The State of the Union in 1855: Central American Trouble

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Fed up with the House’s inability to organize itself, Franklin Pierce issued his annual message on the very last day of the year. Custom dictated he wait for the Congress to have its affairs in order, but the Constitution required him to report on the state of the Union every year. Pierce’s message dealt with a wide variety of topics beyond the Kansas question, so it offers an occasion to catch up on the other things happening in 1855.

Pierce claimed that foreign relations proceeded amicably, except where they did otherwise. He opened with the dispute over Central America which informed the destruction of Greytown, in modern Nicaragua, the year previous. (Nobody died and they soon rebuilt.) Per the terms of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, the United States and the United Kingdom mutually renounced dominion over Central America. In a time before the Pacific Railroad, the United States had a keen interest in ensuring that the easier path between its new conquests on the Pacific coast and the old Union remain free from foreign domination. Mutual renunciation of imperial designs and guarantees of the region’s neutrality meant that neither power would dominate a future canal across it. If neither side exactly won, then they didn’t quite lose either.

So long as both nations held up their end of the deal, that all worked fine. Per Pierce, the British had not. They had a colony in the area, Belize, but the understanding at the time of ratification held that the treaty didn’t involve it. The United Kingdom had previous rights to the area, though Pierce construed those rights as strictly economic. The British could “cut mahogany or dyewoods […] with the positive exclusion of all domain or sovereignty.”

London had done rather more than that:

It, however, became apparent at an early date after entering upon the discharge of my present functions that Great Britain still continued in the exercise or assertion of large authority in all that part of Central America commonly called the Mosquito Coast, and covering the entire length of the State of Nicaragua and a part of Costa Rica; that she regarded the Balize as her absolute domain and was gradually extending its limits at the expense of the State of Honduras, and, that she had formally colonized a considerable insular group known as the Bay Islands, and belonging of right to that State.

Pierce didn’t imagine any of this. The United Kingdom did maintain a protectorate over the Mosquito Coast. For a time, it even occupied Greytown at the eastern terminus of the trans-isthmus route across Nicaragua. Nor did the Court of St. James care to pretend otherwise. Instead, the British argued that they had prior rights to the Mosquito Coast based on treaties with the local Indians. Pierce found the claim preposterous, declaring that “by the public law of Europe and America no possible act of such Indians or their predecessors could confer on Great Britain any political rights.” Only American powers could treat with Indians, and then only so long as they felt like it. Maybe if Britain had cut a deal with the Spanish that would count; the word of a white power to another white power had to mean something. But Indians? Even the British could not muster sufficiently unamerican a character as to treat with them as the equals of whites.

The Bay Islands? Those belonged to Honduras and the British had there “as distinctly colonial governments as those of Jamaica or Canada.” Once more, one can’t argue with Pierce on the facts. The British really had set up a proper colony on the islands. This flew in the face of the nation’s mutually-agreed renunciations all of five years prior. What part of no colonies and no occupation had London failed to understand? That the United Kingdom had chosen to act in such a way and broke faith with the clear provisions of the treaty suggested that it aimed for a revision of the status quo in Central America very much to its favor, and to the detriment of the United States.

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