. . . the universe seemed to be spinning round and Theodore was the spinner.
On a summer day in the year 1901 there was, as the guidebooks said, no pleasanter place in Washington to sit and pass the hours than Lafayette Square. In the shade of a southern magnolia or a flowering Chinese paulownia (or perhaps an elm or a beech planted by Jefferson) one could watch the flow of traffic along Pennsylvania Avenue or contemplate the north façade of the White House; or try to fathom—as nearly everyone did—what marvelous bit of ingenuity kept the equestrian bronze of Andrew Jackson in such uncanny equilibrium.
Flower beds were carefully tended, paths swept clean. Tourists came and went, and pretty girls on their noon hour passed by in twos and threes, wearing the wide-brimmed straw hats and crisp white shirtwaists that had become the fashion.
Especially satisfying was the sense one had of being at the very center of things. It was the nearness not just of the White House but of the elegant private residences fronting on the other three sides of the square, of the Arlington Hotel, the Cosmos Club, the easy proximity of the Metropolitan Club, the Treasury Building, and that great baroque pile, the State, War, and Navy Building, that made it such a rarefied and endlessly fascinating world within the world of Washington.
On the east side of the square, next door to the Cosmos Club, lived Senator Hanna—Number 21 Madison Place, the “Little White House.” At the buff-colored Cosmos itself, once the home of Dolly Madison, could be found such luminaries as Alexander Graham Bell or Professor Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian. The Arlington, diagonally across from the Cosmos, on H Street, was the city’s largest “distinguished hostelry.” Virtually every President since Grant had been accommodated there the night before his inauguration.
Secretary of State John Hay, who had first come to Washington as Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary, and Henry Adams, that cultivated lineal descendant of two Presidents, lived in adjoining houses at the corner of H and 16th streets, just across from beautiful little St. John’s Episcopal Church. A comparatively new addition, built in the eighties, this Hay-Adams edifice was the one “unconventional” note on the square. It appeared to be one massive red-brick bastion with trimmings of light-colored stone, innumerable windows, imposing stone steps, and dark carved doors set within deeply shadowed archways—all trademarks of Henry H. Richardson, the most brilliant architect of the day. It seemed the safest possible refuge for the two fragile gentlemen who resided within, both of whom were looked upon as national treasures of a sort. Adams wryly referred to his address as the only position of importance he had attained in life and he reigned there over the nearest thing thus far to an American salon. To be asked to breakfast at 1603 H Street was to have “arrived.”
For John Hay, author of the “Open Door” policy in China, his house was little more than a block from his office at the State Department or from the Metropolitan on 17th Street, the city’s most fashionable club, or from the French embassy, the large yellow house beside the Metropolitan. “Life,” wrote Adams, “is a narrow valley, and the roads run close together.” It was a view one might well have conceived from so privileged a vantage point.
But at summer’s end, on September 6, 1901, the comparative tranquillity of Lafayette Square, like the whole order that had evolved in Washington, ended when two shots from a .32-caliber revolver were pumped point-blank into the unsuspecting William McKinley at Buffalo, New York. He had gone to attend the Pan-American Exposition and was standing in the Temple of Music beside a potted palm shaking hands with a long line of people, one of whom, a deranged young anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, stepped forward, his right hand wrapped in what appeared to be a bandage. Eight nights later McKinley was dead.
“Now look!” Mark Hanna is said to have exploded on hearing the news. “That damned cowboy is President of the United States.”
The sudden advent of Theodore Roosevelt in the White House was to mark the most dramatic shift in Presidential style and attitude since the inauguration of Andrew Jackson, the first avowed “man of the people,” when tubs of liquor had been put out in Lafayette Square to divert an overjoyed mob from the White House grounds. Roosevelt’s own inaugural was a rushed, solemn little ceremony held in an overstuffed Victorian parlor in Buffalo. But it can be said that the twentieth century truly began when he took the oath of office.
At age forty-two he was not only the youngest President in history, he was an entirely novel figure in American politics—an eastern Republican with national appeal (phenomenal national appeal, as the campaign had shown). Where McKinley had been Midwestern, “of the plain people,” “TR” was big-city gentry, raised among nursemaids and gilded mirrors. He was a Harvard-trained, Harvard-sounding reader of books (two a day on the average); he was the Rough Rider, author, historian . . . a bird watcher! . . . and the most tireless political warrior the country had ever encountered. As the Vice-Presidential candidate he had been seen in twenty-four states, traveled twenty-one thousand miles, made nearly seven hundred speeches, all in one tour, while William McKinley, as was his custom, kept to the shade of his front porch in Canton, Ohio.
Violent fate in the form of Leon Czolgosz had put Roosevelt in power at a time when the country was prospering, just as Mark Hanna had promised; when his party was in control of Congress; when the national spirit was expansive, confidence boundless; when the average American felt “400 percent bigger” than he had before the turn of the century, as Senator Chauncey Depew observed.
And he had every intention of exercising power as it had not been in a very long time. “I did not care a rap for the mere form and show of power,” he would write, “I cared immensely for the use that could be made of the substance.”
The first weeks in office would remain a vivid memory for all who were on hand. “He strode triumphant among us,” recalled Lincoln Steffens, “talking and shaking hands, dictating and signing letters, and laughing. Washington, the whole country was in mourning, and no doubt the president felt that he should hold himself down; he didn’t; he tried to, but his joy showed in every word and movement.” To Harry Thurston Peck, the literary critic, he was “a stream of fresh, pure, bracing air from the mountains, to clear the fetid atmosphere of the national capital.” He himself, at the end of his first week, confided to Henry Cabot Lodge, “It is a dreadful thing to come into the Presidency this way; but it would be a far worse thing to be morbid about it. . . .”
He saw more people, he handled more paper work, he cut more red tape in the next several months than anyone who had ever held the office. And he adored the role. No man ever had a better time being President.
