The Manifesto Exposed

A cartoon mocking the Ostend Manifesto with its own text

A cartoon mocking the Ostend Manifesto with its own text

A small programming note, Gentle Readers:

Over the past two weeks I have discovered a fascination with the whole business of stealing or, if theft failed, buying Cuba. I consequently made an investment in some more dedicated works on the subject. Copies of Basil Rauch’s The American Interest in Cuba, 1848-1855 and hopefully the correct volume of Allen Nevins’ Ordeal of the Union are on their way to me. I plan to go through them and then dig into William W. Freehling’s The Road to Disunion: Secessionists Triumphant and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. I will surely have more to say on the subject then.

But enough about me.

William L. Marcy

William L. Marcy

Secretary of State William L. Marcy certainly meant for whatever came out of the meeting in Ostend to remain secret, even if he did not anticipate the radical document that Buchanan, Mason, and Soulé produced. Soulé and secrecy made for an unlikely combination. The European press knew the Americans aimed to hatch something at Ostend before they arrived. The New York Herald, one of the most read papers in the United States, got wind of the Manifesto’s contents and published them. The Herald had the details so accurately that they might have come from a leak. Soulé sounds to me like a good candidate for the source, but I defer to the experts.

The rumors and possible leaks resulted in the House subpoenaing diplomatic correspondence. Pierce complied in March, 1855, but excised Marcy’s open-ended instruction to Soulé that, failing purchase, “you would then direct your effort to the next desirable object, which is to detach that island from the Spanish dominion.” Soulé and his allies ensured that Pierce suppressed nothing else. Marcy and the administration retaliated by denouncing the Manifesto and forcing Soulé to resign his post.

Denounced or not, the Manifesto reached the general public. The antislavery press complained, quite accurately, about a slaveholder conspiracy. The international reaction proved equally laudatory. Potter sums it up in The Impending Crisis:

For months the administration was held up to the country and to the world as the advocate of a policy of “shame and dishonor,” the supporter of a “bucaneering document,” a “highwayman’s plea.” American diplomacy, said the London Times, was given to “the habitual pursuit of dishonorable objects by clandestine means.”

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

The Pierce administration did denounce the Manifesto and could not have anticipated what came out of the Ostend meeting. Americans, as a later British commentator would observe, did the right thing after exhausting the other options. But in retrospect, the Manifesto accomplished more than a practical end to American ambitions toward Cuba until the late 1800s. Its rhetoric exposed the nasty, self-serving, and reckless side to expansionism. The cause of Manifest Destiny, if generally more a southern and southwestern priority in the past, had northern exponents as well. Those northerners took their lumps in the Oregon Treaty, where James K. Polk did not press for the most extreme of American claims, but could still plausibly claim a kind of religious and political mission unconnected with slavery. They had far more trouble staking out that position when the most radical official document on hand declared, if in careful diplomatic language, its common cause with slavery.

The Pierce administration paid a heavy political cost for the Ostend Manifesto and its Cuba policy in further alienating northern opinion that it almost at the exact same time brutally abused with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Its attempt, and the attempt of radicals like Soulé, to make a safer future for slavery did just the opposite. Taking expansion off the table, even if Southerners didn’t quite realize it at the time, left them even more firmly ensconced in a world going the other way. Without expansion, slaves would pile up and outnumber whites more and more. The Upper South would sell its slaves South and then emancipate, leaving a smaller and smaller, and blacker and blacker, rump South to someday have abolition forced on it and turn into another Haiti through brutal race war. At the same time, the Manifesto cut another ideological tie, however tenuous, between the sections.

The whole contorted affair abounded with paradoxical actions and outcomes: trying to strengthen the South left it weaker. The candidate of the South repudiated Southern aspirations after first embracing them. Cautious old Buchanan put his name to a wildly radical document. The last administration chosen by both sections ended up driving further wedges between them. Southern radicals would have done better to focus their efforts on carving new slave states out of Texas or backing Quitman’s expedition even against the administration, but they lacked our hindsight to know it.

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