The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 19

Author: Chauncey M. Depew  | Date: A.D. 1903

The Panama Canal

A.D. 1903


No one can look at a map of the Western world without thinking of the great and obvious advantage that would result to commerce if the isthmus could be cut by a ship-canal. From the time when Balboa (not Cortes, as the poet has it) stood on a peak in Darien and discovered the Pacific, the early navigators saw that some day such a canal must he constructed; but probably not one of them would have believed that four centuries would pass with the isthmus still uncut. The first definite proposition on this subject was made in 1600 by Samuel de Champlain, the famous explorer, for whom one of our American lakes is named. In the nineteenth century numerous expeditions were sent from the United States to Central America, and every possible route from the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific was carefully surveyed. The grand result showed that there were but two practicable routes for a canal-one to pass through Lake Nicaragua, and the other to pass from Colon to Panama. Each of these routes had its advocates. The Nicaragua route was the longer, but it would not have to be carried to so great a height, and Lake Nicaragua would furnish a proper supply of water to the locks. It was also urged that there was a very great advantage in the matter of healthfulness for the workmen in this longer route. While the discussion was at its height in recent years, James B. Eads, the eminent American engineer who constructed the Mississippi jetties, matured a plane for taking ships out of the water on one side of the isthmus, in immense cradles, carrying them on rail-tracks to the other side and relaunching them. Whatever merit this plan may have had, it was lost sight of when Mr. Eads died. Companies were chartered for both routes, and Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had constructed the Suez Canal, was employed by the Panama company, which fact gave that company great prestige in France and enabled it to raise millions of francs for the enterprise. However, those who subscribed did not realize that there was an essential difference between digging a canal through a level, sandy plain and constructing one through a rocky mountain ridge. Partly from the great difficulties of the task, and partly from mismanagement, nearly all the money thus expended was wasted.

When the United States came into possession of Hawaii and the Philippines, and it was evident that the commerce of the Pacific would soon rival that of the Atlantic, the desire for comparatively easy water-communication between the Eastern States and the Pacific slope became more urgent than ever, and after another struggle between the advocates of the two routes the Panama plan prevailed and was made a Government enterprise, the story of which is told in this chapter. The second part of the chapter is from a speech that Mr. Depew delivered in the United States Senate January 14, 1904.


IN 1903 the United States wrote a chapter in the world’s history. Again it drove a peg into the Monroe Doctrine and reaffirmed its primacy on the American continent. Hitherto the spread of American influence has been to the west. The year 1903 saw the beginning of the sweep to the south.

In September the Colombian Congress refused to ratify the Hay-Herran Treaty negotiated in Washington, by which the United States was to be permitted to construct a canal through the Isthmus of Panama to link the Atlantic with the Pacific, subject to the payment of ten million dollars for concessionary rights and an annual rental of two hundred fifty thousand dollars. The Bogota Government had been warned that failure to ratify the treaty would be followed by a revolution in the State of Panama, which expected to profit materially by the canal. The Washington Government was also not unaware of the impending revolution. On November 3d Panama declared its independence of Colombia, and its existence as a sovereign State under the name of the Republic of Panama. A force of Colombian troops, about five hundred in all, was at both ends of the isthmus, in the principal cities of Colon and Panama. A small American gunboat, the Nashville, was in the harbor of Colon.

The commander of the Nashville landed a detachment of marines for the ostensible purpose of protecting the property of the railway company and keeping transit open across the isthmus-a duty devolving upon the United States under the stipulations of the Treaty of 1846 with New Granada, the predecessor of Colombia. The commander of the Nashville made it known that in case the Colombian troops attacked the forces of the Provisional Government of Panama he should come to the assistance of Panama; he also announced his determination to maintain uninterrupted the railway communication across the isthmus; and, to prevent any interference with the proper running of trains, the railway could not be used for the conveyance of troops, nor would fighting be permitted along its route, or in the terminal cities of Panama and Colon. In other words, if Colombia wished to recover its lost territory, and found it necessary to use force, it might fight, but it must not fight at the only places where fighting would be of the least material advantage. These were bold words of the Nashville’s commander, as at that time he could not put more than forty men on shore, the Panama Government had neither troops nor arms, and the Colombian soldiery outnumbered him ten to one. For two days the situation was critical, then heavy American reenforcements arrived on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the isthmus. The revolution was over. The Colombian troops sullenly permitted themselves to be deported without having fired a shot. A provisional junta was constituted to manage the affairs of the new Republic until the election of a president and the adoption of a constitution; and three days after the Republic came into being the United States gave it an international status by formally recognizing it, and entering into diplomatic relations. Other Governments promptly followed suit, but Great Britain held off until December 22d, or until Panama had agreed to assume a part of the foreign debt of Colombia proportionate to her population.

