Born in New York, in 1793 to merchant John (senior) and his wife Margery McKenzie from Scotland, John Slidell had at least two surviving brothers – Thomas and Alexander – and a sister, Jane, recorded. In 1810 at the age of 17 he graduated Columbia College (now university) and settled in Louisiana, where in 1835 he married Mathilde and had three children. Alfred, Marie and Marguerite.
Following a career beginning in mercantile trade, much like his father, after his relocation to Louisiana, eventually settling in New Orleans, Slidell practiced law from around 1819. He served as District Attorney for four years until 1833, following up with a yearlong position within the House of Representatives as a Democrat, for the state in 1837 to 1838 after an earlier attempt failed to win him election to the United States House (Congress) in 1828 during which time he actively canvassed for President Andrew Jackson. He succeeded on his second attempt in 1842 and served in the House until 1845, during which time he ceased practicing law and followed up with a position as Minister Plenipotentiary for Mexico between 1845 and 46.
During his time serving as Mexico’s Minister, Slidell was tasked by President Polk for whom Slidell had backed in election, and was a close political ally, to travel to Mexico and negotiate several agreements regarding land and borders, including a settlement of the Texan Border at Rio Grande, following its annexation by America, and the purchase of New Mexico and California, the latter for which he was to negotiate up to $50m, according to some. Slidell was unsuccessful in his negotiations, which stalled for the most part when Mexican officials refused to recognise Slidell’s ministerial credentials and would not meet with him.
Slidell returned to New Orleans and resigned his position in Mexico, hinting to Polk that the best way to achieve America’s aims regarding the land and borders was to put on a show of military might. Polk gave the instruction to General Zachary Taylor, based on this apparent intelligence to muster his army along the border with Mexico, which Taylor duly did. Texas had previously been under the rule of the Republic of Mexico as part of her territory, during which time it was alleged by Mexican officials, that Native Americans were using the open borders to mount small scale but numerous raids into Mexico. In 1836, Americans living in Texas and Pro-American Mexicans also from the area successfully revolted against Mexican control and declared themselves independent. They were thereafter formally annexed by America, becoming the 28th US State in 1845.
The revolution and subsequent annexation had been somewhat of a political nightmare for the United States, helping shape Presidential nominations during the 1844 Election, when incumbent, Independent John Tyler was leaving office. Tyler had secured an arrangement with President of Texas Republic, Sam Houston to get a negotiated deal between Mexico and Houston for Texan Independence ratified in Congress. The independence agreement had been conducted with Great Britain acting as mediator and negotiator for both parties. Tyler hoped that the ratification and securing of Texas for the US would bring him a second term in office.
Tyler knew the issue would hinge on the slavery movement, with Southern Democrats who would propose extension of pro-Slavery into Texas. The agreement however had been brokered with Great Britain’s abolishment of slavery in mind, and emancipation of Texan slaves was a key note in the deal. Tyler was hoping to get around this problem using diplomacy. Initially Democrats were considering their nomination of Martin van Buren for their candidate, however he was a staunch anti-Annexation activist. Instead they nominated Polk. Tyler’s agreement with Houston became public during the ratification process, he lost the election and Polk stepped in. America got Texas as Tyler left office, signing the deal was his last official act. Just two years later, Mexico and America were at war, using their new territory as a starting point, and Slidell distanced himself from the whole event. The war lasted two years, during which time Slidell kept up his political ambitions.
In 1854 Senator John Slidell, along with his fellow pro-South activists was one of the key players in the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which prohibited slavery in the West of America aside from in the new proposed state of Missouri from a 36 degree, 36’ northern point of what was previously Louisiana territory. The Missouri Compromise had been proposed by Henry Clay, as a Federal Statute, and signed by both Pro- and Anti-slavery movements, under President James Monroe in 1820.
Following its repeal, the Missouri compromise was replaced by the newly agreed Kansas-Nebraska Act, proposed by Stephen Douglas, thus allowing the territories right to choose basically whether they had slavery or not. It had several key features in that it allowed only white men to vote on such matters. Backed up by the later Lecompton constitution, which challenged the Topeka constitution, giving the voting edge to Slave-owners, and not coincidentally, proposed by slave-owners, the Lecompton constitution although short-lived, forced the resignation of Kansas Governor Robert Walker, who refused to enforce the Lecompton based on what he saw as its unjust terms, despite being a pro-Slaver.
President Buchanan, a vocal Pro-Slaver endorsed the Lecompton Constitution, backed by Pro-Slavery Southern Democrats; Northern Democrats however, and anti-slavery Free Soilers, rejected the Act as aggressively Pro-Slavery, leading to a splinter of the Democratic Party. The Republicans were born. Ironically just a year later, Douglas joined them. In 1858, Kansas overwhelmingly voted against the Lecompton Constitution, a result which was echoed in Washington with resounding defeat from the House of Representatives.
