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Senator Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana 1859 speech supporting acquisition of Cuba
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in the expansion of our system we seek no conquest, subjugate no people, impose our laws on no unwilling subjects. When new territory is brought under our jurisdiction, the inhabitants are admitted to all the rights of self-government.

In a speech in the United States Senate, Benjamin supports the annexation of Cuba with no hint of irony in his declaration that the people of the United States “impose our laws on no unwilling subjects.” His speech also conveys his states’-rights perspective on the nature of the Union that he championed while later serving in Jefferson Davis’ Confederate cabinet.

JUDAH P. BENJAMIN. Pamphlet, “Speech of Hon. J.P. Benjamin of Louisiana, on the Acquisition of Cuba. Delivered in Senate U.S. Friday February 11, 1859.” Includes original envelope, 7¼ x 3¾ in., free franked in the upper right by N.J. Senator John Thomson (1800-1862). 16 pp., 6 x 9½ in.

Inventory #24466       Price: $1,400


An intertropical island, whose external commerce reaches nearly eighty millions of dollars, lies at our doors. In territorial extent equal to four or five of our smaller States, with a population that would make it fifth in rank in our Confederacy,[1] with harbors unrivalled for capacity and security, it is an object of absorbing interest to the American people. Its present condition and future destiny offer a legitimate field for the exercise of the best statesmanship of the Republic.

Place in contrast the annual addition to the wealth and comfort of mankind afforded by the slave labor of Cuba with that furnished by the islands in which England, France, and Holland have made their ruinous emancipation experiments.” (p1)

the population, wealth, and prosperity of Cuba, are dependent solely on a supply of compulsory labor, without which she must inevitably relapse into the condition of Hayti, Jamaica, and the other West India colonies.

I now proceed to inquire from what source an adequate supply of the compulsory labor can be obtained. I know, sir, of but three possible methods:

1. The actual increase of the slaves already there.

2. The introduction of persons bound to service under the name of apprentices, or coolies, or colonists.

3. The African slave-trade, which is the present method.” (p6)

unless we are to agree that the supply of labor shall be kept up by the continuation of the African slave trade, a continuation now going on…Cuba must perish, as San Domingo and Jamaica have perished before her, or she must no longer remain Spanish. If annexed to our country, the system now prevalent under which her entire agricultural population perishes in a generation, would, by the force of interest and example, be exchanged for ours, under which the southern laborers are more than doubled in the same lapse of time.” (p8)

I have thus far spoken, sir, of the beneficial results to humanity arising from the acquisition of Cuba, in the double aspect of the preservation of the island from a lapse into the barbarism and savage state of the other Antilles; and of regard for its miserable laboring population.” (p8)

The safety of our country is further involved in the acquisition of Cuba, or, at least, in her independence; because her harbors not only furnish points of rendezvous for hostile fleets, but secure harbors of refuge in which they could refit and repair, and prepare themselves for fresh attacks on our unprotected coasts.” (p13)

This being the relation borne to us by Cuba, the President has proposed that Congress shall give expression to the national sentiment, by sanctioning a proposal to Spain for the purchase of the island. Why should we not do it?” (p13)

there is one paramount principle affecting this whole question of annexation, which our self-respect requires us to present prominently before the world. It is, that in the expansion of our system we seek no conquest, subjugate no people, impose our laws on no unwilling subjects. When new territory is brought under our jurisdiction, the inhabitants are admitted to all the rights of self-government.” (p15-16)

I would propose, as the President proposes, the purchase of the Island of Cuba from the Government of Spain.” (p16)

if the people of the island, with their independence once acquired, and republican institutions established, shall desire to unite themselves with us, they shall be admitted to the equal benefits which our system of government secures to each independent State that enters into its charmed circle.” (p16)

Historical Background

The idea of annexing Cuba to the United States had an already long history, with Southerners particularly interested in acquiring the island to add another slave state to the Union. President James K. Polk insisted that annexation must be by “amicable purchase” and had his Secretary of State James Buchanan prepare an offer of $100 million, which Spanish officials rejected.

President Franklin Pierce was committed to annexing Cuba, and in 1854, his ministers to Great Britain (James Buchanan), Spain, and France, met in Ostend, Belgium, to draft a dispatch arguing that purchasing Cuba would benefit each of those nations. But the “Ostend Manifesto” also declared that the America would be “justified in wresting” the island from Spain if it refused to sell. When the Ostend Manifesto reached Congress in October 1854, many Europeans denounced the circular, and it became a rallying cry for anti-slavery Northerners.

Pierce’s successor as President in 1857, James Buchanan, was also committed to Cuban annexation, but popular opposition and the growing sectional conflict hampered his efforts. Considering it “highly important if not indispensable,” Buchanan sought support for the acquisition of Cuba. On January 10, 1859, Senator John Slidell (1793-1871) of Louisiana introduced a bill (S. 497) making an appropriation of $30 million to facilitate the acquisition by negotiation. On January 24, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations reported favorably.[2] On at least three occasions, Senator Benjamin spoke in favor of Cuban annexation—on February 9, in this speech on February 11, and again on February 15. The new anti-slavery Republican senators found it difficult to oppose the annexation due to public support for expansion, but managed to launch a filibuster, and S. 497 never came to a vote.

Spain maintained its claim to Cuba until 1898, at the end of the Spanish-American War. However, Congress decided against annexation, and Cuba gained formal independence in 1902.

Judah P. Benjamin (1811-1884) was born in the Danish West Indies (now U.S. Virgin Islands) to Sephardic Jewish parents who had emigrated from London. In 1813, the family moved to North Carolina, and in 1821, to South Carolina. Benjamin entered Yale College at age 14, but left abruptly two years later. In the late 1820s, he moved to New Orleans, where he opened a successful law practice. Benjamin served in the Louisiana Senate (1852-1853) and U.S. Senate (1853-1861) before joining Jefferson Davis’s cabinet first as Attorney General, then as Secretary of War, and finally as Secretary of State. He was known as “the brains of the Confederacy.” A New Orleans lawyer, Benjamin held the post of attorney general, until Davis decided he needed him in a more important role. In September 1861, Benjamin became Secretary of War. His closeness to Davis—and his Jewish faith—attracted resentment from jealous rivals. With the loss of Roanoke Island in 1862, along with Grant’s capture of Forts Henry and Donelson, critics demanded Benjamin’s resignation. Davis responded by promoting him to Secretary of State, a post he held until the collapse of the Confederacy. Initially part of Davis’ contingent when the Confederate president fled Richmond, Benjamin continued to Florida and escaped to England, where he thrived as a lawyer and was named to the Queen’s council. He retired in 1883.


A split on the last sheet has been expertly mended. Unevenly cut and folded. Very Good.

[1] Cuba had a similar population (free and enslaved) to Georgia and would have been entitled to two senators and nine representatives in Congress.

[2] United States, Senate, 35th Cong. 2d sess., Rep. Com. No. 351.

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