850), which had ruled out American and British colonization in Central America. Proslavery outcries from the South troubled Buchanan’s administration when Commodore Hiram Paulding of the U.S. Navy arrested Walker in Nicaraguan waters. The proceeding debates over the seizure illustrated sectional rivalries. May’s sources reveal that Walker became “a symbol of slave expansion” (121).
May also addresses the South’s desire to annex Mexico. Southerners, especially Texans, were extremely concerned with runaway slaves crossing the border to relative safety. As with Cuba and Nicaragua, Southerners envisioned Mexico becoming part of the slave culture. Despite the fact that Mexico abolished slavery in 1829, the South believed that it could be reintroduced, thereby securing the South’s political and social status.
The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire convincingly proves that there was a strong Southern movement to expand into Latin America. May adeptly illustrates the nuances and ideological differences for expansion that persisted between the Gulf States and southern states situated to the north. The author also discusses the political differences between supporting the extension of the U.S. into the Caribbean and supporting the extension of slavery into the Caribbean. May asserts that these were two very different things (180). Besides the issue of extending slavery several other concerns for southward expansion existed. Senate debates indicated that points of contention also included the time that was being spent on issues such as acquiring Cuba rather than considering options of providing land to small farmers. Another concern was the fiscal demand; many indicated their uneasiness with “robbing the treasury” to purchase these Caribbean lands and the defense of them (172).
May’s paperback edition includes an afterword that reassesses the major themes addressed in the original 1973 publication. He stands behind his original assertion that “southern designs upon Cuba, Nicaragua and Mexico must be taken into account if one wants to understand the crisis of the 1850s and the failure of sectional compromise on the eve of the Civil War” (275). The title of the book gives the timeframe of 1854-1861; a more accurate chronology would be to begin with 1850. Much of May’s foundation begins with the political designs and ideological parameters present in 1850. The author’s use of primary sources represents solid research. He utilizes a large variety of personal papers and leading newspapers of the day, however, May fails to list the numerous newspapers in the bibliography. Another omission is any representation of the mindset of the people inhabiting the Caribbean lands. The reader does not get a sense of what the Cuban, Mexican, or Nicaraguan people think about being annexed to the United States. These omissions do not detract from the importance of May’s scholarly contribution to the historiography of U.S. foreign diplomacy leading up to the Civil War.