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- The Path of Empire, - 4/32 -


The local situation soon became acute. Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and the Mosquitoes all claimed the mouth of the San Juan; Honduras and Nicaragua, the control of the Pacific outlet. British diplomatic and naval officers clashed with those of the United States until, in their search for complete control, both exceeded the instructions which they had received from home. The British occupied Greytown on the San Juan and supported the Mosquitoes and Costa Rica. The Americans won favor in Nicaragua and Honduras, framed treaties allowing transit and canal construction, and proposed the annexation of Tigre Island, which, commanded the proposed Pacific outlet.

To untie these knots, Sir Henry Bulwer was sent to Washington to negotiate with John M. Clayton, President Taylor's Secretary of State. Neither of these negotiators was of the caliber of Webster and Ashburton, and the treaty which they drew up proved rather a Pandora's box of future difficulties than a satisfactory settlement. In the first place it was agreed that any canal to be constructed over any of the isthmuses was to be absolutely neutral, in time of war as well as of peace. Both nations were to guarantee this neutrality, and other nations were invited to join with them. No other nations did join, however, and the project became a dual affair which, owing to the superiority of the British Navy, gave Britain the advantage, or would eventually have done so if a canal had been constructed. Subsequently the majority of Americans decided that such a canal must be under the sole control of the United States, and the treaty then stood as a stumbling block in the way of the realization of this idea.

More immediately important, however, and a great wrench to American policies, was the provision that neither power "will ever erect or maintain any fortifications commanding" the canal "or occupy, or fortify, or colonize, or assume or exercise any dominion over...any part of Central America." This condition violated Adams's principle that the United States was not on the same footing with any European power in American affairs and should not be bound by any self-denying ordinance, and actually it reversed the principle against the United States. An explanatory note accompanying the treaty recognized that this provision did not apply to Belize and her dependencies, and Great Britain promptly denied that it applied to any rights she already possessed in Central America, including the Mosquito protectorate and certain Bay Islands which were claimed by Great Britain as dependencies of Belize and by Honduras as a part of her territory.

In vain did Webster, who succeeded Clayton, seek an agreement. His term of office passed, and the controversy fell into the hands of Lord Palmerston, the jingoistic spirit who began at this time to dominate British foreign policy, and of James Buchanan, who, known to us as a spineless seeker after peace where there was no peace, was at this time riding into national leadership on a wave of expansionist enthusiasm. Buchanan and Palmerston mutually shook the stage thunder of verbal extravagance, but probably neither intended war. Poker was at this time the national American game, and bluff was a highly developed art. The American player won a partial victory. In 1856 Great Britain agreed to withdraw her protectorate over the Mosquitoes, to acknowledge the supremacy of Honduras over the Bay Islands, and to accept a reasonable interpretation of the Belize boundary. Though this convention was never ratified, Great Britain carried out its terms, and in 1860 Buchanan announced himself satisfied.

The dreams of 1850, however, were not satisfied. A railroad was completed across Panama in 1855, but no canal was constructed until years after the great transcontinental railroads had bound California to the East by bonds which required no foreign sanction. Yet the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty remained an entangling alliance, destined to give lovers of peace and amity many more uncomfortable hours.

During the Civil War other causes of irritation arose between the United States and Great Britain. The proclamation of neutrality, by which the British Government recognized the Confederacy as a belligerent, seemed to the North an unfriendly act. Early in the war occurred the Trent affair, which added to the growing resentment.* It was held to be a violation of professed neutrality that Confederate commerce destroyers were permitted to be built and fitted out in British yards. The subsequent transfer of hundreds of thousands of tons of American shipping to British registry, owing to the depredations of these raiders, still further incensed the American people. It was in the midst of these strained relations that the Fenian Brotherhood in the United States attempted the invasion of Canada.

* See Stephenson, "Abraham Lincoln and the Union," in "The Chronicles of America."

