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THE ATTITUDE OF THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT

TOWARD AN INTEROCEANIC CANAL.

TH
HE nineteenth century had run more than a quarter of its

course before the government of the United States gave expression to any opinion on its attitude toward an Interoceanic Canal, and even the formal request of the Republic of Central America for the coöperation of the United States in the opening of a ship-canal, which was made in 1825, found our government apparently destitute of any clearly defined notions regarding the best means for protecting and controlling a work of that character. Something more than a year passed before its views on that subject were made known.

The first statement of them came from the pen of Henry Clay and form part of his instructions to the American delegates to the Panama Congress. After asserting that a ship-canal across the isthmus would constitute a proper subject for consideration by that body, Mr. Clay states that such a work would be of more or less interest to all parts of the world, and especially to this continent. It should, therefore, be effected by common means and united exertions, and not left to the unassisted efforts of any one power, neither should its benefits be appropriated to any one nation, but extended to all parts of the globe upon the payment of just compensation and reasonable tolls. In harmony with these views, Mr. Clay gave explicit instructions that any proposals for the joint construction of the work should be received and transmitted to the government with the assurance that they would receive attentive examination with a view to reconciling the conflicting views of all American nations.2

Such, in brief, was the first authoritative statement concerning the attitude of the United States toward such enterprises. Although necessarily couched in general and indefinite terms, it clearly indicated a purpose to adopt a broad and liberal policy respecting the use and control of any transisthmian highway

" House Ex. Doc. 228, 2d sess. 25th Cong., pp. 7 and 8.
· Cong. Debates, vol. 5, App. p. 47.

that might be opened. Nevertheless, its adoption was dependent upon the attitude of other powers.

Interest in the subject of an interoceanic canal steadily grew. Already English and American companies had been formed for the construction of such a work. 1 Within the next few years a Dutch company, under the patronage of the King of Holland, entered the race for the coveted privilege of opening a canal between the two oceans, and by 1830 had secured the necessary concessions and apparently was about to begin the work of construction. This aroused the apprehensions of the United States and urged the government forward in the development of a definite policy respecting the proper status for the proposed work. The right of the United States to equal privileges with other nations in the use of the canal was asserted. In order permanently to secure this right it was demanded that American citizens and even the government itself should be permitted to subscribe to the stock of the company. The early failure of the Dutch enterprise made it unnecessary for the government to press the matter further. Nevertheless, this incident revealed the fixed purpose of the United States to prevent any foreign power from monopolizing the channel.

Failure of the Dutch enterprise, however, was not followed by a decline of American interest in interoceanic communication. On the contrary, both government and people gave it increased attention and the result was the development of more advanced ideas. Neither the friendly attitude of the government nor the most positive assurance that no other power would be permitted to monopolize the use or control of any sea to sea highway, satisfied the people. They now demanded that the government should facilitate the construction of an interoceanic canal.

By 1835 this demand had become too strong to be ignored by Congress. Early that year a resolution passed the Senate calling upon the President to consider the expediency of treating with the governments of Central America for the effectual protection of such individuals and companies as might undertake to open a communication between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The resolution likewise required that the contemplated treaties should permanently secure to all nations the free and equal right of navigating the canal. The only immediate result of the Senate's action, however, was the dispatch of an agent to Central America to obtain information concerning existing projects, including contracts with foreign powers, for the opening of a ship-canal between the two oceans. Apparently the executive was not ready to commit the government to a more decided course. At all events nothing further was done at that time and the following year the President frankly announced that it was then inexpedient to open negotiations respecting the protection and enjoyment of a waterway between the two oceans.3

1 House Rept. 322, 3d sess. 25th Cong., p. 146.

Sen. Rept. 339, ist sess. 29th Cong., p. 23. ? Ibid., p. 23.