There were some, to be sure, and particularly within his own party, who were considerably less than ecstatic over the prospect of such a person in power. Hanna was the outstanding example. “We need not tell our readers that up to this time we have discovered in Mr. Roosevelt very little cause for serious rejoicing,” declared the conservative Washington Post. “He has at all times been far too theatrical for our taste.” Even the venerable Henry Adams, who had found Roosevelt the Vice President “breezy and a tonic,” returned home gravely unsettled by his first social evening with Roosevelt the Chief of State. Everything at the White House had been too informal for Adams, the meal indifferent and badly served. Worse, Roosevelt had lectured him, the former Harvard professor.“As usual Theodore absorbed the conversation,” wrote a disgruntled Adams to a friend. “If it tired me ten years ago, it crushes me now . . . really, Theodore is exasperating. . . .”
But for reporters and the reading public he was a dream come true. He would give a Presidential view on any subject any time. The monologues were likened to Niagara Falls. To get him to listen, the story went, it was best to see him about 12:40, just before lunch, when he was being shaved.
He was the first President to call his official residence the White House (rather than the Executive Mansion), the first to be known by his initials, the first to take up tennis, which he played badly but with explosive verve, the first to be photographed jumping on horseback. (When the photographer missed his shot, the President gladly obliged by jumping several times again.) He also brought to Washington the large, young, and exuberant family that was to dominate the popular imagination in ways that had never been known or that would never quite be equaled again. Edith Carow Roosevelt looked so youthful driving about the city in her carriage that she was sometimes mistaken for her stepdaughter, seventeen-year-old Alice; and Alice, as the country quickly discovered, was a “handful.” The five other children, the eldest just turned fourteen, seemed wholly unaffected by the aura of their new surroundings. Visitors were to encounter Roosevelt offspring racing the White House halls on stilts. A Cabinet meeting would have to be halted temporarily due to the noise overhead. The President himself, it became known, was in the habit of “looking in” on the children before state dinners, by which he meant a terrific pillow fight.
It all seemed to agree with him, as did everything in life. He had acquired some poundage in recent years, but physical bulk was in style for men of position, and he was by no means fat. He stood only five feet eight inches tall, yet most people, when they saw him for the first time, were struck by how big he seemed. His frame was big, his neck and shoulders were big, and he stood with his shoulders thrown back, which gave him an even more imposing look. His weight during the time he was President was something over two hundred pounds. “His walk,” recalled William Allen White, “was a shoulder-shaking, assertive, heel-clicking, straight-away gait, rather consciously rapid as one who is habitually about his master’s business.”
Mainly Theodore Roosevelt was interesting, interesting as no President had ever been. He was someone who would make things happen.
The obvious differences in age and nationality aside, there were striking similarities between Theodore Roosevelt and Ferdinand de Lesseps. Both were the products of cultivated, worldly families. Both were raised on the ideal of patriotic service and the heroic exploits of adventurous kinsmen. There is the common love of the out of doors, of shooting, and of horses; the common joy in children, books, theatrics, popular acclaim. In his boundless love of life, his immensely attractive animal vitality, Theodore Roosevelt might have been a direct descendant of Ferdinand de Lesseps. There is even a kind of continuity to such traits as they were sometimes despised for—craftiness, self-glorification, self-deception.
Nor was Roosevelt ever anything but positive about the need for a Central American canal to rival Suez. “No single great material work which remains to be undertaken on this continent is of such consequence to the American people,” he declared in his first message to Congress. Whether he or any of those around him suspected then that the canal would become the great material set piece of his Administration, as well as the work in which he would take the most personal pride, or that it would be the subject of more controversy than anything else he did while in office, is impossible to say. But his eagerness to get on with the job was unmistakable.
Roosevelt, however, looked upon the canal quite differently than de Lesseps had, differently, in fact, than nearly everyone. It was very well for others to talk of it as the dream of Columbus, to call it a giant step in the march of civilization, or to picture as de Lesseps so often had its immeasurable value to world commerce. Roosevelt was promoting neither a commercial venture nor a universal utility. To him, first, last, and always, the canal was the vital—the indispensable—path to a global destiny for the United States of America. He had a vision of his country as the commanding power on two oceans, and these joined by a canal built, owned, operated, policed, and fortified by his country. The canal was to be the first step to American supremacy at sea.
All other benefits resulting, important or admirable as they might be, were to him secondary.
His guiding light in this regard, the beloved prophet and teacher, was a tall, spare, beaked, painfully shy, deadly serious naval officer and scholar, who looked like a predatory bird. As bald nearly as an egg, with pale hooded eyes, Alfred Thayer Mahan had been a member of the faculty at the Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island, when Roosevelt, years before, had been invited to lecture there on one of his specialties as a historian—the War of 1812. The two had liked each other instantly and remained fast friends and earnest correspondents. And for some fifteen years, first in the War College lectures developed following his Panama experience, then in his famous book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, as well as in magazine articles and private correspondence, Mahan had been preaching a strident, uncompromising canal doctrine. His role as teacher and prophet had been a factor of the greatest importance, giving the old dream of a Pacific passage a meaning it had not had before.
Like Mrs. Stowe, earlier in the nineteenth century, Mahan had happened out of the blue. Born at West Point, New York, in 1840, he was the son of Dennis Hart Mahan, a noted professor at the Military Academy who had taught Grant, Sherman, Lee, Jackson, and who was the author of a mathematics text familiar to a whole generation of cadets, including several who were eventually to build Theodore Roosevelt’s canal. The younger Mahan’s naval career had been undistinguished, however. He and his father agreed that he might have done better in some other profession. By the time he was appointed to the staff of the War College, after thirty years in the service, he was still, in his own words, “drifting on the lines of simple respectability as aimlessly as one ever could.” An Annapolis classmate would subsequently remember him as the most intellectual man he had ever known, yet nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened to him; he was not an especially able line officer—he was never able to do knots, the square knot was the “top of his ability”—and he had written nothing to indicate any literary gifts or penetrating grasp of world history.
His world-shaking Influence of Sea Power upon History, the result of four strenuous years “in the closet,” as he said—reading, writing, rewriting—was published in May of 1890 by Little, Brown & Company. The essence of his views was contained in the first ninety pages. By tracing the rise and decline of past maritime powers, he had arrived at the extremely simple theory that national greatness and commercial supremacy were directly related to supremacy at sea. This, he declared, was the towering truth of history. Like many earthshaking concepts, it was not exactly original; numbers of his own contemporaries in the Navy had been thinking along similar lines for some time. He, however, had developed the thesis historically, and that, he also asserted, no one had done before. Also, like many such iron-willed theorists, he had a knack for making his case so that it seemed indisputable.
