Classic History Books


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

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

 

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