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Circuit Court Opinions:

Associate Justice John Archibald Campbell, United States v. Quitman (1854)

Associate Justice John Archibald Campbell (1853–1861)

United States v. Quitman, 27 F. Cas. 680 (C.C.E.D. La. 1854) (No. 16,111) [Fifth Circuit]

John A. Quitman, a military hero of the Mexican War who twice served as governor of Mississippi, was a southern radical and fierce advocate for slavery. In 1851, Narcisco Lopez, a Venezuelan-born revolutionary, asked Quitman to help lead his expedition to liberate Cuba from Spanish rule. Quitman, like many others who desired to perpetuate American slavery, hoped that the United States would acquire Cuba and turn it into a slave state. He did not participate in Lopez’s expedition itself but did provide financial support. Quitman was arrested on charges of violating American neutrality laws, resulting in his resignation as governor, although the charges were eventually dropped.

In 1853, Quitman began to organize his own filibustering expedition (i.e., a military adventure, undertaken without official government authorization, to support a foreign revolution) to Cuba, with the same goal of ending Spanish rule to pave the way for acquisition of the island by the United States. A federal grand jury in New Orleans, where the plot was being hatched, was tasked with investigating rumors of the expedition circulating throughout the city. The grand jury obtained a printed circular disclosing that a group called “Free Cuba” had been holding meetings, issuing bonds to raise more than half a million dollars, and consulting with American military officers in preparation for the mission. The circular did not identify the leader of the movement, but the grand jury believed Quitman to be a likely suspect and summoned him to testify. Quitman refused to answer any questions on the ground that his testimony might incriminate him.

Upon receiving the report of the grand jury, the U.S. Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana summoned Quitman to show cause why he should not be required to post a bond which would be forfeited if he were to violate the neutrality laws. Quitman argued that the court could not take any action against him based on the grand jury’s inference that he was the likely leader of the expedition or any negative inference the court might draw from his refusal to testify.

Justice Campbell overruled Quitman’s objection to the bond requirement on the ground that “[t]he requisition upon the defendant involves no criminal prosecution nor charge of guilt, nor is the requisition a punishment.” Quoting legal commentator William Blackstone, he explained that under English law, bonds for good behavior had long been required of “those as to whom there is a probable ground to suspect of future misbehavior.” Quitman’s refusal to answer questions could not be used against him in a criminal proceeding but gave the court reasonable grounds to believe that Quitman was connected with the plan and thereby intended to violate the neutrality laws.

Campbell asserted that “[t]he honor of our country, the fair repute of its citizens” depended on strict enforcement of the neutrality laws. A failure to do so, he wrote, could harm the entire nation. Quoting an English judge, he concluded, “We should be poor guardians of the public peace, if we could not interfere until an actual outrage had taken place, and, perhaps, fatal consequences ensued.”

Much to Quitman’s chagrin, his filibustering expedition never took place, having been canceled shortly before Campbell’s ruling. President Franklin Pierce, who knew about the endeavor and had originally encouraged it, ordered Quitman to stand down after passage of the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act of May 1854. In the midst of public outcry over the act in the North, Pierce feared that the addition of more slave territory to the nation would cause irreparable harm to the Democratic Party in that region. Soon after, Quitman was elected to Congress, where he served from 1855 until his death in 1858.  

Several months after the Quitman case, the Ostend Manifesto—written by three U.S. diplomats including future president James Buchanan—leaked to the public. The document advocated the seizure of Cuba if Spain refused to sell the island to the United States. Although the plan was rejected, anti-slavery politicians were outraged, calling it a “slave power” conspiracy to spread the institution and gain increased political power. The incident further inflamed the sectional tensions that led to the Civil War.