In England, predictably enough, the book was taken as gospel and had its earliest success. Clad in dress uniform, wearing a sword beneath red-silk academic robes, the author received honorary degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge and later dined with the queen at Buckingham Palace.
Kaiser Wilhelm II had telegraphed his friend Poultney Bigelow, son of old John Bigelow, to praise the book: “It is on board all my ships and constantly quoted by my captains and officers.” On the other side of the world Mahan was adopted as a text for the Japanese military colleges.
Not to be outdone by Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale conferred honorary degrees, and in the United States Senate such powerful “expansionists” as Lodge and John Tyler Morgan were immediately won over. “It is sea power which is essential to every splendid people,” Lodge lectured the nation from the Senate floor.
Most important, however, was the overwhelming effect on the ambitious young man with the eyeglasses and the flashing teeth who was then serving on the Civil Service Commission. Roosevelt, it is a matter of record, was the first person of influence to read the book and to grasp its import. Probably not another ranking political official in the country had ever heard of Mahan at the time the book appeared. But for Roosevelt, who received one of the first copies and who wrote the first major review for the Atlantic Monthly, the prophet had arrived. The book, he immediately informed Mahan, was “very much the clearest and most instructive general work of the kind with which I am acquainted . . . . A very good book . . .”
If ever there was a disciple ideally suited, by interest and temperament, Roosevelt was it. In the long introduction to his opus, Mahan had lamented that conventional historians seldom knew anything about the sea. It was because of this that the “profound determining influence of maritime strength” had been so long overlooked. Roosevelt had no such blind spot. He had been fascinated by ships and the sea since childhood. Two uncles on his mother’s side had been in the Confederate Navy. His uncle Irvine Bulloch was a midshipman on the fabled Alabama, and the accepted family story was that he fired the last gun in the battle with the Kearsarge. James Dunwoodie Bulloch was a Confederate admiral and an exceedingly resourceful Confederate operative in England during the war who arranged the building of the Alabama. In his own travels with his parents, Roosevelt had crossed the Atlantic several times, and on one trip had sailed through the Suez Canal. His first published work, The Naval War of 1812, had been started when he was still an undergraduate. Furthermore, he had acquired a fundamental conviction that life is a struggle and life among nations no less than life among man and beast. He believed in military strength, the military virtues; he deplored pacifists, he said, as he deplored men with “shoulders like champagne bottles.” He was, as every American youngster would come to appreciate, the champion of the strenuous life, the once near-sighted, asthmatic little boy who had willed himself to be the world’s leading proof of “the rugged fighting qualities.”
Roosevelt’s determination to have a canal can be dated from the appearance of The Influence of Sea Power in 1890, which, very interestingly, was the same year the Census Bureau declared there was no longer any land frontier. The Caribbean Sea was the American Mediterranean, wrote Mahan, and like the Mediterranean, it demanded a canal. The canal was the thing to bestir “the aggressive impulse,” and turn the American people from their “peaceful gainsaying” ways. With the isthmian barrier broken, the Caribbean would become not simply a prime commercial crossroads, but a vital military highway. The United States would require Caribbean bases, “which by their natural advantages, susceptibility of defense, and nearness to the central strategic issue [the canal] will enable her fleets to remain as near the scene as any opponents.”
The problem, as Mahan explained it, was that thus far the nation had been too well supplied with its own resources, too complacent in its self-sufficiency.
So the canal, “the central strategic issue,” was to be the great redeeming task. It would shake the country out of its naïveté, release it from myopic concerns. It would breed an international, expansionist spirit. It would breed ships, coaling stations, naval bases, colonies afar. It would create an American navy. “Whether they will or no,” Mahan wrote in the December Atlantic Monthly, “Americans must now begin to look outward.” His head was filled with American armadas steaming to distant and glorious horizons.
Roosevelt was thirty-one years old at the time Mahan’s book appeared and had already made a place for himself among the leading figures in Washington. He would expound on his views at length during evenings at the Cosmos Club, for example, and to the rapt delight (appropriately) of the young English writer Rudyard Kipling, who used to drop in about half-past ten with the express purpose of hearing the expansive young American go on. “I curled up on the seat opposite,” said Kipling, “and listened and wondered, until the universe seemed to be spinning round and Theodore was the spinner.”
In an “entirely confidential” letter written from Washington in 1897, Roosevelt told Mahan that the Nicaragua canal should be built “at once” and, in the same breath, that “we should build a dozen new battleships.” By then, through the influence of Lodge, who had been primed by Mahan, Roosevelt had been made Assistant Secretary of the Navy and had entered upon his duties characteristically, as if accompanied always by a band playing Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” He visited shipyards, poked his nose into technical matters, from ordnance to dry docks, went out on maneuvers. From a richly carved desk in the State, War, and Navy Building, with John Paul Jones looking down from a gold frame and a big, glass-cased model of Dewey’s flagship, Olympia, standing within arm’s reach, he mapped global strategy and fired off letter after letter to congressmen and newspaper editors, urging more ships, improved weapons. “Gradually,” he would recall, “a slight change for the better occurred, the writings of Captain Mahan playing no small part therein.”
Lodge, Roosevelt’s closest friend and greatest admirer in the Senate, was saying that the canal would make Hawaii a necessity. Senator Morgan declared that Cuba was needed as well, because of its position in relation to the canal. To Roosevelt, Lodge and Morgan were uncommonly “far-sighted,” a favorite accolade of Captain Mahan’s.
Home from the Cuban war a few years later, Roosevelt told a Chicago business club in his rasping falsetto, “We cannot sit huddled within our own borders and avow ourselves merely an assemblage of well-to-do hucksters who care nothing for what happens beyond.” Such a policy would be self-deluding and disastrous. (It might have been Mahan himself speaking.) “ . . . if we are to hold our own in the struggle for naval and commercial supremacy, we must build up our power without our borders. We must build the Isthmian canal, and we must grasp the points of vantage which will enable us to have our say in deciding the destiny of the oceans of the east and west.”
A naval base had been established at Cuba. Hawaii had been annexed. Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines had been acquired, and the canal had become an enormously popular cause largely as a result of an incident early in the war, the celebrated “Voyage of the Oregon.”
