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Clayton-Bulwer Treaty

Unlike the Democratic Party, which advocated an aggressive position on expansion in the Western Hemisphere, regardless of the risk of international conflict, the Whig Party maintained a consistent attitude of compromise and peace. One example of this attitude was the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, signed by the United States and Britain in April, 1850. Zachary Taylor’s secretary of state, John M. Clayton, met with a British representative, Sir Henry Bulwer, to calm a potentially troublesome issue in Central America. Both powers had studied the feasibility of constructing a canal to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the narrow isthmus in Central America. Initially the most promising site appeared to be in Nicaragua. Neither party was prepared in 1850 to undertake the massive project, but wanted to ensure that one country would not act in the absence of the other. Under the terms of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, the two parties agreed:

  • Not to seek exclusive control of the canal or territory on either side of such a canal
  • Not to fortify any position in the canal area
  • Not to establish colonies in Central America
Like the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, the Clayton-Bulwer pact showed the American inclination to concede points to achieve compromise. For instance, between the signing and the ratification, the British interpreted the pact to exclude Belize, then known as British Honduras, and certain dependencies. In effect, the British simply agreed not to use their possessions to dominate any future canal. The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty was ratified in the Senate, but was viewed in a negative light by the public, which regarded it as a renunciation of the Monroe Doctrine. The Democrats made political hay. Although it's possible to argue that Clayton gave up more than necessary, most historians of diplomacy today view the agreement more positively, arguing that the United States did about as well as could be expected at the time. Britain was a great world power; the United States was not. The treaty prevented an immediate rush for influence in Central America and acted to strengthen relations between the two counties. Later secretaries of state would attempt to modify the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, but without success. It was not until 1901 that this agreement would be superseded by the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty.