Classic History Books


The Path of Empire. A Chronicle of the United States as a World Power
by Carl Russell Fish

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 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

 

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