In the article below, we will examine efforts by Southerners in the nineteenth century to expand southward throughout the Golden Circle, resistance this evoked from Northern Republicans and how this sectional dispute over expansion contributed to the polarisation of the North and the South leading up to 1860-61 and secession. This article is essentially a summary of the first half of Purdue University history professor Robert E May’s book The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire: 1854-1861.
AN AGE OF UNITED STATES EXPANSIONISM
The nineteenth century was a period of United States expansion as the Federal Union spread from the Atlantic Coast all the way across the continent to the Pacific Ocean. US Expansionists also promoted gaining territory in the northwest, the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America. Had the expansionists gotten their way, the United States might have eventually extended all the way down to South America and throughout much of the Caribbean Sea. There was a great deal of support for such plans in the US as a whole, especially up through the 1840s. The pro-expansion Young America movement, while more popular amongst Democrats than Whigs, had many influential backers in the US Congress and public support in both the North and the South for its program of free trade and southward expansion.
SOUTHERN EXPANSION AND SECTIONAL DIVISION
However, as Northern opposition to the expansion of slavery began to intensify, radical abolitionism became more mainstream in areas of the Northern States and the sectional conflict between the North and South became increasingly bitter, the issue of Southern expansion becoming politically and regionally divisive. The agrarian South was in an increasingly worsening position in the US Congress and the Western territories were ill-suited for a plantation economy and thus promised to gradually strengthen the North’s political dominance over time as these territories were populated and eventually brought into the Union. Southerners saw expansion into the Caribbean and Mexico as a way to possibly balance out Northern gains in the West, bringing a bit more regional parity back to Congress. Professing support for bringing Cuba, for instance, into the Union as a slave State was nearly a requisite for Southern Democrats of the era to be elected to office. Even conservatives such as Jefferson Davis who were not overly enthusiastic about expansion into the Caribbean were forced by public pressure to at least lend nominal support to the plan. Meanwhile, in the North, opposition continued to harden against Southern expansion and the strengthening of the South’s political position.
Filibustering captured the imagination and support of many Southerners and their Northern Democratic allies in this period. Independent military operators organised movements, lobbied US congressmen and presidents and traveled through the South taking up donations and building up public support for their plans to conquer various regions or countries in the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America. They operated sometimes in a grey area of the law, sometimes flouting Federal neutrality acts meant to discourage just such private adventures.
QUITMAN AND CUBA
John Quitman, a New York-born Democrat who moved to Mississippi (where he was elected governor) and became a leading Fire-Eater, supported and helped organise efforts for a filibuster expedition against Cuba, which Southerners had long desired to wrestle away from a fading Spanish Empire. Plans for a private invasion of Cuba coincided with serious political efforts at the highest level of the Federal Government in the mid-1850s to purchase Cuba or acquire it diplomatically. Ultimately, these efforts failed and the sectional fight over the Kansas-Nebraska Act (which effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise) took centre stage. Emotions stirred by the struggle over Kansas and Nebraska had a polarising effect and made the acquisition of Cuba politically impossible. Despite strong Southern Democratic support (with equally strong Northern Whig opposition) for gaining Cuba, Northern Democratic President Franklin Pierce (who was accused by his enemies of being a secret member of the Knights of the Golden Circle) did not have a unified Congress behind him on the matter. As well, Spanish opposition to selling Cuba proved stronger than initially believed by proponents of the plan.
WALKER AND NICARAGUA
Tennessee-born William Walker was no doubt the most famous and successful filibuster. He led a group of volunteers which seized control of Nicaragua in 1856-57 and was the president of a short-lived republic before a coalition of Central American countries, seeing Walker and his fellow filibusters as a threat, united against him and ultimately executed him. Though he appears to have been a mostly non-ideological adventurer in the beginning of his operations in Latin America, Walker quickly adopted the political language and agenda of Southern Democrats as he appealed for outside support and more volunteers. He was regarded by many, especially in the South, as a hero. Walker was promoted by his supporters and hailed in pro-South newspapers as the ‘grey-eyed man of destiny.’ He, in turn, encouraged Southern planters to relocate to Nicaragua and to bring their slaves with them to work the fertile land. He met with leading Fire-Eaters and related his dream of bringing all of Central America into the Union as slave States. Congress, like the larger US public, was divided along sectional and partisan lines on the issue of what to do about Walker and his fledgling government. Some Southerners openly complained in Congress that Federal laws prevented the South from maintaining its rights in the Union by expanding (and thereby regaining parity with the North in Congress). After losing control of Nicaragua, Walker launched multiple attempts to re-take the country. He even converted to Catholicism in an effort to win over more native support. Ultimately, his efforts failed as he was captured by the British Royal Navy at their colony of British Honduras (now Belize), turned over to local officials and executed by firing squad – less than two months before Abraham Lincoln was elected US president and the Southern States moved to secede from the Union.