Hay-Pauncefote Treaty: The United States and Britain

The course of Spanish-American War had highlighted the need for rapid access between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Foreign policy experts began to question adherence to the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, an agreement pledging the U.S. and Britain to not take independent action in constructing a transoceanic canal in Central America.

Negotiations began during the McKinley administration between John Hay, the U.S. secretary of state, and Lord Julian Pauncefote, the British ambassador to Washington. Initial bargaining was slowed by disagreements over fortifying the proposed canal and seeking other signatories for any agreement that might be reached.

The first Hay-Pauncefote Treaty was signed on February 5, 1900, and provided for joint British and American protection for any trans-Panama canal, but allowed for the United States to build and operate such a canal on its own. The United States Senate was dissatisfied with the wording and amended the treaty to explicitly supersede the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. Britain objected and negotiations were resumed.

Agreement was reached in 1901 after Theodore Roosevelt had succeeded the slain William McKinley. Signed on November 18, 1901, the second Hay-Pauncefote Treaty contained the following points, which were approved by both nations:

  • The U.S. was authorized to construct and manage a Central American canal
  • The U.S. was to guarantee the neutrality of the canal and was authorized to fortify the area, if necessary
  • The canal was to be open to all nations; rates were to be fair and equal.

Article 1 of the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty declared that it superseded the earlier Clayton-Bulwer agreement. Article 2 provided that a canal could be built under the auspices of the United States, which would have the rights attendant on its ownership, including the right to operate and manage the canal. Article 3 required that the canal be open to the ships of all nations for rates that would be fair and equitable.

Fortifications were not expolicitly covered, but the British conceded that the nature of the canal treaty meant that the United States would have the right to build military defenses.

With the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty on the books, the United States was ready to negotiate with Colombia, of which Panama was a province at the time. The result of that was the Hay-Herrán Treaty.


See other foreign affairs issues under Theodore Roosevelt.

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