Taft and North American Affairs
William Howard Taft confronted three issues that involved Canada and the United States. He was successful in solving two of the three.
- The Pacific Seal Controversy. Competing claims over rights to hunting pelagic (sea-going) seals in the Bering Sea had long been a matter of contention between Canada and the U.S. The British continued to represent Canada in foreign affairs and had addressed the issue in talks with the Americans, but to no avail. James G. Blaine, secretary of state under Benjamin Harrison, came close to reaching a solution, but various hunting nations were reluctant to limit their rights on the high seas.
By the time of the Taft administration, it had become apparent that the herds were in steep decline, due largely to hunting the slower pregnant females. A conference was called in Washington in 1911, drawing together representatives from Russia, Japan, Britain and the United States. An early deadlock slowed progress, but Taft appealed directly to the Japanese emperor and got matters back on track.
The North Pacific Sealing Convention of 1911 ended the hunting of pelagic seals. The United States agreed to compensate the hunting nations by sharing a portion of its proceeds from the continuing land kill on the Pribilof Islands. This agreement was honored by the participating nations and the herd’s numbers grew steadily over the next 30 years. Japan pulled out of the convention in 1941, citing heavy damage done to the area’s fisheries by the seals.
- The North Atlantic Fisheries Question. Rights to fishing in the waters of the Grand Banks was another continuing problem between Canada and the United States. Roots of the dispute reached back to colonial times, but by the early 20th century the Newfoundland fishermen were deeply concerned about the American fleet's growing size, in particular the massive Massachusetts presence.
Efforts between British and American diplomats initially yielded nothing, but Elihu Root, as one of his last acts before leaving office in early 1909, pledged the United States to submit the matter to the Hague Tribunal. A decision was rendered in the fall of 1910 that essentially supported the British position. Later, in 1912, Britain and the United States signed an agreement formalizing the Tribunal’s decision. Of greater significance in this accord was the joint decision to maintain an ongoing panel to handle future disputes as they arose, rather than allow issues to fester over a period of years.
- Reciprocity with Canada. The enactment of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff in 1909 had increased friction between Canada and the United States. The two had successfully negotiated reciprocal trade agreements in the past, but none existed at the time of the Taft administration. Trade talks yielded an agreement that lowered tariffs on many items and placed others on the free list. Western farmers were pleased with the agreement and anticipated an enlarged market for their produce.
However, political ineptitude ruined the day. Several American politicians made insensitive remarks about the U.S. relationship with Canada. Speaker of the House Champ Clark unwisely expressed his hope that one day the American flag would fly over all of North America. The Canadians seethed; the treaty was soundly defeated and the negotiating party, the Liberals, was voted out of office in the next election.