Storm Over Mexico
Godfrey Hodgson tells the colourful story of Jane McManus, political journalist, land speculator, pioneer settler in Texas and propagandist who believed that the United States had a ‘manifest destiny’ to rule Mexico and the Caribbean.
At the height of the furore over the boundary question in Texas that led to the declaration of war against Mexico on May 11th, 1846, George Bancroft, the famous historian who was President Polk’s Secretary of the Navy, received a long letter in Washington telling him how to do his job and claiming,
I mean to show you that I can call out an expression of public sentiment (and create it too) that Mr Polk would be wise to respect.
The letter was signed ‘Storms’.
‘Who is Storms?’ Bancroft wrote to his colleague William Marcy, the Secretary of War. ‘She’, Marcy replied, ‘is an outrageously smooth and keen writer for the newspapers’.
It was not common for women to write for the newspapers in the mid-nineteenth century, and almost unprecedented for them to do so in as confident and aggressive a tone as did the woman who called herself ‘Storms’.
But then she wrote and lived, at a furious pace, under several names. She was born Jane Maria Eliza McManus. She married Allen Storm, and so could claim the vaguely ominous ‘Storms’. Sometimes she signed her work plain, unisex ‘Montgomery’, and sometimes she came out as ‘Cora Montgomery’ or ‘Corinne Montgomery’. After her second marriage she could boast the magnificent appellation Jane Eliza McManus Storm Cazneau.
Under any name, she was one of the most formidable women of the antebellum American South, a complete rebuttal of the stereotype of white-skinned Southern ladies at home only in nursery and drawing room. She was Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler in one: a single mother who became one of the first women political journalists, a war correspondent, diplomat, secret agent, explorer, speculator and adventurer.
She was in tune with Young America, an amorphous movement of American nationalists (mostly Democrats) advocating southern expansion, free trade and in sympathy with the European revolutions of 1848. Mostly the Young Americans were Democrats with an interest in slavery. In the 1840s, as the young republic challenged British power in Canada, Oregon and the Caribbean, Spanish rule in Cuba, and Mexican ownership of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, Americans thrilled to the idea of ‘manifest destiny’. This brilliant slogan first appeared in the Democratic Review, organ of the Young America movement, in an anonymous editorial that appeared in the summer of 1845. American destiny, it proclaimed, was to bring the benefits of freedom (an ideal that did not rule out slavery) to the whole of North America, and to Central America and the Caribbean as well. The piece called boldly for ‘opposition to the annexation of Texas to cease’. It denounced the behaviour of ‘England, our old rival and enemy’ for
... limiting our greatness and checking the fulfilment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.
The article and phrase, ‘manifest destiny’ has long been attributed to the Democratic Review’s editor John L. O’Sullivan; however, Storms’ biographer Professor Linda S. Hudson, has suggested (2001) that Jane was the author. She has used a grammar-checking computer programme, to argue that the style of the ‘manifest destiny’ article resembles Jane’s far more closely than O’Sullivan’s. But even if she did not coin the phrase, Jane was certainly one of the chief propagandists for ‘manifest destiny’, and a vigorous champion of American annexation of Texas, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and most, if not all, of Mexico.
Jane McManus was born in 1807 near Troy, in the Hudson River valley in upstate New York. Her family had long been settled in North America on both sides. Her father’s people came originally from Ireland, but had been living in America since the early eighteenth century, and although Jane later converted to Catholicism she was brought up as a Protestant. Her mother’s family, whose name was Kuntz, Americanized as Coons, were German, Protestant refugees from the Catholic Rhineland.
Jane’s father, William Telemachus McManus, was briefly a member of Congress. He fought as an officer against the British in the local militia in the War of 1812. Then he returned to Troy to work as a lawyer and businessman. He was also involved in the business affairs of the local Indian tribe, the Mohicans. Jane’s ‘most striking physical trait’, writes Professor Hudson, ‘was her dark complexion’, and Hudson speculates that she may have been of Native American descent.
