Storms Make Messes

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

We have yet to finish with 1854, that remarkable year when everything happened at once and flowed together into everything else into a confused mix where the South and the Democracy had their great triumph over Kansas and then found themselves nearly ruined by it. Doubling down, whether with new efforts to buy Cuba or with wild, irresponsible threats from the Ostend Manifesto only further got the increasingly antislavery North’s back up. Though meaning just the opposite, Franklin Pierce and Stephen Douglas sure knew how to wreck a party.

The Democrats paid at the ballot box, losing almost half the seats they’d held in the 33rd Congress. Only seven northern Democrats who voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act survived the voters’ wrath. Those who voted against it paid a price too, but where pro-Nebraska northern Democrats found their numbers reduced to a mere seven, losing three quarters of their caucus, the anti-Nebraska northern Democracy came out with only a thirty percent, fifteen seat haircut. It could clearly have gone much worse for the latter. This came on the very heels of the Democracy’s best showing yet, a remarkable reversal of fortune. Douglas got his storm.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Looking back at this it can seem obvious that the new Republican party founded in 1854 picked up the pieces. The Democracy’s loss meant the Republican’s gain. We know what happened next, but people at the time did not have that luxury. In some states the Whigs survived. In others the whole party transitioned relatively smoothly into Republicans. That did not happen in Illinois, where the Republicans tried to draft Abraham Lincoln. He declined and stayed a Whig, interested instead in making Whiggery into the national antislavery party. In many corners of the North, antislavery Whigs, Republicans, and Know-Nothings competed for many of the same votes. The Republicans had only just come on the scene and did not even adopt their name until the summer. This all meant a dizzying array of choices at the ballot box, which David Potter summarizes in The Impending Crisis:

Voters in 1854, therefore, faced a stunning array of parties and factions. Along with the old familiar Democrats, Whigs, and Free Soilers, there were also Republicans, People’s party men, Anti-Nebraskaites, Fusionists, Know-Nothings, Know-Somethings (antislavery nativists), Maine Lawites, Temperance men, Rum Democrats, Silver Gray Whigs, Hindoos, Hard Shell Democrats, Soft Shells, Half Shells, Adopted Citizens, and assorted others.

The who? The whats?

The Maine Law refers to that state’s 1851 prohibition law, which the powerful temperance movement wanted to see enacted in other states. The Anti-Nebraskaites took a somewhat stronger antislavery position than the Republicans. Hard Shell and Soft Shell Democrats disagreed over whether to reconcile the Barnburner Democrats who left the party for the Free Soil party back in 1854 but had since come back. Soft Shell Democrats and Silver Gray Whigs both took less of an anti-immigrant tone and worried about the growing power of the Know-Nothings.

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

The Democracy very clearly lost the 1854 elections, but out of all this mess who had really won? Had the Know-Nothings proved their strength over antislavery, or had it gone the other way around? Where did the Temperance movement fit in? If slavery might break the Union, then nativism could save it and serve as a counterweight to the great sectional tensions of the age. The fact that nativism overlapped with antislavery complicated, and ultimately helped thwart, hope but left matters still more confused. Potter counts

about 121 members who had been chosen with Know-Nothing support and about 115 who had been elected as Anti-Nebraska men, with antislavery support. About 23 were antislavery but not nativist; about 29 were nativist but not antislavery (most of these were Southerners); but some 92 were both antislavery and associated with nativism. This situation meant that most of the nativists were antislavery and most of the antislavery members were in some degree nativists.

Who had the majority? The antislavery men or the nativists? Both did, but they did not flow together seamlessly. Some nativists, like Massachusetts’ Henry Wilson, cared quite a bit more about opposing slavery than opposing immigration and Catholicism. Others went the other way. Given the natural affinities between the movements, one would expect them to stick together. Over time, one faction or the other would gain ascendance and the party would become their party, if with the other still a significant minority.

