Manifest Destiny is the idea that a higher power ordained the expansion of American republican government over the North American continent. Rooted in the idea of American Exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny was a rallying point for expansionists in the 19th century as many sought to expand the borders of the United States for political, religious, and commercial reasons.
Any fair consideration of Manifest Destiny recognizes that it was not a benign expansion of American institutions over an empty land. At the very least, the westward movement of Americans displaced Indian tribes and disrupted their ways of life. Additionally, Manifest Destiny has inherent racist undertones focusing on the promulgation of ideas of American government and custom as a way of life. While many writings and events of the period demonstrate the belief in the superiority of American ideals idolized by the political majority, the drafting of the Ostend Manifesto in 1854 serves as a useful tool in recognizing the darker side of Manifest Destiny within the scope of Cuban annexation.
Historical Eyes on Cuba
For nearly fifty years, the idea of adding Cuba to the United States circulated at the highest levels of the United States government. For example, On April 19, 1809, Thomas Jefferson wrote James Madison to discuss Spanish difficulties in the New World. Considering a possible “conquest of Spain,” Jefferson noted that other European powers would like consent to America acquiring Florida but might have “some difficulty” digesting American possession of Cuba.[i]
The American occupation of Cuba continued to hold a special place in the hearts of the antebellum South. As noted by Robert May, numerous Southerners favored Cuban annexation as a response to the growing abolitionist movement in the North. Not only would the addition of Cuba as a slave state offset the admission of free states, the additional senators would help counter the growth of Northern representation in the House of Representatives.[ii] Similar ideas were propounded by Jefferson Davis when he proclaimed that Cuba lay in a “basin of water belonging to the United States.”[iii]
The Ostend Manifesto
In the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, American eyes turned once again to Cuba. In October 1854, these events culminated with Secretary of State William Marcy commissioning James Buchanan, John Mason, and Pierre Soule – essentially the United States ambassadors to Great Britain, France, and Spain, respectively – to meet and confer on the American position of the acquisition of Cuba. The trio met in Ostend, Belgium.[iv]
On October 15, 1854, Buchanan, Mason, and Soule signed their report – the Ostend Manifesto – and sent it to the secretary of state. Significantly, the Ostend Manifesto called for the immediate purchase or seizure of Cuba by the United States for commercial, political, and military reasons. A closer examination of the reasons supporting American annexation of Cuba, however, reveals the racial undertones of the American position.
The Ostend Manifesto began by reciting America’s paternalistic vision of North America: “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 providential nursery.” From this link with the ideas supporting Manifest Destiny, the Ostend Manifesto recited that Cuba’s possession by America is “devoutly wished for by its inhabitants” as the Spanish government is unable to effectively control the far-flung territory.[v
It is toward the conclusion, however, where the racial undertones of Manifest Destiny reveal themselves. Specifically, the Ostend Manifesto provides that:
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 flam to extend to our own neighboring shores, seriously to endanger or actually to consume the fair fabric of our Union.
While these few short sentences were not the first to reveal the racial underpinnings of Manifest Destiny, the idea that an “Africanized” Cuba would pose danger to the United States illustrates the racial ideals that existed during the nineteenth century. The authors of the Ostend Manifesto believed in the superiority of their own culture and the idea that the upset of that culture in Cuba could serve as a model to American slaves triggered horror.
Viewing the island through the scope of Manifest Destiny, the quest to add the Caribbean island to the United States helps illustrate one of the many facets that shaped the political ideals that extended the United States’ boundaries from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Ostend Manifesto demonstrates how the desire to extend America’s reach were not always motivated by the benign desire to spread liberty and freedom. Instead, for many, Manifest Destiny represented a way to maintained an established culture.
[ii] Robert E. May. The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire: 1854-1861, University Press of Florida, 2002, 47.
[iii] Cong. Globe, 30th Cong. 1st Sess. Appendix 599 (1847).
[iv]James Buchanan. The Works of James Buchanan. Vol. IX. J.B. Lippincott Company, 1909. 260.