The original cause of the revolution had been the failure of Colombia to ratify the canal treaty and the desire of the people of Panama to see the canal built. The new Republic without loss of time entered into negotiations with the United States for a treaty, which was signed by Secretary Hay, for the United States, and M. Phillipe Bunau Varilla, the Panama Minister Plenipotentiary in Washington, on November 18th. By the terms of the treaty the United States agrees to safeguard the independence of the new Republic. The Republic of Panama on its part agrees to a perpetual grant of a strip of land ten miles wide, extending from ocean to ocean, together with the usual territorial sea limits of three nautical miles at both ends of the grant. This, of course, includes any and all islands within these limits. over this territory the United States has practically unlimited control, including the right to erect fortifications, maintain garrisons and exercise all the rights of sovereignty. The money consideration for these privileges is ten million dollars to be paid the Republic of Panama on the exchange of ratifications, and an annual payment of two hundred fifty thousand dollars, beginning nine years after such ratification.

Colombia protested against the action of the United States. It accused the United States of having fomented and encouraged the revolution; of having made possible the secession of Panama by becoming in effect the ally of Panama and hampering the sovereign rights of Colombia; of virtually making war on Colombia, although friendly relations were supposed to exist between it and the United States; and declared that if it had not been for the assistance given by the United States to Panama, and the announced policy of the United States not to permit the landing of Colombian troops on Panama soil, Colombia would have been able to exercise her sovereignty, put down the rebellion and defeat secession. Colombia pledged herself to negotiate and secure the ratification of a canal treaty acceptable to the United States.

No more attention was paid to the protest of Colombia than to the bribe of a new canal treaty. So far as the independence of Panama was concerned, that was a /ait accompli and could not be changed. The United States denied that it had encouraged or assisted the revolution. It claimed not only rights under the Treaty of 1846, but that certain obligations were imposed upon it, one of the highest being the duty to preserve free and uninterrupted transit over the highway between the Atlantic and the Pacific. In performance of that duty it had used its military forces to prevent interference with the railway or dislocation of business in Panama and Colon. As for the offer of Colombia to enter into negotiations for a new canal treaty, that was impossible, because the territory affected was no longer Colombian, but had passed to Panama.

The Government of Colombia threatened to compel Panama to return to her former allegiance, and began to mobilize troops, after appealing in vain to some of the European Powers for assistance. The United States met these threats by concentrating a powerful naval force in both oceans and preparing plans for sending infantry and artillery to the isthmus in case of necessity. The year closed with active military preparations proceeding on the part of the United States and some doubt existing whether Colombia would be rash enough to force a trial of strength with its powerful northern opponent.

President Roosevelt’s action in so promptly recognizing the new Republic, and entering into full diplomatic relations with it before the adoption of a constitution or the election of a president, met with general approval, although it aroused some opposition, principally among his political opponents, who accused him of having connived at the revolution for the purpose of obtaining the canal, an end which did not justify the means. But public opinion as a whole supported the President. For more than half a century the American people had cherished the hope of an isthmian canal; the Spanish-American war had shown them that it was a military as well as a political and commercial necessity; and when Colombia was finally induced to negotiate a treaty, it seemed as if these hopes were at last to be realized and the dream of visionaries translated into substantial achievement. But there was another reason why the majority of the American people sanctioned the course of the President without caring to split hairs too finely. The building of the canal, the bringing of Panama under an American protectorate, the tacit acquiescence of all the world in American action, the refusal of any great Power to protest or to encourage Colombia to thwart American ambition were all gratifying to American amour propre. Furthermore, it was another recognition by the world of the Monroe Doctrine and the hegemony of the United States in North America.

The action of the United States in making it possible for Panama to gain and maintain her independence was a stern object-lesson to all South America. The people noticed that the United States was tired of the continual unseemly brawling which is the Latin-American idea of government. The Isthmus of Panama is one of the world’s great highways, and it was a highway made dangerous and difficult to travellers because of never-ending revolution. The material interests of the United States, the interests of all the world, made it necessary that peace and security should prevail where before only disorder and danger existed. In reality the United States, and not Panama, will now be the sovereign Power on the Isthmus. Many thoughtful Americans have long believed that the United States, for its own protection, must be the "overlord" of all Central America. The treaty with Panama is the first step, and a long step, toward that goal.