But that question did not resolve itself directly. The 33rd Congress remained in session until the start of March, 1855. The 34th would not take its seats until December. In the meantime, Kansas had its future in the air. Would it fall to slavery, as Northerners feared and Southerners hoped, or would Stephen Douglas’ popular sovereignty bring about his expected outcome through the hard laws of geography and climate?


Back to Ostend and Out with Soulé

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Despite his heroic efforts on the Nebraska front, Franklin Pierce had not quite done enough to wreck his party in the North just yet. He still had one more trick left in him, whether he knew it or not. By the fall of 1854, Pierce had given up on stealing Cuba via John A. Quitman’s filibustering. He might have still held out some hope for Pierre Soulé’s revolutionary machinations in Spain but nothing had come from them but Soulé’s word that something might eventually come from them. He might have withdrawn Soulé, but that would make Pierce look weak to the expansionists. Sending a special Cuba commission to join him would mean undercutting the Frenchman, who had served as the face of Cuban annexation in Madrid. Getting rid of such a terrible diplomat would help and hurt the cause simultaneously.

William L. Marcy

William L. Marcy

With every option looking terrible one way or another, Pierce decided to give one last go at Cuba. If he could not get the island, could he perhaps persuade Spain’s chief defenders, the British and French, to change positions and put pressure on Madrid? This has the sound of grasping at straws, and much of the same in substance, but factors beyond Spain’s control did push for a sale. Eventually the holders of Spanish bonds would want their money back. Spain could afford neither paying them nor the investments in infrastructure it would need to produce the revenue to do so in the future. Without the umbrella of British power especially, Spain would have much more trouble resisting the pressure to sell even if Madrid loathed to give up one of its remaining possessions abroad. It could happen.

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

On August 16, 1854, Secretary of State William Marcy sent off new instructions to Soulé. He should keep his eye on Spanish politics for any chance to upset the status quo on Cuba. Marcy probably didn’t need to tell him that but his second note of the same date told Soulé that he would meet up with James Buchanan, coming down from London, and John Y. Mason, coming over from Paris. They could not meet in Paris, the logical midpoint between Madrid and London, because they expected that Louis Napoleon’s spies would know everything they said before they finished saying it if they did. Thus they landed at Ostend in Belgium.

The idea for the conference apparently came from Pierce himself and so the blame for the fiasco should rest with him as well. Allen Nevins tells what Marcy thought of the principals:

Inasmuch as Marcy disliked Soulé and his ways, thought Mason a pompous windbag, and regarded Buchanan rather contemptuously, it is very unlikely that he expected anything from the meeting.

James Buchanan

James Buchanan, minister to the Court of St. James

Nevins also calls the Ostend conference an attempt by “three second-rate brains” to produce “one first-rate idea.” But Pierce apparently believed in the effort. The fact that Soulé high-tailed it out of Madrid at the end of August with suspicion, likely true, that he’d helped stage a brief uprising in the capital certainly got the matter off to an interesting start. A cluster of American diplomats milling about Paris in September gave Europe little reason to doubt that the United States intended to hatch something. Given the late aggression toward Cuba, they hardly had to guess what.

I’ve already dealt with the Ostend Manifesto that came out of the meeting (parts 1, 2, 3) and don’t yet have much to add to what I wrote then, but it deserves some consideration in context. Here, just as with Nebraska, Franklin Pierce put the northern Democracy in a bind. He openly connived to secure Cuba by hook or crook as a new slave state, on top of having just delivered all the Great Plains over to slavery. What would satisfy the man? Would he rest while a free state yet existed?

John Y. Mason, minister to Paris

John Y. Mason, minister to France

The full manifesto did not get out until March of 1855, but garbled accounts hit the papers in November just on the wake of the Democracy’s great defeats. If nothing else, it would have helped keep northern anger alive. That anger coming on the heels of the Democracy’s defeat essentially ended the administration’s Cuba ambitions. That that anger also involved the possible annexation of a Spanish, Catholic island further inflamed the Know-Nothings. Everybody except Lower South expansionists and friends of filibusters, a minority even there, and Missouri slaveholders, had plenty of reason to hate the Democracy in the waning months of 1854.

