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The Path of Empire: A Chronicle of the United States as a World Power By Carl Russell Fish Characters: 24123

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


No two nations have ever had more intimate relationships than the United States and Great Britain. Speaking the same language and owning a common racial origin in large part, they have traded with each other and in the same regions, and geographically their territories touch for three thousand miles. During the nineteenth century the coastwise shipping of the United States was often forced to seek the shelter of the British West Indies. The fisherfolk of England and America mingled on the Grand Bank of Newfoundland and on the barren shores of that island and of Labrador, where they dried their fish. Indians, criminals, and game crossed the Canadian boundary at will, streams flowed across it, and the coast cities vied for the trade of the interior, indifferent to the claims of national allegiance. One cannot but believe that this intimacy has in the long run made for friendship and peace; but it has also meant constant controversy, often pressed to the verge of war by the pertinacious insistence of both nations on their full rights as they saw them.

The fifteen years following Adams's encounter with Canning saw the gradual accumulation of a number of such disputes, which made the situation in 1840 exceptionally critical. Great Britain was angered at the failure of the United States to grant her the right to police the seas for the suppression of the slave trade, while the United States, with memories of the vicious English practice of impressment before the War of 1812, distrusted the motives of Great Britain in asking for this right. Nearly every mile of the joint boundary in North America was in dispute, owing to the vagueness of treaty descriptions or to the errors of surveyors. Twelve thousand square miles and a costly American fort were involved; arbitration had failed; rival camps of lumberjacks daily imperiled peace; and both the Maine Legislature and the National Congress had voted money for defense. In a New York jail Alexander McLeod was awaiting trial in a state court for the murder of an American on the steamer Caroline, which a party of Canadian militia had cut out from the American shore near Buffalo and had sent to destruction over Niagara Falls. The British Government, holding that the Caroline was at the time illegally employed to assist Canadian insurgents, and that the Canadian militia were under government orders justifiable by international law, assumed the responsibility for McLeod's act and his safety. Ten thousand Americans along the border, members of "Hunters' Lodges," were anxious for a war which would unleash them for the conquest of Canada. Delay was causing all these disputes to fester, and the public mind of the two countries was infected with hostility.

Fortunately in 1841 new administrations came into power in both England and the United States. Neither the English Tories nor the American Whigs felt bound to maintain all the contentions of their predecessors, and both desired to come to an agreement. The responsibility on the American side fell upon Daniel Webster, the new Secretary of State. With less foreign experience than John Quincy Adams, he was more a man of the world and a man among men. His conversation was decidedly less ponderous than his oratory, and there was no more desirable dinner guest in America. Even in Webster's lightest moments, his majestic head gave the impression of colossal mentality, and his eyes, when he was in earnest, almost hypnotized those upon whom he bent his gaze. A leading figure in public life for twenty-five years, he now attained administrative position for the first time, and his constant practice at the bar had given something of a lawyerlike trend to his mind.

The desire of the British Government for an agreement with the United States was shown by the selection of Washington instead of London as the place of negotiation and of Lord Ashburton as negotiator. The head of the great banking house of Baring Brothers, he had won his title by service and was, moreover, known to be a friend of the United States. While in Philadelphia in his youth, he had married Miss Bingham of that city, and she still had American interests. In the controversies before the War of 1812 Lord Ashburton had supported many of the American contentions. He knew Webster personally, and they both looked forward to the social pleasure of meeting again during the negotiations. The two representatives came together in this pleasant frame of mind and did most of their business at the dinner table, where it is reported that more than diplomatic conversation flowed. They avoided an exchange of notes, which would bind each to a position once taken, but first came to an agreement and then prepared the documents.

It must not be supposed, however, that either Ashburton or Webster sacrificed the claims of his own Government. Webster certainly was a good attorney for the United States in settling the boundary disputes, as is shown by the battle of the maps. The territorial contentions of both countries hung largely upon the interpretation of certain clauses of the first American treaty of peace. Webster therefore ordered a search for material to be made in the archives of Paris and London. In Paris there was brought to light a map with the boundary drawn in red, possibly by Franklin, and supporting the British contention. Webster refrained from showing this to Ashburton and ordered search in London discontinued. Ironically enough, however, a little later there was unearthed in the British Museum the actual map used by one of the British commissioners in 1782, which showed the boundary as the United States claimed it to be. Though they had been found too late to affect the negotiations, these maps disturbed the Senate discussion of the matter. Yet, as they offset each other, they perhaps facilitated the acceptance of the treaty.

Rapidly Webster and Ashburton cleared the field. Webster obtained the release of McLeod and effected the passage of a law to prevent a similar crisis in the future by permitting such cases to be transferred to a federal court. The Caroline affair was settled by an amicable exchange of notes in which each side conceded much to the other. They did not indeed dispose of the slave trade, but they reached an agreement by which a joint squadron was to undertake to police efficiently the African seas in order to prevent American vessels from engaging in that trade.