President Roosevelt in his annual message to Congress which met in regular session December 7, 1903, discussing the canal, used this language: "For four hundred years the canal across the isthmus has been planned. For two score years it has been worked at. When made, it is to last for the ages. . . . Last spring a treaty concluded between the representatives of the Republic of Colombia and of our Government was ratified by the Senate. This treaty was entered into at the urgent solicitation of the people of Colombia, and after a body of experts, appointed by our Government especially to go into the matter of the routes across the isthmus, had pronounced unanimously in favor of the Panama route. In drawing up this treaty every concession was made to the people and to the Government of Colombia. . . . In our scrupulous desire to pay all possible heed, not merely to the real but even to the fancied rights of our weaker neighbor, who already owed so much to our protection and forbearance, we yielded in all possible ways to her desires in drawing up the treaty. Nevertheless, the Government of Colombia not merely repudiated the treaty, but repudiated it in such a manner as to make it evident by the time the Colombian Congress adjourned that not the scantiest hope remained of ever getting a satisfactory treaty from them. The Government of Colombia made the treaty, and yet when the Colombian Congress was called to ratify it the vote against ratification was unanimous. It does not appear that the Government made any real effort to secure ratification."

The President gave a list of the revolutions in Panama since 1850-fifty-three in fifty-three years-and added: "In short, the experience of more than half a century has shown Colombia to be utterly incapable of keeping order on the isthmus. Only the active interference of the United States has enabled her to preserve so much as a semblance of sovereignty. . . . The control, in the interest of commerce and traffic of the whole civilized world, of the means of undisturbed transit across the Isthmus of Panama, has become of transcendent importance to the United States. We have repeatedly exercised this control by intervening in the course of domestic dissension, and by protecting the territory from foreign invasion. . . . Under such circumstances the Government of the United States would have been guilty of folly and weakness, amounting in their sum to a crime against the nation, had it acted otherwise than it did when the revolution of November 3d last took place in Panama. This great enterprise of building the interoceanic canal cannot be held up to gratify the whims, or out of respect to the governmental impotence or to the even more sinister and evil political peculiarities of people, who, though they dwell afar off, yet against the wish of the actual dwellers on the isthmus assert an unreal supremacy over the territory. The possession of a territory fraught with such peculiar capacities as the isthmus in question carries with it obligations to mankind. The course of events has shown that this canal cannot be built by private enterprise, or by any other nation than our own; therefore it must be built by the United States."

The treaty was at once submitted to the Senate, and after some delay was ratified in January, 1904.


The most interesting and vitally important question to the American people is the construction of the Isthmian Canal. There is absolute unanimity of opinion for the work to be begun, prosecuted, and completed at the earliest possible moment. Piercing the Isthmus of Darien is no new idea. It has appealed to statesmen for hundreds of years, and now, four centuries after Columbus sailed along the coast of the isthmus trying to find the opening which would let him into the Pacific, the completion of his dream is near at hand. Charles V was the ablest ruler of his century. The power of Spain under him and his successor included Cuba and Porto Rico, territories on the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, and the isthmus of Darien and the Philippine Islands. His knowledge of geography was limited because of the meagre discoveries of his period, but he did see that here was an opportunity for an eastern and western empire by connecting the two oceans, and he set about energetically to accomplish the task.

Before his plans had matured he was succeeded by his son, that phenomenal bigot and tyrant, Philip II. He declared that it was sacrilege to undo what God had created, and therefore wicked to cut through the mountains for a canal. For three hundred years the wall of superstition built by this monarch prevented the union of the oceans. The initiative was with the United States, whose people are opposed to the opinions of King Philip, and believe the duty of man is to exploit, develop, utilize, and improve the waste places of the world-the air, the water, and the earth. As early as the administration of John Quincy Adams, our statesmen saw the necessity for this work, and it was encouraged by almost every succeeding administration. It originated the American idea of Henry Clay and has always been a bulwark of the Monroe Doctrine.

In the past fifty years our Government has repeatedly asserted the necessity for the canal, and that it would look with extreme hostility upon its being built or owned or dominated by a foreign Power. The discovery of gold in California and the rush of our people to the Pacific coast in 1849 opened the eyes of all Americans to the necessity of the United States controlling this highway between our eastern and western States. We made treaties with Great Britain to encourage private enterprise to do this work, and to prevent any European Power from undertaking it. Our necessity was so great that we permitted without protest the French canal company of De Lesseps to proceed with their work. After the failure of that company and of private enterprises on the Nicaragua route, the duty of our Government became clear.

