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U.S. Interest in an Interoceanic Canal 1835-1881

The idea of uniting the two oceans, by means of a canal across the isthmus between North and South America, occupied the attention of the Spanish court from a very early day after the conquest to the last years of its occupation of the country. As Americans expanded on the Pacifica Coast, inconvenience and danger attended both the toilsome journey across the plains, and the perilous voyage around the Horn; and thus the people began to clamor for some better means of transit to the West. Some visionaries in Congress suggested camels, but, to the practical men of the day, isthmian transit of some kind seemed the only adequate solution of the problem. Thus all eyes were once more turned toward the American isthmus. Capitalists of the North, imbued with the quick commercial instinct, saw in the new conditions an opportunity of reaping rich profits by establishing immediate lines of transit across this narrow strip of land between the seas.

The attention of the United States government was directed to the subject of interoceanic routes as early as 1825. The Federal Congress of the Central American Confederacy, by an act of the legislature, formally offered the United States the prior right, before all other nations, in the construction of a canal, laying special emphasis once more upon the good-will and political sympathy which had so long existed between the two republics. The United States wanted all foreign governments to understand that it would brook no interference on their part with the rights the US claimed on the isthmus. In reply to this proposition of the Central American republic, the Senate, therefore, passed a resolution on March 3, 1835, couched, it is true, in very general terms, but still going so far as to request the President to open negotiations with the governments of Central America and New Granada, to protect by treaty stipulations any company which should undertake the construction of the canal, and secure the free and equal right of navigation of such canal to all nations. The Executive was requested by the Senate to enter into negotiations conducive to treaties for the protection of Americans who might attempt opening the communication between the two oceans.

Promoters drew up a petition which they presented to Congress in January 1838, asking that all the great powers of the world, and also the Central American states be invited by the United States to join in " opening a navigable communication between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by means of a ship-canal across the isthmus which connects North and South America"; and that the United States now undertake surveys as a preliminary step. Congress referred the memorial to its Committee on Roads and Canals, and the result was a voluminous report on the entire subject of isthmian transit on 02 March 1839.

A treaty was made by the United States with New Granada on 12 December 1846, under which the latter guaranteed to the former "the right of way or transit across the Isthmus of Panama, upon any modes of communication that now exist, or that may be hereafter constructed." The United States government on its part guaranteed to New Granada the neutrality of the Isthmus, and the rights of sovereignty and property over its territory. In this treaty, the US secured what it desired - an exclusive right of transit across that part of the isthmus which lay within New Granada's domain - and thus, at one stroke, acquired political control over the Panama, San Bias, Caledonian, and Atrato routes. In return for these favors the United States government then formally recognized New Granada's rights of sovereignty over this entire territory from sea to sea, and furthermore undertook to guarantee "positively and efficaciously," to New Granada, that it would defend such sovereignty from all attacks, and also the absolute neutrality of every route of transit within the territory so specified.

The United States in 1846 concluded a treaty with Great Britain which gave the United States all territory south of the 49th parallel, and fixed the southern boundary of Canada. This treaty established the final boundaries of the Oregon Territory, and the United States for the first time stretched from sea to sea. The Mexican-American War ended when the government of Mexico surrendered on 14 September 1847, after a year of fighting. California became part of the United States, with all its magnificent extent of western seaboard; but was it not after all but an out-post, and extremely difficult to defend.

For divers reasons nothing was accomplished toward establishing an adequate interoceauic communication, in any form, down to 1849. In that year, inter-oceanic transit lines were initiated in both Nicaragua and Panama.

The comprehensive treaty with New Granada became a law on 10 June 1848, and under its terms the Panama Railway Company at once completed its arrangements for the constmction of an immediate system of transit. The Panama Railroad Company was incorporated by the New York State legislature, April 7, 1849, to build and operate a railroad across the isthmus of Panama [It was acquired by the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique, 1881, and later by the Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama, 1894. This was purchased by the United States as part of the assets of Compagnie Nouvelle, April 23, 1904, under authority of the Panama Canal (Spooner) Act of 1902 (32 Stat. 481), June 28, 1902].

The economic advantages of the Nicaraguau route proved too great in the end to be any longer resisted by enterprising promoters in providing a quick route of transit to the West, a company was then organized in Nicaragua by some Northern capitalists, under the leadership of Messrs. Brown and Company of New York, to be called the Compania de Transito de Nicaragua, and on 17 March 1849, a contract was signed with the Nicaraguan authorities for the prosecution of the work.

In 1850-1 an American commission headed by Major (later Major General) J. G Barnard, United States Engineers, surveyed the Tuhuantapec route, and reported it to possess but little "merits as a practicable line for the construction of a ship canal."

In 1868 negotiations were opened with Washington for the purpose of building a canal across the isthmus of Panama, and in January 1869, a treaty between Colombia and the United States of North America was signed for the construction of the Darien or Panama ship canal, at the expense of the latter power. But the Colombian senate did not ratify the treaty, its object being, says a contemporary document, to "get as much money from the United States as could be."

In 1869 officers of the U.S. surveyed the route across the isthmus of Nicaragua, and made a favorable report. In 1870 Capt. R.W. Shuffeldt, of the U.S. Navy, made another survey of the isthmus of Nicaragua, which confirmed the conclusions of the former, to the effect that no extraordinary engineering difficulties existed, as sufficient water could be had from rivers in the Sierra Madre to supply the canal.

On 10 January 1870, US Navy Commander Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr., was ordered to command the expedition for the survey of the Isthmus of Darien for an interoceanic canal route. He was engaged on this work until 1874, and explored and reported upon all the country south of Panama to the headwaters of the Atrata River. In 1870 the Colombian congress amended the Darien Canal Bill and adopted it; but these amendments, together with the ill success of the surveying expedition sent out by the United States, made the scheme seem no longer practical.

