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The Path of Empire: A Chronicle of the United States as a World Power By Carl Russell Fish Characters: 13538

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Probably no President ever received so much personal abuse in his own day as did Grover Cleveland. In time, however, his sterling integrity and fundamental courage, his firm grasp of the higher administrative duties of his office, won the approval of his countrymen, and a repentant public sentiment has possibly gone too far in the other direction of acclaiming his statesmanship. Unlike Blaine, Cleveland thought soundly and consistently; but he was more obstinate, his vision was often narrower, and he was notably lacking both in constructive power and in tact, particularly in foreign relations. In his first Administration, through his Secretary of State, Thomas F. Bayard, Cleveland had negotiated fairly amicably with Great Britain, and when he failed to secure the Senate's assent to a treaty on the irritating question of the northeastern fisheries, he arranged a modus vivendi which served for many years. In American affairs he opposed not only the annexation of Hawaii but also the development of the spirit of Pan-Americanism. He was, however, no more disposed than was Blaine to permit infractions of that negative side of the Monroe Doctrine which forbade European interference in America. His second Administration brought to the forefront of world diplomacy an issue involving this traditional principle.

The only European possession in South America at this time was Guiana, fronting on the Atlantic north of Brazil and divided among France, Holland, and Great Britain. Beyond British Guiana, the westernmost division, lay Venezuela. Between the two stretched a vast tract of unoccupied tropical jungle. Somewhere there must have been a boundary, but where, no man could tell. The extreme claim of Great Britain would have given her command of the mouth of the Orinoco, while that of Venezuela would practically have eliminated British Guiana. Efforts to settle this long-standing dispute were unavailing. Venezuela had from time to time suggested arbitration but wished to throw the whole area into court. Great Britain insisted upon reserving a minimum territory and would submit to judicial decision only the land west of what was known as the Schomburgh line of 1840. As early as 1876 Venezuela appealed to the United States, "the most powerful and oldest of the Republics of the new continent," for its "powerful moral support in disputes with European nations." Several times the United States proffered its good offices to Great Britain, but to no effect. The satisfactory settlement of the question grew more difficult as time went on, particularly after the discovery of gold in the disputed region had given a new impulse to occupation.

President Cleveland took a serious view of this controversy because it seemed to involve more than a boundary dispute. To his mind it called into question the portion of Monroe's message which, in 1823, stated that "the American continents... are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers." According to this dictum, boundaries existed between all nations and colonies of America; the problem was merely to find these boundaries. If a European power refused to submit such a question to judicial decision, the inference must be made that it was seeking to extend its boundaries. In December, 1894, Cleveland expressed to Congress his hope that an arbitration would be arranged and instructed his Secretary of State to present vigorously to Great Britain the view of the United States.

Richard Olney of Boston, a lawyer of exceptional ability and of the highest professional standing, was then Secretary of State. His Venezuela dispatch, however, was one of the most undiplomatic documents ever issued by the Department of State. He did not confine himself to a statement of his case, wherein any amount of vigor would have been permissible, but ran his unpracticed eye unnecessarily over the whole field of American diplomacy. "That distance and three thousand miles of intervening ocean make any permanent political union between a European and an American state unnatural and inexpedient," may have been a philosophic axiom to many in Great Britain as well as in the United States, but it surely did not need reiteration in this state paper, and Olney at once exposed himself to contradiction by adding the phrase, "will hardly be denied." Entirely ignoring the sensitive pride of the Spanish Americans and thinking only of Europe, he continued: "Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition."

The President himself did not run into any such uncalled-for extravagance of expression, but his statement of the American position did not thereby lose in vigor. When he had received the reply, of the British Government refusing to recognize the interest of the United States in the case, Cleveland addressed himself, on December 17, 1895, to Congress. In stating the position of the Government of the United States, he declared that to determine the true boundary line was its right, duty, and interest. He recommended that the Government itself appoint a commission for this purpose, and he asserted that this line, when found, must be maintained as the lawful boundary. Should Great Britain continue to exercise jurisdiction beyond it, the United States must resist by every means in its power. "In making these recommendations I am fully alive to the responsibility incurred, and keenly realize all the consequences that may follow." Yet "there is no calamity which a great nation can invite which equals that which follows a supine submission to wrong and injustice and the consequent loss of national self-respect and honor beneath which axe shielded and defended a people's safety and greatness."

Perhaps no American document relating to diplomacy ever before made so great a stir in the world. Its unexpectedness enhanced its effect, even in the United States, for the public had not been sufficiently aware of the shaping of this international episode to be psychologically prepared for the imminence of war. Unlike most Anglo-American diplomacy, this had been a long-range negotiation, with notes exchanged between the home offices instead of personal conferences. People blenched at the thought of war; stocks fell; the attention of the whole world was arrested. The innumerable and intimate bonds of friendship and interest which would thus have to be broken merely because of an insignificant jog in a boundary remote from both the nations made war between the United States and Great Britain seem absolutely inconceivable, until people realized that neither country could yield without an admission of defeat both galling to nat

ional pride and involving fundamental principles of conduct and policy for the future.

