Taylor's administration had responded to the challenges of revolutionary Europe and British-American rivalry in the Caribbean without resolving either of them permanently. Austria sought to instruct the United States on its proper relationship to Europe's revolutions when its chargé d'affaires in Washington, Chevalier J. G. Hülsemann, lodged a protest with the United States government. He accused Washington of displaying far too much interest in Hungary's liberation. Fillmore agreed that the United States could not make every European broil an affair of its own. In his annual message of December 1850, he restated the traditional American doctrine that each nation possessed the right "of establishing that form of government which it may deem most conducive to the happiness and prosperity of its citizens.. . . The people of the United States claim this right for themselves, and they readily concede it to others."
In his famous reply to Hülsemann of 21 December 1850, Secretary Webster asserted that the American people had the right to cheer the forces of freedom in Europe, but assured Hiilsemann that the United States would engage in no action that might give weight to its words. Neither was Europe to interpret the sympathy of the American people for struggling humanity as a sign of hostility toward any of the parties in the great national uprisings in Europe. Indeed, declared Webster, the United States desired amicable relations with all countries. Webster's references to the growing power of the United States and its right to voice its opinions toward events abroad were designed less to antagonize Austria than to foster Unionism in the United States with an appeal to national pride.
In 1851, Congress invited the exiled Kossuth to visit the United States. His triumphal reception on 5 December set off a Kossuth craze from the Atlantic to the Middle West; articles on Hungary filled the press. American orators used the occasion of his presence to express sympathy for the oppressed of Europe, but critics noted that Kossuth's open appeal for American support exceeded the limits of acceptable international behavior.
Then Kossuth set out for Washington, Webster revealed his deep reluctance to meet the Hungarian or to attend the congressional dinner planned in his honor. When, at the White House, Kossuth failed to resist the temptation to make a statement in behalf of his Hungarian cause, Fillmore responded with a mild rebuke. He reminded Kossuth that the United States had no intention of interfering in Europe's internal affairs. At a subsequent White House dinner, Kossuth's scarcely concealed anger embarrassed all who attended. To protect the administration from congressional charges that it had no concern for humanity, Webster attended Congress' festive dinner for Kossuth. There he exclaimed, "We shall rejoice to see our American model upon the Lower Danube and on the mountains of Hungary." But the obligation to establish that model, Webster added, belonged solely to the Hungarian patriots.
Jacksonian Democrats organized the Young America movement to exploit the cause of Europe's oppression. Douglas made a dramatic appeal for a more effective foreign policy before a Jackson Day audience in January 1852: "I think it is time that America had a foreign policy . . . a foreign policy in accordance with the spirit of the age—but not such a foreign policy as we have seen attempted to be enforced in this country for the last three years." On 20 January, Cass introduced a resolution in the Senate declaring that the United States could not again witness, without deep concern, the efforts of European powers to crush an independence movement. Cass's resolution aroused the fury of congressional conservatives, who reminded him that words and resolutions such as his demeaned the dignity of the country because the moral influence they sought to wield would prove impotent in affairs among nations.
Even before Kossuth left Washington for a tour of the Middle West, the enthusiasm aroused by his presence in the country had begun to evaporate. Clay reminded him pointedly that even if the United States declared war on Russia it could not transport men and arms effectively into the heart of Europe. Kossuth's receptions became more perfunctory the longer he remained in the country. In the South he faced indifference, if not open hostility. At the end he became the victim of the very enthusiasm he had created. Democratic politicians had used him in their appeals to American nationalism, but they would not offer him any effective support any more than Clay would. When, later in 1852, Kossuth sailed for England, he had collected about $90,000; otherwise, his mission had been a failure.
Democrats who had condemned the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty assumed that Britain intended to extend its influence in Central America. When the British in 1852 converted the tiny Islas de la Bahía of Honduras, long under their control, into a crown colony, Democrats charged the British with aggression in the Caribbean. Cass and Douglas declared the British action a defiance of the Monroe Doctrine and demanded that the United States defend the sacred doctrine. Cooler heads in the administration could see no danger to American interests in the British decision and refused to act.
As the debate over the Bay Islands raged on, the Jacksonians found another issue with which to belabor the conservative Fillmore administration. During 1849 and 1850 a Venezuelan adventurer, Narciso López, engaged in filibustering activities against the island of Cuba with the intention of overthrowing the Spanish regime. Polk had tried unsuccessfully to buy Cuba in 1848. When the Senate later that year voted on a purchase resolution, the South revealed a surprising unanimity in favor of acquisition. Thereafter southern expansionists supported López in his efforts to extend American control over the island of sugar and slaves. Among them were Mexican War veterans in search of adventure, planters in search of new lands, and proslavery elements who feared a Spanish policy of emancipation.
During 1849, federal officials prevented López from leaving the United States, but in the spring of 1850, with several hundred followers, he slipped out of New Orleans and landed at Cárdenas. The invaders burned the governor's mansion but failed to ignite a revolt. Soon they retreated to Key West, Florida. Facing only limited reprisals in American courts, the conspirators soon planned another invasion of Cuba. The movement picked up additional support from Cuban juntas in New York and New Orleans. Democratic editor John L. O'Sullivan, who in 1845 coined the phrase "manifest destiny," lent his pen to the crusade. Articles proclaimed the desire of Cubans to free themselves from Spanish rule, awaiting only a propitious occasion to mount their revolt. Much of the northern press denounced the enterprise and predicted its failure. Fillmore issued a proclamation condemning the plan to plunder Cuba. New York authorities prepared to prevent any expedition from leaving that port.
López again transferred his activities to New Orleans. Upon receiving reports of a Cuban uprising, he set off for Cuba with five hundred recruits in August 1851. Again the expedition found itself isolated. Spanish forces overwhelmed the invaders; executed many of them, including López; and sent others into slavery or penal servitude. Southern editors rebuked the Fillmore administration for preventing a successful invasion. Extremists staged anti-Spanish demonstrations, highly destructive of Spanish property, in both New Orleans and Key West. Even northern Jacksonians took up the issue. Douglas denounced Fillmore's policy of neutrality toward Cuba:
They employ the American Navy and Army to arrest the volunteers and seize the provisions, ammunition, and supplies of every kind which may be sent in aid of the patriot cause, and at the same time give free passage and protection to all men, ammunition, and supplies which may be sent in aid of the royalist, and THEY CALL THAT NEUTRALITY!
Britain and France entered the controversy by sending naval vessels to Cuban waters with the warning that they would stop any further adventuring from the United States for the purpose of conducting hostile operations against the government in Cuba. The State Department objected. At the suggestion of Madrid, Britain and France, in January 1852, offered a tripartite guarantee of Spanish rights in Cuba. Despite Webster's total disapproval of southern filibustering, his replies to London and Paris were not encouraging. Finally, following Webster's death in the autumn of 1852, the administration, working through the new secretary of state, Edward Everett, sent a firm rejection. Everett assured British and French officials that the United States had no intention of seizing Cuba, but he reminded the two European powers that Cuba barred the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi, that it stood astride the chief American route to California. Under certain contingencies, wrote Everett, the island "might be almost essential to our safety." Everett's letter was sufficiently nationalistic in sentiment to win the approval even of the Jacksonians.