Acquiring the Panama Canal Primary Source eText

Primary Source

In this cartoon a giant President Theodore Roosevelt shovels dirt onto the Colombian captial as he digs the Panama Canal. Roosevelt encouraged Panama to revolt from Colombia and recognized it as an independent country to overcome Colombian objections to a In this cartoon a giant President Theodore Roosevelt shovels dirt onto the Colombian captial as he digs the Panama Canal. Roosevelt encouraged Panama to revolt from Colombia and recognized it as an independent country to overcome Colombian objections to an American canal there. COURTESY OF BOONDOCKSNET.COM. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage COURTESY OF BOONDOCKSNET.COM. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.
A bird's eye view of a portion of the Panama Canal under construction. Massive locks had to be built to enable the raising and lowering of ships through Panama's mountains. THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS. A bird's eye view of a portion of the Panama Canal under construction. Massive locks had to be built to enable the raising and lowering of ships through Panama's mountains. THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS. Published by Gale Cengage THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

A Statement of Action in Executing
the Act Entitled "An Act to Provide
for the Construction of a Canal
Connecting the Waters of the
Atlantic and Pacific Oceans,"
Approved June 28, 1903


By: Theodore Roosevelt

Date: January 4, 1904

Source: Roosevelt, Theodore. A Statement of Action in Executing the Act Entitled "An Act to Provide for the Construction of a Canal Connecting the Waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans," Approved June 28, 1903. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1904, 4–9.

About the Author: Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) succeeded to the U.S. presidency (served 1901–1909) following the assassination of President William McKinley (served 1897–1901) in 1901. He was far ahead of most of the country's leaders in recognizing that the United States must play an active, engaged role in international affairs. Roosevelt sincerely believed this role to be not only in the interests of the United States, but also the nation's responsibility.

"An Open Letter to John Hay"


By: Daniel Henry Chamberlain

Date: October 2, 1904

Source: Chamberlain, Daniel Henry. "An Open Letter to John Hay." The New York Times. October 2, 1904.

About the Author: Daniel Henry Chamberlain (1835–1907) was president of the Anti-Imperialist League from 1904 until 1907. After serving as captain of the Fifth Massachusetts Colored Regiment in the Civil War (1861–1865), he became governor of South Carolina during reconstruction. Following the withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1877, Chamberlain moved to New York City, where he practiced law.


American interest in a water passage through Central America dates back to the 1840s. The United States had become a transcontinental nation with the acquisition of California and the Oregon Territory, and a connection between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans was now a matter of national importance. As early as 1850, American businessman, Cornelius Vanderbilt, operated a coach and steamship route through Nicaragua. Soon a railroad was constructed across the Isthmus of Panama. Meanwhile, the United States and Great Britain signed the Clayton-Bulwar Treaty, in which both countries agreed never to obtain control of a Central American canal connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific, but instead to encourage private efforts and to ensure the neutrality of any such crossing.

Despite the obvious value of a canal through Panama or Nicaragua, such a waterway remained only a dream for most of the nineteenth century. It was not until 1881 that the French Panama Canal Company obtained a charter from Colombia, whose boundaries included the Isthmus of Panama, and began building a canal. Directed by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, French efforts created a furor in the United States. Nevertheless, the U.S. government did nothing to intervene, even though the United States had obvious strategic interests in the region and had declared the French to be in violation of the Monroe Doctrine. Congress did, however, charter an American company to build a canal across the longer but easier route through Nicaragua. The requisite treaty was then negotiated with Nicaragua, but nothing came of the effort. Meanwhile, the French Panama Canal Company was in the process of going bankrupt. Defeated by the terrain and disease, the French gave up the project in the early 1890s.


American interests in a Central American canal were revived with the Spanish-American War (1898). Compelled to fight a two-ocean war, the Unites States recognized the need for more rapid movement of naval vessels between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Following the war, construction of a canal became an important object of American foreign policy. To accomplish this goal, three major obstacles needed to be addressed. First, the Clayton-Bulwar Treaty, which prohibited Britain or the United States from controlling a canal, had to be abrogated. Second, a route—through the Isthmus of Panama or Nicaragua—needed to be selected. Third, authorization from the host country was required and, in the case of Panama, the French Panama Canal Company's access rights had to be acquired.

