A New World Power, 1890-1914

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Author: Theodore Roosevelt  | Date: 1908

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The Purchase of the Panama Canal

IN view of the constant reiteration of the assertion that there was some corrupt action by or on behalf of the United States Government in connection with the acquisition of the title of the French Company to the Panama Canal and of the repetition of the story that a syndicate of American citizens owned either one or both of the Panama Companies, I deem it unwise to submit to the Congress all the information I have on the subject. These stories were first brought to my attention as published in a paper in Indianapolis, called the "News," edited by Mr. Delavan Smith. The stories were scurrilous and libelous in character and false in every essential particular. Mr. Smith shelters himself behind the excuse that he merely accepted the statements which had appeared in a paper published in New York, the "World," owned by Mr. Joseph Pulitzer. It is idle to say that the known character of Mr. Pulitzer and his newspaper are such that the statements in that paper will be believed by nobody; unfortunately, thousands of persons are ill informed in this respect and believe the statements they see in print, even though they appear in a newspaper published by Mr. Pulitzer. A Member of the Congress has actually introduced a resolution in reference to these charges. I therefore lay all the facts before you.

The story repeated at various times by the "World" and by its followers in the newspaper press is substantially as follows: That there was corruption by or on behalf of the Government of the United States in the transaction by which the Panama Canal property was acquired from its French owners; that there were improper dealings of some kind between agents of the Government and outside persons, representing or acting for an American syndicate, who had gotten possession of the French Company; that among these persons, who it was alleged made "huge profits," were Mr. Charles P. Taft, a brother of Mr. William H. Taft, then candidate for the Presidency, and Mr. Douglas Robinson, my brother-in-law; that Mr. Cromwell, the counsel for the Panama Canal Company in the negotiations, was in some way implicated with the United States governmental authorities in these improper transactions; that the Government has concealed the true facts, and has destroyed, or procured or agreed to the destruction of, certain documents; that Mr. W. H. Taft was Secretary of War at the time that by an agreement between the United States Government and the beneficiaries of the deal all traces thereof were wiped out" by transferring all the archives and "secrets" to the American Government, just before the holding of the Convention last June at which Mr. Taft was nominated.

These statements sometimes appeared in the editorials, sometimes in the news columns, sometimes in the shape of contributions from individuals either unknown or known to be of bad character. They are false in every particular from beginning to end. The wickedness of the slanders is only surpassed by their fatuity. So utterly baseless are the stories that apparently they represent in part merely material collected for campaign purposes and in part stories originally concocted with a view of possible blackmail. The inventor of the story about Mr. Charles P. Taft, for instance, evidently supposed that at some period of the Panama purchase Mr. W. H. Taft was Secretary of War, whereas in reality Mr. W. H. Taft never became Secretary of War until long after the whole transaction in question had been closed. The inventor of the story about Mr. Douglas Robinson had not taken the trouble to find out the fact that Mr. Robinson had not the slightest connection, directly or indirectly, of any kind or sort with any phase of the Panama transaction from beginning to end. The men who attacked Mr. Root in the matter had not taken the trouble to read the public documents which would have informed them that Mr, Root had nothing to do with the purchase, which was entirely arranged through the Department of Justice under the then Attorney-General, Mr. Knox….

Meanwhile I submit to you all the accompanying papers, so that you may have before you complete information on the subject….

In the Act approved June 28, 1902, "To provide for the construction of a canal connecting the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans," the Congress provided as follows:

"That the President of the United States is hereby authorized to acquire, for and on behalf of the United States, at a cost not exceeding forty millions of dollars, the rights, privileges, franchises, concessions, grants of land, right of way, unfinished work, plants, and other property, real, personal, and mixed, of every name and nature, owned by the New Panama Canal Company, of France, on the Isthmus of Panama, and all its maps, plans, drawings, records on the Isthmus of Panama, and in Paris, including all the capital stock, not less, however, than sixty-eight thousand eight hundred and sixty-three shares of the Panama Railroad Company, owned by or held for the use of said Canal Company, provided a satisfactory title to all of said property can be obtained."

