The "Fallon Treaties" (Part Two)

NOTE: Part One of this post can be found here. Both segments are from the rough draft of a book I'm hoping will be called something like "Have To" History: Stuff You Don't Really Want To Know (But For Some Reason Have To) About The Most Boring Events, People, and Issues in American History.

The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (U.S. & U.K., 1850)

The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo is nothing more than a poor man’s Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. (Late Night w/ Jimmy Fallon)

Oh Man, This Plan… A Canal?

The Monroe Doctrine announced by the U.S. in the 1820s had never quite overcome the young nation’s hesitance to openly challenge British influence in Central and South America. They’d been there longer, and despite several embarrassing defeats at the hands of the U.S. and its allies, were still very much the big kid on the block for most of the nineteenth century.

The British had for years flirted with the idea of building a canal right through Central America to allow their massive navy easier access from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Over time, the U.S. started thinking maybe that actually wasn’t such a bad idea – although they, of course, assumed American merchants and military vessels as the primary beneficiaries. Neither side was ready to push ahead with such an ambitious project, but each began worrying that perhaps the other would – perhaps cutting them out in the process.

In the meantime, they at least agreed on the most natural location of such a venture. The geography, the political dynamics, even the catchy name once completed:

The “Nicaragua Canal.”

Half of the envisioned canal was already present in the form of natural waterways. Nicaragua itself had spent the previous few decades being tossed back and forth like the ugly kid in a divorce. It had gone from being part of Mexico to joining a Central American “league” to periods of independence – all while technically remaining part of a British “protectorate” in that part of the world.

There’s no record of anyone in the U.S. or Great Britain consulting Nicaragua as to their thoughts on the matter.

The Actual Treaty

The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty was signed in 1850 while President Zachary Taylor was in office and the Whigs were still a thing... barely. It focused primarily on what each side promised NOT to do:

  • Neither the U.S. nor the U.K. would establish new colonies in Central America.
  • Neither the U.S. nor the U.K. would build up, arm, or fortify any existing interests near the proposed canal.
  • Neither the U.S. nor the U.K. would attempt to build the canal without the cooperation and consent of the other.
  • If a canal were eventually built, neither the U.S. nor the U.K. would take steps to ensure exclusive control of the canal or territories bordering the canal. It would be made available to everyone on some sort of neutral basis.

The young Democratic Party declared the treaty to be a violation of the Monroe Doctrine, an accusation which helped only sped the Whigs’ journey into political irrelevance. Despite the backlash, the treaty held off British influence in Central America and continued to strengthen the relationship between the U.S. and its ex-Motherland. It held for half a century until replaced by the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty (1901), by which time Panama had become the favored site for this long-desired canal. Great Britain was by that point happy to let the U.S. do the building and administrating, knowing they’d have all the access they needed without the expense or headaches of running the thing themselves.

The Gadsden Purchase

Why haven’t you done any jokes about the Gadsden Purchase? Signed in 1854 by President Franklin Pierce? Granted the U.S. sovereignty over the southern tips of Arizona and New Mexico? See, uh... the terrain in the southernmost portion of the Mexican Cession (1848) was, uh... too rocky for the Transcontinental Railroad, so...

Well, if you love this thing so much, why would you want me to make a joke about it?

You gotta be able to laugh at the Gadsden Purchase. I mean... it’s what life’s all about.

(Late Night w/ Jimmy Fallon)

A Lone Star Is Born

You probably remember the major highlights of Texas Independence from Mexico – empresarios like Stephen Austin curating settlements of mostly white folks from the north who never quite believed they weren’t in the U.S. anymore, the Texas Revolution, William Travis, Sam Houston, David Crockett, Juan Seguín, Jim Bowie, and of course General Antonio López de Santa Anna and his two healthy, attached legs. You may even remember details like that “Come And Take It” flag or a minor scuffle involving an old mission called the Alamo.

Somehow out of all that craziness, Texas won.

After a decade or so of doing quite well for themselves as an independent republic (something they still won’t shut up about, honestly), Texas was annexed by the United States in 1845 and became the twenty-eighth state. If Mexico had begun getting over the events of the previous decade, seeing Texas in the arms of another stirred up old passions and resentments, many of which were now directed at new beau Uncle Sam.

As with any messy breakup, there were lingering disputes. In the case of Texas and Mexico, the biggest issue involved the southwestern border of Texas. Mexico claimed the territory ended at the Nueces River, while Texas – and now the U.S. - placed it at the Rio Grande. This wasn’t a difference of a few miles or a dispute over where to park the camper on Labor Day weekend. The maps envisioned by Mexico and the U.S. differed by over half-a-million square miles, including most of what today is New Mexico and a significant chunk of Colorado as well.

The Mexican-American War (1846 – 1848)

President Polk sent Zachary Taylor into the disputed area to provoke Mexican troops repeatedly until someone finally fired back or hit them with a stick or something. At that point, Polk ran to Congress yelling that Mexico had “invaded” American territory and attacked U.S. forces for no reason! Here we were, trying to peacefully resolve things through diplomacy, but those darned Mexicans and their violent natures, etc.