The first obstacle was removed by the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, which the United States and Britain signed in 1901. Britain was then engaged in the Boer War (1899–1902) and had become increasingly concerned about growing German military power. The British government was, therefore, willing to concede American pre-eminence in the Caribbean basin in exchange for strengthening its relationship with the United States. Selection of the route was the subject of considerable debate. Eventually, however, the French Panama Canal Company dropped the price for its transit rights to $40 million. Following an earthquake and volcanic eruption in the area of the Nicaraguan route, the U.S. Congress passed the Isthmian Canal Act on June 28, 1902. The act authorized the president to acquire the transit rights, as well as the necessary canal zone to protect the canal, from Colombia.

Negotiations between Secretary of State John Hay and Colombian Chargés d'Affairs Dr. Tomas Herran resulted in a preliminary agreement in January 1903. The Colombian senate rejected the treaty, however, arguing that the $10-million price tag was too low and the proposed American authority in the canal zone was too extensive.

A furious President Roosevelt refused to negotiate further with the Colombians. In fact, he made known in "private" conversations that he would find it understandable if the people of the Panama province revolted against Colombia. Whether the United States had any direct involvement in subsequent events remains unclear; nonetheless, on November 3, 1903, a revolt is exactly what took place. Coincidentally, a U.S. warship, the

U.S.S. Nashville, happened to be in the region at the time. Under the provisions of a treaty between the United States and Colombia, the United States was authorized to ensure that crossing Panama by rail was protected from hostile forces. Using this dubious piece of logic, the President ordered the Nashville to prevent Colombia from reenforcing its small garrison in Panama.

Under the circumstances, the Panamanian revolt quickly succeeded. On November 6, 1903, the United States recognized the independent nation of Panama. On November 18, the United States and Panama signed an agreement, identical to the one rejected by Colombia. It gave the United States the right to build a canal and to occupy a protective canal zone "in perpetuity." A few months later, the official transfer of the French property took place.

The majority of Americans, and certainly Congress, accepted acquisition of the territory because the United States now had the required strip of land to build the long-awaited canal. Nevertheless, opponents at home and abroad attacked Roosevelt's actions. Historians have questioned not only his unwillingness to continue negotiations with Colombia, but also his failure to more seriously consider the alternate route through Nicaragua. Roosevelt brushed aside any opposition. He was confident he had acted in the best interests of the country and knew that the value of a canal to all nations was well recognized.

Primary Source: A Statement of Action in Executing the Act Entitled "An Act to Provide for the Construction of a Canal Connecting the Waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans," Approved June 28, 1903 [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: On January 4, 1904, Theodore Roosevelt forwarded a message to the U.S. Congress, explaining American recognition of an independent Panama. The president's message summarized the events leading up to the rebellion and American actions in response to those of Colombia and Panama. It also included a number of relevant letters and notes from participants. The message is a forceful assertion that American actions were entirely above board. Several years later Roosevelt was more candid in describing his role in taking the canal zone. Short excerpts from this message follow.

The United States has taken the position that no other Government is to build the canal. In 1889, when France proposed to come to the aid of the

French Panama Company by guaranteeing their bonds, the Senate of the United States in executive session, with only some three votes dissenting, passed a resolution as follows:

That the Government of the United States will look with serious concern and disapproval upon any connection of any European government with the construction or control of any ship canal across the Isthmus of Darien or across Central America, and must regard any such connection or control as injurious to the just rights and interests of the United States and as a menace to their welfare.

Under the Hay-Pauncefote treaty it was explicitly provided that the United States should control, police, and protect the canal which was to be built, keeping it open for the vessels of all nations on equal terms. The United States thus assumed the position of guarantor of the canal and of its peaceful use by all the world. The guarantee included as a matter of course the building of the canal. The enterprise was recognized as responding to an international need; and it would be the veriest travesty on right and justice to treat the governments in possession of the Isthmus as having the right, in the language of Mr. Cass, "to close the gates of intercourse on the great highways of the world, and justify the act by the pretension that these avenues of trade and travel belong to them and that they choose to shut them." .…

When in August it began to appear probable that the Colombian Legislature would not ratify the treaty it became incumbent upon me to consider well what the situation was and to be ready to advise the Congress as to what were the various alternatives of action open to us. There were several possibilities. One was that Colombia would at the last moment see the unwisdom of her position. That there might be nothing omitted, Secretary Hay, through the minister at Bogota, repeatedly warned Colombia that grave consequences might follow from her rejection of the treaty. Although it was a constantly diminishing chance, yet the possibility of ratification did not wholly pass away until the close of the session of the Colombian Congress.

