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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·AMERICA A WORLD POWER (1865-1900) · Cuba and the Spanish War·»

American Foreign Relations (1865-98)

French Intrigues in Mexico Blocked.—Between the war for the union and the war with Spain, the Department of State had many an occasion to present the rights of America among the powers of the world. Only a little while after the civil conflict came to a close, it was called upon to deal with a dangerous situation created in Mexico by the ambitions of Napoleon III. During the administration of Buchanan, Mexico had fallen into disorder through the strife of the Liberal and the Clerical parties; the President asked for authority to use American troops to bring to a peaceful haven “a wreck upon the ocean, drifting about as she is impelled by different factions.” Our own domestic crisis then intervened.

Observing the United States heavily involved in its own problems, the great powers, England, France, and Spain, decided in the autumn of 1861 to take a hand themselves in restoring order in Mexico. They entered into an agreement to enforce the claims of their citizens against Mexico and to protect their subjects residing in that republic. They invited the United States to join them, and, on meeting a polite refusal, they prepared for a combined military and naval demonstration on their own account. In the midst of this action England and Spain, discovering the sinister purposes of Napoleon, withdrew their troops and left the field to him.

The French Emperor, it was well known, looked with jealousy upon the growth of the United States and dreamed of establishing in the Western hemisphere an imperial power to offset the American republic. Intervention to collect debts was only a cloak for his deeper designs. Throwing off that guise in due time, he made the Archduke Maximilian, a brother of the ruler of Austria, emperor in Mexico, and surrounded his throne by French soldiers, in spite of all protests.

This insolent attack upon the Mexican republic, deeply resented in the United States, was allowed to drift in its course until 1865. At that juncture General Sheridan was dispatched to the Mexican border with a large armed force; General Grant urged the use of the American army to expel the French from this continent. The Secretary of State, Seward, counseled negotiation first, and, applying the Monroe Doctrine, was able to prevail upon Napoleon III to withdraw his troops. Without the support of French arms, the sham empire in Mexico collapsed like a house of cards and the unhappy Maximilian, the victim of French ambition and intrigue, met his death at the hands of a Mexican firing squad.

Alaska Purchased.—The Mexican affair had not been brought to a close before the Department of State was busy with negotiations which resulted in the purchase of Alaska from Russia. The treaty of cession, signed on March 30, 1867, added to the United States a domain of nearly six hundred thousand square miles, a territory larger than Texas and nearly three-fourths the size of the Louisiana purchase. Though it was a distant colony separated from our continental domain by a thousand miles of water, no question of “imperialism” or “colonization foreign to American doctrines” seems to have been raised at the time. The treaty was ratified promptly by the Senate. The purchase price, $7,200,000, was voted by the House of Representatives after the display of some resentment against a system that compelled it to appropriate money to fulfill an obligation which it had no part in making. Seward, who formulated the treaty, rejoiced, as he afterwards said, that he had kept Alaska out of the hands of England.

American Interest in the Caribbean.—Having achieved this diplomatic triumph, Seward turned to the increase of American power in another direction. He negotiated, with Denmark, a treaty providing for the purchase of the islands of St. John and St. Thomas in the West Indies, strategic points in the Caribbean for sea power. This project, long afterward brought to fruition by other men, was defeated on this occasion by the refusal of the Senate to ratify the treaty. Evidently it was not yet prepared to exercise colonial dominion over other races.

Undaunted by the misadventure in Caribbean policies, President Grant warmly advocated the acquisition of Santo Domingo. This little republic had long been in a state of general disorder. In 1869 a treaty of annexation was concluded with its president. The document Grant transmitted to the Senate with his cordial approval, only to have it rejected. Not at all changed in his opinion by the outcome of his effort, he continued to urge the subject of annexation. Even in his last message to Congress he referred to it, saying that time had only proved the wisdom of his early course. The addition of Santo Domingo to the American sphere of protection was the work of a later generation. The State Department, temporarily checked, had to bide its time.

