The State of the Union in 1855: More Central American Trouble

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

We left Franklin Pierce inveighing against the British in his third annual message. The Young Hickory of the Granite Hills complained that perfidious Albion had agreed to renounce all claims to control of Central America in exchange for the United States doing the same. This would ensure that neither power had to worry about the other using a future canal to their detriment. But then the British persisted in their protectorate over the Mosquito Coast and expanded their recognized influence over Belize at the expense of Honduras by colonizing the Bay Islands. London had agreed to do exactly the opposite of this in the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850.

Or had it? Franklin Pierce called on the Great Britain to do the right thing and withdraw completely from everywhere save Belize. The British thought otherwise:

the British Government has at length replied, affirming that the operation of the treaty is prospective only and did not require Great Britain to abandon or contract any possessions held by her in Central America at the date of its conclusion.

According to London, the British empire only committed in 1850 to develop no new claims or interests in the area. What Britain had, it would retain. You can read the treaty that way without twisting yourself in too many knots. The text makes frequent reference to a future canal and how the parties will not obtain or maintain dominance over it. But nor does it include language that only brought the neutrality and renunciation provisions into operation when someone built a canal and the text often looks as much to present circumstances as to the future. Even if one granted Belize and the Mosquito Coast as properly untouched by the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, that still left Britain’s new colony on the Bay Islands as a positive advance of British influence.

The Mosquito Coast (via Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast
(via Wikipedia)

Pierce, understandably, didn’t buy what London tried to sell. To him, and to posterity in general, the British position simply assumed prior rights held, up to and including the expansion of British power in Central America until such time as someone built a canal. Then the United States would just have to trust Britain to do as promised. This would make for a hard sell between nations with uneasy relations today, let alone the tense Anglo-American accord that prevailed in the nineteenth century. Pierce told Congress that he hoped for a peaceful solution still, but he saw

reason to apprehend that with Great Britain in actual occupation of the disputed territories, and the treaty therefore practically null so far as regards our rights, this international difficulty can not long remain undetermined without involving in serious danger the friendly relations which it is the interest as well as the duty of both countries to cherish and preserve. It will afford me sincere gratification if future efforts shall result in the success anticipated heretofore with more confidence than the aspect of the case permits me now to ascertain.

Pierce would love it if everything worked out, but he didn’t like the odds. Posterity, for once, vindicated him. The British wouldn’t renounce their interests, outside a Belize expanded well beyond American understandings of its borders, until the end of the decade.


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