A second alternative was that by the close of the session on the last day of October, without the ratification of the treaty by Colombia and without any steps taken by Panama, the American Congress on assembling early in November would be confronted with a situation in which there had been a failure to come to terms as to building the canal along the Panama route, and yet there had not been a lapse of a reasonable time—using the word reasonable in any proper sense—such as would justify the Administration going to the Nicaragua route. This situation seemed on the whole the most likely, and as a matter of fact I had made the original draft of my Message to the Congress with a view to its existence.

It was the opinion of eminent international jurists that in view of the fact that the great design of our guarantee under the treaty of 1846 was to dedicate the Isthmus to the purposes of interoceanic transit, and above all to secure the construction of an interoceanic canal, Colombia could not under existing conditions refuse to enter into a proper arrangement with the United States to that end, without violating the spirit and substantially repudiating the obligations of a treaty the full benefits of which she had enjoyed for over fifty years. My intention was to consult the Congress as to whether under such circumstances it would not be proper to announce that the canal was to be dug forthwith; that we would give the terms that we had offered and no others; and that if such terms were not agreed to we would enter into an arrangement with Panama direct, or take what other steps were needful in order to begin the enterprise.

A third possibility was that the people of the Isthmus, who had formerly constituted an independent state, and who until recently were united to Colombia only by a loose tie of federal relationship, might take the protection of their own vital interests into their own hands, reassert their former rights, declare their independence upon just grounds, and establish a government competent and willing to do its share in this great work for civilization. This third possibility is what actually occurred. Everyone knew that it was a possibility, but it was not until towards the end of October that it appeared to be an imminent probability. Although the Administration, of course, had special means of knowledge, no such means were necessary in order to appreciate the possibility, and toward the end the likelihood, of such a revolutionary outbreak and of its success. It was a matter of common notoriety. Quotations from the daily papers could be indefinitely multiplied to show this state of affairs; a very few will suffice.…

I hesitate to refer to the injurious insinuations which have been made of complicity by this Government in the revolutionary movement in Panama. They are as destitute of foundation as of propriety. The only excuse for my mentioning them is the fear lest unthinking persons might mistake for acquiescence the silence of mere self-respect. I think proper to say, therefore, that no one connected with this Government had any part in preparing, inciting, or encouraging the late revolution on the Isthmus of Panama, and that save from the reports of our military and naval officers, given above, no one connected with this Government had any previous knowledge of the revolution except such as was accessible to any person of ordinary intelligence who read the newspapers and kept up a current acquaintance with public affairs.

By the unanimous action of its people, without the firing of a shot—with a unanimity hardly before recorded in any similar case—the people of Panama declared themselves an independent Republic. Their recognition by this Government was based upon a state of facts in no way dependent for its justification upon our action in ordinary cases. I have not denied, nor do I wish to deny, either the validity or the propriety of the general rule that a new state should not be recognized as independent till it has shown its ability to maintain its independence. This rule is derived from the principle of nonintervention, and as a corollary of that principle has generally been observed by the United States. But, like the principle from which it is deduced, the rule is subject to exceptions; and there are in my opinion clear and imperative reasons why a departure from it was justified and even required in the present instance. These reasons embrace, first, our treaty rights; second, our national interests and safety; and, third, the interests of collective civilization.…

In view of the manifold considerations of treaty right and obligation, of national interest and safety, and of collective civilization, by which our Government was constrained to act, I am at a loss to comprehend the attitude of those who can discern in the recognition of the Republic of Panama only a general approval of the principle of "revolution" by which a given government is overturned or one portion of a country separated from another. Only the amplest justification can warrant a revolutionary movement of either kind. But there is no fixed rule which can be applied to all such movements. Each case must be judged on its own merits. There have been many revolutionary movements, many movements for the dismemberment of countries, which were evil, tried by any standard. But in my opinion no disinterested and fair-minded observer acquainted with the circumstances can fail to feel that Panama had the amplest justification for separation from Colombia under the conditions existing, and, moreover, that its action was in the highest degree beneficial to the interests of the entire civilized world by securing the immediate opportunity for the building of the interoceanic canal… I firmly believe of the adjacent parts of Central and South America, will be greatly benefited by the building of the canal and the guarantee of peace and order along its line; and hand in hand with the benefit to them will go the benefit to us and to mankind. By our prompt and decisive action, not only have our interests and those of the world at large been conserved, but we have forestalled complications which were likely to be fruitful in loss to ourselves, and in bloodshed and suffering to the people of the Isthmus.

