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Foreign Affairs under Hayes

President Rutherford B. Hayes faced two major diplomatic challenges during his presidency:

  1. The Central American Canal Site Question. Trading forces in the United States anxiously supported construction of a canal across Central America that would unite the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In the 1870s, the transcontinental shipment of goods across the United States was still expensive and dangerous. The terrain was difficult and there were serious threats from restive Native Americans.

    While Hayes had some constitutional scruples about the government involving itself in such a canal scheme, he decided it would be better to the United States to act than to risk the involvement of a foreign power. European interest was genuine. Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, came to America to investigate opportunities, but Hayes effectively blocked this initial French effort.

  2. The Chinese Immigration Issue. Thousands of Chinese workers had been brought to the United States to work on the Central Pacific Railway. Some of those immigrants remained as permanent residents after the project was completed, particularly in California. Resentment developed within the white majority. Some of the ill feeling was generated by pure racism; other adverse reaction came from labor groups who resented competition from a labor pool accustomed to low pay and long hours.

    Congress attempted to respond by passing exclusionary immigration laws clearly aimed at the Chinese. Hayes vetoed this legislation, arguing that it was unfair to single out the Chinese for immigration restriction. Using diplomatic channels, Hayes managed to offer a commercial treaty that opened the door for Chinese exports in return for Chinese governmental action to reduce immigration.

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