Robert E. May, The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854-1861
Robert E. May’s The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854-1861 recounts the story of the South’s stymied vision of Manifest Destiny in the 1850s.
In the 1840s, the United States under President John Tyler and James K. Polk annexed Texas, went to war with Mexico, acquired California and the American Southwest and settled the Oregon Question with Great Britain. Then from 1848 to 1851, the North and South fought over the spoils of Western expansion in Congress, and the polarizing contest over the admission of California as a free state ended with the Compromise of 1850 which nearly brought about disunion.
For half a century, the North and South had expanded west across the North American continent as equal partners in the Union. The slave states had expanded along with the free states under the terms of the Missouri Compromise. The admission of California upset the sectional balance of power by admitting a free state south of the parallel 36°30 north. The polarizing debates over the Wilmot Proviso, which was designed to ban slavery from the Western territories, also put the South on notice that elements in the North sought to aggrandize all future territory to the free states.
In the 1850s, Robert E. May argues that Manifest Destiny became sectionalized over the extension of slavery: Northerners attempted to block the addition of new slave states in the West while the South began to nurture its own dream of empire in the Caribbean. The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire intensified after the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the rise of the Republican Party in 1854 with its core Wilmot Proviso doctrine of the non-extension of slavery in the Western territories.
Southerners placed great hopes in three unfulfilled Caribbean acquisitions in the 1850s:
No acquisition was more ardently desired or better illustrates the Caribbean Dream in the South than the long sought acquisition of Cuba which had been desired since Jefferson’s time:
“Occassionally southerners got so carried away by their own rhetoric about Cuba that their prose became erotic: “[Cuba] admires Uncle Sam, and he loves her. Who shall forbid the bans? Matches are made made in heaven, and why not this? Who can object if he throws his arms around the Queen of the Antilles, as she sits, like Cleopatra’s burning throne, upon the silver wares, breathing her spicy, tropics breath, and pouring her rosy, sugared lips? Who can object? She is of age – take her, Uncle Sam!”
Three attempts were made by Southern-controlled presidents to purchase Cuba from Spain: James K. Polk in 1848, Franklin Pierce in 1854 and James Buchanan in 1859.
The 1854 attempt produced the Ostend Manifesto which strongly implied that the Pierce administration was willing to go to war with Spain to prevent British-inspired abolition and the Africanization of Cuba. In 1848 and 1854, the Spanish government refused to sell Cuba. By 1859, Republicans in Congress were strong enough to block the acquisition of Cuba through purchase or war.
The Venezuelan filibuster Narciso López cooperated with Southern expansionists in a failed attempt to conquer Cuba for Dixie in 1851. John Quitman, governor and “father of secession” in Mississippi, who was a close ally of South Carolina fire eater Robert Barnwell Rhett, was even prosecuted in federal court for his involvement in an armed conspiracy to invade Cuba. López was executed by a firing squad after invading Cuba with a band of filibusters from New Orleans in 1851.
Virtually every major political figure in the Deep South in the 1850s – Robert Barnwell Rhett, William Lowndes Yancey, Jefferson Davis, Robert Toombs, Alexander Stephens, Judah Benjamin and others – supported Cuban annexation which was something of a litmus test issue at the time. Even Northerners like Stephen Douglas loudly championed Cuban annexation. The 1856 Democratic platform recognized this enthusiasm by calling for American ascendancy in the Gulf of Mexico.
Within Cuba, some sugar planters correctly feared that British pressure upon the Spanish government would bring about the abolition of slavery and the demise of white supremacy and some of them supported America annexation for that reason. If the sectional controversy over slavery had not put the brakes on American expansion in the 1850s, Cuba would have likely shared the fate of Texas, Louisiana and Florida which had all previously been French or Spanish territories.
Mexico continued to be a fertile target for Southern expansion well after the Mexican War.
The Gadsden Purchase of 1853 resulted in the acquisition of southern Arizona and southern New Mexico. The original plan would have acquired a huge section of northern Mexico including Baja California, Baja California Sur, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas.
In 1858, President James Buchanan attempted to purchase Lower California, Sonora, and Chihuahua and establish a protectorate over northern Mexico – his plan was blocked by Northern Republicans in Congress who opposed Southern expansion. During the War Between the States, Santiago Vidaurri, the governor of Nuevo León and Coahuila petitioned Jefferson Davis for annexation to the Confederacy. This was highly impractical though due to wartime considerations.