Primary Source: "An Open Letter to John Hay" [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: In the following excerpt from an open letter to Secretary of State John Hay, published in The New York Times, Daniel Henry Chamberlain criticizes the Panama policy of the Roosevelt administration. Chamberlain is particularly critical of Hay, in part, because of the higher standard expected of Hay due to his association with President Abraham Lincoln. As a young Illinois lawyer, Hay had come to Lincoln's attention and served as the president's private secretary. Hay held a variety of diplomatic positions before being appointed secretary of state by President McKinley. He continued in this post under President Roosevelt, until 1905.

The Honorable John Hay,
Secretary of State, Washington, D.C.
Dear Sir:

… The foregoing facts are all beyond dispute, and are not disputed, so far as I know. In fine, they establish that the Republic of Colombia, in the last year of grace, had been for full fifty years a recognized, well-established, respectable, and fairly prosperous republic—respectable in size, in population, in history, and in character. It was, of course, in the eye of international law, on a footing with any government in the world in respect of public political rights and privileges.

It seems hardly necessary to allude to the peculiar claims which this sister republic had upon our own. Our greatness should have been her shield against all oppression. Colombia's comparative feebleness should have made it impossible for us to treat her with less than chivalrous and generous kindness. The fact of her helplessness against our power should have been her safety from all injury or questionable action on our part toward her.

It seems necessary, in view of your treatment of the Panama affair, as well as the President's treatment of it—if I am at liberty to make any distinction between the two—to recur at the outset to one or two of the most elementary principles or rules of morals and of international law. They are: (1) That international law is founded upon morality; upon the agreed or common notions of the civilized nations of the world regarding the duties reciprocally due by each and all the nations to each and all the other nations. Nothing is more perfectly conceded, as nothing can be more fundamental than this concept. (2) That all nations, great and small, feeble and powerful, in the forum of international law have perfect equality of rights. This is finely stated by the great elder Woolsey, thus:

All nations stand on an equality, meaning equality of rights—the old and the new, the large and the small, monarchies and republics.

Such, as now set forth, was the situation of the Republic of Colombia, and such was her standing toward all who were in the comity of the nations,—all the nations owing allegiance to international law,—in October, 1903, when the drama now called the Panama affair began publicly to open. The President in his apology, called message, to Congress of January 4, 1904, distinctly and with repetition states that revolution in the Province of Panama was apprehended by our Government as early as August 31, 1903—that such was the information gathered and published by the newspapers, and officially reported by our naval officers in those waters. In view of this the President states that orders were given between October 19 and 30, 1903, for three ships of our navy to proceed to the immediate vicinity, or within quick reach, of Panama—the Nashville being ordered to Colon, a port of Colombia on the north side of the Isthmus. He continues that, hearing that both sides—that is, Colombia and Panama—were making ready forces, orders were sent November 2, 1903, to the commanders of the three designated ships to prevent the landing of any armed forces, either government or insurgent, at any point within fifty miles of Panama, meaning the town of Panama on the Gulf of Panama, and a part of the Province of Panama, and of the Republic of Colombia. This order the President professes to rest upon certain orders issued one and two years previously, which in turn were based upon the claim of the guarantee of neutrality of the Isthmus of Panama, and "of transit from sea to sea," as Secretary Moody's order of September, 1902, phrased it. All this is claimed to have been our right and duty under the treaty of 1846.

This large claim must be carefully examined.

The treaty in question is entitled, "Treaty of Peace, Amity, Navigation, and Commerce." It was concluded December 12, 1846, and was proclaimed June 12, 1848. It consists of thirty-six articles, with an additional article, and the contracting parties are the United States of North America and the Republic of New Granada, the latter being the predecessor of the present Republic of Colombia. As its title imports, all its articles deal exclusively with matters of commerce and navigation, or matters strictly relating thereto. The last article but one, the thirty-fifth, declares the desire of the contracting parties "to make as durable as possible the relations established by virtue of this treaty," and to that end adds six additional "points," which together make up Article 35. In the first of these points "the Government of New Granada guarantees to the Government of the United States that the right of way or transit across the Isthmus of Panama upon any modes of communication that now exist or that may be hereafter constructed, shall be open and free to the Government and citizens of the United States;" and reciprocally it is declared that "in order to secure to themselves the tranquil and constant enjoyment of these advantages the United States guarantee positively and efficaciously to New Granada, by the present stipulation, the perfect neutrality of the before-mentioned Isthmus;" "and in consequence, the United States also guarantee, in the same manner, the rights of sovereignty and property which New Granada has and possesses over the said territory."

