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The Ostend Manifesto was a document written in 1854 that described the rationale for the United States to purchase Cuba from Spain while implying that the U.S. should declare war if Spain refused. Cuba's annexation had long been a goal of U.S. slaveholding expansionists, particularly as the U.S. set its sights southward following the admission of California to the Union. At the national level, the US leaders had been satisfied to have the island remain in Spanish hands so long as it did not pass to a stronger power such as Britain or France. The Ostend Manifesto proposed a shift in foreign policy, justifying the use of force to seize Cuba in the name of national security. It resulted from debates over slavery in the United States, Manifest Destiny, and the Monroe Doctrine, as slaveholders sought new territory for slavery's expansion.
During the administration of U.S. President Franklin Pierce, Southern expansionists called for acquiring Cuba as a slave state, but the breakout of violence following the Kansas–Nebraska Act left the administration unsure of how to proceed. At the suggestion of Secretary of State William L. Marcy, American ministers in Europe: Pierre Soulé for Spain, James Buchanan for Great Britain, and John Y. Mason for France, met to discuss strategy related to acquisition of Cuba. They met at Ostend, Belgium and drafted a dispatch at Aix-la-Chapelle. The document was sent to the US in October 1854, outlining why a U.S. purchase of Cuba would be beneficial to each of the nations and declaring that the U.S. would be "justified in wresting" the island from Spanish hands if Spain refused to sell. To Marcy's chagrin, the flamboyant Soulé had made no secret of the meetings, causing unwanted publicity in both Europe and the U.S. The administration was finally forced to publish the contents of the dispatch, which caused it irreparable damage.
The dispatch was published as demanded by the House of Representatives. Dubbed the "Ostend Manifesto", it was immediately denounced in both the Northern states and Europe. It became a rallying cry for Northerners seeking to control the vote on slavery and conflict in what was later termed Bleeding Kansas. The Pierce Administration suffered a significant setback. The question of Cuba's annexation was effectively set aside until the late 19th century. United States interest in the region rose again in the 1870s and the nation supported Cuba's gaining independence from Spain.
Located 90 miles (140 km) off the coast of Florida, Cuba had been discussed as a subject for annexation in several presidential administrations. Presidents John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson expressed great interest in Cuba, with Adams observing during his time as Secretary of State that it had "become an object of transcendent importance to the commercial and political interests of our Union". He later described Cuba and Puerto Rico as "natural appendages to the North American continent" – the former's annexation was "indispensable to the continuance and integrity of the Union itself." As the Spanish Empire had lost much of its power, a no-transfer policy began with Jefferson whereby the U.S. respected Spanish sovereignty, considering the island's eventual absorption inevitable. The US simply wanted to ensure that control did not pass to a stronger power such as Britain or France.
Cuba was of special importance to Southern Democrats, who believed their economic and political interests would be best served by the admission of another slave state to the Union. The existence of slavery in Cuba, the island's agrarian economy, and its geographical location predisposed it to Southern influence; its admission would greatly strengthen the position of Southern slaveholders, whose way of life was under fire from Northern abolitionists. Whereas immigration to Northern industrial centers had resulted in Northern control of the population-based House of Representatives, Southern politicians sought to maintain the fragile balance of power in the Senate, where each state received equal representation. As slavery-free Western states were admitted, Southern politicians increasingly looked to Cuba as the next slave state. If Cuba were admitted to the Union as a single state, the island would have sent two senators and nine representatives to Washington.
In the Democratic Party, the debate over the continued expansion of the United States centered on how quickly, rather than whether, to expand. Radical expansionists and the Young America movement were quickly gaining traction by 1848, and a debate about whether to annex the Yucatán portion of Mexico that year included significant discussion of Cuba. Even John C. Calhoun, described as a reluctant expansionist who strongly disagreed with intervention on the basis of the Monroe Doctrine, concurred that "it is indispensable to the safety of the United States that this island should not be in certain hands," likely referring to Britain.