America laid claims against Great Britain, based not merely on the actual destruction of merchantmen by the Alabama, the Florida, and other Confederate vessels built in British yards, but also on such indirect losses as insurance, cost of pursuit, and commercial profits. The American Minister, Charles Francis Adams, had proposed the arbitration of these claims, but the British Ministry, declined to arbitrate matters involving the honor of the country. Adams's successor, Reverdy Johnson, succeeded in arranging a convention in 1868 excluding from consideration all claims for indirect damages, but this arrangement was unfavorably reported from the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Senate. It was then that Charles Sumner, Chairman of the Committee, gave utterance to his astounding demands upon Great Britain. The direct claims of the United States, he contended, were no adequate compensation for its losses; the indirect claims must also be made good, particularly those based on the loss of the American merchant marine by transfer to the British flag. The direct or "individual" American losses amounted to $15,000,000. "But this leaves without recognition the vaster damage to commerce driven from the ocean, and that other damage, immense and infinite, caused by the prolongation of the war, all of which may be called NATIONAL in contradistinction to INDIVIDUAL." Losses to commerce he reckoned at $110,000,000, adding that this amount must be considered only an item in the bill, for the prolongation of the war was directly traceable to England. "The rebellion was suppressed at a cost of more than four thousand million dollars...through British intervention the war was doubled in duration; ...England is justly responsible for the additional expenditure." Sumner's total bill against Great Britain, then, amounted to over $2,000,000,000; "everyone," said he, "can make the calculation."

Had an irresponsible member of Congress made these demands, they might have been dismissed as another effort to twist the British lion's tail; but Charles Sumner took himself seriously, expected others to take him seriously, and unhappily was taken seriously by a great number of his fellow countrymen. The explanation of his preposterous demand appeared subsequently in a memorandum which he prepared. To avoid all possible future clashes with Great Britain, he would have her withdraw from the American continents and the Western Hemisphere. Great Britain might discharge her financial obligations by transferring to the United States the whole of British America! And Sumner seems actually to have believed that he was promoting the cause of international good will by this tactless proposal.

For a time it was believed that Sumner spoke for the Administration, and public opinion in the United States was disposed to look upon his speech as a fair statement of American grievances and a just demand for compensation. The British Government, too, in view of the action of the Senate and the indiscreet utterances of the new American Minister in London, John Lothrop Motley, believed that President Grant favored an aggressive policy. Further negotiations were dropped. Both Governments, nevertheless, were desirous of coming to an understanding, though neither wished to take the first step.

Fortunately it happened that Caleb Cushing for the United States and John Rose for Canada were then engaged at Washington in the discussion of some matters affecting the two countries. In the course of informal conversations these accomplished diplomats planned for a rapprochement. Rose presented a memorandum suggesting that all questions in dispute be made the subject of a general negotiation and treaty. It was at this moment that Sumner came forward with his plan of compensation and obviously he stood in the way of any settlement. President Grant, however, already incensed by Motley's conduct and by Sumner's opposition to his own favorite project, the annexation of Santo Domingo, now broke definitely with both by removing Motley and securing Sumner's deposition from the chairmanship of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. The way was now prepared for an agreement with Great Britain.

On February 27, 1871, a Joint High Commission, composed of five distinguished representatives from each Government, began its memorable session at Washington. The outcome was the Treaty of Washington, signed on May 8, 1871. The most important question--the "Alabama Claims"--was by this agreement to be submitted to a tribunal of five arbitrators, one to be selected by the President of the United States, another by the Queen of Great Britain, a third by the King of Italy, a fourth by the President of the Swiss Republic, and a fifth by the Emperor of Brazil. This tribunal was to meet at Geneva and was to base its award on three rules for the conduct of neutral nations: "First, to use due diligence to prevent the fitting out, ...within its jurisdiction, of any vessel which it has reasonable ground to believe is intended to cruise...against a Power with which it is at peace...; secondly, not to permit...either belligerent to make use of its ports or waters as a base of naval operations...; thirdly, to exercise due diligence in its own ports and waters...to prevent any violation of the foregoing obligations and duties."

Another but less elaborate tribunal was to decide all other claims which had arisen out of the Civil War. Still another arbitration commission was to assess the amount which the United States was to pay by way of compensation for certain privileges connected with the fisheries. The vexed question of the possession of the San Juan Islands was to be left to the decision of the Emperor of Germany. A series of articles provided for the amicable settlement of border questions between the United States and Canada. Never before in history had such important controversies been submitted voluntarily to arbitration and judicial settlement.

The tribunal which met at Geneva in December was a body of distinguished men who proved fully equal to the gravity of their task. Charles Francis Adams was appointed to represent the United States; Sir Alexander Cockburn, to represent Great Britain; the commissioners from neutral States were also men of distinction.


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