When we succeeded to the inheritance of Charles V, by the possession of California, by the acquisition of Porto Rico, by the establishment of a friendly republic in Cuba, and by the acquisition of Hawaii midway and the Philippines at the gates of the Orient, the responsibility upon us to construct this canal was as much greater than it was upon that monarch as has been the growth of commerce and civilization from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. For national defence, as well as national unity, there must be an unbroken line of coast from the northern-most limits of Maine to the northernmost limits of Alaska. For the employment of our capital and our labor in the ever-increasing surplus of our productions, we must reach, with the advantages which the canal would give us, the republics of South America and the countless millions in the countries across the Pacific.

The Republic of Colombia, recognizing this need, sent here a diplomatic representative carrying a proposition. With scarcely any modification on our part this tentative agreement presented by Colombia was embodied in the Hay-Herran Treaty. In that instrument was the most generous treatment of all interests to be acquired. We were to buy the plant and the properties of the French company for forty million dollars. We were to give to Colombia ten million dollars for a franchise which would be of incalculable benefit to that country. While we were permitted to exercise certain powers within a zone six miles wide for the protection of the canal, yet the sovereignty over that strip was recognized in every line of the treaty as remaining with Colombia. This concession was a weakness in the treaty for our interests.

The excuse for this concession was that our power was so great our interests could never be imperilled. There is no enlightened government in the world, whose financial condition is not strong enough to construct through its territories a public improvement of such vast moment to its people, which would not grant freely the right to build to any company or government that would spend their millions to confer upon its citizens commerce, trade, industries, and development. This Colombian treaty, agreed to by the President, approved by the Secretary of State, and ratified by the Senate of the United States, was carried back to Bogota by the Colombian Minister. Then began upon the stage of that capital a drama of unequalled interest, whether we look upon it as tragedy, comedy, or opera bouffe. Marroquin, the Vice-President, had three years before, by a revolution, imprisoned the President, suspended the constitution, established martial law, and begun ruling as dictator.

After many revolts against his authority, in a final revolution he defeated the Liberals in a great battle, and they fled from the field, leaving upon it seven thousand of their dead. Marroquin was now absolute master of the constitution, the laws, the lives, and the property of the people of Colombia. He evidently proposed this treaty to secure ten million dollars from the United States Government. He wanted money, and ten millions in gold, reckoned by the value of Colombian currency, would be about fifty millions in that Republic. But the speed and alacrity with which his offer was accepted opened his mind to visions of boundless wealth. He certainly developed, in his effort to compass these riches, Machiavellian statesmanship of a high order.

He declared the constitution operative, ordered an election, and summoned a congress. He had the army and absolute power; he controlled the machinery of elections, and brought to the capital his own representatives. He was in a position at any moment again to suspend the constitution, prorogue Congress, or send them to jail. But he said: "This is my treaty, which I sent up to Washington when I was the Government, which the United States has agreed to, and there must be some excuse which will appeal to the powers at Washington for more money. I must create an opposition to my Government." So he granted for the first time in three years a restricted liberty to the press, he liberated the editors and permitted the confiscated newspapers to resume. The cue given to them was to assail the treaty and the United States. This was to create the impression that there was a violent opposition, in a country where only five per cent. of the people can read, against the Hay-Herran settlement. Next he created in Congress an opposition to the Government.

The orators to whom this role was assigned, with all the tropical luxuriance of Latin eloquence, denounced this infamous agreement, this frightful surrender of the rights and interests of Colombia. Marroquin, as Vice-President, presiding over the Senate, listened with pleasure to these fusillades upon his own statesmanship prearranged by himself. Every citizen of Colombia who had any intelligence, and every member of either House of that Congress, knew that Marroquin had but to lift his finger and the vote for the treaty would be unanimous. This drama, accurately reported by our Minister Beaupre to the Secretary of State, closed with Vice-President Marroquin saying to us substantially: "You see the trouble I have in this uncontrollable opposition. Of course I want to carry out my treaty, but unless concessions are made, not to me, but to the pride and sentiments of my country, I am helpless. But if the United States will give ten million dollars more, I think I can satisfy this opposition; at least I will risk my popularity and power in the effort."

The answer of the United States was an unmistakable and emphatic No. That answer has the unanimous approval of the public sentiment of our country. The Vice-President then said to the French company, "If you will pay that ten million dollars extra out of your forty million dollars we will ratify the treaty." The French company rejected the proposition. Then both the Minister of Great Britain and the Minister of Germany were approached to see whether a "dicker" could be arranged and a sort of auction set up, with Great Britain, Germany, and the United States as the bidders. The folly of this proposition was in its violation of the Monroe Doctrine by a Republic which had been many times its beneficiary, a Republic which now has quarrels upon its hands with Great Britain and France because of outrages committed upon the citizens of those countries, which would lead to summary and drastic measures of reprisal except for the Monroe Doctrine.