Marcy wrote Soulé a long dressing-down in November, surely with a mind to the fact that his party had done remarkable work in assembling an opposition coalition against itself. The Frenchman briefly found himself forbidden to traverse France on his way back to his Spanish post. When he did return, he found his most glacial reception yet. With his own staff rising against him, Soulé finally resigned in December, 1854.

Buchanan on Walker

James Buchanan

James Buchanan

The matter of Hiram Paulding’s December 8, 1857 arrest of William Walker came before the Congress on January 7, 1858, when James Buchanan forwarded an account of the events and copies of all relevant documents. The Old Public Functionary’s administration gave instructions, on the request of Central American ministers resident in New York, to foil Walker’s second Nicaragua expedition. Buchanan defended those instructions on the grounds of enforcing the Neutrality Act:

My opinion of the value and importance of these laws corresponds entirely with that expressed by Mr. Monroe, in his message to Congress of December 7, 1819. That wise, prudent, and patriotic statesman says: “It is of the highest importance to our national character and indispensable to the morality of our citizens that all violations of our neutrality should be prevented. No door should be left open for the evasion of our laws, no opportunity afforded to any who may be disposed to take advantage of it to compromit the interest or the honor of the nation.”

Not content to wrap himself in Monroe’s words, Buchanan added his own defense of the Neutrality Act:

The crime well deserves the severe punishment inflicted upon it by our laws. It violates the principles of Christianity, morality, and humanity, held sacred by all civilized nations, and by none more than by the people of the United States.

Except the people who formed the juries in New Orleans and San Francisco, Franklin Pierce’s administration, Pierre Soulé, James Buchanan, and the numerous financial backers and personal followers of filibusters like LópezQuitman, and other, less famous freebooters. But a politician must tell flattering lies, I suppose. Having told that whopper, Buchanan continued:

Disguise it as we may, such a military expedition is an invitation to reckless and lawless men to enlist under the banner of any adventurer to rob, plunder, and murder the unoffending citizens of neighboring States who have never done them harm. It is a usurpation of the war-making power, which belongs alone to Congress; and the Government itself, at least in the estimation of the world, becomes an accomplice in the commission of this crime, unless it adopts all the means necessary to prevent and punish it. It would be far better, and more in accordance with the bold and manly character of our countrymen, for the Government itself to get up such expeditions than to allow them to proceed under the command of irresponsible adventurers. We could then, at least, exercise some control over our own agents, and prevent them from burning down cities and committing other acts of enormity of which we have read.

Walker ordered his capital torched before he quit Nicaragua.

By tolerating such expeditions, we shall soon lose the high character which we have enjoyed ever since the days of Washington, for the faithful performance of our international obligations and duties, and inspire distrust against us among the members of the great family of civilized nations.

Lest one think Buchanan, chastened for his involvement in the Ostend Manifesto, repented his old ways, he goes on:

It is beyond question the destiny of our race to spread themselves over the continent of North America, and this at no distant day, should events be permitted to take their natural course. The tide of emigration will flow to the South, and nothing can eventually arrest its progress. If permitted to go there, peacefully, Central America will soon contain an American population, which will confer the blessings and benefits as well upon the natives as their respective Governments. Liberty, under the restraint of law, will preserve domestic peace; whilst the different transit routes across the isthmus, in which we are so deeply interested, will have assured protection.

Nothing has retarded this happy condition of affairs so much as the unlawful expeditions which have been fitted out in the United States to make war upon the Central American States. Had one half of the number of American citizens who have miserably perished in the first disastrous expedition of General Walker settled in Nicaragua as peaceful emigrants, the object which we all desire would ere this have been, in a great degree, accomplished.