It thereupon became the duty of the President, in execution of this statute, to purchase the property specified from the New Panama Canal Company, of France, provided he could obtain a satisfactory title. The Department of Justice was instructed to examine the title, and after such an examination Attorney-General Knox reported that a satisfactory title could be obtained. Payment of the purchase price was thereupon made to the New Panama Canal Company, in accordance with the act of the Congress, and the property was conveyed by that company to the United States. It was no concern of the President, or of any officer of the Executive Department, to inquire as to what the New Panama Canal Company did with the money which it received. As a matter of fact, the New Panama Canal Company did distribute the money between its shareholders and the shareholders of the preceding Panama Canal Company in accordance with the decree of a French court, and the records of the French court show who were the shareholders who received the money; but that is no concern of ours.

I call your attention to the accompanying statement as to the attempt to form an American company in 1899 for the purpose of taking over the property of the French Company. This attempt proved abortive. There was no concealment in its effort to put through this plan; its complete failure and abandonment being known to every one.

The important points set forth in the accompanying papers, and in the papers to which I have referred you, are as follows:

The investigation of the history, physical condition, and existing value of the enterprise by the Congress, resulting in the enactment of the law of 1902 authorizing the President to acquire the property for the sum of $40,000,000 upon securing a satisfactory title and thereupon to undertake the work of construction; the failure of the Americanization of the enterprise in 1899; the transmission by me to the Congress from time to time of full information and advice as to the relations of this Government to transit across the Isthmus and under the treaties, as to the negotiations and final acquisition of the title, and later as to the progress and condition of the work of construction; the previous authorization of the sale to the United States by the stockholders of the new company and their subsequent ratification; the examination and approval of the title by Mr. Knox; the arrangements for payment through J. P. Morgan & Company as the fiscal agents of this Government, and the payment accordingly at the Bank of France upon proper official receipts to the liquidators acting under the decree of the French court, the French governmental body having jurisdiction in the matter; and, finally, the subsequent apportionment and distribution of the fund to the creditors and stockholders of the two companies under that decree.

The Panama Canal transaction was actually carried through not by either the then Secretary of State, Mr. John Hay, or the then Secretary of War, Mr. Elihu Root, both of whom, however, were cognizant of all the essential features; but by the then Attorney-General, Mr. P. C. Knox, at present Senator from Pennsylvania. I directed or approved every action, and am responsible for all that was done in carrying out the will of the Congress; and the provisions of the law, enacted by Congress after exhaustive examination and discussion, were scrupulously complied with by the Executive. While the transaction was pending I saw Mr. Cromwell but two or three times, and my communications with him were limited to the exchange of purely formal courtesies. Secretary Hay occasionally saw him, in the same manner; I doubt whether Mr. Root held any conversation with him, The Attorney-General saw him frequently, as he was counsel for the Panama Company; their communications were official, as representing the two sides….

The title to the Panama Canal properties was vested in the New Panama Canal Company of France, which was the legal owner thereof, and the old or so-called De Lesseps Company had a large equity therein. The title was not in a New Jersey company nor in any other American company, nor did this Government have any dealings with any American company throughout the affair.

The exact legal status, to the most minute detail, appears in the exhaustive opinion of Attorney-General Knox approving the title to be given to the United States, which clearly establishes that the only party dealt with was the New Panama Canal Company of France (with the concurrence of the liquidator of the old company) and not any American corporation or syndicate.

The action of the United States Government was, of course, wholly uninfluenced by, and had nothing whatever to do with, any question as to who were, or who had been, the security-holders of either the new or the old company. Who such security-holders were was not our affair. If, as a matter of fact, the Canal companies, either or both, had been owned by American citizens or by citizens of any other nationality, it would not have altered in the slightest degree the action taken by this Government. Our concern was to get the canal property which was owned by the French Company, and to see that the title was clear. Our transactions were carried on openly, and were published in detail, and we dealt solely (so far as the interests of the old Panama Company were concerned) with the liquidator appointed by the proper French governmental body, the Civil Tribunal of the Seine, and in accordance with the decree of this same tribunal, with the New Panama Canal Company, which also went into liquidation upon the sale to the United States. All our transactions were carried on openly, and were published in detail.

The distribution of our payment of $40,000,000 follows the award of arbitrators chosen by the new company and the liquidator, authorized by the decree of this same Civil Tribunal of the Seine, and providing for a determination of the proportionate division between the new and old companies. We paid the money through the New York banking house of Messrs. J. P. Morgan & Company, acting as fiscal agents of this Government, into the Bank of France in Paris. The receipts and accounts of our Treasury Department show the payment of the money into the Bank of France and account for the money being paid over to the liquidator appointed by the Civil Tribunal of the Seine and to the New Panama Canal Company of France, the proportion of the forty million dollars being 128,600,000 francs to the liquidator of the old company and 77,400,000 francs to the New Panama Canal Company of France in liquidation. In these payments we followed to the letter the decree of the governmental tribunal of France which had the authority to make such a decree, the Civil Tribunal of the Seine. We had neither desire nor authority to go behind this decree of this proper governmental body, as all the conflicting rights of the security-holders of both companies had been settled by the decree of said court by ratification of the arbitration which resulted in that division.

