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Grant and Foreign Affairs

Despite the cronyism and corruption of the Grant administrations, a generally admirable record was established in dealings with foreign powers. This success was due largely to the efforts and sound judgment of Secretary of State Hamilton Fish. Major foreign issues included:

  • The Dominican Republic. President Grant was told that the Dominican Republic had great strategic importance, especially when a canal would be constructed across Central America linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Orville Babcock, the President’s personal secretary, followed up on an offer from the Dominican president to sell the island. A treaty was concluded and submitted to the Senate, where it came under the scornful gaze of Charles Sumner, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Sumner opposed the agreement, which appeared to trade the freedom of the residents for the economic benefit of the greedy. The treaty was defeated. Grant was angered by this defeat, which was a major widening in the developing rift between the president and the emerging Liberal Republicans. Hamilton Fish played a minor role in this event, providing reluctant support in order to get the president’s support on other issues.
  • The Alabama Claims. During the Civil War the Confederacy had arranged for the construction of a ship, the Alabama, in Great Britain. The completed vessel preyed on Northern shipping, causing much damage and angering many Union supporters. In the postwar years the United States government had pressed unsuccessfully for settlement of claims for these losses. Hamilton Fish successfully negotiated the Treaty of Washington (1871), in which the two parties agreed to submit the matter to an impartial board in Switzerland. Fish deftly handled the prickly Charles Sumner, an outspoken foe of Great Britain, and gained ratification of the treaty in the Senate. In the following year, the United States was paid $15.5 million by the British to compensate for its earlier losses, a resounding success for the modern era’s first use of arbitration.
  • Cuba and Spain. The 1870s saw the growth of a vocal interventionist element that was interested in spreading American influence to various points throughout the hemisphere. Feelings were especially strong in support of forcing the Spanish out of Cuba; the presence of a European power so close to the United States was regarded as an embarrassment. A protracted Cuban revolt against the Spanish, the so-called Ten Years’ War (1868-1878), was at mid-course. A Cuban support group in New York had dispatched a gun-running ship, the Virginius, which flew the American flag illegally. The ship was stopped by the Spanish on the high seas, boarded, and 53 crew members (including some Americans) were executed as pirates. Reports of this event inflamed interventionist sentiments in the United States. Secretary Fish managed to calm American passions and to persuade the Spanish to return the Virginius and pay an indemnity of $80,000 to the families of the crewmen who had lost their lives.