John Slidell (1793-1871)

John Slidell (1793-1871) was a senator and diplomat to Mexico during the Mexican-American War. Born in New York City, N.Y., 1793, the Northern-born Slidell rose to prominence as a Louisiana politician in the decades before the Civil War. He graduated at Columbia in 1810, and engaged unsuccessfully in commerce. He then studied law, and in 1819 moved to New Orleans, where, making a specialty of commercial law, he soon acquired a large practice.

Slidell lost a bid for Congress in 1828 and actively canvassed the state for Andrew Jackson, who appointed him United States district attorney for Louisiana, but after a year in office he resigned. Slidell was a candidate for the United States Senate in 1834, but Charles Gayarre was chosen. He disposed of his practice in 1835 and continued as a leader in Louisiana politics until 1842, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a state-rights Democrat, and served from December 4, 1843, unitl November 10, 1845. As a states-rights Democrat he supported James K. Polk for the presidency in 1844 and used questionable legal means to assure him a Louisiana majority in the presidential election.

In November, 1845, he was sent as minister to Mexico by President Polk, to adjust the difficulty caused by the annexation of Texas to the United States. His instructions to 1) obtain Mexican recognition of the Rio Grande as the border between Texas and the United States; 2) offer American forgiveness of the claims by U.S. citizens against the Mexican government; 3) purchase the New Mexico area for $5 million; and 4) purchase California at any price. The mission failed when the Mexican government refused to accept his credentials. The United States declared war on Mexico on May 13, 1846, and Slidell returned in January 1847 and resigned.

Slidell was elected to the Senate in 1853 and cast his lot with other pro-Southern congressmen to repeal the Missouri Compromise, acquire Cuba, and admit Kansas under the Lecompton constitution.

Slidell was again a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1849, but his party was in the minority. In the canvass of 1852 he was active in behalf of Franklin Pierce. On the inauguration of Pres. Pierce he refused a diplomatic appointment to Central America, but, on the acceptance by Pierre Soule of the French mission, he was sent to the U.S. Senate and served, with reelection, from December 5, 1853, to February 5, 1861. He rarely spoke, but was a member of important committees, and exerted great influence. Preferring to remain in the senate, he declined a cabinet appointment from President Buchanan, but continued a confidential friend of the President.

During the Democratic Convention in Charleston, S.C. in April 1860, he plotted with "fire-eaters" such as William Yancey to defeat Stephen A. Douglas, the only candidate who could have won the general election. In the campaign Slidell supported Democratic presidential candidate John C. Breckinridge, but remained a pro-Union moderate until Abraham Lincoln's election pushed the Southern states into seceding. Siding with the South, Slidell accepted a diplomatic appointment to represent the Confederacy in France.

Slidell was a strenuous supporter of the doctrines of state-rights, and, when Louisiana passed the ordinance of secession, he withdrew from the senate with his colleague, after making a defiant speech.

In September, 1861, he was appointed Confederate commissioner to France, but his arrival was delayed by the Trent Affair. He set out with his colleague James M. Mason for Southampton from Havana in November on the British mail steamer Trent but he was seized on the high-seas by Captain Charles Wilkes, and brought to the United States. After imprisonment in Fort Warren in Boston harbor he was released and sailed for England on January 1, 1862. From England he went at once to Paris, where, in February, 1862, he paid his first visit to the French minister of foreign affairs.

Slidell's mission to France, which had for its object the recognition of the Confederate states by the French government, was a failure, but the well-known sympathy of Napoleon III, who at that time was deeply interested in the project of a Mexican empire under Maximilian, did much to favor the Confederate cause. In order to secure French aid, he proposed a commercial convention, by which France should enjoy valuable export and import privileges for a long period, and which, if carried into effect speedily, on the basis of breaking the blockade, because of its legal inefficiency, would give France control of southern cotton, and in return furnish the Confederacy with ample supplies, including arms and munitions of war. This was not accepted, on account of the emperor's refusal to recognize the Confederate states unless the British authorities should co-operate. But the sympathy of Napoleon III. proved of great value, for by his secret influence Mr. Slidell was able to begin the negotiation of the $15,000,000 Confederate loan. Early in 1863 the emperor permitted him to make proposals for the construction of four steam corvettes and two iron-clad rams at private ship-yards in Bordeaux and Nantes; but later in the year, information of this fact coming to the knowledge of the United States representative in Paris, imperial orders were issued that the vessels should be sold to foreign powers. One of them was transferred to the Confederate navy in January, 1865, after being purchased by Denmark, as is claimed by the Confederates, though it is asserted on the other side that the purchase was fictitious. This vessel, the Stonewall, set out for the United States, but did not reach Havana till May, after the surrender of the Confederate armies.

Though he was never able to accomplish a Franco-Confederate liaison, and though many of his Confederate colleagues distrusted him, Slidell, through his political abilities and bolstered by his marriage to a Louisiana Creole woman, arranged some Confederate financing through private French interests.

Uncertain of his safety at home after the war, Slidell and his family stayed in Paris and his daughter married a French nobleman. He never sought pardon from the Federal government for his Confederate service, dying in Cowes, Isle of Wight, England, on July 29, 1871. He is buried in the private cemetery of the Saint-Roman family at Villejuif, near Paris, France, in the Departement de la Seine. The city of Slidell, Louisiana is named after him.