I wish to make as clear as possible, and as emphatic as possible, the statement that we did not have anything to do with the distribution of a dollar of the $40,000,000 we paid as regards any stockholder or bondholder of the French Companies, save that we followed out the award of the arbitrators appointed in accordance with the decree of the French court which had dealt with the subject in awarding a certain proportion to the old company and a certain proportion to the new company. Any question concerning the stockholders, bondholders, or other beneficiaries of the proceeds of sale was purely a question for the Civil Tribunal of the Seine, the French governmental body, with which this Nation had nothing whatever to do….

The New Panama Canal Company of France is in liquidation. As the accompanying papers set forth, this liquidated company received as its proportion of the $40,000,000 the sum of 77,400,000 francs, and this amount was distributed by the liquidation in three payments through four leading banks of Paris, covering a period of the past four years, and to shareholders numbering about 6,000. Every step of the transaction was not only taken publicly, but was, contemporaneously therewith, advertised in the legal and financial papers of France, and the banks making the payments took proper receipts from all the parties to whom payments were made, as is customary in such cases.

The capital of the New Panama Canal Company of France was 65,000,000 francs, and the distribution thus made amounted to about 130 francs on each share of 100 francs. No dividends were paid during the ten years of the company’s existence. It therefore resulted that the shareholders only recovered their original investment with annual interest of about three per cent.

The accounts and records of this liquidation, which was concluded in June last, are on deposit with the Credit Lyonnaise of Paris as a proper custodian of the same, appointed upon such liquidation. Recently a request was made by a private individual to inspect the records of these payments, but answer was made by the custodians that they saw no proper reason for granting such request by a stranger, and, inasmuch as there is not the slightest ground for suspicion of any bad faith in the transaction, it hardly seems worth while to make the request; but if the Congress desires, I have no doubt that on the request of our Ambassador in Paris, the lists of individuals will be shown him.

As a matter of fact, there is nothing whatever, in which this Government is interested, to investigate about this transaction. So far as this Government is concerned, every step of the slightest importance has been made public by its Executive, and every step taken in France has there been made public by the proper officials.

The Congress took the action it did take after the most minute and exhaustive examination and discussion, and the Executive carried out the direction of the Congress to the letter. Every act of this Government, every act for which this Government had the slightest responsibility, was in pursuance of the act of the Congress here, and following out the decree of the Civil Tribunal of the Seine in France.

Furthermore, through the entirely voluntary act of Mr. Cromwell, I am now able to present to you full information as to these actions in France with which this Government did not have any concern, and which are set forth in the accompanying papers.

It may be well to recall that the New Panama Canal Company of France did not itself propose or fix the figure $40,000,000 as the valuation of the canal and railroad properties. That sum was first fixed by our Isthmian Canal Commission in its reports to the Congress after two years of investigation and personal inspection of all the properties and work already done, whereby the properties and the work done were in detail appraised at that sum as their value to the United States. The French Company steadily refused for over two years to make any offer whatever in answer to the many written requests of the Isthmian Canal Commission; and when its president did approach the question of price, it was on the basis of $ 100,000,000. Later, under conditions not necessary now to rehearse, the company, by cable, accepted the appraisement of $40,000,000 made by our Commission. This Government, therefore, acquired all the properties and concessions, both of canal and railroad, at its own valuation and price, the Congress approving the price, and authorizing the expenditure of the money, after the most exhaustive examination and discussion.

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Chicago: Theodore Roosevelt, "The Purchase of the Panama Canal," A New World Power, 1890-1914 in America, Vol.10, Pp.237-248 Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BPE6YSP1WQJ8LPN.

MLA: Roosevelt, Theodore. "The Purchase of the Panama Canal." A New World Power, 1890-1914, in America, Vol.10, Pp.237-248, Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BPE6YSP1WQJ8LPN.

Harvard: Roosevelt, T, 'The Purchase of the Panama Canal' in A New World Power, 1890-1914. cited in , America, Vol.10, Pp.237-248. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BPE6YSP1WQJ8LPN.