House Ex. Doc. 228, 2d sess. 25th Cong. pp. 10-13. House Ex. Doc. 228, 2d sess. 25th Cong., pp. 25 and 26.

a However, Congress did not share that view and the subject of interoceanic communication continued to attract more or less attention in both branches. One result of this was an elaborate report, presented during the closing session of the twenty-fifth Congress, explicitly asserting the necessity for international coöperation for the construction of a ship-canal across the isthmus, and urging that negotiations looking to that end be opened with the leading powers. In this respect the report reflected the popular sentiment of the time. Such a course, was zealously advocated in the leading financial and commercial centers of the country for several reasons. The leading powers of Europe must be enlisted in the undertaking in order to obtain the necessary capital. The coöperation of the States of Central America was likewise essential since they possessed the sole and undoubted right to dictate the terms upon which a canal could be opened through their territories. Moreover, the only way the United States could provide effective security for her interests was by coöperating liberally and efficiently with other powers in promoting the construction of the desired transit. It was, therefore, highly desirable that no time be lost in opening negotiations

1 Sen. Journal, 2d sess. 23d Cong., p. 228. ? House Ex. Doc. 228, 2d sess, 25th Cong., p. 3. 3 Sen. Journal, 2d sess. 24th Cong., p. 101. 4 House Rept. 322, 3d sess. 25th Cong., pp. 2, 104, 114 and 115. 5 Ibid., 145, 2d sess. 30th Cong., p. 23.

a

for that purpose, lest dispositions might be made which would preclude the possibility of proper security for American interest. So importunate were the demands for such action that in 1839 the matter was taken up in the House. The result was the passage of a resolution similar to the one passed by the Senate four years previous. Like its predecessor, it called upon the President to open negotiations with foreign powers for concerted action in constructing a ship-canal between the two oceans that should be open to all nations upon terms of equality.2 This resolution, however, was as barren of practical results as the former one. Yet the subject of interoceanic communication lost none of its interest for the American people and as time passed more and more attention was given to it.

This increased attention revealed the almost insuperable obstacles to the construction of a ship-canal and led to the consideration of substitutes for a water transit. Naturally railroads were suggested as a proper substitute; a larger number of routes were adapted to them and they could be built at a much less cost. For a time the advocates of this mode of communication rapidly grew in numbers and urged their views upon the public with increasing vigor. Yet the idea of a ship-canal was not abandoned; interest in it kept pace with that in land communication. In a word, that interest had already culminated in the demand for some means of communication between the two oceans. Moreover, the idea was gaining ground that such a work was absolutely essential to the commercial welfare and prosperity of the United States. This led many to believe that the matter should no longer be left to the unaided efforts of individuals or private corporations, but should receive the active countenance and support of the government.

But the people soon came to realize that the mere construction of a transit between the two oceans would not meet all the requirements of the case. It was equally important that the completed work should be placed upon a satisfactory basis; otherwise it might prove to be a source of annoyance and injury to the

1 House Rept. 322, 3d sess. 25th Cong., pp. 114 and 115. ? House Rept. 322, 3d sess. 25th Cong., p. 7.

Sen. Rept. 339, ist sess. 29th Cong., p. 26. 3 House Ex. Doc. 77, ist sess. 28th Cong., pp. 7-9.

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United States. Accordingly the question of a suitable status for the isthmian transits came to occupy a large share of public attention. The government became solicitous for the conservation of American interests in interoceanic highways. Its diplomatic agents and consuls were instructed to use all diligence to prevent citizens and subjects of foreign powers from obtaining greater privileges in a canal or railroad between the two oceans than were accorded to American citizens. Yet it is not to be inferred from this that our government was intent upon securing any exclusive privileges in such a work for its own citizens. It still clung to the idea that a ship-canal or other means of communication should be provided through the joint efforts of the leading powers of the world, and thrown open to the use of all nations upon the same terms.

For a time events seemed to favor the development of this policy. In 1843 the Republic of New Grenada authorized her representatives to treat with the United States and other leading powers for the opening of a ship-canal across the Isthmus of Panama, on condition that the powers undertaking the work should guarantee the neutrality of the isthmus. Although the action of New Grenada was devoid of immediate practical results, it is probable that it was an important factor in determining the attitude of the United States toward isthmian transits for a considerable period of time. At all events the actions of the government for the next few years were in accord with the indicated policy of New Grenada and finally culminated in the conclusion of a treaty with that Republic. Another potent factor in developing the American policy was the famous dispatch of Henry Wheaton, then a leading officer in the diplomatic service of the United States. This distinguished authority upon international law had, while in touch with the thought and politics of Europe, thoroughly investigated the subject of interoceanic communication. As a result of his investigations Mr. Wheaton came to the conclusion that the early construction of a canal between the two oceans was essential to the preservation of American interests against the colonizing schemes of England and France. Nevertheless, he emphasized the importance of placing the proposed

' House Ex. Doc. 77, ist sess. 28th Cong., pp. 7-9. · Sen. Rept. 339, ist sess. 29th Cong., pp. 3 and 4.

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