A Government Commission was appointed by President Grant on 13 March 1872, whose duties were "to examine and consider all surveys, plans, proposals, or suggestions of routes of communication by canal or water, communications between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, across, over, or near the Isthmus, connecting North and South America, which had already been submitted, or which may hereafter be submitted, to the President of the United States, during the pendency of this appointment, or which may be referred to them by the President, and to report in writing their conclusion and the result of such examination to the President, with their opinion as to the possible cost and practicability of each route or plan, and such other matter in connection therewith as they may think proper and pertinent."

An instrumental examination was made of the Panama route in 1872, at the request of the American Commission for the Examination of the Isthmian projects, in order to ascertain the relative practicability of the Panama and the Nicaragua routes. The reports accompanying the survey were published soon after it was completed, but the maps, plans, and profiles remained unpublished.

On 07 February 1876 the Commission appointed by the President had made its final report, which had a world-wide publicity. It concluded that " ... the Nicaragua Canal route possesses both for the construction aud maintenance of a canal, greater advantages, and fewer difficulties from engineering, commercial and economic points of view, than any one of the other routes shown to be practicable by surveys sufficiently in detail to enable a judgment to be formed of their relative merits ... "

The Colombian Republic had proposed to the European powers to join in a guaranty of the neutrality of the proposed Panama Canal. Successive US Presidents reminded the European governments of the exclusive rights which the United States had secured with the country to be traversed by the interoceanic waterway. These exclusive rights rendered the prior guaranty of the United States government indispensable, and the powers were informed that any foreign guaranty would be not only an unnecessary but unfriendly act.

John Tyler Morgan served Alabama as a US senator for 30 years. Following the war he returned to his law practice and in 1876 was elected as a Democrat to the US Senate. His service began March 4, 1877, and continued until his death in 1907. From the start, Morgan advocated an interoceanic canal in Central America to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and more than any other member of Congress, he contributed to the successful accomplishment of that enterprise. He distinguished himself as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, serving as the ranking minority member for 22 years, and as the chairman from 1893 to 1895. Morgan also served as the unofficial minority leader from 1901 to 1902, and from 1905 to 1907, when he died in office.

US President Rutheford B. Hayes, in a message to the Senate on 08 March 1880, stated that " ... the policy of this country is a canal under American control. The United States cannot consent to the surrender of this control to any European power, or to any combination of European powers. If existing treaties the United States and other nations, or if the rights of sovereignty or property of other nations, stand in the way of this policy - a contingency which is not apprehended - suitable steps should be taken, by just and liberal negotiations, to promote the American policy on this subject, consistently with the rights of the nations to be affected by it. The investor citizens of other countries in such an enterprise must, in a great degree, look for protection to one or more of the great powers of the world. No European power can intervene for such protection without adopting measures on this continent which the United States would deem wholly inadmissible. If the protection of the United States is relied upon, the United States must exercise such control as will enable this to protect its national [interests], and to maintain the rights of those whose private capital is embarked in the work. An interoceanic canal across the American isthmus will essentially change the geographical relations between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States, and between the United States and the rest of the world. It will be the great ocean between our Atlantic and our Pacific, and virtually a part of the coast line of the United States. Our merely commercial interest in it is greater than that of all other countries, while its relations to our power and prosperity as a nation, to our means of defense, our unity, hence, and safety, are matters of paramount consideration to the people oP the United States. No other great power would, under similar circumstances, fail to assert a rightful control over a work so closely and vitally affecting its interest and welfare. Without further the grounds of my opinion, I repeat in conclusion that it is the right and duty of the United States to assert and maintain such supervision and authority over any interoceanic canal across the isthmus that connects North and South America as will protect our national interests. This, I am quite sure, will be found not only compatible with, but promotive of, the widest and most permanent advantage to Commerce and civilization."

In his State of the Union Address of 06 December 1880, Rutherford B. Hayes stated "The relations between this Government and that of the United States of Colombia have engaged public attention during the past year, mainly by reason of the project of an interoceanic canal across the Isthmus of Panama, to be built by private capital under a concession from the Colombian Government for that purpose. The treaty obligations subsisting between the United States and Colombia, by which we guarantee the neutrality of the transit and the sovereignty and property of Colombia in the Isthmus, make it necessary that the conditions under which so stupendous a change in the region embraced in this guaranty should be effected--transforming, as it would, this Isthmus from a barrier between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans into a gateway and thoroughfare between them for the navies and the merchant ships of the world--should receive the approval of this Government, as being compatible with the discharge of these obligations on our part and consistent with our interests as the principal commercial power of the Western Hemisphere. The views which I expressed in a special message to Congress in March last in relation to this project I deem it my duty again to press upon your attention. Subsequent consideration has but confirmed the opinion "that it is the right and duty of the United States to assert and maintain such supervision and authority over any interoceanic canal across the isthmus that connects North and South America as will protect our national interest.""

US President James A. Garfield, in his Inaugural Address on 04 March 1881, stated "The development of the world's commerce has led to an urgent demand for shortening the great sea voyage around Cape Horn by constructing ship canals or railways across the isthmus which unites the continents. Various plans to this end have been suggested and will need consideration, but none of them has been sufficiently matured to warrant the United States in extending pecuniary aid. The subject, however, is one which will immediately engage the attention of the Government with a view to a thorough protection to American interests. We will urge no narrow policy nor seek peculiar or exclusive privileges in any commercial route; but, in the language of my predecessor, I believe it to be the right "and duty of the United States to assert and maintain such supervision and authority over any interoceanic canal across the isthmus that connects North and South America as will protect our national interest."

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:55:05 ZULU