“Obey the Law of Necessity”

January 10, 1874

Thomas Nast

“Obey the Law of Necessity”

Presidential Administration, Ulysses S. Grant; U.S. Foreign Policy; Wars, Cuban War for Independence;

Grant, Ulysses S.;

Cuba; Latin America; Spain;

General Jovellar. "I have received Final Orders."

This Harper’s Weekly cover by Thomas Nast concerns the “Virginius Affair,” an incident that almost provoked a war between Spain and the United States.

Since 1868, Cuban rebels had been fighting for independence from Spain in a guerrilla war which would last until 1878. Many Americans sympathized with the Cubans, and a few fought alongside them as mercenary soldiers. The Virginius was a ship captained by Joseph Fry, an American soldier of fortune, which was used in an attempt to smuggle arms to Cuban rebels. It sailed fraudulently under the neutral American flag and carried counterfeit American registration.

On October 31, 1873, the Virginius was captured by Spanish officials in international waters, and 36 crew members and 15 passengers, including several American citizens and British subjects, were executed. The story made headline news in the United States, with commentators calling for the administration of Ulysses S. Grant to take swift action. Rumors circulated widely, and large crowds at public meetings across America called for war. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish directed Daniel Sickles, the U.S. minister to Spain, to demand restitution from the Spanish government, and to close the embassy and leave the country if Spain did not meet the demand within 12 days. Sickles delayed his departure by one day, and on November 27, 1873, Spain agreed to release the ship and its survivors. In 1875, Spain paid an indemnity of $80,000 to the United States and made a similar payment to Great Britain.

In this Harper’s Weekly cartoon, Spanish president Emilio Castelar forces General Joaquin Jovellar, the chief Spanish military official in Cuba, at gun point to return the Virginius to American authorities. The general stares fearfully into the skull-emblazoned barrel of a cannon etched paradoxically with “Let Us Have Peace,” the slogan of Grant’s 1868 presidential campaign. On board the massive American vessel are (left to right): Secretary of State Fish, President Grant, and Navy Secretary George Robeson.

Although American tempers were inflamed, there did not seem to have been a deep and lasting desire for war during the Virginius Affair. One reason was that the Spanish monarchy had briefly given way to a struggling republic (September 1873 - January 1874), with which Americans could identify. Another was that Americans became distracted by an economic panic which the United States was experiencing at the time. Perhaps most important, though, was the war-weariness still evident in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Such would not be the case two decades later. In 1895, another war for Cuban independence began, leading to the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the subsequent establishment of an American protectorate in Cuba.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Obey the Law of Necessity”
June 9, 2023

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