The Oregon, one of the first true battleships, had made Mahan’s and Roosevelt’s case for them about as effectively as anything could have. The ship had been in San Francisco when the Maine blew up in Havana harbor and victory in the Caribbean was said to depend on her. Her orders from Washington were to proceed at once around the Horn. So on the morning of March 19, she had steamed off on a perilous race of 12,000 miles—instead of some 4,000, had there been a Central American canal. For the next two months the whole country waited in mounting suspense. There were long, ominous periods of silence, weeks when the ship was “lost from communication.” Then came rousing dispatches from some point in Peru or Chile. The excitement kept building, every American was caught up in it.1
From Rio north the gleaming white ship was cleared for action and repainted a dull battle gray. Then just over the equator, approximately on a line with the mouth of the Amazon, there occurred an amazing crossing of paths. The Oregon steamed by the tiny sloop Spray, a random speck in the empty sea, upon which, sailing all alone, was Captain Joshua Slocum, of Massachusetts, then on the last leg of the first solitary cruise around the world. “. . . I saw first a mast,” he wrote, “with the Stars and Stripes floating from it, rising astern as if poked up out of the sea, and then rapidly appearing on the horizon, like a citadel, the Oregon!” Signals were exchanged and Slocum learned for the first time that his country was at war.
On May 24, sixty-seven days after leaving San Francisco, the Oregon was spotted off Palm Beach, Florida, and the news was flashed across the country. She had arrived in time to play a part in the Battle of Santiago Bay.
Though the voyage was hailed as “unprecedented in battleship history,” a triumph of American technology and seamanship, it was the implicit lesson of the experience that would matter in the long run. “By that experience,” wrote Mark Sullivan, social historian of the era, “America’s vague ambition for an Isthmian canal became an imperative decision.” As a demonstration of the military importance of the canal, it had been made to order.
Still, of those impelling new reasons for the canal produced by the Spanish war, none counted for so much in Washington as the acquisition of the Philippines. The Philippines, Roosevelt foresaw, would affect America’s future more than any other result of the Spanish war. He was not an imperialist, he insisted. It was inconceivable to him that Americans could ever be viewed as imperialistic. In all the United States he had never met an imperialist, he once said before an audience in Utah. He was personally offended by the charge. Expansion was different; it was growth, it was progress, it was in the American grain. He was striving to lead his generation toward some larger, more noble objective than mere moneymaking. (“For after all,” the revered Mahan wrote, “if the love of mere glory is selfish, it is not quite so low as the love of mere comfort.”)
To each generation was allotted a task, Roosevelt knew. “I wish to see the United States the dominant power on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.”
Roosevelt was governor of New York when he first thrust himself into the actual shaping of policy concerning the canal. The contribution was uninvited and was an extreme aggravation to Secretary of State John Hay.
In 1898, the war in Cuba over, McKinley had directed Hay to begin negotiating a new canal treaty with Great Britain, to supplant the old Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, which, after nearly fifty years, still remained a diplomatic stumbling block to any substantive support of a Central American canal by the United States government. Hay and the British ambassador, Sir Julian Pauncefote, had made rapid progress. Tied down with its own unpopular Boer War in South Africa, by now disenchanted with Central America as a “sphere of influence,” the Foreign Office was ready to bow out of a partnership in building the canal, quite willing to sign the task over to the Americans.
According to Hay’s proposal, the United States was to have the right to construct and operate the canal, which, like Suez, was to be “free and open in time of war as in time of peace, to vessels of commerce and of war of all nations, on terms of entire equality. . . .” The United States could keep order along the route with its own police, but there were to be no fortifications. The agreement was signed in Hay’s office on February 5, 1900.
That was the first Hay-Pauncefote Treaty and for a few days John Hay felt he had achieved a milestone. McKinley too spoke elatedly of “the great achievement.” But Hay had chosen to ignore the Senate. No one on the Hill had been shown a draft of the treaty, nor had he bothered to describe its provisions to anyone on the Foreign Relations Committee. “When I sent in the Canal Convention,” he later explained to McKinley, “I felt sure that no one out of a mad house could fail to see that the advantages were all on our side.” The rumblings commenced quickly enough, principally over the concept of a neutralized canal, a subject seldom questioned before. Suez had long since established the precedent of neutrality. The concept was in keeping with the old American policy of freedom of the seas. In addition, there was substantial naval opinion that if the need ever arose, the canal could be quite properly defended from bases at San Juan and Pearl Harbor.
Senator Lodge was the “first to flop,” in Hay’s words. The British had given up nothing, Hay was told; they had simply agreed to let the United States spend the money and do the work. John Tyler Morgan, another “force” on the Foreign Relations Committee and now head of his own Senate canal committee, concurred.
Then from Albany came the most shrill denunciation of all, which, to add to Hay’s exasperation, was played across page one of the New York papers no less than if it had been a major policy pronouncement.
George Smalley, former London correspondent for the New York Tribune, now Washington correspondent for The Times of London, was the one who rushed across Lafayette Square to give Hay first word of Roosevelt’s attack. “You can imagine to what extent the fat is in the fire!” wrote a bemused Henry Adams. “If Hay is beaten on his treaty he will resign; if he doesn’t resign, he will certainly hamstring Teddy. Won’t it be fun?”
For his own part, Hay sent an icy response to Albany, declaring that such matters ought not concern a mere governor.
The mere governor would be heard all the same. “I do not see why we should dig the canal if we are not to fortify it so as to insure its being used for ourselves and against our foes in time of war,” he wrote to Captain Mahan. To Hay he insisted that the treaty was in fact a step backward and “fraught with very great mischief.” He asked the Secretary to consider the case of the Oregon. Had a canal of the kind the treaty guaranteed been in existence in 1898, the Oregon could certainly have reached the Atlantic more quickly; but the advantage would have been far outweighed by the fact that the Spanish fleet would also have been at liberty to use the canal to prey on the Pacific Coast or to go after Dewey in the Philippines.
“If that canal is open to the war ships of an enemy it is a menace to us in time of war; it is an added burden, an additional strategic point to be guarded by our fleet. If fortified by us, it becomes one of the most potent sources of our possible sea strength.”