In light of a Cuban uprising, President James K. Polk refused solicitations from filibuster backer John L. O'Sullivan and stated his belief that any acquisition of the island must be an "amicable purchase." Under orders from Polk, Secretary of State James Buchanan prepared an offer of $100 million, but "sooner than see [Cuba] transferred to any power, [Spanish officials] would prefer seeing it sunk into the ocean." The Whig administrations of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore did not pursue the matter and took a harsher stand against filibusters, with federal troops intercepting several expeditions bound for Cuba. When Franklin Pierce took office in 1853, however, he was committed to Cuba's annexation.
At Pierce's inauguration, he stated, "The policy of my Administration will not be controlled by any timid forebodings of evil from expansion." While slavery was not the stated goal nor Cuba mentioned by name, the antebellum makeup of his party required the Northerner to appeal to Southern interests, so he favored the annexation of Cuba as a slave state. To this end, he appointed expansionists to diplomatic posts throughout Europe, notably sending Pierre Soulé, an outspoken proponent of Cuban annexation, as United States Minister to Spain. The Northerners in his cabinet were fellow doughfaces (Northerners with Southern sympathies) such as Buchanan, who was made Minister to Great Britain after a failed bid for the presidency at the Democratic National Convention, and Secretary of State William L. Marcy, whose appointment was also an attempt to placate the "Old Fogies." This was the term for the wing of the party that favored slow, cautious expansion.
In March 1854, the steamer Black Warrior stopped at the Cuban port of Havana on a regular trading route from New York City to Mobile, Alabama. When it failed to provide a cargo manifest, Cuban officials seized the ship, its cargo, and its crew. The so-called Black Warrior Affair was viewed by Congress as a violation of American rights; a hollow ultimatum issued by Soulé to the Spanish to return the ship served only to strain relations, and he was barred from discussing Cuba's acquisition for nearly a year. While the matter was resolved peacefully, it fueled the flames of Southern expansionism.
Meanwhile, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny had become increasingly sectionalized as the decade progressed. While there were still Northerners who believed the United States should dominate the continent, most were opposed to Cuba's annexation, particularly as a slave state. Southern-backed filibusters, including Narciso López, had failed repeatedly to overthrow the colonial government despite considerable support among the Cuban people for independence, and a series of reforms on the island made Southerners apprehensive that slavery would be abolished. They believed that Cuba would be "Africanized," as the majority of the population were slaves, and they had seen the republic of Haiti established by former slaves. The notion of a pro-slavery invasion by the U.S. was rejected in light of the controversy over the Kansas–Nebraska Act. During internal discussions, supporters of gaining Cuba decided that a purchase or intervention in the name of national security was the most acceptable method of acquisition.
Marcy suggested Soulé confer with Buchanan and John Y. Mason, Minister to France, on U.S. policy toward Cuba. He had previously written to Soulé that, if Cuba's purchase could not be negotiated, "you will then direct your effort to the next desirable object, which is to detach that island from the Spanish dominion and from all dependence on any European power" – words Soulé may have adapted to fit his own agenda. Authors David Potter and Lars Schoultz both note the considerable ambiguity in Marcy's cryptic words, and Samuel Bemis suggests he may have referred to Cuban independence, but acknowledges it is impossible to know Marcy's true intent. In any case, Marcy had also written in June that the administration had abandoned thoughts of declaring war over Cuba. But Robert May writes, "the instructions for the conference had been so vague, and so many of Marcy's letters to Soulé since the Black Warrior incident had been bellicose, that the ministers misread the administration's intent."
After a minor disagreement about their meeting site, the three American diplomats met in Ostend, Belgium from October 9–11, 1854, then adjourned to Aix-la-Chapelle for a week to prepare a report of the proceedings. The resulting dispatch, which would come to be known as the Ostend Manifesto, declared that "Cuba is as necessary to the North American republic as any of its present members, and that it belongs naturally to that great family of states of which the Union is the Providential Nursery".