During this period, approximately 1853 to 1861 Slidell, after turning down a diplomatic role in Central America, which was subsequently filled by Pierre Soule, Slidell in turn took up Soule’s seat in the US Senate. Soule wrote the Ostend Manifesto in 1854, proposing the annexation of Cuba and territories towards the Caribbean, which still allowed slavery, as an attempt by Southern slave-holders to expand South moving away from Northern attempts at abolition. Soule was criticized heavily for the Cuba bid, being diplomat for Spain who still controlled Cuba at that time. Soule was not a Pro-Slaver, he was Pro-South. During his period in Senate he spent several months of 1852 assisting the agent attempting to secure the release of enslaved free Black, Solomon Northup, who had been kidnapped in New York and was being held in the Red River area of Louisiana. Northup wrote his famous memoirs Twelve Years a Slave, based on his experience during this time.
In 1860 John Slidell worked with the infamous “fire-eaters” including William Yancey knobble the Presidential candidacy of Stephen Douglas, now an active Northern Democrat. Their plot succeeded and Southern Democrats nominated their own candidate, Vice-President John Breckenridge. As Abraham Lincoln gathered support in the North for the Republicans, backed by a growing number of anti-slavery activists, and still opposed by Stephen Douglas who was a staunch believer in democracy; seven Southern States voted to secede the Union and civil war broke out. Lincoln won the Presidency, Slidell resigned his position in Louisiana and joined the Confederacy, and three short years after the Lecompton affair, in 1861, Kansas was admitted into the Union as a free state. Douglas desperately rallied his supporters to the Union cause but succumbed shortly afterwards to Typhoid fever.
Following his resignation, and joining the Confederate cause, John Slidell accepted a diplomatic position as representative of the Confederacy in France. Slidell was tasked with travelling to Europe with the hope of securing vital arms and funding from the French under Napoleon III. Travelling aboard the steamship Trent, in November of 1861, the ship was stopped by Union naval forces on a warship by Captain Charles Wilkes, and Slidell and his companion, colleague James Mason, Confederate Commissioner for England were taken captive. Returned to Boston, the two men were imprisoned in Fort Warren, a fate they shared by Pierre Soule who had been taken prisoner earlier on in May of the same year, but subsequently escaped and found his way back to Confederate held territory.
Britain was angered by the forcible captivation of passengers aboard one of their vessels; maintaining a stance of neutrality for private citizens aboard their ships. Although the Northern supporters were understandably jubilant about the capture, Lincoln and his advisors soon realized that there could be further implications as a result of the action, which could draw Britain into the war on the side of the Confederates. Reluctantly they let the two men go and the journey continued without further problems. Upon their arrival in England, Slidell departed for France and met with the Emperor who greeted him warmly. Sadly, for Slidell, he was unable to negotiate to complete satisfaction the required assistance from France for the cause, which included ships, arms and funds in return for France’s breaking the blockade of ships in the South, and taking the bulk of commerce from Southern-produced cotton.
Napoleon III agreed to the building of six confederate ships on French soil; he later refused to hand over the ships, which were later sold on to other European powers. Slidell only secured one of them, the Stonewall, which did not reach Havana until the war was over. Napoleon was unwilling to give vocal support to the Confederacy, nor would he recognise their legitimacy, without the express agreement and co-operation of Britain. His sympathy however was enough to enable Slidell to privately negotiate a loan for the South, with a commercial backer, prominent banker Baron Frederick Emile Erlanger to the tune of $15m.
John Slidell and his family made the decision to remain in Europe for the duration of the war, his eldest daughter Marie married a French nobleman, Comte de St.Roman, Marguerite in turn married Erlanger, and John and Mathilde settled at Cowes on the Isle of Wight. They never returned to America; John died at Cowes in 1871 and was buried with agreement of his daughter and son-in law in the Saint-Roman family cemetery near Paris. Baron Frederick Emile Erlanger later named the city of Slidell in Louisiana for his father-in-law, and he is also honoured by the village of Slidell in Texas. Slidell never saught pardon from the Federal government for his service to the Confederacy, and remains one of several high-ranking confederates who for one reason or another found themselves abroad during or after the war, and subsequently died and were buried away from home.
John’s brother Thomas was Chief Justice of Louisiana Supreme Court until a prolonged lapse in health forced his retirement, to Europe for treatment, from where he was returned to Newport, Rhode Island following his subsequent mental impairment, and where he regained some of his faculties in a mental facility before dying in 1864. His brother Alexander was famous for his Naval prowess and being the only US ship, the USS Somers, to have suffered a mutiny, leading to executions, when he put to death three suspected mutineers without courts martial, a move that was heavily criticized. One of those executed was the 19 year old son, Philip, of the US Secretary for War, John Spencer. Alexander died in 1848. Their sister Jane married Naval commander Matthew Perry, with whom she had ten children. Some of their sons fought in the civil war. Their allegiance is not disclosed.