Roosevelt’s view was the popular one and opposition to the treaty gathered rapidly. In the Senate, Morgan noted that England had once done everything short of war to prevent the canal at Suez, but then took it over after the work was completed. Allegedly this could again be the intent.
To add to Hay’s burdens, meantime, his friend Adams, who had since departed for Paris, lectured by mail that the whole balance of world power rested on the two isthmuses. Suez was settled, but who was to say what the consequences might be if the Kaiser were to make a move for Panama? Five minutes of negotiation in Paris would be enough, said Adams, to guarantee the completion of the French canal.
The Senate refused to ratify the treaty without amendments. Hay was beside himself. Overly sensitive by nature, he was stunned by the attacks on the treaty, taking everything said about it quite personally. It was his first experience with “filthy newspaper abuse.” He was certain he was in the right, and he had assured Pauncefote that the treaty would be acceptable. A career dedicated to the resolution of Anglo-American difficulties appeared to be going up in smoke.
He handed McKinley his resignation, which McKinley calmly refused. “We must bear the atmosphere of the hour,” the President said. “It will pass away.” And like many of McKinley’s instinctive responses, it was the right one.
When the British refused to accept an amended version of the treaty, Hay, to his enormous credit, picked up the pieces and began over again. Negotiations with Pauncefote resumed; this time the Senate was kept apprised. By late summer of 1901, shortly before McKinley left for Buffalo, Hay was able to report that much progress had been made. He had worked on harder than ever, and despite personal tragedy and recurring premonitions of doom. In June his elder son, Del Hay, McKinley’s private secretary, had been killed when he fell from an open window at New Haven, while attending a Yale commencement. “I have hideous forebodings,” Hay wrote Adams. “Good luck has pursued me like my shadow. Now it is gone . . .”
And then had come the shattering news from Buffalo. His world, his career, his usefulness, all had ended, he wrote to Roosevelt. But he also saw Roosevelt as a “young fellow of infinite dash and originality,” as he confided to a friend on the day of McKinley’s death, and when Roosevelt arrived in Washington with the funeral train the night of September 16, Hay was among the first to come forward on the crowded station platform to pay his respects.
Hay was a man who generated lasting affection. The French ambassador, Jules Jusserand, would remember him as “modest withal, never trying to push himself to the front, speaking in subdued tones and scarcely opening his lips when uttering a memorable saying or shrewd humorous remark.” Nearly three-quarters of a century later, over tea, Mrs. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, at the mere mention of his name, would say simply, “Oh, dear little Mr. Hay . . .” He was, as well, many things Theodore Roosevelt was not—fastidious, subtle, self-effacing, a public official who lost sleep over speeches that had been written perfectly in advance. To Roosevelt he was “the most delightful man to talk to I ever met.” His only problem, to Roosevelt’s way of thinking, was a “very ease-loving nature . . . which made him shrink from all that was rough in life.”
But on the station platform that September night, Roosevelt implored Hay to remain as Secretary of State. They stood together only a moment, Roosevelt with his hand on Hay’s arm, both men in black, wearing high silk hats, the noise of the station drowning out their words to everyone but themselves. He told Hay that he must stick by him—it was a command, Roosevelt said—and Hay, deeply touched, said he would.
So it was Hay after all who put his signature to what was to go down in history as the second Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, the first important treaty of Roosevelt’s Presidency.
This time the clause forbidding fortification had merely been omitted. The United States was to be free to do whatever was necessary to protect the canal “against lawlessness and disorder” and the unwritten understanding was that this in fact authorized fortification. Roosevelt, Lodge, and Morgan were quite satisfied and there was never any serious doubt about the fate of the document after that.
On the morning of November 18, 1901, the portly, white-haired Pauncefote was ushered into Hay’s large office at the south end of the State, War, and Navy Building. No special fuss was made. It was not even generally known that the British ambassador was in the building until he had been with the Secretary for about an hour. Then two elderly Negroes—William Gwin and Edward Savoy, State Department messengers who had attended countless such occasions—were asked in. Gwin held a silver candlestick which contained the taper used to burn the red wax for the seals. Savoy would apply the wax. Hay and Pauncefote signed their names. The seals were fixed. “If there was anything approaching ceremony it was putting out the candle,” observed a reporter. “It is never blown out . . . but must be snuffed out with a silver extinguisher.”
At the White House Theodore Roosevelt declared himself “Delighted!”
Like John Hay, the British Foreign Office, Lodge, Captain Mahan, like the editors of virtually every major newspaper, like all but a tiny minority of his countrymen, Theodore Roosevelt had been operating on the assumption that the canal was to be built in Nicaragua. In none of his numerous speeches on the subject, for example, had he ever even used the word “Panama.” (He had either referred to the Nicaragua canal or the isthmian canal, never to a Panama canal.) And like everybody else in Washington, or everyone who understood how things worked there, he looked to Senator John Tyler Morgan as not merely the ultimate authority on the subject but someone with whom cooperation would be mandatory. Only a few weeks after becoming President, Roosevelt had written to Morgan, “You know the high regard I have for you . . . . I particularly wish to see you and consult with you about various matters; and I hope, my dear Senator, you will understand that I desire earnestly to hear from you about every appointment as well as every question of public policy, and that wherever possible I shall pay the utmost heed to your advice.”
Morgan was chairman of the Senate Committee on Interoceanic Canals, the Morgan Committee, as it was more commonly known, which included several extremely interesting and influential figures: Spooner, of Wisconsin, who was as fine a speaker as anyone then in Congress; William Harris, a burly, imposing man, who had an engineering background and had actually seen something of Central America; and Senator Hanna, who was regarded, with reason, as the most important man in American politics, Roosevelt not necessarily excluded. But it was Morgan who ran the show; Old Morgan, of Alabama, who at age seventy-seven qualified as one of the most powerful and interesting figures in American politics.
Morgan did not look like much. He was small and frail, a dry little stick beside a man like Hanna. His hair and mustache were as white as paper, his scrawny neck several sizes too small for the inevitable wing collar. He was known as one of the old-time characters on the Hill. A lawyer from Selma, Alabama, he had led a cavalry charge at Chickamauga and survived to become a brigadier general. He had been elected to the Senate first in 1876 and had been serving without interruption ever since. Friend and foe considered him the most intellectual of Democrats (as Hoar was the most intellectual of Republicans), and to judge by performance, rather than appearance, his career was anything but in the decline. No member of the Senate, irrespective of age, worked harder.