Prominent among the reasons for annexation outlined in the manifesto were fears of a possible Haiti-type slave revolt in Cuba in the absence of U.S. intervention. The Manifesto urged against inaction on the Cuban question, warning,
"We should, however, be recreant to our duty, be unworthy of our gallant forefathers, and commit base treason against our posterity, should we permit Cuba to be Africanized and become a second St. Domingo (Haiti), with all its attendant horrors to the white race, and suffer the flames to extend to our own neighboring shores, seriously to endanger our actually to consume the fair fabric of our Union."
Racial fears, largely spread by Spain, raised tension and anxiety in the U.S. over a potential black uprising on the island that could "spread like wildfire" to the southern U.S.). The Manifesto stated that the U.S. would be "justified in wresting" Cuba from Spain if the colonial power refused to sell it.
Soulé was a former US Senator from Louisiana and member of the Young America movement, who sought a realization of American influence in the Caribbean and Central America. He is credited as the primary architect of the policy expressed in the Ostend Manifesto. The experienced and cautious Buchanan is believed to have written the document and moderated Soulé's aggressive tone. Soulé highly favored expansion of Southern influence outside the current Union of States. His belief in Manifest Destiny led him to prophesy "absorption of the entire continent and its island appendages" by the U.S. Mason's Virginian roots predisposed him to the sentiments expressed in the document, but he later regretted his actions. Buchanan's exact motivations remain unclear despite his expansionist tendencies, but it has been suggested that he was seduced by visions of the presidency, which he would go on to win in 1856. One historian concluded in 1893, "When we take into account the characteristics of the three men we can hardly resist the conclusion that Soulé, as he afterwards intimated, twisted his colleagues round his finger."
To Marcy's chagrin, the flamboyant Soulé made no secret of the meetings. The press in both Europe and the U.S. were well aware of the proceedings if not their outcome, but were preoccupied with wars and midterm elections. In the latter case, the Democratic Party became a minority in the United States Congress, and editorials continued to chide the Pierce administration for its secrecy. At least one newspaper, the New York Herald, published what Brown calls "reports that came so close to the truth of the decisions at Ostend that the President feared they were based on leaks, as indeed they may have been". Pierce feared the political repercussions of confirming such rumors, and he did not acknowledge them in his State of the Union address at the end of 1854. The administration's opponents in the House of Representatives to call for the document's release, and it was published in full four months after being written.
When the document was published, Northerners were outraged by what they considered a Southern attempt to extend slavery. American free-soilers, recently angered by the strengthened Fugitive Slave Law (passed as part of the Compromise of 1850 and requiring officials of free states to cooperate in the return of slaves), decried as unconstitutional what Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune labeled "The Manifesto of the Brigands." During the period of Bleeding Kansas, as anti- and pro-slavery supporters fought for control of the state, the Ostend Manifesto served as a rallying cry for the opponents of the Slave Power. But, the movement to annex Cuba did not fully end until after the American Civil War.
The Pierce Administration was irreparably damaged by the incident. Pierce had been highly sympathetic to the Southern cause, and the controversy over the Ostend Manifesto contributed to the splintering of the Democratic Party. Internationally, it was seen as a threat to Spain and to imperial power across Europe. It was quickly denounced by national governments in Madrid, London, and Paris. To preserve what favorable relations the administration had left, Soulé was ordered to cease discussion of Cuba; he promptly resigned. The backlash from the Ostend Manifesto caused Pierce to abandon expansionist plans. It has been described as part of a series of "gratuitous conflicts... that cost more than they were worth" for Southern interests intent on maintaining the institution of slavery.
Buchanan was easily elected President in 1856. Although he remained committed to Cuban annexation, he was hindered by popular opposition and the growing sectional conflict. It was not until thirty years after the Civil War that the so-called Cuban Question again came to national prominence.