In the mid-nineteenth century the two civilisations which comprised the United States were locked in a struggle for control of the central government of the Union. The North, with its growing urban centres, had more seats in the US House of Representatives. Southerners hoped to maintain a balanced number of Northern and Southern States, thus giving them parity in the US Senate and enabling them to block legislation which harmed Southern interests. Most of the Western territory though was ill-suited for the sort of plantation system which dominated the large geographic area extending from Delaware south through the Caribbean to Brazil. As well, as the nineteenth century went on many Northerners (especially New Englanders) began to take a harder line against the South and attempts to expand the plantation system. There had long been broad support in both the North and South to expand the Union into the Caribbean and as the sectional struggle intensified many Southerners began to see Caribbean expansion as their salvation. Filibusters (private military expeditions) were launched to gain control of Baja California and Nicaragua. These enjoyed a significant level of mainstream support, especially in the Lower South but also in other parts of the United States. However, the real focus of most of the efforts to expand into the Caribbean was aimed at Cuba.
After the British, as part of their geo-political strategy, undermined their own sugar colonies in the Caribbean and a slave revolt destroyed the thriving French colony of Saint Domingue, Cuba emerged as the leading sugar producer in the world. The advent of the railroad and the large size of the island enabled sugar plantations to expand, multiply, and generate great profits. Trade between the US and Cuba was strong and many Southerners believed that Cuba would shortly become another Florida, Louisiana or Texas – all of which had smoothly and quickly become integral parts of the South. Spain’s grip on Cuba was not strong and frequent threats by Madrid to impose equality upon the island led a significant number of Cuban planters to favour joining the United States.
Purdue University professor Robert E May describes the broad Southern support, especially in the Lower South, for annexing Cuba on pages 50-51 of his book The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854-1861:
This ground swell of support from influential southerners well reflects the fact that annexation of Cuba had become a sectional goal around the time of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Because of his well publicized antipathy to the Compromise of 1850, [Mississippi Governor John] Quitman’s reputation as an extreme defender of southern rights was unchallenged. Southerners flocked to this standard trusting that the movement would enhance the strength of the slave states. A Jackson, Mississippi supporter disclosed that the “desire that Cuba should be acquired as a Southern conquest is almost unanimous among Southern men in this part of the State.” Another follower called acquisition of Cuba “the only hope of the South.” John Ford wrote that possession of the island would secure the South “against malign influences from any quarter” and would “place an immovable keystone in the arch of the Union.” Quitman and other key organizers such as Henderson, Thrasher, and Samuel Walker emphasized the sectional importance of their activities when eliciting support. Quitman, for instance, wrote a Georgia backer, “I hope Georgia will do something for this greater Southern movement so vital to our common interests.”
Northern opposition to annexation of Cuba by this time had grown strong and was based on sectional antipathy towards the South, its plantation society and slavery. However, within the South itself there was significant opposition as well. This came primarily from two sources: moderates (based particularly in the Upper South) and the Fire-Eaters (early Southern nationalists). Many of the Southern moderates fell into line politically with the former Whig Party, which had supported restraint with regards to expansion. Others opposed annexing Cuba on cultural, religious or ethnic grounds, not wanting to bring into the Union a large number of people who they believed would be incompatible. Still others opposed it because they believed that with the international slave trade closed and many of the Upper South’s slaves pulled down to the Lower South, the addition of another large plantation State would pull even more slaves southward, resulting in higher labour costs in Upper South States as well as the possibility of eventual abolition there. Leading Fire-Eaters such as Texan Louis Wigfall, Virginian Edmund Ruffin, Alabamian William Yancey and South Carolinians Robert Barnwell Rhett and William Gilmore Simms also opposed the movement to acquire Cuba for various reasons. One important strand of that opposition was rooted in strong Southern nationalism. May writes on pages 203-204:
South Carolinians, in particular, denounced the movement. …Rhett’s Charleston Mercury frequently attacked such expansion in the late 1850s. Harold Schultz noted that of all the South Carolinians in Congress in 1859, only Lawrence Keitt supported Slidell’s Cuba Bill; South Carolinians were indifferent or hostile toward imperialistic ventures throughout the Pierce and Buchanan presidencies.
South Carolinians attacked tropical expansion primarily because they felt that continuous attention to demands for Caribbean territory obscured other, more important southern grievances. South Carolinians had complaints about economic issues such as the national [sic] tariff policy that overshadowed Caribbean expansion as a sectional issue. In addition, by the late 1850s many South Carolina leaders had passed the point of no return concerning the union and felt that tropical annexations were held out so as to prevent secession. Simms bluntly asserted that Cuba was a delusive bait to tie the South to the union against its best interests, and the Mercury agreed. Steve Channing has explained how “the alienation of South Carolina radicals was complete” by 1860, and how they had become “disgusted” with the troublesome issue of slavery in the territories. While Gulf state politicians, including many secessionists, were willing to consider Caribbean expansion as a means of improving the southern position within the union, South Carolinians asserted that the union was beyond saving.
Thus it was that Rhett and other Southern nationalists who had long been strong supporters of constructing an independent, Southern-led confederation throughout the entire ‘Golden Circle’ area (a name used by many nineteenth century Southerners to describe the plantation civilisation which stretched from Brazil to Delaware) after Southern secession, came to strongly oppose any expansion into the Caribbean prior to secession, believing it would hurt the cause of independence from the United States.
Also see: Southern expansion & Northern opposition