In other words, infiltrate the country peacefully like the Texans did, then let us come and steal it at your invitation a few years down the road. It worked for Texas, after all. Given the weak local governments, they could probably take slaves with them and practice the institution freely until a local crackdown gave them pretense to call on Washington. Amateurs like Walker rightly aroused the distrust of Central Americans and so inclined them to learn from Mexico’s example rather than let the United States repeat it upon them.

The Weird Adventures of William Walker #2

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

The gray-eyed man of destiny, child prodigy turned doctor turned lawyer turned newspaper man turned adventurer found defeat in his first filibustering expedition. Desertion, starvation, lack of supplies, and approaching Mexican troops drove him from his Republic of Sonora, née the Republic of Lower California, in May of 1854. A San Francisco jury took eight minutes to acquit him on charges of violating the Neutrality Act, which outlawed things like taking a private army into a foreign country. In the jury’s defense, Walker had only done precisely that.

Thus chastened, Walker gave up on filibustering. He couldn’t depend on juries always thinking him a hero and celebrating the acts for which they acquitted him, so no more freelance invading of foreign countries. Instead, Walker would invade countries that invited him in. That left him with relatively few avenues for advance on the Mexican frontier, but Central America in the 1850s offered him other opportunities.

The Gold Rush heavily populated California, but did much less to grow the populations of the vast spaces of the Mexican Cession. Without so much as a railroad there, the trip to the West Coast proved long and arduous. Reaching California quickly usually meant sailing from an Eastern or Gulf coast port to Central America, crossing there by road or rail, and taking a second ship up the Pacific coast. That roundabout route proved sufficiently lucrative to draw Cornelius Vanderbilt, who founded the Accessory Transit Company to ply the trade through Nicaragua, which had the advantage of a closer location than Panama. The nation had a tropical climate where one could easily grow cotton, as well as crops more marginal in the chilly American South: coffee and sugar. Commerce, agriculture, and national interest all aligned on Nicaragua.

Cornelius Vanderbilt

Cornelius Vanderbilt

The same facts might hold for other Central American nations, but Nicaragua had a civil war on top of it which paved the way for a man of destiny to meet his fate. The fact that the nation had gone through fifteen presidents in six years made the kind of rhetoric about spreading the benefits of American civilization all the more plausible. Walker contacted the current band of rebels via a friend and signed a contract with them to gather up an expedition and hire on for the cause. With that kind of invitation, he could hardly violate the Neutrality Act. Even if Washington would otherwise take issue with him, Walker went to support the anti-British rebel faction in a time of increasing Anglo-American tensions. He even had the backing of Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company. In those circumstances, why not allow a deniable expedition the benefit of official indifference?

In May, 1855, just a year after the collapse of his Republic of Sonora, Walker and fifty-seven men dubbed “the immortals” set sail from San Francisco. On arrival, Walker demanded and got an independent command that he initially bungled. But then in a stroke of luck, the rebels’ leader and chief general both died in short order. That left Walker the senior man on the ground. He commandeered an Accessory Transit steamboat and used it to outflank and seize the opposition’s capital, Granada. Walker than accepted their surrender and formed a coalition government with his defeated foes and a figurehead president, taking for himself control of Nicaragua’s military. Later he executed the opposition leaders in his government and made himself president. Pierce recognized the new president’s government in May, 1856.

Walker’s success drew thousands of Americans into the country, hundreds taking up land grants. A bilingual newspaper promoted Nicaraguan settlement and Walker recruited also among those passing through the nation on their way to California. Why wouldn’t they come? Nicaragua offered free or cheap land to stake out new plantations. If it had abolished slavery thirty years previous, who cared? That just left the land open to establish a new slave society free from local competition. Nicaragua offered everything Cuba did and more.

