August 05, 2005

Behind the Curtain: Pierre Soulé

It has been a long time since I did a Behind the Curtain post, but that's just because nothing or no one caught my particular fancy for awhile now. I don't go out looking for these people, they sort of have to find me. Today, I was found by Mr. Soulé. A colleague of mine asked me if I had ever heard of him. He told me that Soulé served as President Pierce's ambassador to Spain in the 1850's and, while there, managed to grievously wound the French ambassador in a duel and give the Spanish government a 48 hour ultimatum over something (which they ignored) and, finally, consorted with ant-royalist activists and intriguers. Curiosity officially piqued.

All in all, seems like a perfect candidate for a Behind the Curtain portrait.

As always, the rest is in Extended Entry!


This guy knew how to live.

His story began in France where he was born September, 1802.

Briefly, he was an anti-royalist activist himself. Although, not a successful one. He was involved in a plot against Louis XVIII (busted and escaped to far reaches of France for a year as a shepherd) and wrote a bitter piece about the government of Charles X, for which he was convicted and sentenced to some time in prison. He instead went into voluntary self-exile to Haiti, just having missed the boat to Chile where he had been invited to go work for the President of Chile as his private secretary.

Haiti was not terribly useful, so off he went to the United States where he eventually washed up in New Orleans. On the way, he stopped off to learn English, supposedly staying with President Andrew Jackson (I have no idea how that happened) and later working as a gardener in Kentucky.

New Orleans, for my purposes, is where it all began to happen, though. Soulé passed the bar exam after private study and became a sought after criminal defense attorney.

He was elected to the Louisiana State Senate in 1845 and then appointed to the United States Senate in 1847, later elected to the same body in 1849.

In March, 1853, President Pierce offered Soule the mission to Spain, with the special object in view of the acquisition of Cuba. This news preceded him to Madrid, and he was received there very coldly. At a ball in Madrid a remark by the Duke of Alva was accidentally heard by Mr. Soule's son, Nelvil, who considered it offensive to his family, and, though the duke denied any such intention, a duel with swords was the result. Mr. Soule then challenged the French ambassador, the Marquis de Turgot, as responsible for what had taken place under his roof, and crippled him for life. On 28 August, 1854, a revolutionary outburst took place in the streets of Madrid. It has been charged that Mr. Soule favored this with all his power; but there is no evidence to show it, though he doubtless sympathized, as was natural, with the Spanish Liberal party. In 1854, Mr. Soule was one of the ministers that framed the celebrated " Ostend manifesto" (see PIERCE, FRANKLIN), and it was understood that he was the moving spirit in its preparation. At some previous period he had violently attacked Napoleon III., and when on his way to Ostend he was stopped by the authorities at the southern frontier of France; but as soon as the officials at Paris were informed of this they sent him authority to pursue his journey. At the same time French spies followed him to Ostend. Mr. Soule was naturally deeply disappointed by his government's policy of non-action upon the manifesto. He resigned in June, 1855, and returned to New Orleans, where he resumed the practice of law without abandoning politics.


The Ostend Manifesto bears some small closer examination, it seems to me.

Ostend Manifesto, document drawn up in Oct., 1854, at Ostend, Belgium, by James Buchanan, American minister to Great Britain, John Y. Mason, minister to France, and Pierre Soulé, minister to Spain. William L. Marcy, Secretary of State under President Pierce, instructed Soulé to try to buy Cuba from Spain, but Soulé antagonized the Spanish by his political intrigues and aggressive threats (he issued an unwarranted ultimatum to the Spanish government on the Black Warrior affair). Pierce then ordered a conference of the three diplomats in Europe, all proslavery Democrats, at Ostend. The resulting manifesto strongly suggested that the United States should take Cuba by force if Spain refused to sell. Southerners, who had long feared that Cuba might become an independent black republic, applauded the document, but it was vigorously denounced by the free-soil press as a plot to extend slavery. Marcy immediately repudiated it for the U.S. government.


Soulé was not as devil may care as his adventures in Spain suggest. I think he must have been a rather thoughtful and careful politician. He opposed succession from the Union at the beginning of the Civil War, forecasting only ruin for the South, but he stood with his State after the decision was taken. He served in the Confederate government in Richmond in a minor capacity until illness forced him to withdraw back to New Orleans. Which is odd, come to think of it, since New Orleans was as it still is kind of a swamp and not the healthiest of places to live.

In any event, he was captured by Union troops in New Orleans and here it gets interesting again:

Finally he was released and went to Nassau, whence, in the autumn of 1862, he ran the blockade at Charleston and tendered his services to General Beauregard. After serving on his staff for some time as an honorary member, Mr. Soule went to Richmond in 1863, and was commissioned a brigadier-general to raise a foreign legion ; but the plan was not carried out. Mr. Soule then went to Havana. In the summer of 1864 he became connected with Dr. William M. Gwin in the latter's scheme for settling Sonora, in Mexico, with immigrants from California. This was a project patronized by Napoleon III.; the Confederate government had no connection with it. It failed through disagreement between Maximilian and Dr. Gwin. When, at the close of the war, Mr. Soule returned to New Orleans, though his health was broken and his fortune was gone, he resumed the practice of his profession, but in 1868 he had to give up all work. Soule's remarkable powers of eloquence were acknowledged by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. The effect of his glowing periods was deepened by a strong, clear, and mellow voice and by a massive and imposing form, a noble head, with long, glossy, black locks, flashing black eyes, and an olive-tinted face, which was cast in the mould of the great Napoleon's and was full of expression.


I would dearly liked to have dined with the man. Wouldn't you?

Posted by Random Penseur at August 5, 2005 03:09 PM | TrackBack

I would dearly like to have dined with the man. Wouldn't you?

Sure. Just don't say anything that he might take offense to or he'll challenge you to a duel!

Interestingly, I think he strongly resembled William Buckley and Franklin Roosevelt.

Posted by: Tuning Spork at August 7, 2005 06:09 PM

My goodness. He makes Al Haig sound positively tepid by comparison.

You know, he also resembles the character from the "Muppets". You know, the big blue eagle? (his name escapes me)
Okay, maybe it's just me.

Posted by: Rob at August 7, 2005 08:12 PM

Rob, I don't remember the Muppet you are referring to.

And, all things considered, I revise my view to say that having dinner with you and Tuning Spork might be even more fun that M. Soule!

Posted by: RP at August 8, 2005 12:26 PM

Aha! Now I remember. It was "Sam the American Eagle". Took himself very seriously, he did.. Stole every scene he was in- Which wasn't many.

Posted by: Rob at August 8, 2005 02:07 PM

I'd definitely dine with the man. What stories he must have had!

Posted by: Jim at August 16, 2005 05:45 AM
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