The Alabama Claims Arbitrated.—Indeed, it had in hand a far more serious matter, a vexing issue that grew out of Civil War diplomacy. The British government, as already pointed out in other connections, had permitted Confederate cruisers, including the famous Alabama, built in British ports, to escape and prey upon the commerce of the Northern states. This action, denounced at the time by our government as a grave breach of neutrality as well as a grievous injury to American citizens, led first to remonstrances and finally to repeated claims for damages done to American ships and goods. For a long time Great Britain was firm. Her foreign secretary denied all obligations in the premises, adding somewhat curtly that “he wished to say once for all that Her Majesty’s government disclaimed any responsibility for the losses and hoped that they had made their position perfectly clear.” Still President Grant was not persuaded that the door of diplomacy, though closed, was barred. Hamilton Fish, his Secretary of State, renewed the demand. Finally he secured from the British government in 1871 the treaty of Washington providing for the arbitration not merely of the Alabama and other claims but also all points of serious controversy between the two countries.

The tribunal of arbitration thus authorized sat at Geneva in Switzerland, and after a long and careful review of the arguments on both sides awarded to the United States the lump sum of $15,500,000 to be distributed among the American claimants. The damages thus allowed were large, unquestionably larger than strict justice required and it is not surprising that the decision excited much adverse comment in England. Nevertheless, the prompt payment by the British government swept away at once a great cloud of ill-feeling in America. Moreover, the spectacle of two powerful nations choosing the way of peaceful arbitration to settle an angry dispute seemed a happy, if illusory, omen of a modern method for avoiding the arbitrament of war.

Samoa.—If the Senate had its doubts at first about the wisdom of acquiring strategic points for naval power in distant seas, the same could not be said of the State Department or naval officers. In 1872 Commander Meade, of the United States navy, alive to the importance of coaling stations even in mid-ocean, made a commercial agreement with the chief of Tutuila, one of the Samoan Islands, far below the equator, in the southern Pacific, nearer to Australia than to California. This agreement, providing among other things for our use of the harbor of Pago Pago as a naval base, was six years later changed into a formal treaty ratified by the Senate.

Such enterprise could not escape the vigilant eyes of England and Germany, both mindful of the course of the sea power in history. The German emperor, seizing as a pretext a quarrel between his consul in the islands and a native king, laid claim to an interest in the Samoan group. England, aware of the dangers arising from German outposts in the southern seas so near to Australia, was not content to stand aside. So it happened that all three countries sent battleships to the Samoan waters, threatening a crisis that was fortunately averted by friendly settlement. If, as is alleged, Germany entertained a notion of challenging American sea power then and there, the presence of British ships must have dispelled that dream.

The result of the affair was a tripartite agreement by which the three powers in 1889 undertook a protectorate over the islands. But joint control proved unsatisfactory. There was constant friction between the Germans and the English. The spheres of authority being vague and open to dispute, the plan had to be abandoned at the end of ten years. England withdrew altogether, leaving to Germany all the islands except Tutuila, which was ceded outright to the United States. Thus one of the finest harbors in the Pacific, to the intense delight of the American navy, passed permanently under American dominion. Another triumph in diplomacy was set down to the credit of the State Department.

Cleveland and the Venezuela Affair.—In the relations with South America, as well as in those with the distant Pacific, the diplomacy of the government at Washington was put to the test. For some time it had been watching a dispute between England and Venezuela over the western boundary of British Guiana and, on an appeal from Venezuela, it had taken a lively interest in the contest. In 1895 President Cleveland saw that Great Britain would yield none of her claims. After hearing the arguments of Venezuela, his Secretary of State, Richard T. Olney, in a note none too conciliatory, asked the British government whether it was willing to arbitrate the points in controversy. This inquiry he accompanied by a warning to the effect that the United States could not permit any European power to contest its mastery in this hemisphere. “The United States,” said the Secretary, “is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition.... Its infinite resources, combined with its isolated position, render it master of the situation and practically invulnerable against any or all other powers.”