The resulting war commenced in April of 1846 and lasted until the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in February of 1848. The U.S. received the disputed territory (the “Mexican Cession”) but agreed to pay Mexico several million dollars in return. The “Wilmot Proviso” was introduced in Congress, seeking to ban slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico. It didn’t pass, but the resulting debates certainly helped speed the nation towards civil war.

But again, you probably know all of this already. It’s juicy stuff, even if it’s not all particularly flattering to our forebears.

What Life’s All About

Despite the fact that the entire premise of the Mexican-American War was resolving cartographical disparities, boundary disputes lingered even after the treaty ending it was signed. There were other issues as well, but none merited renewed hostilities. What finally reopened negotiations between the U.S. and Mexico wasn’t the specter of war, but Uncle Sam’s commitment to trains and westward expansion.

The Whig dream of connecting the various regions of the nation hadn’t faded, and visionaries of all political stripes coveted an infrastructure to support the nation’s rapid expansion. As the Fallon bit points out, however, the topography of southern plains suggested that the best route for laying railroad tracks dipped ever-so-slightly into Mexican territory – and that wouldn’t go over well. U.S. President Pierce sent U.S. Minister to Mexico James Gadsden to negotiate with whoever happened to be in charge of Mexico that week.

Between the Texas Revolution and the Gadsden Purchase, leadership of Mexico changed hands approximately 873 times. About a third of these resulted in our old friend Antonio López de Santa Anna running things for a season or two at a time, and that’s who happened to be in the big chair when Gadsden arrived. Gadsden’s timing was ideal; Santa Anna was distracted trying to squash internal rebellions (something of a theme for Mexico in those days) and in need of quick cash. Gadsden just happened to be authorized to offer him just that in exchange for what seemed a few negligible swaths of land way up north.

The treaty was signed and one more little chunk of glory was added to the United States. Several other minor issues between the two nations were addressed as well, but none quite so almost-exciting or somewhat-relevant as the Gadsden Purchase.

Why The Fallon Treaties Matter

As previously mentioned, treaties are one indication that a nation is either all grown up or well on its way. As any middle school educator can tell you, the ability to resolve our differences using words is something that comes only with maturity and a sprinkling of hard-won wisdom.

After the War of 1812, the U.S. never again took up arms against Great Britain, whatever their disagreements. Some of this was simply pragmatic; the English still had one of the most powerful militaries in the world and there was no sense messing with them if it could be avoided. Plus, they were becoming excellent trading partners. Just as importantly, however, the U.S. and Britain understood one another – and not just because they shared a common language. Culturally, religiously, economically, and politically, they were far more similar than different. Even when they argued, they wanted the same things and approached disputes in similar ways.

Not so the U.S. and Mexico (or any other Latin American country). Neither ever quite understood the other. The U.S. looked down on what appeared to be a backward people and their chaotic government, while Mexico had little use for smug Americans and their manifestly violent destinies. They could negotiate, perhaps even settle – but they could never truly come to peace with one another.

The tendency of the U.S. to get what it wanted from other nations by dangling bags of cash in front of them would continue (as it still does today). It may not be particularly glorious or noble, but it’s often more economically practical and morally defensible than going to war, whatever the cause.

The Webster-Ashburton Treaty was a major step in normalizing negotiation over calls to arms whenever the U.S. and Great Britain were at odds. The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty eventually led to the Panama Canal (although there were several steps in between). The canal was in turn important for most of the twentieth century, from President Theodore Roosevelt’s first cartoon shovel all the way through President Carter’s “giveaway” in the 1970s. And the Gadsden Purchase really did make it easier to run those railroad lines all the way across the continent, despite the project being delayed by civil war before it could be completed.

Making The Grade: What You’re Most Likely To Be Asked

Webster-Ashburton and Clayton-Bulwer are, sadly, more likely to show up as detractors (“wrong answers”) for multiple-choice questions than as correct responses: “Which of the following attempted to prevent the expansion of slavery into territory acquired from Mexico? (A) The Webster-Ashburton Treaty, (B) The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, (C) The Wilmot Proviso, or (D) The Ostend Manifesto.”

Remember that both were between the U.S. and Great Britain and note the general time frame (1840-1850). While you may not be asked about these first two treaties by name, they’re excellent details for short answer or essay responses related to the time period, particularly those involving foreign policy or political parties in the mid-nineteenth century. If you’re really lucky, you’ll be asked about accomplishments of the short-lived Whig Party. Obviously, you’ll focus on stuff related to the American System (infrastructure, a strong centralized economy, etc.), but both Webster-Ashburton and Clayton-Bulwer were negotiated under Whig Presidents, so there! Look at you go, tiger.

Gadsden will come up slightly more often since it involved westward expansion and Texas (er... sort of). It’s the only one of the three likely to manifest itself as part of a map question – “Identify the following territories” or “label these territories and the date each was added to the U.S.” (Such maps will tend to show the Louisiana Purchase, the Mexican Cession, Oregon Country, etc., as well as the Gadsden Purchase.) Gadsden is right up there with “Fifty-four forty or fight!” in terms of being nearly name-brand history and only partially boring. It’s essential to remember that it was largely motivated by the needs of the transcontinental railroad. You can rarely go wrong connecting details back to westward expansion or technological progress.

Now, go back and watch the video again. The faux obsessions of the various characters don’t seem quite so out there anymore, do they?  

OK, maybe still a little.

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