The Weird Adventures of William Walker #1

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

History records William Walker’s birthplace as Nashville, Tennessee and his birth date as May 8, 1824. His life story reads like the imaginative product of the next century, one part pulp fiction and one part comic book. He has the alliterative name and even a marketing-friendly title: “the gray-eyed man of destiny.” In reading about him, I keep picturing him in tights and punching a gorilla with a ray gun  A child prodigy, Walker graduated from the University of Nashville at the ripe old age of fourteen. He then spent two years in Europe, studying medicine in Scotland, the Netherlands, France, and the Grand Duchy of Baden before finally taking a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Walker’s time in Europe exposed him to the revolutions of 1848 and must have helped inspire his own romantic ambitions to begin the world anew.

Medicine did not suit Walker well enough, so he decamped from Philadelphia to read law in New Orleans. Law did not satisfy him and Walker turned to journalism, investing in and taking editorial control of the New Orleans Crescent. Then the Gold Rush drew him to California, where he worked as a crusading journalist in San Francisco. That work helped inspire a vigilante movement against crime in the lawless boom town. He did not let his five feet and two inches keep him from personal hazards either. Walker fought three duels and came away twice wounded. But California could not contain Walker’s restless spirit and he went south in 1853, seeking permission from Mexican authorities to establish a colony in the sparsely populated Mexican northwest as a hedge against Indian raids into California.

The Mexicans had heard this kind of proposal before. Few people lived up there, so why not import settlers? They would hold the territory, develop it, give up tax revenue, and keep it from the hands of land-hungry nations nearby. That worked out horribly for Mexico when Americans came into Texas. Why would it work better when Americans came into Baja California or adjacent Sonora, both hard up against the new American border? The Mexicans, understandably, passed.

Walker would not take no for an answer. He recruited a band of forty-five men, all armed to the teeth, largely from Kentucky and his native Tennessee, and funded their expedition with promises of land in Sonora, On October 15, 1853, a year to the day before the Ostend Manifesto , he and his band set sail. Three weeks later, they seized the local capital, La Paz. On November 3, 1853, Walker declared La Paz the capital of the Republic of Lower California, appointed himself president, and instituted the laws of Louisiana as the republic’s new code. In so doing, he voided Mexico’s abolition of slavery.

Walker’s success made him a sensation and soon two hundred more men joined him. His funding came in exchange for lands in Sonora. He held, to whatever degree two hundred and forty-five retreating men could hold it, only Baja California. Sonora waited across the Gulf of California and with it Walker’s chance to pay off his supporters and proceed with his mission to, in James McPherson’s words:

subdue the Apaches, bring the blessings of American civilization and Anglo-Saxon energy to these benighted Mexican provinces, and incidentally to exploit Sonora’s gold and silver deposits.

To achieve those ambitions, Walker annexed Sonora by presidential fiat and declared it and Baja California the two states of his new Republic of Sonora on January 10, 1854. With his small army, Walker then crossed mountains and the Colorado River to seize their new province. The Mexican government took an interest and clashed with Walker’s ill-supplied, inexperienced, and mutinous troops. Fifty deserted and the rest fell back from the Mexican advance. Thirty-four survivors accompanied Walker in May as he rushed back across the border to surrender to American authorities in San Diego.

The Americans put Walker on trial for violating the Neutrality Act. He had, after all, waged an illegal war against Mexico. But San Francisco, and plenty of Southerners back east, called Walker a hero. His jury listened to the evidence against him and weighed it carefully despite Walker’s local popularity. Doubtless they wrestled with deep concerns about law and morality, focused keenly on questions of fact, and did their utmost to fulfill their civic duty in the eight minutes they required to acquit him.

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.

The Ostend Manifesto: Why So Serious?