Morgan’s efforts over the years had been largely constructive. He was watchful, uncompromising, fiercely independent, nearly always irritable. He was also scrupulously honest. Never had he been known to vote on anything for reasons other than his famous “principles,” some of which, such as those concerning relations between the black and white races, were viewed as shamefully out of date. His handwriting, a savage, consistently illegible scrawl, was known all over town, as was his sense of humor, which was a bit like that of Mark Twain, whom he resembled to a degree. “A lie,” he was once heard to declare on the floor of the Senate, “is an abomination unto the Lord and an ever-present help in time of need.”
To cross him in any fashion was considered extremely dangerous. “Senator Morgan was an extraordinary man in many respects,” wrote Shelby Cullom, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. “He had a wonderful fund of information on every subject . . . He was one of the most delightful and agreeable of men if you agreed with him . . . but he was so intense on any subject in which he took an interest, particularly anything pertaining to the interoceanic canal, that he became almost vicious toward anyone who opposed him.”
The two greatest pleasures in Morgan’s life, it was commonly said, were work and a good fight.
The interest in the canal dated from his first years in the Senate. He knew the reports of every surveying expedition to Central America, the findings of the several successive canal commissions since the Grant Administration. It was John Tyler Morgan, everyone knew, who had worked longest and hardest for congressional support for the ill-fated Maritime Canal Company, who had been the author of several canal bills, who had done more to inform the public, heard more testimony, read more, asked more questions, and had more information on the entire subject of an interoceanic passage than any figure of either party. The canal was the dream of his life and he was as certain as he could possibly be that it must be a Nicaragua canal. Nicaragua, in the popular phrase, remained “theAmerican route” and his long, frequently lonely fight to have the canal built there had made him a national figure.
The canal would be his monument, Morgan was often told by admiring colleagues. He, however, was not interested in prestige. He wanted no monuments, he wanted the Nicaragua canal.
Because of his strong expansionist sentiments, and the support he had lent to the Roosevelt-Lodge-Mahan doctrines, Morgan also had a unique kind of leverage. In most other respects he was a good Bryan Democrat and a Southerner to the core. Still he could usually count on support from the other side of the aisle when he needed it. And for several years now he had been more welcome at the White House than any Democrat in town.
Morgan wanted an American canal under American control no less than did Roosevelt. Nor had he ever been the slightest bit tentative about that, which was among the chief reasons for Roosevelt’s admiration. Several of his strongest arguments for aNicaraguacanal were, nonetheless, avowedly provincial. An ocean passage at Nicaragua would mean a return of prosperity to the South. A Nicaragua canal would be closer to any American port than would a canal at Panama, but a Nicaragua canal would also be seven to eight hundred miles closer to the Gulf ports of Mobile, New Orleans, and Galveston than to New York or Boston. He foresaw his native southland fronting on one of the world’s principal sea lanes and every Gulf port a major coaling station. World markets would open for southern lumber, southern iron, cotton, manufactured goods. It was a position that made him extremely popular at home.
But on top of this Morgan believed quite sincerely that Nicaragua was the superior choice from an engineering standpoint and in view of political considerations. His technical argument was much the same as that advanced by Grant’s canal commission or by Menocal and Ammen at the Paris congress: Nicaragua offered the lowest pass anywhere on the Cordilleras from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego; Nicaragua provided fifty-odd miles of magnificent lake, perhaps as much as sixty miles of navigable river; the lake offered a limitless supply of water at the summit level of the canal. Politically, Nicaragua was a stable country in which to make so vast an investment of American capital and effort. A Nicaragua canal had already been the subject of six treaties between Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the United States. Nicaragua was clean, fertile, relatively free of disease; it had great potential for development. And he could marshal impressive facts and figures, drawing from his prodigious memory, government reports, and such widely respected authorities as A. G. Menocal.
By the same token, his contempt for the Panama route was monumental, his utterances on the subject, if anything, even more notable. Earlier in the year, as the newly elected Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt, presided rather nervously over a Senate debate on the canal, Morgan had called the Panama plan “a job which has disgusted France . . . until she had shuddered like a sick baby at the enormity of the villainies perpetrated by her own people.” The entire affair had been “gangrene with corruption.” The Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama was the so-called New Panama Canal Company, the words spoken as though they had an unpleasant smell. The company’s assets and franchises were held to be virtually worthless, its stockholders little better than common thieves. Its officers were paid schemers and to be trusted under no conditions. These people, Morgan warned, had no intention of finishing the canal; their present efforts in Panama were a thin sham; their only objective, their only reason for existence, he insisted, was to sell their poisonous junk heap to the United States.
And since this was closely in tune with the opinion of the vast majority of Americans, his position seemed impregnable. The very dark cloud that hung over Panama in the popular mind appeared immovable, while Nicaragua, by stunning contrast, was seen as a sunny, hospitable land much favored by fortune. Nicaragua would be a fresh start.
Those few Americans who had spoken out for Panama Morgan regarded as fools or, worse, stooges for the transcontinental railroads that were conspiring to defeat any waterway through Central America that they could not own or control. Morgan was a railroad fighter of long standing and the railroads, he insisted, were as much opposed to a canal at Panama as they were to one at Nicaragua. But by playing up Panama they hoped to stall a congressional decision on Nicaragua. He accused no one in particular, but there was no call to. At the heart of the “Panama Plot,” the public and most of the press assumed, were E. H. Harriman, J. P. Morgan, and James J. Hill. And quite possibly the assumption was correct, or at least partly so, although neither Morgan nor the newspapers were ever able to produce substantive proof.
In the place of proof were the frequent declarations of the railroad people themselves, and since the railroads had shown no prior aversion to political wirepulling, and since their grip on the country as a whole had become a very live political issue, the specter Morgan raised of paid railroad agents scheming to wreck the canal was one nobody took lightly.