Great Britain in particular stood amazed at Cleveland's position. The general opinion was that peace must be maintained and that diplomats must find a formula which would save both peace and appearances. Yet before this public opinion could be diplomatically formulated, a new episode shook the British sense of security. Germany again appeared as a menace and, as in the case of Samoa, the international situation thus produced tended to develop a realization of the kinship between Great Britain and the United States. Early in January, 1896, the Jameson raid into the Transvaal was defeated, and the Kaiser immediately telegraphed his congratulations to President Krtiger. In view of the possibilities involved in this South African situation, British public opinion demanded that her diplomats maintain peace with the United States, with or without the desired formula.

The British Government, however, was not inclined to act with undue haste. It became apparent even to the most panicky that war with the United States could not come immediately, for the American Commission of Inquiry must first report. For a time Lord Salisbury hoped that Congress would not support the President-a contingency which not infrequently happened under Cleveland's Administration. On this question of foreign relations, however, Congress stood squarely behind the President. Lord Salisbury then toyed with the hope that the matter might be delayed until Cleveland's term expired, in the hope he might have an opportunity of dealing with a less strenuous successor.

In the summer of 1896, John Hay, an intimate friend of Major McKinley, the probable Republican candidate for the presidency, was in England, where he was a well-known figure. There he met privately Arthur J. Balfour, representing Lord Salisbury, and Sir William Harcourt, the leader of the Opposition. Hay convinced them that a change in the Administration of his country would involve no retreat from the existing American position. The British Government thereupon determined to yield but attempted to cover its retreat by merging the question with one of general arbitration. This proposal, however, was rejected, and Lord Salisbury then agreed to "an equitable settlement" of the Venezuela question by empowering the British Ambassador at Washington to begin negotiations "either with the representative of Venezuela or with the Government of the United States acting as the friend of Venezuela."

The achievement of the Administration consisted in forcing Great Britain to recognize the interest of the United States in the dispute with Venezuela, on the ground that Venezuela was one of the nations of the Western Hemisphere. This concession practically involved recognition of the interest of the United States in case of future disputes with other American powers. The arbitration treaty thus arranged between Great Britain and Venezuela under the auspices of the United States submitted the whole disputed area to judicial decision but adopted the rule that fifty years of occupation should give a sufficient title for possession. The arbitration tribunal, which met in Paris in 1899, decided on a division of the disputed territory but found that the claim of Great Britain was, on the whole, more nearly correct than that of Venezuela.

Cleveland's startling and unconventional method of dealing with this controversy has been explained by all kinds of conjectures. For example, it has been charged that his message was the product of a fishing trip on which whisky flowed too freely; on the other hand, it has been asserted that the message was an astute political play for the thunder of patriotic applause. More seriously, Cleveland has been charged by one set of critics with bluffing, and by another with recklessly running the risk of war on a trivial provocation. The charge of bluffing comes nearer the fact, for President Cleveland probably had never a moment's doubt that the forces making for peace between the two nations would be victorious. If he may be said to have thrown a bomb, he certainly had attached a safety valve to it, for the investigation which he proposed could not but give time for the passions produced by his message to cool. It is interesting to note in passing that delay for investigation was a device which that other great Democrat, William Jennings Bryan, Cleveland's greatest political enemy, sought, during his short term as Secretary of State under President Wilson, to make universal in a series of arbitration treaties-treaties which now bind the United States and many other countries, how tightly no man can tell.

While, however, Cleveland's action was based rather on a belief in peace than on an expectation of war, it cannot be dismissed as merely a bluff. Not only was he convinced that the principle involved was worth establishing whatever the cost might be, but he was certain that the method he employed was the only one which could succeed, for in no other way was it possible to wake England to a realization of the fact that the United States was full-grown and imbued with a new consciousness of its strength. So far was Cleveland's message from provoking war that it caused the people of Great Britain vitally to realize for the first time the importance of friendship with the United States. It marks a change in their attitude toward things American which found expression not only in diplomacy, but in various other ways, and which strikingly revealed itself in the international politics of the next few years. Not that hostility was converted into affection, but a former condescension gave way to an appreciative friendliness towards the people of the United States.

The reaction in America was somewhat different. Cleveland had united the country upon a matter of foreign policy, not completely, it is true, but to a greater degree than Blaine had ever succeeded in doing. More important than this unity of feeling throughout the land, however, was the development of a spirit of inquiry among the people. Suddenly confronted by changes of policy that might bring wealth or poverty, life or death, the American people began to take the foreign relations of the United States more seriously than they had since the days of the Napoleonic wars. Yet it is not surprising that when the Venezuela difficulty had been settled and Secretary Olney and Sir Julian Pauncefote, the British Ambassador, had concluded a general treaty of arbitration, the Senate should have rejected it, for the lesson that caution was necessary in international affairs had been driven home. Time was needed for the new generation to formulate its foreign policy.

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