A cartoon mocking the Ostend Manifesto with its own text

A cartoon mocking the Ostend Manifesto with its own text

The Ostend Manifesto threatened war, which it treated as an inevitability unless Spain sold Cuba, against Spain, against its European allies, and against essentially the whole world. America would take on all comers to secure Cuba for its god, for its freedom, and for its slavery. No human power could stop the United States from intervening in a coming Cuban revolution. Fiery words, however, need not carry sudden violence in their wake. Diplomatic saber-rattling, like Soulé’s off-script forty-eight hour ultimatum to Spain in the Black Warrior affair, could arise from genuine feeling and national interest or from the need for a bit of domestic or international theater. The Manifesto’s text does not alone permit us to tell what category it falls into, but it at least provides rhetorical support for the seriousness of the threat.

Self-preservation is the law of states as well as with individuals. All nations have, at different periods, acted upon this maxim. Although it has been made the pretext for committing flagrant injustice, as in the partition of Poland and other similar cases which history records, yet the principle itself, though often abused, has always been recognized.


Whilst pursuing this course we can afford to disregard the censures of the world, to which we have been so often and so unjustly exposed.

Spanish Cuba presented an existential crisis to the United States. National survival, on top of the survival of the white race in the South, depended on having Cuba. If Spain would not sell for the incredibly generous price offered

then, by every law, human and divine, we shall be justified in wresting it from Spain, if we possess the power; and this upon the very same principle that would justify an individual in tearing down the burning house of his neighbor if there were no other means of preventing the flames from destroying his own home.

Under such circumstances we ought neither to count the cost nor regard the odds which Spain might enlist against us. We forbear to enter into the question whether the present condition of the island would justify such a measure. 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, 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.

Buchanan, Mason, and Soulé concluded with the ominous note that already the United States and Spain stood on that precipice. The Black Warrior affair very nearly brought them over the edge. If Soulé had his way, it would have. Spain stood unrepentant, secure in its legal rights. Only by selling the island could Spain avert an eventual war over Cuba.

So much for the hope that cautious old Buchanan would reign in fiery Soulé. Apparently, in the words of the Manifesto:

the present is an age of adventure, in which restless and daring spirits abound in every portion of the world.

The Ostend Manifesto: Deadly Threats

A cartoon mocking the Ostend Manifesto with its own text

A cartoon mocking the Ostend Manifesto with its own text

The Ostend Manifesto opened with fairly conventional diplomatic language. The United States wanted Cuba for various reasons, including fear that American slaves might get ideas of freedom from a successful slave uprising there. The Manifesto left unstated the desire to revise the Armistice measures in a more pro-Southern direction by bringing in a new slave state to balance out free California, but that kind of thing would be of less interest to the Spanish or other European powers than to men like Soulé and Jefferson Davis. To Spain, sale would offer a chance to free it from its serious foreign debts and engage in internal improvements to put it on a sounder footing in the future.

But what if Spain rejected that generous American offer?

Extreme oppression, it s now admitted, justifies any people in endeavoring to relieve themselves from the yoke of their oppressors. The sufferings which the corrupt, arbitrary, and unrelenting local administration necessarily entails upon the inhabitants of Cuba, cannot fail to stimulate and keep alive that spirit of resistance and revolution against Spain which has, of late years, been so often manifested. In this condition of affairs it is in vain to expect that the sympathies of the people of the United States will not be warmly enlisted in favor of their oppressed neighbors.

James Buchanan

James Buchanan

Such a nice colony Spain had there. The United States hoped nothing happened to it. A successful uprising would break American hearts, but the Spanish putting it down would break them even more. Don’t take my word for it:

We know that the President is justly inflexible in his determination to execute the neutrality laws; but should the Cubans themselves rise n revolt against the oppression which they suffer, no human power could prevent the citizens of the United States and liberal-minded men of other countries from rushing to their assistance. Besides, the present is an age of adventure, in which restless and daring spirits abound in every portion of the world.

It is not improbable, therefore, that Cuba may be wrested from Spain by a successful revolution; and, in that event, she will lose both the island and the price we are willing now to pay for it-a price far beyond what was ever paid by one people to another for any province.