In the 1850s, countless private filibusters from the United States attempted to conquer parts of northern Mexico. One such expedition was led by William Walker who invaded Baja California and attempted to annex Sonora before he was repulsed. The Knights of the Golden Circle, the most colorful of all the antebellum Southern Rights organizations, was a predominantly Texas-based organization that regarded the conquest of Mexico as its primary field of operations.
“The primary economic and political goal of this organization was to create a prosperous, slave-holding Southern Empire extending in the shape of a circle from their proposed capital at Havana, Cuba, through the southern states of the United States, Mexico, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. The plan also called for the acquisition of Mexico which was then to be divided into fifteen new slave-holding states which would shift the balance of power in Congress in favor of slavery.
Facing the Gulf of Mexico, these new states would form a large crescent. The robust economy the KGC hoped to create would be fueled by cotton, sugar, tobacco, rice, coffee, indigo, and mining. These seven industries would employ slave labor.”
When Louisiana seceded from the Union in 1861, its commissioner successfully argued that Texas should secede from the United States for both states could cooperate in the Southern Confederacy to complete the conquest of the Gulf of Mexico. A few months later, the Confederate secret service would attempt to engineer the secession of Veracruz from Mexico.
Aside from Cuba and Mexico, Nicaragua proved to be the last major target for Southern expansion in the Caribbean in the 1850s.
In this case, Southerners pinned their hopes on William Walker – the “Grey-eyed man of destiny,” and the most successful filibuster in American history – who conquered Nicaragua in 1855 and restored slavery there in a bid for Southern support for his legitimacy in 1856.
Although the U.S. opposed filibustering, arrested William Walker and never seriously considered annexing his short-lived regime, Walker became a hero in the Deep South and was one of the most well-known men of his times. He was a romantic figure who attracted support from Northerners and Southerners alike before he played the slavery card in an attempt to save his regime.
“Thus even his individualism is a mere denial of anything higher, and not an affirming of his own soul. The extraordinary man is the one who puts something else before his own life and security. Even as he faced the firing squad, William Walker could have saved his life by merely renouncing his claim to President of Nicaragua. To the common man, this is insane.”
In 1860, William Walker was executed by a firing squad in Honduras at the age of 36 during his final bid to reconquer Nicaragua. Francis Parker Yockey exalted him above as the embodiment of Faustian man in Imperium although the circumstances of his death were due to more to British resentment of his actions on Ruatan and the Mosquito Coast.
A Dream Deferred
The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire was blocked by Northern Republicans, internal division within the South (it was opposed by John C. Calhoun), resistance from Spain and Mexico and the outbreak of the War Between the States. After leaving the Union, Southerners temporarily disavowed their imperial ambitions in a bid for European recognition and support and to keep Mexico neutral and a useful partner in circumventing the Yankee blockade of the Southern coast.
The destruction of the Union also eliminated a major rationale for Caribbean expansion because there was no longer any need to retain parity with the free states in the Senate. In the final two chapters, Robert E. May makes an interesting argument that Caribbean expansion was the poison pill that killed the Crittenden Compromise and destroyed the only chance to save the Union in 1861.
Why the Hispanic Caribbean? Why not the British Caribbean or French Caribbean? I could quibble with this book over any number of points, but it is fairly obvious that Cuba and Mexico were targeted for their relative weakness whereas major acquisitions from Britain and France were outside the realm of possibility. The Confederacy couldn’t even defend its own coast.
The Confederacy was unable to defend its own national borders, control its own rivers and ports and assert its own claim to Kentucky, Arizona, and New Mexico. For practical reasons, the Davis government was in no position to fight a two front war with Mexico and the United States, much less challenge the Royal Navy for control of the British West Indies.
May shows his bias when he fails to blame Yankee extremism for causing of the War Between the States. Cuba or Lower California could have been added as slave states as easily as Missouri or Texas without recourse to secession and armed conflict. He could have also spent some time analyzing postbellum American expansion in the Caribbean: Grant’s attempt to annex the Dominican Republic, the Spanish-American War, the creation of the Panama Canal, the rise of the American Sugar Kingdom, etc.
Although an independent Southern Confederacy acquiring a Caribbean Empire was never likely, this book is still a great read. It is a launching pad for a broader inquiry into U.S. foreign policy in the Caribbean and Latin America. While Southern slaveowners may have dreamed of a Caribbean Empire, it was Yankees who created real Banana Republics in the age of Dollar Diplomacy.
That’s something we will turn to later.