She was well-educated at Emma Willard’s Troy Female Academy, one of the earliest colleges for women. The coming of the Erie Canal made Troy prosperous, and for a time the McManus family flourished. But Jane’s father was hard-hit by the nationwide Panic of 1819, which broke the Farmers’ State Bank in Troy, in which the McManus family held both stock and accounts. In 1825, at the age of eighteen, Jane had married Allen Storm, a pupil in her father’s law office, and in 1826 she gave birth to a son, William McManus Storm. By 1832, however, the marriage had failed and Jane had resumed her maiden name.
Like other early nineteenth-century Americans on the fringe of the frontier, the McManus family were passionate speculators in land. The dream of a vast fortune in the newly settled south-western frontier, then expanding from Louisiana and Tennessee into Texas, and the Caribbean is one of the keys to Jane’s whole career. Her political and business dreams were fused together. All her life she hoped to create a great fortune, and also to bring what she saw as the priceless boon of republican freedom to those not lucky enough to live in the United States.
Jane was first introduced to the potential of Texas, then part of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Texas, when her father became involved with his friend, the spectacular swordsman, rebel and former US vice-president, Aaron Burr, and others in the Galveston Bay and Texas Land Company in 1832. She went to work keeping the books of the Galveston Bay and Texas Land Company in New York and before long was visiting Aaron Burr, fifty years her senior, at his law office in Jersey City, across the Hudson from New York. She was widely said to be Burr’s mistress and was cited in his divorce in 1835. Hearsay evidence was given that Burr was seen standing in front of a seated Jane McManus, his trousers lowered.
Late in 1832, Jane and her brother Robert travelled to Texas and acquired rights to two enormous tracts, one on the Gulf of Mexico, and the other near the present site of Waco, Texas. She also tried, without success, to bring several hundred German settlers into Texas.
It was only after these speculative land ventures failed that Jane became a journalist. Her early adventures in Texas left her with two lifelong assets: she learned fluent Spanish and she acquired a set of contacts with many powerful people on the frontier including the founders of the Republic of Texas, among them Sam Houston (who became its first president in October 1836) and his successor, Jane’s partner in a lively exchange of letters, the sonorously named Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar.
Jane’s first journalistic assignment came from Horace Greeley, editor of the New Yorker, who gave her a choice assignment: to travel to the Mediterranean and the Ottoman empire. She visited Smyrna, Aleppo, Tangier and Cadiz, among other places. One of those she interviewed was the aged Lady Hester Stanhope, an indomitable English aristocrat who had married a Muslim and lived in the Syrian desert.
Back in the US in 1839, Jane wrote for a number of papers, two of them in particular: the New York Sun, then owned by Moses Yale Beach, and John O’Sullivan’s Democratic Review. Both were enthusiastic campaigners for ‘manifest destiny’ and in particular for its southern form, annexation of Texas – even if that meant war with Mexico.
‘Manifest Destiny’ supporters were eyeing other parts of the continent as well. Anti-British feeling, focused on British rule in Canada, was stoked by the fact that the Hudson’s Bay Company’s presence in Oregon blocked American settlement in that promising territory. In 1846 the New York papers got up an agitation under the slogan ‘Fifty-four forty or fight!’ This meant that the United States should demand a frontier at 54° 40’ of latitude, many miles north of the present border at the 49th degree, or make war on British Canada.
Americans insisted that their desire to occupy the whole continent was something quite different to European imperialism. ‘What has Belgium, Silesia, Poland or Bengal to do with Texas?’, wrote the New York Morning News in 1845:
Acquisitions of territory in America, even if accomplished by force of arms, are not to be viewed in the same light as the invasions and conquests of the states of the old world.
Two philosophical differences were claimed by the leading American historian of the Manifest Destiny movement, Frederick Merk. American expansion would be republican: it would involve no monarch, no aristocracy, no established church. And it would be democratic in an economic, as well as political, sense. The chief evil of Europe and the blight of England and Ireland, wrote the Democratic Review, was that the people did not own the land. This was a doctrine that appealed to would-be pioneers, but also to land speculators such as Jane.