No better illustration of the understanding by the European governments of the sanctity of this article of American international law has been shown of late than the action of the representatives of these Powers. No stronger proofs have been given of the interest of every great commercial nation in the construction of this canal in the interest of commerce and civilization and its construction and control by the United States. These patriotic efforts of the Vice-President and dictator to secure more money by many methods of hold-up were discouraging, but he did not despair. He had received an emphatic negative from the United States, had been refused by the French Panama Canal Company and turned down by Great Britain and Germany. But he had been trained in many revolutions where money had to be raised by other processes than the orderly ones of assessments and taxation upon all the people and properties of the country upon an equal basis. His resourceful genius was equal to the occasion.

He had called together his Congress, to carry out his programme of exploiting this asset of Colombia for many times more than the price at which he had agreed to sell it. Then occurred to him an idea of high finance which ought to make the most imaginative and audacious of our promoters blush at their incapacity. The Panama Canal Company had received from him while dictator, upon the payment of a million dollars and five million francs at par of stock in the new company, a concession which ran until 1910. The old concession expired in October, 1904, and for this the French company had paid Colombia twelve million francs. With every concession, where vast amounts of money have been expended in good faith and large sums paid for the franchise, there are always equities to the defaulting party, but the new-scheme dismissed the equities, the extension of the charter, and the million dollars paid, which had been spent.

The Congress, to the tearful regret and over the wishes of the dictator and Vice-President, rejected the treaty by an almost unanimous vote and then adjourned. But Congressmen talk after adjournment. It is their habit in all countries, and the Senators and Representatives who participated in this picturesque drama of national aggrandizement said that the object of the adjournment was to wait until the old concession of the Panama Canal Company had expired in October, then to recall Congress in extraordinary session in November, declare the concession cancelled, and seize upon the property of the French canal company. Then, they said, we will offer to the United States the properties of the French canal company for the forty million dollars which are to be paid that corporation and the ten millions which are coming to us. "Of course," they argued, "the United States will be quite willing to enter upon an agreement of this kind, because the sum which they pay will be the same in amount as they have agreed upon under the terms of the Hay-Herran Treaty and the contract with the French canal company."

There are two considerations in this choice bit of financiering which seemed never to have occurred to the statesman who guides the destinies of Colombia and the orators whom he placed in various roles to play their instructed parts. The first was an utter indifference to or ignorance of the fact that the United States has a national conscience. We are a commercial nation. Our people are trained to all the refinements of business obligations and all the reciprocal relations of contracts. Much as we want the canal, we never could have taken it by becoming a partner in this highway robbery of the property of the citizens of France. The Panama Canal scheme has been unpopular in France for many years, and French statesmen and politicians have been afraid to have any connection with it.

This is because of the millions of dollars lost by the French people in the investment and the scandals caused by the corrupt use, by the officers of the company, of much of the money subscribed. But here would be a case which no government could neglect. The French canal company, representing its several hundred thousands of French citizens, could say to the French Government, "Here are equities of great value, and here is a property for which we have paid our money that has been arbitrarily confiscated." Then we should have had upon our hands difficulties compared with which the present ones are infinitesimal. We could not deny the justice of the demand of the French Government to land its army upon the isthmus and enforce its claims. Here again the shrewd and able leader of Colombia-for he is both shrewd and able-counted first upon the cupidity of the United States to become a party to this robbery of the French, and then to the assertion of the Monroe Doctrine to prevent France from maintaining the rights of her citizens.

Colombia, after failing to confiscate the French property in the canal, now appeals as a stockholder in the French canal company, to prohibit the transfer of the canal property to the United States without the consent of Colombia. France has recognized the Republic of Panama. In so doing she is committed to the transfer to the new sovereignty of all public property within its jurisdiction. The Colombian Government has no better claim to the Panama Canal, or jurisdiction over it, than Great Britain has over Bunker Hill. The same rule and construction will apply in case Colombia should, as has been suggested here, begin an action in New York against the Panama Railroad Company, a New York corporation, to compel a continuance of the subsidy of two hundred fifty thousand dollars a year to Colombia, instead of to Panama.

Up to this time, it will be said, no matter what was the conduct, no matter what the double dealing, no matter what the breaches of faith, no matter what the character of the hold-up by the responsible Government of Colombia, that Government could act as it pleased upon granting rights, franchises, and properties within its own jurisdiction. This leads us at once to the new phase of the problem presented by the organization of the Republic of Panama. Panama was one of the first settlements made in the Western Hemisphere. After the city of Panama had been raided, robbed, and burned by Morgan and his pirates it was moved about seven miles, to the present site. It was the depot for hundreds of years for the commerce going between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The province was one of the last to throw off the yoke of Spain.