It is certain that, should the Cubans themselves organize an insurrection against the Spanish government, and should other independent nations come to the aid of Spain in the contest, no human power could, in our opinion, prevent the people and the government of the United States from taking part in such a civil war, in support of their neighbors and friends.

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

Men in business suits and fedoras with Tommy guns under each arm couldn’t have said it better. If Spain did not sell, a Cuban revolution would provoke American intervention to ensure its success. Pierce’s invocation of the Neutrality Act amounted to a fig leaf for future filibustering and a part of the carrot for Spain. Washington sent a message that it preferred to buy the island by quashing Quitman, but if purchasing went off the table then purloining took purchase’s place even if that meant war with not just Spain but Spain’s Great Power allies.

The United States went to war with a European power twice in its history to that point, winning the Revolution largely due to the other powers ganging up with it against the United Kingdom and flat-out losing the War of 1812. Now it proposed to take on any combination of empires for the cause of Cuba.

How on Earth did cautious old Buchanan put his name to that? What would prompt any American diplomat, save perhaps Soulé, to propose such an extraordinary course without so much as running it by Washington first? Self-interested national benevolence only goes so far. The fiery, existential language that the Manifesto used to frame American interest in Cuba deserves its own post, which will come Monday.

The Ostend Manifesto: Reasons to Buy and Sell

James Buchanan

James Buchanan

When Buchanan, Mason, and Soulé met in Ostend they reached agreement on a Cuba policy. The Pierce expected some kind of secret position paper that would go into the mail and in due course arrive back in Washington for careful consideration. Doubtless steady, cautious Buchanan would keep things from flying off the rails.

Soulé’s theatrics put the notion of secrecy to rest and anybody paying attention to the European diplomatic scene knew the American ministers had something up their sleeve. The Manifesto went public and presented Washington with the unhappy choice of repudiating it and paying both a domestic political price and suffering international humiliation over letting its ministers engage in wildcat diplomacy or owning up and endorsing the document and so embracing a kind of secretive chicanery from which the administration had lately disassociated itself by suppressing Quitman’s expedition.

But what did it say? It opened with a very conventional sort of diplomatic language. Anybody would ask what vital interests prompted such a deep concern for Cuba on the part of the United States, so the Manifesto explained 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.

From its locality it commands the mouth of the Mississippi and the immense and annually increasing trade which must seek this avenue to the ocean.


The natural and main outlet to the products of this entire population, the highway of their direct intercourse with the Atlantic and Pacific states, can never be secure, but must ever be endangered whilst Cuba is a dependency of a distant power in whose possession it had proved to be a source of constant annoyance and embarrassment to their interests.

The Black Warrior affair might subside, but what about future shipping? Any captain-general down the road could seize another ship, or a dozen. In the interests of fairness, one must note that the ship in question only touched at Cuba and plied what amounted to a domestic trade. It stretches the idea of national sovereignty to extend it over foreign ports but the idea has at least a grain or two of plausibility.

But another concern made acquisition urgent and its delay “exceedingly dangerous to the United States.”

The system of immigration and labor, lately organized within its limits, and the tyranny and oppression which characterize its immediate rulers, threaten an insurrection at every moment which may result in direful consequences to the American people.

Cuba has thus become to us an unceasing danger, and a permanent cause of anxiety and alarm.

The skilled hand of a diplomat shows through. One could ready that passage quickly and miss that it refers to slave revolts. A successful slave revolt would give American slaves the benefit of a good example. This genuinely terrified many of Southerners. But Europe should assent for humanitarian reasons as well: Cuba supported the African slave trade. (A Louisianan like Soulé ought to know, as his state housed many who wanted that trade reopened and smuggled slaves in illicitly from Cuba.) The Manifesto further held that the Cubans lived under a brutal, arbitrary tyranny, words sure to endear their authors with Madrid.