By the 1840s, settlement had poured into the Ohio and Mississippi valleys and was rapidly filling up the cotton lands of the South. The vast, almost empty territory of Mexico – which reached far to the north of modern Mexico – lay ahead. Forward-looking southerners were already conscious that if the slaveholding South lost the battle over free soil in the mid-West and the plains states, the South would lose representation in Congress and therefore political power in Washington. Eventually, the South’s ‘peculiar institution’, slavery itself, might be banned. Ambitious spirits dreamed of creating a great slave empire in central America and the Caribbean to balance what the South might lose in the American West. Jane McManus, New York bred though she was, was one of these.
The New York Sun, a penny paper, was the first in America to achieve something like a mass circulation: around 50,000 in the 1840s. Its publisher, Moses Yale Beach, was a businessman and banker as well as a newspaper man. He was a strong supporter of President Polk’s war against Mexico. War broke out in 1846 after an American force moved into disputed territory between the Nueces river and the Rio Grande. The Polk administration was keen to annex at least Texas and other Mexican territory if it could.
In November 1846 Beach and the Roman Catholic bishop of New York John Hughes, received word from contacts in Texas and from the Mexican clergy that a negotiated peace might be possible. Jane McManus played a key part in setting up the secret mission, and Beach asked her to travel with him as interpreter and adviser, chaperoned by his daughter Drusilla. Beach had authority from the President to negotiate a peace settlement. His ‘fee’ was to be a grant of transit rights across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in the southern ‘waist’ of Mexico. Beach saw the mission essentially as a business opportunity. He wanted the concession to build a canal across the isthmus of Tehuantepec, and also banking concessions in Mexico. For Jane it was a superb journalistic break, and at the same time a chance to forward her dream of spreading American ideals to as much of Mexico and the Caribbean as possible.
Beach, Jane and Drusilla travelled via Havana, to conceal the purpose of their journey. The Havana correspondent of the New Orleans Picayune newspaper reported that Beach was on his way to Mexico with ‘his wife and daughter’. The party reached Mexico City in late January 1847.
While General Zachary Taylor, (who later succeeded Polk as 12th President in 1849), was fighting one Mexican army in the north where he earned a hard-won victory against the Mexicans in the Battle of Buena Vista of February 22nd-23rd. General Winfield Scott, in turn, was besieging the highly fortified city of Vera Cruz on the east coast of Mexico. Moses Beach was trying to persuade the Mexicans to allow the United States to annex their entire country. Beach met bankers and politicians in Mexico, and also prelates of the Mexican church. He also laid out $40,000 of his own money in vain to back one side in what was becoming a Mexican civil war.
Storms, meanwhile, was filing stories for the Sun that argued the case for the United States to annex the whole of Mexico. If this could not be achieved, she was prepared to settle for limited annexation of some provinces.
By March 21st, the Mexican dictator, Santa Ana, had returned to Mexico City after the defeat at Buena Vista, where he assumed the presidency. The Beaches and Jane made their way to Vera Cruz, where on March 27th the fortress surrendered to General Scott, a story she was able to report. This made her America’s first woman war correspondent.
By May 1847 Jane had returned to Washington, where she saw President Polk. She was bitterly disappointed that he had already sent out a new mission in place of Beach to negotiate peace with Mexico, under Nicholas P. Trist, chief clerk of the State Department. Trist’s negotiations with the former President Herrara at the end of August ended in disappointment for the Americans and an end to the armistice that had facilitated them.
However, on February 2nd, 1848, Trist, with a victorious army at his back but unauthorised by his government, forced on the Mexicans the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. By this treaty Mexico agreed to sign over one-third of its territory, including California, Arizona and New Mexico, in exchange for $15 million and a further $3,250,000 in claims by its citizens. The treaty came into effect on July 4th.
Congress and the cabinet seriously debated the ‘All Mexico’ plan, as it was called. It was defeated, not least because neither leaders nor public in the United States was ready to incorporate eight million new citizens, Spanish-speaking, Roman Catholic and mostly non-white.