When General Bolivar succeeded in the revolution which he organized, he formed a loose-jointed republic out of the States of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. There was little in common, territorially, commercially, or industrially between these States. After a few years Venezuela seceded and formed a separate government. Three years afterward Ecuador did the same. Panama remained to all intents and purposes an independent Republic. In the new arrangement Panama joined Colombia under a constitution which distinctly recognized the right of secession for any cause, and bound the several parts only to federal contributions according to their judgment. It was almost a counterpart of the Articles of Federation in our own country which were succeeded by the Federal Constitution. This relation continued practically from 1861 to 1886.

Then a dictator arose, named Nunez, and got control of the army and navy and all the resources of the country. He suspended the constitution, the Congress, and the laws, and governed the country according to his own despotic will for a number of years. He subjugated the several States, overturned their sovereignty and forced them to become mere departments of the centralized power at Bogota. He adopted a system, under a so-called constitution, by which they were ruled as Spain governed Cuba-by governors, who were really captains-general, with absolute power.

His enemies in the several States, and the patriots who resisted this suppression of liberty, were punished by imprisonment, exile, or execution. From the time of this arbitrary destruction of the rights and liberties of the independent State of Panama that Republic has been in a continued condition of unrest and revolt. The duties collected at its ports of Panama and Colon were transmitted to Bogota. The taxes levied all went to Bogota. Of the subsidy of two hundred fifty thousand dollars a year paid by the Panama Railroad Company, two hundred twenty-five thousand dollars went to Bogota and twenty-five thousand dollars to the Governor of Panama, appointed by the President of Colombia, to distribute in his judgment in the Department of Panama. Though Panama had only one-fifteenth of the population of the Republic, she contributed a large part of its revenues, but under this arbitrary constitution to which Panama never assented and which she never accepted, a constitution imposed by force and maintained by an army and an alien governor, she received during all these years practically no moneys for highways, for development, for education, or for any of the needs of a live and growing State.

It is an interesting and picturesque view of the situation that the obligation of the United States to keep free transit across the isthmus has worked both ways with Colombia. There have been many revolts in Panama in the effort on the part of tyrannized, plundered, and patriotic citizens to regain their liberties and rights. Every one of them has been sternly and ruthlessly Suppressed by the central Government at Bogota. The success of the Bogotan Government was due in nearly every instance to the fact that the United States would not permit interruption of transit across the isthmus. When the revolutionists would have seized the railroad which connected the oceans, the United States was the ally of the Bogotan Government to keep that open.

The result was that it was easy for the Government forces every time to put down a rebellion because the recruits of the State could not be gathered into a successful army. But lo! the working of this provision the other way. Citizens of Panama in November of this year, without a dissenting voice, reasserted the sovereignty of the State which they never had surrendered, and proclaimed a republic. The Colombian army joined the revolution. With the military forces of the Bogotan Government enlisting under the flag of the new Republic, the authority of Panama was complete throughout all its borders. When, therefore, some time after the Republic had been established and was in working order, and had at Panama its army, a Colombian army landed at Colon for the purpose of invasion and battle, the United States took toward it the same position that it had taken toward the revolutionists in the many efforts made by them for the freedom of Panama.

Our Government simply said to these soldiers: "You cannot take possession of this railroad and interrupt traffic across the isthmus. You cannot engage in a battle or a series of battles which would stop communication for an indefinite period." At this point occurs an episode of which I find no parallel in ancient or modern history. The General of the invading army said to the authorities of the new Republic, "We are here to suppress you, arrest you, carry you prisoners to Bogota and overthrow the Republic, but what will you give us to quit?" The sum of eight thousand dollars was paid to the General-five thousand for the officers and three thousand for the men and the invading army sailed away with the proud consciousness of having become possessors of a part of the assets of the new Republic.

The story of the rule of Panama by these arbitrary satraps sent down from Bogota reads like the history of the rule of a Roman proconsul or the story of the methods of a Turkish governor. Arbitrary arrests and imprisonments without trial were common. Arbitrary assessments of shopkeepers and people of property were of everyday occurrence. These victims have been afraid heretofore to speak, but now the newspapers are filled with their stories. The price of life and liberty, after forcible seizure of person and property, was dependent upon the amount that the citizen disgorged. Under this tyrannical rule he was helpless before the courts or upon appeal to the central Government. Panama had as much right to revolt as had Greece from Turkey in the early part of the nineteenth century or Bulgaria in the latter part, and even more, for she never had consented to surrender her sovereignty to Colombia.