Speeches by others on the subject of the Nicaragua canal filled hundreds of pages of the Congressional Record. In the archives of the House and Senate were tens of thousands of pages of reports from special canal committees, testimony from explorers, engineers, sea captains, all supporting the fundamental wisdom of the Nicaragua route. (If pens were spades, remarked the Minneapolis Times, the canal would have been dug long since.) There were all the maps and surveys of the Grant expeditions, tabulations on weather and tides and annual rainfall gathered by still further Nicaragua expeditions in the 1880’s, when the French were busy at Panama. Most of the popular magazines—Harper’s Weekly, Atlantic Monthly, Munsey’s, Century—had carried major articles on the Nicaragua canal. The Maritime Canal Company, before it went bankrupt, had built a magnificent scale model of its canal, complete with running water and tiny locks that actually worked, and this had been exhibited in Washington and a dozen other cities. American boards of trade, state legislatures, scores of civic groups of one kind and another, had passed solemn resolutions for a Nicaragua canal. A Nicaragua canal had been a showpiece in both the Republican and Democratic platforms. But a clinching argument for Nicaragua heard repeatedly was that if Old Morgan, knowing all he did, having given the better part of a lifetime to the subject, said it was the place, then certainly that must be so.
A Nicaragua canal bill would go before Congress, it was presumed, and Morgan would see it safely and speedily through. The one remaining piece of business was the release of a Presidential study on the “most practicable and feasible route” for the canal. The study had been ordered by William McKinley and authorized by Congress in 1899. It was the work of the Isthmian Canal Commission, the second such high-level commission established by McKinley (the first, the Nicaragua Canal Commission, had been organized in 1897), and it was to be the final word on the subject. Chairman of the commission was Rear Admiral John G. Walker, who had also headed the earlier study, and hence it was referred to as the Second Walker Commission, or more commonly as time passed as simply the Walker Commission. Besides Walker, eight others, most of them eminent civil or military engineers, composed the board. A million dollars had been appropriated. The field work had involved two years, hundreds of men—surveyors, engineers, naval officers, physicians, geologists—and it was in November, only a few days before Hay and Pauncefote met to sign their treaty, that Admiral Walker had marched up the steps to the State Department on his way to Hay’s office, two men trailing a few paces to the rear carrying the long-awaited report in two large wooden boxes.
The report was supposed to have remained secret until the President had read it and sent it on to Congress, but on November 21, three days after the Hay-Pauncefote signing, William Randolph Hearst broke the results in the New York Journal. One of the admiral’s stenographers had been bribed and Hearst had a carbon copy of the full text.
Having considered all factors of climate, health, legal rights, existing franchises, having arrived at probable figures for the cost of construction and operation of ship canals in both Panama and Nicaragua, the Walker Commission had again declared Nicaragua the preferred choice. The issue, it seemed, had been settled once and for all. The rest would be largely a matter of legislative formality.
For those few who bothered to read the commission’s report, however, it was obvious that the important news was not the concluding decision for Nicaragua—a decision that had been expected all along— but the exceedingly strong case being made for Panama. There was no need to read between the lines. All one had to do was to look at the technical arguments being presented, none of which was very technical or complicated.
The deciding factor had been the price put by the French company on its Panama holdings. Nicaragua was the “most practicable and feasible” route “after considering all the facts developed by the investigations . . . and having in view the terms offered by the New Panama Canal Company,” which were “so unreasonable that its acceptance cannot be recommended by this commission.” Yet with amazingly few exceptions the editorial writers and politicians chose to pay no attention to that. The commission’s findings were hailed as the ultimate confirmation of the American route.
The Journal followed its great scoop with an article on a minority report (also provided by the obliging stenographer) in which the virtues of the Panama route were stressed in further detail by the most eminent civil engineer on the commission, George Shattuck Morison. The New York Times and one or two other papers had also made mention of a “Panama Lobby” stepping up its “gumshoe campaign” in Washington and of a “powerful coterie” in the Senate working secretly for the Panama route, irrespective of the commission’s conclusions. But the stories were generally discounted. Asked by reporters if he had any knowledge of Panama sentiment among his colleagues, John Tyler Morgan drawled, “I haven’t heard a brush crack in the woods about it.”
When Congress convened in the first week in December, a House bill for a Nicaragua canal was pushed through committee without a hitch. Its author, William Peters Hepburn, of Iowa, was a Republican with a large streak of vanity who had once blocked a similar bill because it was then called the Morgan Bill. He had decided that if any one individual or party was to be immortalized by the canal legislation it was to be Congressman Hepburn and the Republicans. Morgan had since assured Hepburn that he would not respond in kind, that he would be quite happy to see it be a Hepburn Bill, and so it was expected to pass quite handily.
On December 10, a formal diplomatic convention was signed in Managua “with a view to the construction of a Nicaragua canal by the United States.” On December 16, to nobody’s surprise, the Senate ratified the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty. Three days later the House of Representatives, by unanimous consent, placed the Hepburn Bill on the calendar for immediate consideration following the Christmas holidays.
Then just before Christmas came reports from Paris that the president of the Compagnie Nouvelle had suddenly resigned. A stockholders’ meeting on December 21 had become so tumultuous that the police had to be called in. The gist of the speeches had been to get the United States to buy the canal at any price.
To date, technically speaking, the French company had never really fixed a price for its holdings. Admiral Walker had been informed only as to what the company considered the Panama property, equipment, and franchises to be worth—which was $109,000,000. Having nothing else to go by, Walker and his commissioners had taken that to be the price and had based their decision on it.
The new price, the first price actually quoted from Paris, was presented to Walker by representatives of the company early on January 4, 1902, the morning most of Washington was absorbed in accounts of Alice Roosevelt’s coming-out party at the White House the night before. Walker and his eight-man commission had concluded in their report that what the French company had to sell was worth considerably less than $109,000,000. The useful portions of the French excavations they valued at $27,400,000. They were willing to include $2,000,000 for the French maps, surveys, drawings, and records. The Panama Railroad they judged to be worth nearly $7,000,000, and another $3,000,000-plus had been added to cover possible oversights. So the total estimated value came to $40,000,000, which, interestingly, was the precise figure the French were now offering to sell for.
Walker had hurried over to the State Department at noon and from there the news had been taken next door to the White House. The French had not only slashed their price, they had cut it by more than 60 percent. As Admiral Walker was to tell the Morgan Committee in his deadpan fashion, “It put things on a very different footing.”
