Ostend Manifesto, Controversial Proposal for US to Acquire Cuba

A Proposal by Three Diplomats Turned Into a Political Firestorm

Map Of Cuba Circa. 1760. From 'Atlas De Toutes Les Parties Connues Du Globe Terrestre ' By Cartographer Rigobert Bonne.
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

The Ostend Manifesto was a document written by three American diplomats stationed in Europe in 1854 which advocated for the U.S. government to acquire the island of Cuba through either purchase or force. The plan created controversy when the document was made public in partisan newspapers the following year and federal officials denounced it.

The goal of acquiring Cuba had been a pet project of President Franklin Pierce. The purchase or seizure of the island was also favored by pro-slavery politicians in the United States, who feared a slave rebellion in Cuba might spread to the American South.

Key Takeaways: Ostend Manifesto

  • Meeting requested by President Pierce led to proposal by three American ambassadors.
  • Plan to acquire Cuba was rejected by Pierce as too audacious and unacceptable politically.
  • When the proposal leaked to opposition newspapers the political battling over slavery intensified.
  • One beneficiary of the proposal was James Buchanan, as his involvement helped him become president.

The manifesto never led to the U.S. acquiring Cuba, of course. But it did serve to deepen the sense of distrust in America as the issue of slavery became a simmering crisis in the mid-1850s. In addition, the crafting of the document aided one of its authors, James Buchanan, whose rising popularity in the South helped him become president in the election of 1856.

The Meeting at Ostend

A crisis in Cuba developed in early 1854, when an American merchant ship, the Black Warrior, was seized in a Cuban port. The incident created tensions, as Americans considered the fairly minor incident to be an insult from Spain directed at the United States.

The American ambassadors to three European countries were directed by President Franklin Pierce to meet quietly in the town of Ostend, Belgium, to come up with strategies to deal with Spain. James Buchanan, John Y. Mason, and Pierre Soule, the American ministers to Britain, France, and Spain, respectively, gathered and drafted the document that would become known as the Ostend Manifesto.

The document, in fairly dry language, stated the issues the U.S. government had been having with Spain’s possession, Cuba. And it advocated that the United States should offer to purchase the island. It stated that Spain would likely be willing to sell Cuba, but if it didn’t, the document argued that the U.S. government should seize the island.

The manifesto, addressed to Secretary of State William Marcy, was sent to Washington, where it was received by Marcy and passed along to President Pierce. Marcy and Pierce read the document and immediately rejected it.

American Reaction to the Ostend Manifesto

The diplomats had made a logical case for taking Cuba, and they argued throughout that the motivation was the preservation of the United States. In the document they specifically noted the fear of a slave rebellion in Cuba and how that might pose a danger.

Less dramatically, they argued that Cuba’s geographic location made it a favorable position from which the United States could defend its southern coast, and specifically the valuable port of New Orleans.

The authors of the Ostend Manifesto were not thoughtless or reckless. Their arguments for what would be a controversial series of actions paid some attention to international law and demonstrated some knowledge of naval strategy. Yet Pierce realized that what his diplomats proposed went far beyond any actions he was willing to take. He did not believe the American people, or the Congress, would go along with the plan.

The manifesto might have been a quickly forgotten exercise in diplomatic brainstorming, but in the very partisan atmosphere of Washington in the 1850s it quickly turned into a political weapon. Within weeks of the document arriving in Washington, it had been leaked to newspapers favorable to the Whig Party, the opponents of Pierce.

Politicians and newspaper editors directed withering criticism at Pierce. The work of three American diplomats in Europe turned into something of a firestorm as it touched upon the most contentious issue of the day, slavery.

Anti-slavery sentiment in America was growing, especially with the formation of the new anti-slavery Republican Party. And the Ostend Manifesto was held up as an example of how the Democrats in power in Washington were devising underhanded ways to acquire territory in the Caribbean to extend America’s slave-holding territory.

Newspaper editorials denounced the document. A political cartoon produced by the noted lithographers Currier and Ives would eventually ridicule Buchanan for his role in the drafting of the proposal.

Ostend Doctrine
Cartoon of four ruffians robbing a respectable man with the Ostend Manifesto, to capture Cuba, written on a nearby wall and caption 'The Ostend Doctrine. Practical Democrats Carrying Out The Principle.' circa 1854. Fotosearch / Getty Images

Impact of the Ostend Manifesto

The proposals set forth in the Ostend Manifesto never came to fruition, of course. If anything, the controversy over the document probably ensured that any discussion of the United States acquiring Cuba would be rejected.

While the document was denounced in the northern press, one of the men who drafted it, James Buchanan, was ultimately helped by the controversy. The accusations that it was a pro-slavery scheme boosted his profile in the American South, and helped him secure the Democratic nomination for the election of 1856. He went on to win the election, and spent his one term as president trying, and failing, to grapple with the issue of slavery.

Sources:

  • "Ostend Manifesto." The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™, Columbia University Press, 2018. Research in Context.
  • McDermott, Theodore, et al. "Ostend Manifesto." The Manifesto in Literature, edited by Thomas Riggs, vol. 1: Origins of the Form: Pre-1900, St. James Press, 2013, pp. 142-145. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Patrick, J., Pious, R., & Ritchie, D. (1993). Pierce, Franklin. In (Ed.), The Oxford Guide to the United States Government. : Oxford University Press.