Hay-Pauncefote Treaty

Toward the end of his first term, United States President William McKinley was eager to acquire, build, and fortify a canal across the isthmus in Central America. He requested that Secretary of State John Hay renegotiate the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850. This diplomatic accord required construction and joint operation of a British-American isthmian canal, which was initially planned for Nicaragua. In early 1900, Hay opened discussions with Lord Julian Pauncefote, the British ambassador to the United States, regarding the possibility of revising the 1850 accord.

An agreement was reached in February 1900 that granted the United States the right to build an isthmian canal to connect the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. However, British officials insisted that the proposed canal could not be fortified. Also, Pauncefote included language to be sure the proposed canal remained neutral. The proposal was revised by Henry G. Davis, a West Virginia Democrat and an influential member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. This revision guaranteed that the United States had the right to defend the Canal Zone. Although the US Senate ratified the revised agreement on December 20, 1900, the British officials refused to acknowledge Davis’s proposed changes.

On November 18, 1901, Hay and Pauncefote finally reached a compromise that allowed the United States to build, fortify, and control an isthmian canal. In exchange, British vessels were granted access to the canal on equal terms. The US Senate shared President Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for the proposed canal, so the revised Hay-Pauncefote Treaty was approved on December 16, 1901.

The fact that British officials were willing to change the terms of the 1850 treaty allowed President Roosevelt to move forward with plans for an isthmian canal in Central America. Senate passed the Spooner Amendment in June 1902, which formally endorsed the canal route through Panama. In addition, the fact that Great Britain was willing to negotiate revised treaty terms also indicated that British leaders desired to develop closer ties with the United States. This desire was an effort to counter Germany’s growing presence in the Americas.