The people of Colombia outside of Panama number about four millions, of whom two millions are of Spanish descent and two millions a mixture of Caucasian, Indian, and negro. There-are few or no railroads or other highways in the country, there is no system of general education, and dense ignorance prevails. A very small proportion of the people-a few thousand-are educated in the United States or in Europe, and form the governing dass. Colombia is separated from Panama by hundreds of miles of mountains and impenetrable forests and swamps, inhabited by hostile Indians. Panama, on the other hand, has every facility, under good government, for a prosperous State. It is about as large as Maine. It has the same agricultural possibilities as the other Central American republics. It is rich in minerals and timber. Great cities, thriving populations, and varied industries have always grown along the lines of commercial highways.

While the Panama Canal is being constructed and a hundred fifty million dollars spent within the Republic, there will be a wonderful industrial development. When the canal is opened and the commerce of the world is passing to and fro, the population of Panama will speedily rise above the million point. Merchandise of every kind for the supply of the ships sailing through it will bring capital and business talent to the cities on either side and through the interior. Sanitation, which has done so much for Cuba, will make the isthmus as healthful as any part of the United States. With American ideas and American sovereignty over the large strip between the two seas, and American influence and example, schoolhouses will dot the land and the people will become educated to an appreciation of their liberties and the proper exercise of them and of their marvellously favorable commercial, fiscal, and industrial position.

But, it is said, the position of the United States in recognizing the Republic of Panama is a reversal of our national position on the subject of secession. I cannot conceive of the argument by which comparison is made between the States of the American Commonwealth and Panama and Colombia. One hundred and seventeen years ago our forefathers saw that a nation could not be held together by such a rope of sand as the Articles of Federation. They met in convention, not under the rule of a dictator, not under the guidance of an autocrat, but as the accredited representatives of the people of the various States. When their labors were completed the country read, and the world was astonished by, the marvellous instrument they had prepared.

The opening sentence of this great charter tells the story of the perpetuity of our national life: "We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." For eighty years the national sovereignty was questioned only in debate. Today in every part of the country public sentiment is unanimous in its approval of the verdict which came from the arbitrament of arms. Our Union is sustained by a continued series of decisions of our highest court, by the judgment of our Presidents and Congresses, and by the results of war, and, unimpaired by the passions of the conflict, will continue forever. It is sacrilege to compare this majestic and impregnable fabric of government with the position of Panama in the Republic of Colombia.

In 1886 Mr. V. O. King, United States Minister to Colombia, in a despatch to Mr. Bayard, Secretary of State, tells precisely how the Colombian Constitution was formed. He says: "At the close of the late revolution President Nunez, whose term of office had then nearly expired and whose reelection was forbidden by the constitution then in force, issued a proclamation annulling that instrument and declaring an interregnum in the Government. He appointed provisional governors in all the nine States, and directed them to nominate two delegates each, who, together, should constitute a national council to convene at the capital." And this is the convention which is compared with that which formed our Constitution! "On assembling in November, 1885, the first acts of this body were to ratify the conduct of Doctor Nunez and to confirm his appointments. It then elected him as chief magistrate of-the nation for the term of six years, and proceeded to formulate a pro jet of fundamental principles for a new constitution to be submitted to the corporate vote of the municipal boards of aldermen throughout the country. Upon canvassing the returns the council"-this council of his own-"declared a majority of such votes to be in favor of the new constitution, and thereupon proceeded to elaborate the instrument that is here-with submitted, which, from the number, fulness, and precision of the precepts enunciated, has left but little of the machinery to be devised by the executive or legislative power."

It will thus be seen that President Nunez, who was both a usurper and a dictator, arbitrarily annulled the constitution under which Panama consented to become a part of the Republic of Colombia, retaining, however, her entire sovereignty and right of secession. The tremendous difference between the formation of our Constitution and that of Colombia in 1886 is in the fact that this so-called convention, which framed the constitution destructive of the State, was composed of the instruments of the dictator, appointed by himself, and that neither in the election of delegates to the convention nor in the ratifying of the treaty did the people of Panama or their representatives have any voice whatever!

Panama, an independent State, robbed by armies of her liberties, tyrannically and arbitrarily governed without her consent, suffering under intolerable tyranny and threatened with the confiscation of a public improvement upon which depended her existence, simply retakes, and demonstrates her ability to hold, the sovereignty of which she had been despoiled. But, say the critics of the President, the officers of the United States inaugurated this rebellion and ships were despatched to aid the revolt before it ever was intended. No one doubts that it was the duty of the President to keep the highway open across the isthmus. No one doubts that if the rights of American citizens were in peril because of revolution or anarchy the United States must have a force on the spot sufficient for their protection.

