Halting Manifest Destiny

Map of America in 1850.

During 1854, while the Kansas-Nebraska Act was making its way through Congress and to President Franklin Pierce’s desk, there were significant developments throughout the country that would have lessen the manifest destiny fever that had captured the nation’s attention up to that point. One of the hallmarks of American progress was nearing its end.

On January 18, 1854, William Walker, who claimed the title of president of the “Republic of Lower California,” announced the annexation of Sonora to his “Republic of Sonora.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 177-78. Then, on February 10, 1854, President Pierce received a treaty negotiated with Mexico for the purchase of territory south of the Gila River in New Mexico and Arizona, which would be crucial for the construction of the transcontinental railroad. See id. at 178. On April 3, 1854, Secretary of State William Marcy sent an American minister, Pierre Soulé, to Madrid to negotiate the purchase of Cuba for $130 million. See id. at 178-79 citing Marcy to Pierre Soulé, April 3, 1854, in William R. Manning (ed.), Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States: Inter-American Affairs, 1831-1860 (12 vols.; Washington, 1932-39), XI, 175-78.

President Franklin Pierce
President Franklin Pierce.

President Pierce was eager to build on the history of land acquisitions for the country, continuing the legacy of President James Polk. Just a few years prior, President Polk had annexed Texas and pushed the western border of America to the Pacific Ocean. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 180. Whereas President Millard Fillmore, a Whig president, attacked the Mexican-American War, President Pierce praised the War as “just and necessary.” Id. at 181 citing Kirk H. Porter and Donald Bruce Johnson (eds.), National Party Platforms, 1840-1960 (Urbana, Ill., 1961), 17-18. President Pierce, in his inaugural address, said that he would uphold the Compromise of 1850 and that his “administration will not be controlled by any timid forebodings of evil from expansion. Indeed, it is not to be disguised that our attitude as a nation and our position on the globe render the acquisition of certain possessions not within our jurisdiction eminently important for our protection.” James D. Richardson (ed.), A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents (11 vols.; New York, 1907), V, 198.

Congress did not share President Pierce’s hunger for uncontrolled expansion. When the administration presented the Senate with a treaty providing for the purchase of land south of the Gila River, several groups of senators emerged in opposition. Some senators opposed the treaty as not purchasing enough land, others because the treaty “accepted American responsibility for claims by parties who had held Mexican franchises,” but most of the opposition was from free-state senators who did not want to grapple with determining whether the newly purchased land should include or exclude slavery. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 183. The Senate did not approve the treaty as written and only passed the treaty after trimming 9,000 square miles from the land area, providing enough land to ensure the construction of the transcontinental railroad. See id. It was the first time in American history that the Senate refused land. Id. citing Paul Neff Garber, The Gadsden Treaty (Philadelphia, 1923), 109-45; J. Fred Rippy, The United States and Mexico (New York, 1926), 126-47.

John A. Quitman.

Meanwhile, there was a question as to whether America would acquire Cuba either through force or negotiation with Spain. John Quitman of Mississippi was poised to inflame a revolution in Cuba, which would provide an opportunity for an American invasion and occupation, and the Pierce administration was not going to stop Quitman. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 185. At the same time, President Pierce, through Secretary of State Marcy, sent the eccentric Pierre Soulé of Louisiana as minister to Spain to negotiate the purchase of Cuba for as much as $130 million. See id. at 186-88. Soulé was ineffective with his negotiations, prompting him to meet with James Buchanan and John Mason in France. He hoped that he could convince the two that there was a great need for America to acquire Cuba.

The result of their clandestine meeting was the Ostend Manifesto, which the three ministers signed, stating their shared belief 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,” and that America should make an “immediate and earnest effort” to purchase Cuba. Id. at 189-90 citing Basil Rauch, American Interest in Cuba, 1848-1855 (New York, 1948), 339-412.

Secretary of State William Marcy coldly received the Ostend statement, and shortly thereafter, the New York Herald published the content of the statement. The Pierce administration took the blame for the misguided statement, with the administration being accused of putting forth policy of “shame and dishonor” with such a “bucaneering document” as the Ostend Manifesto. See id. at 391-407. The London Times characterized American diplomacy as being prone to “the habitual pursuit of dishonorable objects by clandestine means.” Id.

Political Cartoon with the Ostend Doctrine.

With the disgrace of the failed purchase of Cuba, combined with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the enthusiasm for expansion was waning. While there would be flirtations with the idea of expanding American territory, little expansion would be achieved until four decades after the Pierce administration. President Pierce does not deserve blame for this, however. Until President Pierce’s administration, expansion required allocating territory between allowing and prohibiting slavery. The bifurcated expansionism that had existed in the 1840s, particularly under President James Polk, was never going to be sustainable. The fallout from the Ostend Manifesto and the failure to acquire Cuba only further slowed the momentum of expansionism. Secretary of State Marcy took stock of the situation following the Kansas-Nebraska Act:

Secretary of State William L. Marcy.

“The Nebraska Question has sadly shattered our party in all the free states and deprived it of that strength which was needed and could have been much more profitably used for the acquisition of Cuba.” Marcy to Mason, July 23, 1854, quoted in Ivor Debenham Spencer, The Victor and the Spoils: A Life of William L. Marcy, 324.

While the extent of the consequences of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Cuba fiasco were not immediately clear and some Americans inevitably believed that expansionism would continue, the impetus had mostly dissipated by the end of 1854. At the center of this development was sectionalism. Those in the North and the South insisted on respectively limiting and expanding slavery in new territories, and the net result was no addition of territory. Where once Americans broadly agreed on expanding the country’s borders, stalemate replaced that agreement.

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