Jane now turned her attention to Cuba whose potential greatly interested her. Writing as ‘Montgomery’ in the Sun, even before the Mexican War began, she had called for the annexation of Cuba (and also Canada). Unlike Mexico, which had won its independence in a war that began in 1810, Cuba was still a Spanish colony. She wrote fifteen ‘tropical sketches’ denouncing the poor conditions caused by Spanish exploitation and neglect of Cuba.
In January 1848, she had accepted the position of editor of La Verdad (Spanish for ‘Truth’) a weekly published in New York and financed by wealthy Cuban liberal exiles. But a romantic plan to turn Cuba into an independent republic that could later be annexed like Texas eventually failed. On September 7th, 1849, President Zachary Taylor sent the US Navy to turn back the exiles as they sailed to liberate Cuba.
For the rest of her life Jane continued to preach America’s manifest destiny, not only to expand to the Pacific, but also to acquire a tropical domain. In 1849 at the age of forty-two, she married an old friend, General William Cazneau. They had met in Texas and both shared a romantic vision of American expansion, and an ambition to make a fortune out of land speculation.
As Cazneau travelled ceaselessly in the service of one scheme after another, Jane settled down at Eagle Pass, a rough frontier village three hundred miles up the Rio Grande from the Gulf. In the book she wrote about her life there, she described the life of an Old Testament matriarch with her flocks and herds. She got to know Native American chiefs with names like Crazy Bear, Gopher John and Wild Cat, whose interpreter was an African-American called John Horse. Life on the frontier had its idyllic moments for Jane as she rode her black pony, Chino, and bathed naked in the river. But she recognized the hardships and dangers for frontier women as well.
She got to know and sympathized with the Indians who had escaped across the border from peonage in Mexico, and the runaway American slaves heading in the opposite direction. Her attitude to slavery was complicated. She sympathized with the plight of individual slaves, and with the Indian peons. She hoped slavery would be ended in time by sending American slaves to colonies in the Caribbean. She disapproved of the Southern secession and was hired by William H. Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, to write propaganda against the South, which she did, like everything else, with gusto. No doubt her position was affected by the patronage of Seward. But Seward and she were both expansionists who feared that the war would weaken the United States and prevent further American thrusts into the Caribbean.
However, she was also contemptuous of abolitionists. In 1851 she and her husband travelled to Morocco to buy camels, which she hoped (unsuccessfully) to introduce into the south-west of the United States. There is even a hint that this project may have disguised a slaving expedition. And she was a supporter of the notorious ‘filibuster’, William Walker, who tried to set up a slave-holding empire in Central America in the 1850s.
The truth is that two things bulked larger in her mind than the abolition of slavery. One was her own and her husband’s speculative investments in Texas land, and in real estate and mines in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Nicaragua. The other was her passionate belief in the destiny and ideals of the United States, which – as for many in her generation – implied an inveterate suspicion of Britain and a determination to oppose British interests and influence throughout the Caribbean.
From 1855 until their deaths, with one short interval, she and her husband lived on an estate, Esmeralda, in the Dominican Republic. General Cazneau had been appointed as a secret American agent there by President Buchanan. His job was to report events, and he also lobbied for an American coaling station and port at Santana Bay. For a time they moved, in spite of Jane’s hostility to all things British, to a beautiful estate in Jamaica, Keith Hall, where she continued, in spite of failing eyesight, to write up-beat accounts of life in the tropics.
Jane’s death was as stormy as her life. In 1878 she set out for Santo Domingo on a ‘rattletrap’ steamer, the Emily B. Souder. She was caught in what proved to be the biggest storm ever recorded in the western Atlantic up to that time. She was drowned at the age of almost seventy-two.
Jane McManus Storm Cazneau’s two dreams, of making a great fortune while bringing the benefits of American freedom to Mexico and the Caribbean, were both only partly successful. Yet she had a remarkable degree of influence on the mid-nineteenth-century course of American foreign policy. It came from her ability to impress powerful men, from Burr and Houston to Beach, Polk and Seward, with her romantic vision of America’s ‘manifest destiny’ to bring its own version of a ‘freedom’ (one that permitted slavery) to the Spanish-speaking lands and islands to the South.