But when the House took up the Hepburn Bill, the debate, if it can be called that, lasted all of two days. On January 9, the House voted all but unanimously—308 to 2—to proceed with the Nicaragua canal. As Mark Hanna observed, probably not one congressman in four had even read the report of the Walker Commission. Morgan, who had read it, and closely, announced that he would commence hearings and see that the bill reached the Senate with all dispatch.
The Administration all this while had been keeping silent, the implicit understanding being that the choice was the prerogative of Congress and that Roosevelt remained a Nicaragua man. But no sooner had the House acted than Roosevelt called the members of the Walker Commission to the White House, one by one, for private consultation. He wished their own personal views, freely expressed, one man at a time.
A meeting of the full commission followed, a closed, secret meeting in the President’s office, during which Walker and the others were told to get together and issue a supplementary report. Roosevelt wanted the French offer to be accepted. The conclusion of the commission, he said, was to be unanimous.
Morgan was incredulous when Mark Hanna confronted him with the news. “Go ahead and ask the President if you do not believe it,” Hanna replied, and Morgan went down to the White House that same day. What sort of exchange he and Roosevelt had neither man ever disclosed.
That was on Thursday, the sixteenth. By Saturday the papers were saying that Roosevelt had a new canal report in his hands. Walker, intercepted by reporters between the State Department and the White House, would say only that the report was likely to be a disappointment to the public. On Monday, January 20, the story was out. On the motion of George S. Morison, the commission had reversed its decision: Panama was now declared the unanimous choice for the canal.
A general inventory of the French property was provided for the first time. There were some thirty thousand acres of land, which, along with land belonging to the Panama Railroad, comprised nearly all the ground required for the canal itself. There was the railroad. There were more than two thousand buildings (offices, living quarters, storehouses, shops, stables) in addition to the large central headquarters in Panama City and the hospitals at Panama City and Colon. There was “an immense amount of machinery” (tugs, launches, dredges, excavators, pumps, cranes, locomotives, railroad cars), as well as surveying instruments and medical supplies. The excavation already accomplished, that excavation that would be of value according to the commission’s own plan, was figured to be 36,689,965 cubic yards.
Very few in Washington missed the point.
Assuming Theodore Roosevelt was as impatient to build the canal as he appeared, then his fastest, most expedient course would be to ignore the last-minute overtures of the French company and let John Tyler Morgan handle the rest. That way there would be no more time wasted. But Roosevelt quite obviously had chosen not to do that. Instead he was flying head-on against the Senator in defiance of all the old man’s authority and power, not to mention the popular sentiment of the country. He was throwing all past faith in the Nicaragua route to the winds, and by so doing he was risking still further delays, more interminable debate, and very likely a personal defeat at the outset of his Presidency. Clearly something or somebody had caused him to conclude that Panama was not just the better alternative, but so much better as to be worth making a fight for.
Or possibly, it was being said, he was no less susceptible than his predecessor to the will of the Senator from Ohio. And if Mark Hanna was for Panama, there was no special mystery about that, since it was axiomatic that Mark Hanna spoke for the railroads.
Hanna could not “bamboozle” the American public like a lot of children, declared an irate press. The American people are not fools, said the New York Herald. National opinion was unanimous for Nicaragua and the lesson of democracy was to trust the public instinct:
All the objections shown have been admitted by competent scientific authorities, but their weight is nil compared with the instinctive conviction so deeply rooted in the American nation, that the Nicaragua canal project is a purely national affair, conceived by Americans, sustained by Americans, and (if, later on, constructed) operated by Americans according to American ideas and for American needs. In one word, it is a national enterprise.
Sentiment, the editors insisted, must be reckoned in national as in personal affairs. The fundamental question was whether the United States Senate would prove more “permeable to foreign influence” than the House had.
The Louisville Courier-Journal, in an editorial that was carefully clipped and saved by John Tyler Morgan, wrote of the “bare-faced comicality of the medicated steal: twenty millions to enable the thieves on this side to pass the bill; twenty millions for the insiders on the other side; a few rusty pots and pans and an international law suit for Uncle Sam.”
Morgan’s frequent assertions that the title of the property was invalid, that Colombia would never willingly abandon its rights on the Isthmus, that political unrest was endemic in Panama, were all very much in evidence now. “Talk about buying a lawsuit,” wrote William Randolph Hearst in the New York Journal, “the purchase of the Panama Canal would be buying a revolution. Apparently the only way in which we could secure a satisfactory concession from Colombia would be to go down there, take the contending statesmen by the necks, and hold a batch of them in office long enough to get a contract signed.”
Meantime, the Colombian minister in Washington, Dr. Carlos Martinez Silva, assured the State Department and the press that his government was ready to deal liberally with the United States concerning Colombia’s isthmian province. The government in Bogotá would show “no mean nor grasping spirit. Everything in the way of a concession the United States needs to warrant it in undertaking to build the Panama Canal, Colombia is willing to grant.”
On January 28, Senator John Coit Spooner introduced an amendment to the Hepburn Bill. It authorized the President to acquire the French company’s Panama property and concessions at a cost not to exceed $40,000,000; to acquire from Colombia perpetual control of a canal zone at least six miles wide across the Isthmus of Panama; and to build a Panama canal. If a clear title or a satisfactory agreement with Colombia could not be reached within “a reasonable time,” then the President was authorized to proceed with a canal at Nicaragua.
If passed, the proposal would obviously transform the House bill into an entirely new measure. It was the strongest evidence of all that Roosevelt had made up his mind that it must be a Panama canal. Spooner had shown no prior partiality for the Panama route. But Spooner was an able floor leader for Administration bills who would never have taken such a stand without full White House approval. So plainly the plan had emanated from the White House.
Theodore was still the spinner.
1 One of many popular renditions of the story, “The Race of the Oregon,” by John James Meehan, went as follows:
Lights out! And a prow turned toward the South,
And a canvas hiding each cannon’s mouth,
And a ship like a silent ghost released
Is seeking her sister ships in the East . . . .
When your boys shall ask what the guns are for,
Then tell them the tale of the Spanish War,
And the breathless millions that looked upon
The matchless race of the Oregon.