Here are mutual guarantees, or a guarantee and counter guarantees; or, first, a guarantee, on the part of New Granada, of open and free transit across the Isthmus to the United States Government and citizens; and, second, a guarantee on the part of the United States of the perfect neutrality of the Isthmus, the United States further, in consequence of the privilege or right of free transit as aforesaid, guaranteeing "the rights of sovereignty and property which New Granada has and possesses over the said territory." .…

Such are the provisions, and all the provisions, of the much vaunted treaty of 1846, so far as they enter into the late Panama affair, conducted by you as our Secretary of State. Put in brief form, we have here (1) a guarantee by New Granada to the United States of free transit across the Isthmus; (2) a guarantee by the United States to New Granada, to guarantee positively and efficaciously the perfect neutrality of the said Isthmus; and (3) a further guarantee by the United States to New Granada of New Granada's rights of sovereignty and property which she has and possesses over the said territory—that is, the Isthmus.

The President's claim is that under the provisions now stated, he alone, without Congressional or other authorization, as President, had the right to order the prevention of armed forces of Colombia from landing "at any point within fifty miles of (the town of) Panama," this limit being sufficient to exclude Colombia from landing troops on the Isthmus at all, or, at any rate, at any available port or point on the Isthmus.

The question which now arises is perfectly obvious. It is: Did the treaty of 1846 give such a right as was claimed and exercised by the President? No man will maintain that, except under the treaty of 1846, the United States had the right to issue any order touching Panama in August or October, 1903, or at any other times while Panama remained de jure a part of the territory of the Republic of Colombia; or if any one has so maintained, or should so maintain, the position is, and would be, too palpably wrong to call for discussion.

Answering the question just above stated, I forbear from detailed discussion, because certain conclusions are clear without discussion. First, that no valid or reasonable or admissible interpretation and construction of the provisions of the treaty of 1846 can evolve, from its terms or its history, such a right as the President, presumably on your advice, claimed and exercised in the premises. Second, that no such, nor any similar, interpretation or construction had, in fact, ever been put on the treaty of 1846, prior to the events of the Panama affair of 1903, by either of the parties thereto.

How, it is still well to ask, out of a guarantee of free transit on the one part, and of maintenance of neutrality on the other part, and in addition a guarantee of the sovereign rights of the first party, can be derived a right to prevent the last named party from asserting and enforcing its sovereign rights? In other words, with New Granada guaranteeing free transit across the Isthmus, the United States guaranteeing the neutrality of the Isthmus, and guaranteeing also the sovereign rights of New Granada, by what hocus-pocus of argumentation can the right be drawn of the United States to close absolutely the transit by New Granada of her troops destined to any point or for any use to which New Granada may choose to put them? This is to exclude New Granada from the exercise of the very sovereign rights which it was one plain object of the treaty of 1846 to secure to New Granada. Substituting only Colombia for New Granada, her successor in rights under the treaty, we have the whole case as it stood when, with your advice and sanction, and doubtless on your draft, the fifty-miles order of November 2, 1903, was issued.

Antecedently to any search for precedents on this point, one who felt anything of respect for simple justice, for the integrity and function of human language, or the spirit of American diplomacy in its prior dealings with our South American neighbor republics, could have had no doubt how the precedents must stand in such a case. And so they do stand. Till 1901, 1902 and 1903, when President Roosevelt's ruthless and oppressive policy, under your responsible auspices, was begun, no American Secretary of State, no responsible American statesman or public man, ever dreamed of putting upon the thirty-fifth article of the treaty of 1846 the meaning which you and the President have put upon it. Upon this point your position and his position—which are strictly identical, except that you were undoubtedly the chief sinner, being the adviser of a President notoriously destitute of knowledge of such a question—are grossly wrong, according to the words of the treaty and the precedents of both Governments acting under it.

Further Resources


Burton, David Henry. Theodore Roosevelt: Confident Imperialist. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968.

McCullough, David. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870–1914. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.

Snapp, Jeremy Sherman. Destiny by Design: The Construction of the Panama Canal. Lopez Island, Wash.: Pacific Heritage Press, 2000.


"History: Panama Canal." Available online at; website home page (accessed December 24, 2002).

"Panama Canal." Available online at; website home page (accessed December 24, 2002).

Panama Canal History Museum. Available online at (accessed December 24, 2002).