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1854 - Ostend Manifesto

During the years between the Mexican-American War and the Civil War, the United States became increasingly involved in Central America and the Caribbean. While U.S. Government officials attempted to acquire territorial possessions in that region, private citizens (known as “filibusterers”) also organized armed expeditions to various places in Mexico, Central America, and Cuba. Filibustering and official U.S. diplomacy were equally unsuccessful in acquiring permanent and significant territorial gains, and also tended to incite local antagonism against U.S. actions in the region.

Many pro-slavery Southerners sought to expand southwards, allowing for more territory where slavery could continue to grow and expand. Some even imagined the United States as a great slave-owning republic that would stretch across the Caribbean to Brazil.

These expansionist dreams were aided at first by a Venezuelan-born resident of Cuba, Narciso López, who, like some wealthy Cuban slave-owners, was wary of shaky Spanish rule over the island, and thus sought to have it annexed by the United States in order to ensure slavery’s preservation in Cuba. Cuban property owners were concerned that Spain would give in to British pressure to abolish slavery in Cuba. López organized several failed expeditions to liberate Cuba from Spanish rule, the last resulting in his capture and execution in Havana in 1851. The American public condemned Spanish actions, especially López’s execution without trial, but U.S. President Millard Fillmore did not issue a denunciation. Public anger against Fillmore’s seemingly lukewarm support for expansion contributed to a Whig defeat in 1852.

In 1852 Franklin Pierce, then a youthful 48, won the Presidency. His expansionism in foreign affairs further incensed northerners, who resented his attempts to extend slavery by means of territorial acquisition or diplomatic maneuver. They were particularly upset when he persuaded the British to reduce their involvement in Central America and recognized the apparently proslavery government set up in Nicaragua by an American soldier of fortune. By one means or another, Pierce sought to acquire Hawaii, Santo Domingo, and Alaska. But by far Pierce's strongest quest was the purchase of Cuba from Spain.

In an attempt to mollify the Democratic Party’s staunch proslavery wing, the new President, Franklin Pierce, appointed the proslavery politician Pierre Soulé as Minister to Spain. Soule was appointed Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Spain on April 7, 1853. Soule was born in Castillon-en-Couserans, near Bordeaux, France, August 31, 1801; he was exiled to Navarre at the age of fifteen for anti-Bourbon activity and worked as a shepherd boy in the Pyrennes for a year. Soule was pardoned in 1818 and imprisoned for publishing revolutionary articles in 1825. He escaped to England and went to Haiti in 1825, and then to the United States; after travelling around the nation, commenced the practice of law in New Orleans, LA. He became a member of the State senate 1846, and was elected as a Democrat in 1846 to the United States Senate.

In foreign affairs, Spain did not move without consulting France or England. The influence of France was at present the more powerful of the two, and she was as much opposed to our acquisition of Cuba as was Great Britain; "and she will remain our enemy as long as she bends her neck under the yoke of the man who now holds the rod over her" [Napoleon III had assumed the throne on 2 December 1852]. The Cuban officials played into Soule's hands by committing an outrage on the Black Warrior, an American merchant steamer. She plied between Mobile and New York, stopping at Havana for passengers and mail. She had made thirty-six such voyages, almost always having a cargo for the American port, and never being permitted to bring freight to Havana.

She had always been permitted to sail unmolested until, when bound from Mobile to New York, she was stopped on the 28th of February, 1854, by order of the royal exchequer, for having violated the regulations of the port. The agent was informed that the cargo was confiscated and the captain fined, in pursuance of the custom-house regulations. The cargo was cotton, valued at one hundred thousand dollars; the captain was fined six thousand dollars. A gang of men with lighters were sent to the ship, under the charge of the comcmdante, who ordered the captain of the Black Warrior to discharge her cargo. This he refused to do. The comandante then had the hatches opened, and his men began to take out the bales of cotton. The captain hauled down his flag and abandoned the vessel to the Spanish authorities.

The President sent a message to the House of Representatives, stating that indemnity for the injury to our citizens had been demanded from Spain. He suggested that Congress should strengthen his hands by provisional legislation adapted to the emergency, promising that if the negotiations should fail, he would not hesitate to use the authority and means which Congress might grant, "to insure the observance of our just rights, to obtain redress for injuries received, and to vindicate the honor of our flag."

The average American deemed the seizure of the Black Warrior a moderate wrong; to Soule it appeared a gross indignity. His eagerness to obtain Cuba colored every thought and prompted every action. He believed that the man who should be instrumental in acquiring the island would be the leader of the Democratic party, and while, being foreign-born, he could not aspire to the presidency, he relished the idea of being President-maker.

It cannot be denied that the imperious words of Soule justified this dignified reply and severe reprimand. It has a noble ring when we consider it the answer of a weak, degenerate nation to a strong, energetic people; for the senders of this message thought that they had thrown down the gauntlet to the United States, and they expected that the next communication from the American minister would be a demand for his passports.

In the official circles of Madrid, war with the United States was now considered as very probable, and the chances of it were seriously discussed. The most sensible men in Spain were convinced that Cuba must sooner or later belong to the United States, but no one would have dared to propose its sale.' Such a project would have displaced any ministry and more than likely overturned the dynasty. In the event of hostilities with the United States, none but the proud Spaniards had a shadow of doubt as to what would be the fate of Cuba, but that conquest would be a very different affair from the conquest of Mexico.

The Americans would find that to win the " Queen of the Antilles " was a difficult task. The forts and the city would be obstinately defended. Nor would the Spaniards confine themselves to a defensive warfare. By the time that Havana was taken the magnificent merchant marine of the United States would be swept from the seas by privateers issuing from the ports of Spain. Nor would the fall of the capital city end the contest. The slaves would be given their freedom on condition of fighting the invaders; and when the Americans had finally obtained possession of Cuba, they might find it, as to waste and ruin and social conditions, a very St. Domingo, instead of the fair, fruitful island they had set out to conquer.'

The ministry were certain of the sympathy of England and France, but, in the event of hostilities with the United States, material aid from these two countries was hardly to be hoped for, as they were now engaged in a fierce war with Russia. The Spaniards did not know that a more efficient force than England and France was working for them — public sentiment in the northern half of the Union.

Minister to Spain from 1853 until his resignation in 1855, Soule was the author of the Ostend Manifesto, outlining the attitude the United States should take in regard to Cuba. In October 1854 the Ostend Manifesto was signed in Belgium by three United States diplomats (Pierre Soulé, John Mason, and James Buchanan, who was President from 1857 to 1861) that discussed the United States taking Cuba from Spain. The Ostend Manifesto advocated the use of force if necessary to take over Cuba and stressed its importance as a base to revivify slavery. This action was seen as another southern attempt to gain more slave states.

Once the documents were publicly released, they proved embarrassing for the Pierce Administration, and U.S. Secretary of State William Marcy implied that Soulé had instigated the meeting. In the meantime, the Spanish Government began to take countermeasures against U.S. interest in Cuba. The Spanish Minister to the United States, Angel Calderón de la Barca, gathered intelligence on planned filibustering expeditions to Cuba. In Cuba, officials took steps to free slaves who had arrived on the island after 1835 and planned to organize a free black militia that would oppose any proslavery invaders. Growing antislavery sentiment in the northern United States and Spanish determination to hold on to Cuba eventually forced U.S. leaders to end attempts to acquire the island.

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Page last modified: 03-12-2017 19:13:15 ZULU