The forces of the United States arrived at the isthmus on November 3d. The revolution broke out on November 4th. The building of the canal was vital to Panama. Except for the money to be distributed at Bogota for the concession, its construction was of little account to the Republic over the mountains. The delegates from Panama to the Congress were apparently the only independent members of that body. When they arrived on July 5th they immediately notified Vice-President Marroquin that if the treaty was rejected Panama would revolt. This notification was so public that the Minister of the United States was enabled to write it to our Government.

On August l7th the treaty was rejected, and the representatives from Panama expressed their purpose SO emphatically that our Minister was able to inform the Secretary of State that they had determined to break loose from the Bogotan Government and form an independent republic.

It is perfectly plain that these delegates, on returning in August to Panama, were joined by all the leading citizens, and that they had plenty of time between the middle of August and November 4th to perfect their plans for a successful revolution. So the President knew perfectly well by advice from our Minister at Bogota, from our naval officers at Panama and Colon, and from newspaper reports which were the common property of everyone, that such an uprising would occur as to require of the United States the presence of a force sufficient to protect our citizens and to carry out our treaty obligations.

The farcical character of the action of the Colombian Congress and its complete control by Marroquin, together with the fact that Colombia could not subdue the revolution in Panama without the aid of the United States, are demonstrated by the following despatch, sent November 6th, two days after the revolution in Panama, by our Minister Beaupre: "Knowing that the revolution has already begun in Panama,--------- says that if the Government of the United States will land troops to preserve Colombian sovereignty and the transit, if requested by the Colombian charge d’affaires, this Government will declare martial law, and by virtue of vested constitutional authority, when public order is disturbed, will approve by decree the ratification of the canal treaty as signed; or, if the Government of the United States prefers, will call extra session of Congress and new and friendly members next May to approve the treaty." Because it was a telegram the name was indicated by a blank. The blank undoubtedly meant Marroquin, for no one else could have made such pledges. He says, in effect, to the United States: "A revolution has broken out in Panama, my army has gone over to the Republic and I am helpless. If you will put down that revolution I will abandon the claim of ten million dollars more than was agreed to in the treaty which our Congress made. I will dismiss all pretence that this Congress had any power or was other than myself.I will do everything you want. I will suspend the constitution.Then I can do anything and will ratify this treaty-the Hay-Herran Treaty or do any other old thing you may desire; or, if you have constitutional lawyers in the Senate who doubt my ability or power to act under a suspension of the constitution, I will put the constitution again in force and summon the members of Congress here. Each of them will do what I tell him, and Congress will ratify the treaty in any form you suggest."

Our diplomatic history bristles with recognitions of de-facto governments formed by revolutions. Where the sympathies of our people were with the revolt, Presidents have paid little attention to the possibilities of success or the offensive or defensive means of the revolting provinces or States. The principle of international law that recognition is wholly in the discretion of the Power that makes it and is not a cause for war, is too elementary to discuss.

Our obligation for forty-eight years to Colombia, to Panama, to our citizens and the world has been to keep communication and transit open and unmolested between the oceans. It is a territorial burden and runs with the land. It binds the United States to keep off the premises all hostile trespassers, whether they are the armies of the great Powers of Europe, of Colombia, or of the contiguous people of Panama.

We have had no other hand nor part in this revolution than the example of the American colonies and the successful application of the principles of liberty in the United States, which have created republics and undermined thrones all over the world. The advantages of the treaty with Panama over that with Colombia to the United States are incalculable. Instead of six miles for the canal zone, there are ten on each side of the waterway. Instead of a limited sovereignty, which would necessarily lead to endless complications, this territory is ceded outright and in perpetuity to the United States. At the termini of the canal it is vital that there should be unquestioned jurisdiction of the United States. In this territory the Government has complete authority for three marine leagues from Panama into the Pacific Ocean and three leagues from Colon into the Caribbean Sea. The Republic of Panama surrenders the right to impose port dues or duties of any kind upon ships and goods in transit across the isthmus. The sole power to impose tolls and collect them rests with the United States.


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Panama Canal

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Chicago: Chauncey M. Depew and A. Maurice Low, "The Panama Canal," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 19 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2022,

MLA: Depew, Chauncey M., and A. Maurice Low. "The Panama Canal." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 19, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Depew, CM, Low, AM, 'The Panama Canal' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 19. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2022, from