The reply evoked from the British government by this strong statement was firm and clear. The Monroe Doctrine, it said, even if not so widely stretched by interpretation, was not binding in international law; the dispute with Venezuela was a matter of interest merely to the parties involved; and arbitration of the question was impossible. This response called forth President Cleveland’s startling message of 1895. He asked Congress to create a commission authorized to ascertain by researches the true boundary between Venezuela and British Guiana. He added that it would be the duty of this country “to resist by every means in its power, as a willful aggression upon its rights and interests, the appropriation by Great Britain of any lands or the exercise of governmental jurisdiction over any territory which, after investigation, we have determined of right belongs to Venezuela.” The serious character of this statement he thoroughly understood. He declared that he was conscious of his responsibilities, intimating that war, much as it was to be deplored, was not comparable to “a supine submission to wrong and injustice and the consequent loss of national self-respect and honor.”

Grover Cleveland
Grover Cleveland

The note of defiance which ran through this message, greeted by shrill cries of enthusiasm in many circles, was viewed in other quarters as a portent of war. Responsible newspapers in both countries spoke of an armed settlement of the dispute as inevitable. Congress created the commission and appropriated money for the investigation; a body of learned men was appointed to determine the merits of the conflicting boundary claims. The British government, deaf to the clamor of the bellicose section of the London press, deplored the incident, courteously replied in the affirmative to a request for assistance in the search for evidence, and finally agreed to the proposition that the issue be submitted to arbitration. The outcome of this somewhat perilous dispute contributed not a little to Cleveland’s reputation as “a sterling representative of the true American spirit.” This was not diminished when the tribunal of arbitration found that Great Britain was on the whole right in her territorial claims against Venezuela.

The Annexation of Hawaii.—While engaged in the dangerous Venezuela controversy, President Cleveland was compelled by a strange turn in events to consider the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands in the mid-Pacific. For more than half a century American missionaries had been active in converting the natives to the Christian faith and enterprising American business men had been developing the fertile sugar plantations. Both the Department of State and the Navy Department were fully conscious of the strategic relation of the islands to the growth of sea power and watched with anxiety any developments likely to bring them under some other Dominion.

The country at large was indifferent, however, until 1893, when a revolution, headed by Americans, broke out, ending in the overthrow of the native government, the abolition of the primitive monarchy, and the retirement of Queen Liliuokalani to private life. This crisis, a repetition of the Texas affair in a small theater, was immediately followed by a demand from the new Hawaiian government for annexation to the United States. President Harrison looked with favor on the proposal, negotiated the treaty of annexation, and laid it before the Senate for approval. There it still rested when his term of office was brought to a close.

Harrison’s successor, Cleveland, it was well known, had doubts about the propriety of American action in Hawaii. For the purpose of making an inquiry into the matter, he sent a special commissioner to the islands. On the basis of the report of his agent, Cleveland came to the conclusion that “the revolution in the island kingdom had been accomplished by the improper use of the armed forces of the United States and that the wrong should be righted by a restoration of the queen to her throne.” Such being his matured conviction, though the facts upon which he rested it were warmly controverted, he could do nothing but withdraw the treaty from the Senate and close the incident.

To the Republicans this sharp and cavalier disposal of their plans, carried out in a way that impugned the motives of a Republican President, was nothing less than “a betrayal of American interests.” In their platform of 1896 they made clear their position: “Our foreign policy should be at all times firm, vigorous, and dignified and all our interests in the Western hemisphere carefully watched and guarded. The Hawaiian Islands should be controlled by the United States and no foreign power should be permitted to interfere with them.” There was no mistaking this view of the issue. As the vote in the election gave popular sanction to Republican policies, Congress by a joint resolution, passed on July 6, 1898, annexed the islands to the United States and later conferred upon them the ordinary territorial form of government.

«·AMERICA A WORLD POWER (1865-1900) · Cuba and the Spanish War·»