Upon the more important matter of boundary, both Webster and Ashburton decided to give up the futile task of convincing each other as to the meaning of phrases which rested upon half-known facts reaching back into the misty period of first discovery and settlement. They abandoned interpretation and made compromise and division the basis of their settlement. This method was more difficult for Webster than for Ashburton, as both Maine and Massachusetts were concerned, and each must under the Constitution be separately convinced. Here Webster used the "Red Line" map, and succeeded in securing the consent of these States. They finally settled upon a boundary which was certainly not that intended in 1782 but was a compromise between the two conceptions of that boundary and divided the territory with a regard for actual conditions and geography. From Passamaquoddy Bay to the Lake of the Woods, accepted lines were substituted for controversy, and the basis of peace was thus made more secure. The treaty also contained provision for the mutual extradition of criminals guilty of specified crimes, but these did not include embezzlement, and "gone to Canada" was for years the epitaph of many a dishonest American who had been found out.

The friendly spirit in which Webster and Ashburton had carried on their negotiations inaugurated a period of reasonable amity between their two nations. The United States annexed Texas without serious protest; in spite of the clamor for "fifty-four forty or fight," Oregon was divided peacefully; and England did not take advantage of the war with Mexico. Each of these events, however, added to American territory, and these additions gave prominence to a new and vexing problem. The United States was now planted solidly upon the Pacific, and its borders were practically those to which Adams had looked forward. Natural and unified as this area looks upon the map and actually is today, in 1850 the extent of territorial expansion had overreached the means of transportation. The Great Plains, then regarded as the Great American Desert, and the Rockies presented impossible barriers to all but adventurous individuals. These men, uniting in bands for self-protection and taking their lives in their hands, were able with good luck to take themselves but little else across this central region and the western barrier. All ordinary communication, all mail and all freight, must go by sea. The United States was actually divided into two very unequal parts, and California and Oregon were geographically far distant colonies.

The ocean highroad belonged to the United States in common with all nations, but it took American ships to the opposite ends of the earth. No regular shuttle of traffic sufficient to weave the nation together could be expected to pass Cape Horn at every throw. The natural route lay obviously through the Caribbean, across some one of the isthmuses, and up the Pacific coast. Here however, the United States would have to use territory belonging to other nations, and to obtain the right of transit and security agreement was necessary. All these isthmus routes, moreover, needed improvement. Capital must be induced to do the work, and one necessary inducement was a guarantee of stable conditions of investment.

This isthmus route became for a time the prime object of American diplomacy. The United States made in 1846 satisfactory arrangements with the Republic of New Granada (later Colombia), across which lay the most southern route, and in 1853 with Mexico, of whose northern or Tehuantepec route many had great expectations; but a further difficulty was now discovered. The best lanes were those of Panama and of Nicaragua. When the discovery of gold in California in 1848 made haste a more important element in the problem, "Commodore" Vanderbilt, at that time the shipping king of the United States, devoted his attention to the Nicaragua route and made it the more popular. Here however, the United States encountered not only the local independent authorities but also Great Britain. Just to the north of the proposed route Great Britain possessed Belize, now British Honduras, a meager colony but with elastic boundaries. For many generations, too, she had concerned herself with securing the rights of the Mosquito Indians, who held a territory, also with elastic boundaries, inconveniently near the San Juan River, the Caribbean entrance to the Nicaraguan thoroughfare. From Great Britain, moreover, must come a large portion of the capital to be employed in constructing the canal which was expected soon to cut the isthmus.

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 settlemen

t. 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. J. C. Bancroft Davis was agent for the United States, and William M. Evarts, Caleb Cushing, and Morrison R. Waite acted as counsel. The case for the United States was not presented in a manner worthy of the occasion. According to Adams the American contentions "were advanced with an aggressiveness of tone and attorney-like smartness, more appropriate to the wranglings of a quarter-sessions court than to pleadings before a grave international tribunal." The American counsel were instructed to insist not, indeed, on indemnity for the cost of two years of war, but on compensation because of the transfer of our commerce to the British merchant marine, by virtue of the clause of the treaty which read "acts committed by the several vessels which have given rise to the claims generally known as the 'Alabama Claims.'" British public opinion considered this contention an act of bad faith. Excitement in England rose to a high pitch and the Gladstone Ministry proposed to withdraw from the arbitration.

That the tribunal of arbitration did not end in utter failure was due to the wisdom and courage of Adams. At his suggestion the five arbitrators announced on June 19, 1872, that they would not consider claims for indirect damages, because such claims did "not constitute, upon the principles of international law applicable to such cases, good foundation for an award of compensation, or computations of damages between nations." These claims dismissed, the arbitrators entered into an examination of the direct American claims and on September 14, 1872, decided upon an award of fifteen and a half million dollars to the United States. The Treaty of Washington and the Geneva Tribunal constituted the longest step thus far taken by any two nations toward the settlement of their disputes by judicial process.

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