Then came carrots for the Spanish. With the money the United States would hand over, Spain could catch up to France and link itself to the French rail network, facilitating trade and the attendant revenues from the Channel to Gibraltar and have cash left over to pay off bonds that sold at one-third their face value even on the Spanish market. A chance to pay off that debt, especially the part of it owed to British speculators who had a history of calling on their nation to serve as a collections agency, might never come again.

So, according to Buchanan, Mason, and Soulé, the Spanish ought to sell immediately. Only a fool would refuse. So far as that goes, the Manifesto did not much transgress the usual line of bellicose imperialistic diplomacy. In an era when the Great Powers fairly routinely invaded and seized for themselves entire countries, Cuba stood out mainly in that a Great Power already held it.

If the Manifesto stopped there, probably no one would have much cared. It might push hard sell a bit too much, but it ultimately amounted to a statement about a legal purchase.

Stealing Cuba, Part Six

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

The Pierce administration changed directions to a purchase first, steal second strategy for Cuba and made it stick by putting the legal screws to John A. Quitman’s well-publicized expedition. Quitman, who had every reason previously to count the administration as his unofficial partner, found this understandably distressing. With a fair bit of his own money locked up on a bond against his breaking the Neutrality Act, Quitman prudently delayed his expedition until 1855.

That postponement cost him. Spain refused even grant a meeting for Soulé to present an offer for the island. The owners of the Black Warrior paid their fine. De La Pezuela eased off on his plan to transform Cuba for its own defense. He returned to Spain in September. Pierce called Quitman to Washington and apparently gave him sufficient evidence that with the radical plan to arm Cuban slaves or without the island would not just roll over before a single show of force. In January, the captain general who replaced De La Pezuela arrested upwards of a hundred of Quitman’s Cuban supporters and executed some of them. So much for the uprising Quitman hoped to support and then steer to annexation. In April, Quitman gave back the powers the New York junta signed over to him.

Quitman’s career as a freebooter ended before it began, but the movement to take Cuba no more died with his expedition than it did with Narciso López. When William L. Marcy, Secretary of State, sent new orders to Pierre Soulé in Madrid, those orders authorized purchase negotiations and included the rather open-ended proviso that if those negotiations should fail “you would then direct your effort to the next desirable object, which is to detach that island from the Spanish dominion.”

James Buchanan

James Buchanan, minister to London

Soulé read the line, quite understandably, as authorization to engage in skullduggery to ensure Cuba fell off the back of the proverbial truck. Pierce may have pressured Marcy into authorizing a meeting of the important European ministers, which he did in August, 1854. (The United States did not dispatch ambassadors until some decades later.) So the American ministers plenipotentiary from London, Paris, and Madrid met at Ostend in Belgium from October 9-11 for discussions before adjourning to Aix-la-Chapelle, capital of Charlemagne’s empire, where the minister to the Court of St. James, old hand James Buchanan, wrote up their resolutions on an American empire.

Soulé dreamed up the Ostend meeting and dashed any hopes of keeping it secret. His flare for drama would not permit such discretion, but the administration surely hoped that steady, cautious Buchanan would keep a leash on the fiery revolutionary. The London minister’s own vision of acquiring Cuba involved using Spanish bondholders to pressure the cash-strapped court at Madrid to sell. Buchanan did not get his way. Instead of that, the Ostend Manifesto announced to the world 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.

John Y. Mason, minister to Paris

John Y. Mason, minister to Paris

And therefore:

We firmly believe that, in the progress of human events, the time has arrived when the vital interests of Spain are as seriously involved in the sale, as those of the United States in the purchase of the island, and that the transaction will prove equally honorable to both nations.

Under these circumstances we cannot anticipate a failure, unless possibly through the malign influence of foreign powers who possess no right whatever to interfere in the matter.

In other words: We want it and mind your own business.

The Ostend Manifesto deserves a further treatment, but that would make for a longer post than I’d like. Instead, I’ll dig into it in detail tomorrow.